The Royal Air Force was formally activated on 1 April 1918, April Fools’ Day. It was an inauspicious date on which to launch the world’s first independent air force, and there were hesitations about choosing it. Perhaps the army and the Royal Navy, both for their own reasons wary of the fledgling service, quietly approved the choice of date, hoping that a separate air force would soon prove itself a joke. They certainly both hoped that the RAF and the new Air Ministry it served would not last beyond the end of the war. In this they were soon to be disabused. The RAF survived victory in 1918 and has survived regular calls for its dissolution since, and now celebrates an uninterrupted hundred years.
The birth of the RAF was surrounded by argument and controversy. There already were two air services fighting Britain’s aerial contribution to the First World War: the Royal Naval Air Service and the army’s Royal Flying Corps. The establishment of an entirely new branch of the armed forces was a political decision, prompted by the German air attacks on London in 1917, not a decision dictated by military necessity. The politicians wanted a force to defend the home front against the novel menace of bombing, amidst fears that the staying power of the population might be strained to breaking point by the raids. From the politicians’ viewpoint, the air defense of Great Britain was one of the principal charges on the new force, and it is the defense of the home islands twenty-two years later in the Battle of Britain that is still remembered as the RAF’s ‘finest hour’. The reality of the past hundred years has been rather different. The RAF has principally served overseas and for most of the century was a force dedicated to bombing and to ground support for the other services. This future was anticipated in the final seven months of combat in 1918 when the RAF, building on the legacy of its two predecessors, contributed substantially to the air support of Allied armies in Western Europe and the Middle East, and organized the Independent Force (independent of the front line) for the long-range bombing of German industrial towns. By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, the shape of RAF doctrine was already in firm outline, even if its future as a separate force was thrown into doubt once the fighting was over.
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In 1908, only five years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in December 1903, the British novelist H. G. Wells published The War in the Air, in which he imagined a near future when aircraft would decide the outcome of modern war. The novel’s hero, Bert Smallways, watching the destruction of New York by German airships, reflects on Britain’s vulnerability: ‘the little island in the silver seas was at the end of its immunity.’ Aircraft changed the whole nature of war. Writing twenty-five years later in his autobiography, Wells noted with a grim satisfaction that he had written the novel ‘before any practicable flying had occurred’, but he had been correct to predict that aircraft would abolish the traditional divide between a military front line and the home population, and so erode the distinction between combatant and civilian. With the arrival of aircraft, Wells concluded, war was no longer a ‘vivid spectacle’ for the home front, watched like a cricket or baseball match, but a horrible reality for ordinary people. Only seven years separated Wells’s novel from the first bombs to fall on British soil and only ten from the establishment of the Royal Air Force, set up to try to protect Britain’s vulnerable people from an air menace described so graphically by Wells at the dawn of the air age.
One of the many remarkable consequences of the coming of powered flight was the speed with which the armies and navies of all the major powers sponsored the development of aircraft —both dirigibles and aeroplanes — for military purposes. The technical development of aircraft in the decade following the Wright brothers was exponential and knowledge of the new invention universal, but for the British people, all but immune to invasion for a millennium, aviation posed a particular strategic threat. This perhaps explains why the evolution of military air power in Britain in the age of the Great War was strongly influenced by public opinion and political pressure and was not solely a result of the military need to respond to innovation. Critics at the time and since have blamed military conservatism for the slow development of organized air power in Britain before 1914 and have assumed that public disquiet, noisily expressed in the popular press, prompted a grudging army and navy to explore the use of aircraft despite harbouring strong prejudices against their use.
The army and navy were, in truth, less narrow-minded than the popular image suggests. The first powered flight in Britain was only made in 1908 by A.V. Roe, who managed a distance of just 60 yards (55 metres). A mere three years later the army began developing a military air arm when the Royal Engineers established an Air Battalion consisting of a company of airships (still considered a major factor for the future of air warfare) and a company of aeroplanes. On 13 April 1912 the King issued a Royal Warrant for a new service, and a month later, on 13 May, the battalion was replaced by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the direct ancestor of the future RAF. The Corps consisted of a military wing, a naval wing, a Central Flying School and a reserve, loosely controlled by an Air Committee with representatives from the two services.3 A small cluster of soldiers and seamen who had qualified as pilots joined the force. The RFC adopted a modified khaki army uniform and the Latin motto Per ardua ad astra (‘Through adversity to the stars’), still the motto of today’s air force. The intention was to keep a unified corps serving both the army and the Royal Navy, but when Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1913, he exploited his personal enthusiasm for flight to insist that the navy should have a separate air force. The first commander of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was Captain Murray Sueter, the director of the Admiralty’s Air Department. In July 1914 the RNAS was formally divorced from the RFC just as Europe was about to plunge into war. A year later the Admiralty assumed full responsibility, a bifurcation that was to lead to endless friction between military and naval aviation until united as awkward rivals in the RAF in 1918. In the same month that the RNAS was created, a Military Aeronautics Directorate was established by the War Office to oversee the military wing of the RFC under one of the pioneers of army aviation, Major-General David Henderson.
Both the navy and the army understood that aircraft were likely before long to become assets indispensable to their operations. ‘In view of the fact that aircraft will undoubtedly be used in the next war,’ wrote the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1911, ‘we cannot afford to delay . . .’ The army Field Service Regulations published in July 1912 were the first to contain reference to the use of aircraft, and in the 1912 field exercises two airships and fourteen aircraft were used for reconnaissance purposes. The observer in one of the aircraft was Major Hugh Trenchard, the man later regarded as the ‘father of the RAF’; commander of one of the armies in the exercise was Douglas Haig, who later formed a close working relationship with Trenchard on the Western Front. By the summer of 1914, on the eve of the Great War, a major RFC training exercise saw experiments in night flying, flight at high altitudes, aerial photography, and the first attempt to fit machine-guns to an aircraft. The RFC Training Manual issued the year before stressed the need for offensive aviation well before the means were available.
It was nevertheless true that the RFC was a considerable way behind the development of aviation elsewhere. In France, Austria and Germany rapid progress had been made in military aeronautics; the small Bulgarian air force was responsible for inventing the first modern aerial bomb; and in 1914 the Russian engineer Igor Sikorsky developed the multi-engine Ilia Muromets Sikorsky Type V aeroplane, the first modern heavy bomber. British services were slower to respond, partly because they did not anticipate a major European war, partly because public and government were fixated on the battleship arms race, and partly because the British army was so much smaller and less politically powerful than its Continental rivals. When war broke out in August 1914, the RNAS possessed only six airships and ninety- three aeroplanes, many of which were unserviceable, and could field only one flying squadron (the word chosen in 1912 to describe the small air units being formed). The RFC arrived in France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with just four squadrons totalling approximately sixty aircraft. There were 105 officers and 755 other ranks. The French army put twenty-three squadrons in the field, the German army twenty-nine.
The first two years of war provided a steep learning curve for air forces on all sides. Aircraft technology improved all the time, but aircraft remained fragile objects, subject to frequent damage and repair. They were constructed chiefly of wood and fabric, carried a heavy metal engine and were held together with wire or wooden struts. Some idea of the nature of early aviation engineering can be gleaned from the trades assigned to each RFC squadron, which included two blacksmiths, six carpenters, four coppersmiths, 21 riggers and four sailmakers. Flying was an exceptionally hazardous undertaking with few base facilities, primitive navigational instruments, and the constant threat posed by sudden changes in the weather. Naval aviators were occasionally sent off over the sea never to be seen again. Diaries kept by servicemen in the RFC talk repeatedly of the cold. Aloft in an open cockpit, thousands of feet up, the temperature was debilitating. The RFC Training Manual in December 1915 listed the clothing pilots and observers were expected to wear to combat the intense cold: two pairs of thick long drawers, a woollen waistcoat, a British ‘warm coat’ with a waterproof oilskin over it, a cap with ear pads, two balaclavas, a flying helmet, goggles, a warm scarf, and two pairs of socks and gloves.
Although the RFC manuals stressed that aircraft could accomplish little or nothing in ‘heavy rain, fog, gales or darkness’, pilot records show that flying continued even in cloudy, cold conditions with limited visibility. Advice on weather in the air force Field Service Book was rudimentary: ‘Red at sunset . . . Fair weather’; ‘Red at dawn . . . Bad weather or wind’; ‘Pale yellow at sunset — rain’. Crashes and accidents were as a result routine occurrences. British air forces lost 35,973 aircraft through accident or combat during the war, and suffered the loss of 16,623 airmen, either dead, or severely injured, or prisoners of war. A diary kept by an air mechanic during the later war years gives a vivid description of a typical accidental death:
Lt. J. A. Miller was taking off in an S.E.5 when he crashed, his machine caught fire & he was burned to death, we were powerless to help him, the ammunition in his guns & boxes was exploding & bullets were flying around, soon the fire died down and his charred remains were taken out of the machine & buried in a wood close by, a wooden cross made out of a propeller marks his grave.
The situation in the first years of the war was not helped by the poor level of training of novice pilots, many of whom would have only 20 hours flying time or less before being posted to operations, where only two hours would be spent learning to fly the frontline aircraft assigned to them. A young John Slessor, later Chief of the Air Staff in 1950, recalled that he was commissioned as an RFC pilot with just twelve hours solo flying, and was fortunate to survive. There were no parachutes.
Adapted excerpt from "RAF: The Birth of the World's First Air Force" by Richard Overy. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.