Fusiliers of Interest
Charlton, Lionel Evelyn Oswald (1879-1958), air force officer and author, was born at 28 Half Moon Street, Piccadilly, London, on 7 July 1879, the third of the four sons of William Oswald Charlton (1850-c.1896), a diplomatist from Hesleyside, Northumberland, and his American wife, Mary Grant Campbell (d. 1928). From 1882 until 1884 he lived with his parents in Washington, DC, where his father worked at the British legation. Back in England the family stayed in Clifton, Bristol, before moving to Northumberland. Shortly before his eighth birthday Charlton went to a Catholic boarding-school in Birmingham, which then moved to Weston-super-Mare. In Lent term 1893 he entered Brighton College as a day boy, where he gained a special prize in German and, with his older brother Archibald (1877-1952), played house football. In December 1894 he left for a military crammer near Leatherhead.
Shortly after his father's death, in January 1897 Charlton entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where he indulged in 'a minimum of earnest endeavour and a maximum of pleasure-seeking' (Charlton, Charlton, 54) but became a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 28 September 1898. In summer 1899 the regiment went to Crete, where Charlton received the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society for saving a man from drowning. He advanced to lieutenant on 1 September 1899. During the South African War he took part in the relief of Ladysmith and the Spion Kop battle (23-5 January 1900), where he was wounded. Having been confined to hospital for two months, he returned to his regiment and was seconded to the imperial yeomanry; he secured a squadron command as temporary captain on 17 April 1901. After action in Natal, the Transvaal, Cape Colony, and Orange River Colony, for a short period he was governor of the town and district of Petrusville. He was mentioned in dispatches, gained the queen's medal with five clasps, the king's medal with two clasps, and, for his bravery at Spion Kop, the DSO. Charlton advanced to substantive captain on 5 October 1901, ended the war in hospital after being wounded again, and left the imperial yeomanry on 23 September 1902.
Bored with peacetime soldiering, Charlton joined the Gold Coast regiment in the West African frontier force on 13 December 1902, where scant professional activity left him time to read books of poetry, history, and religious criticism. While acting as civil commissioner at Kintampo, following several severe bouts of dysentery, in autumn 1907 he was invalided home. Following recuperation, he rejoined his regiment in Ireland. Then, on 29 April 1908, he became aide-de-camp to the governor of the Leeward Islands. The following year was 'a period of intense happiness such as he had not yet known' (Charlton, Charlton, 170). However, anxious to further his career, he left on 18 April 1909, only to find army routine in Ireland dreary. Having volunteered to take a draft to India, he remained to learn Urdu before returning to the regimental depot, where he successfully passed the army Staff College examination. At Camberley in 1910, outspoken criticisms of the institution and 'doctrinal methods of instruction' (Charlton, Charlton, 208) were discouraged, and his final report, on leaving the college in 1912, was tepid.
Meanwhile, Charlton had privately taken lessons at Brooklands Flying School, and as a result in January 1914 attended the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) central flying school, where, as well as aerial manoeuvres, he learned to strip and assemble engines. After completing the course he was seconded to the RFC and, at the outbreak of war, flew to France. On 22 August 1914, close to Moerbeke in Belgium, he spotted from the air General von Kluck's German columns threatening to isolate the British expeditionary force. Charlton became temporary major as a squadron commander on 16 September 1914, but two months later a crash on landing put him in hospital for six weeks. Following a brief spell at South Farnborough he returned to France, and on 1 September 1915 advanced to substantive major. Appointed temporary general staff officer, grade 1, and temporary lieutenant-colonel in the department of the director-general of aeronautics in London on 18 August 1915, he became brevet lieutenant-colonel on 19 March 1916. He advanced to brevet colonel on 1 January 1917 and temporary brigadier-general on 28 February 1917, and took command of an RFC brigade in France on 18 October 1917, his squadrons supporting the British Fifth Army during the 'disaster' of the German advance in March 1918 and the Fourth Army in its 'triumphant progress' before Armistice day (Charlton, More Charlton, 102). With the formation of the RAF on 1 April 1918, Charlton appeared as substantive lieutenant-colonel and temporary brigadier-general. He was appointed CMG in 1916 and CB in 1919 and received the French Légion d'honneur.
On 19 February 1919 Charlton was made air attaché to the USA, and on 5 August he became air commodore. He oversaw the arrival and departure of the transatlantic airship R34, helped to organize the prince of Wales's tour of the eastern United States, and flew in the New York to San Francisco air race. He deplored the proceedings of the International Disarmament Conference of 1921 as 'in reality a subtle game of grab' (Charlton, More Charlton, 265). He departed from Washington on 1 May 1922. Following leave and a short time commanding south-west area at Andover, on 2 February 1923 he became chief staff officer to the RAF commander in Iraq. He soon felt disillusioned with the policy of imperial policing, 'aghast to learn that an air bomb in Iraq was, more or less, the equivalent of a police truncheon at home' (ibid., 270). The attempt to control dissident peoples by dropping bombs on them Charlton found morally reprehensible and professionally unacceptable. His resignation was accepted, but in England the chief of the air staff told him there would be no official inquiry into his misgivings. Referring to this 'little kink of conscience', Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard observed that 'he seemed rather hurt that he was not on a pedestal' (Boyle, 511).
On annual half pay of under £400, Charlton lived in Bayonne before taking over 3 inland group at Spittlegate, Grantham, on 7 March 1924. By now he had developed a revulsion to blood sports and recreational shooting, preferring tennis and gardening, and acquired an interest in socialism. On 10 December 1924 he went to the Air Ministry to undertake a study of RAF expansion in the event of war. Hoping for promotion and advancement, he was advised to expect neither. Officially he retired from the RAF on 1 April 1928, but Charlton wrote of 'the blow of his dismissal' (More Charlton, 3). In 1926 a friend bequeathed him £3000; shortly afterwards his mother died, and, after tax, his pension amounted to some £700 per year. So he was not poor. In April 1928 he bought Tisselcot, near Esher in Surrey, for £1425. Every year, though, he went to Northumberland to spend time with two of his brothers and their families.
In November 1928 Charlton travelled to Mexico to promote British aviation, which led to a programme on the BBC, further radio talks, and discussion panels. After leaving the RAF he began writing book reviews and progressed to influential books on air power. In War over England (1936) he speculated that eighteen German bombers could destroy much of the RAF during its annual Hendon air display, and War from the Air (1938) forecast heavy civilian casualties from massive air raids; The Menace of the Clouds (1937) highlighted the wider potential of aircraft. It has been argued that Charlton 'should bear the primary responsibility for creating the myth of the invincibility of air power' (Smith, 84)-a harsh judgement, as he was not unique in believing that bombers would be decisive in the next war. Indeed, RAF doctrine based on this concept predated the 1930s debate. He later compiled chronological surveys of RAF and United States Army Air Force bombing during the Second World War.
Charlton produced, too, a range of non-military volumes: A Hausa Reading Book (1908), drawing on his time in west Africa, an edited work, The Recollections of a Northumbrian Lady (1949), the memoirs of his paternal grandmother, and two historical works, The Taking of Quebec (1941) and The Military Situation in Spain after Teruel (1938). He also published ten children's adventure stories, two descriptive accounts of flying achievements, one instructional book, The Hemps of Agrimony (1935), a polemic against hunting, This Cruelty called Sport (1939), and two strange autobiographies in the third person, Charlton (1931) and More Charlton (1940). He contributed articles on aviation to newspapers and spoke widely on air power, including four Lees Knowles lectures at Cambridge University.
After moving to Maida Vale, London, in 1934, his socialist beliefs
led Charlton to serve on the advisory council of the Union of Friendship
with the USSR and to sympathize with republicans during the Spanish
Civil War. He appeared on newsreels both to warn against the danger
of air attacks on London and in his capacity as chairman of the League
for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports. In 1936 he gave evidence to the
subcommittee of the committee of imperial defence considering the vulnerability
of capital ships to air attack. In 1938 Charlton moved to Dover, and
later he lived at Charlton House in Tarset, Hexham. He died in Hexham
General Hospital from cancer of the colon on 18 April 1958, and his
body was subsequently cremated. He never married. The Times termed him
'an outspoken air strategist
[who] lived his life to the full
doing nothing by halves
He was not the introspective type nor
was he ever in much doubt about the soundness of his deductions'(21