Veterans – History in the Making 15
The Royal Air Force
On 1st April 2018 the Royal Air Force (RAF) celebrates its 100th anniversary since it came into being as part of the British military system. Formed from an amalgamation of the pre-existing Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), all military flight operations came under one service as the new service was born.
Whilst the British were not the first to use what were known as heavier-than-air aircraft for military use the RAF is the oldest independent air force in existence, meaning it was and still is totally controlled by the air service itself with no external interference from the Army or Navy.
But RAF flight was not the first in British military history. The RNAS was set up in 1914 to support the Royal Navy’s operations during the war, whereas the RFC came into being in 1912, formed from the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. Whereas the RE Air Battalion was formed in 1911. Originally operating as the Ballooning School experimenting with air flight the School which went on to become the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers and had been around since its formation at Chatham in 1888.
The decision to merge the RFC and RNAS into one service was in response to the events of World War I with an end to the war in sight. Both the Army and Navy flight services had seen action during the war with significant impact but to emphasise where the service originated it was decided to keep many of the officer titles in place showing their originality, particularly the Navy.
The newly formed RAF was at the time the most powerful of all the world’s air forces with over twenty thousand aircraft with over three hundred and thirty thousand men and women in service to the RAF and WRAF. But at the end of WWI, due to dramatic cuts to the British defences the RAF waited nearly a year to see if it would be taken out of the Service by the Government of the day. In 1919 the Cabinet sanctioned the service to continue but with a reduced number of just over one thousand officers and a total of thirty five thousand personnel.
The RAF took up the task of policing the British Empire in the 1920s and 30s from the air. It had been argued that the use of air power would prove more cost effective in controlling large areas then land forces. The same idea had been used both before and during the War with the Balloon Section and latterly aircraft and airships being used in the same way for reconnaissance missions, searches, targeting enemy positions and intelligence data collection.
The RAF really came into being during World War II. There was a rapid expansion of the service and the building of aircraft prior to and during the War due to intelligence showing that the reality of any successful attack against Britain would have to come from the air. And what was predicted came to pass when in July 1940 what would become known as the Battle of Britain started with bombing raids over many of the major cities and strategic targets across Britain. Germany’s plan at the time was to gain air superiority through sheer volume of the numbers of aircraft that the Luftwaffe possessed. This ongoing battle of the skies would continue until the end of October 1940, after which Britain, through the valour and bravery of the RAF would prove a turning point in the War, at least the war of the air, and determined that the skies over Europe would never be controlled by one Country alone. Britain in turn, following Germany’s failure to bomb Britain into submission, turned the tables on the Axis powers. Under the command of Air Chief Marshall Harris, Britain set about doing what Germany had done by targeting major cities and other strategic targets with an unprecedented might.
History will show that both the actions of the Luftwaffe and those under ‘Bomber’ Harris’s command killed many more civilians than service personnel, but sometimes that is just considered collateral damage which is impossible to avoid with these operations! The actions on both sides did prove the point that you cannot bomb a country into submission. Although it could be argued that the United States did exactly that to Japan in August 1945.
Either way, the Battle of, and for Britain was a defining moment for the RAF and will always be seen as their greatest victory and certainly marks their place in the history of British military service.
The Royal Air Force’s last known surviving founder member from 1st April 1918 was Henry Allingham. Henry survived the Battle of Jutland whilst serving with the RNAS before moving over to the RAF at inception. He died in 2009 aged 113!
On a personal note my Grandfather Tal served with the RFC until 1918 and I had an Uncle Frank and Auntie Meg who both served with the RAF during WWII. Frank was ground crew for fighters and Meg was part of Bomber Command working as a plotter on the bird tables.
Were your relative’s part of the RAF or other flying services or were you? If so we would like to hear from you, share your memories here at Forgotten Veterans UK (FVUK).