for the skies
Part Two :
Between the wars
On the 90th
anniversary of the RAF,
continues the history of flight in the UK
Part One of this
article appeared in the April issue of Soltalk
and can be accessed by clicking
month marked the 90th anniversary of the formation of the Royal
Air Force in the UK. In April’s issue, we traced the development
of flight in Britain, from early and dangerous balloon ascents and
the first aircraft, to the appearance of the Royal Flying Corps in
1912 and the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914.
When the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) came into existence, it took
control of all airships belonging to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Its
first three squadrons were formed in Antwerp, Eastchurch and St Pol,
France, in September 1914, and within a few months, it had 217 pilots
and boasted 95 aircraft, including 55 seaplanes. By the outbreak of
World War I, it had more planes than the RFC and was engaged on fleet
reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines,
attacking enemy coastal territory and air-raid defence.
However, during 1915, the RNAS was severely criticised for failing to
prevent bomb attacks on Britain from German Zeppelins which caused
death and destruction in eastern England, London, the Midlands,
Sunderland, Edinburgh and elsewhere. As a result, in February 1916,
the RFC was handed the task of attacking enemy airships and its pilots
became so adept at bringing them down that Germany took the Zeppelins
out of service for bombing raids in June, 1917.
The RNAS meantime maintained several fighter squadrons on the Western
Front but rows continually erupted between the two services,
particularly over the supply of new aircraft. The RFC had to wait
impatiently while RNAS squadrons were given new Sopwith Pup fighters,
later replaced with Sopwith Triplanes and Camels.
In August 1917, General (later Field Marshall) Jan Smuts, a member of
the Imperial War Cabinet led by David Lloyd George, presented his
views on the future of air power. His recommendation was to take
advantage of the potential to cause “devastation of enemy lands and
the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale” by
forming a new air service with the same status as the British Army and
the Royal Navy. The War Council debated the issue and finally, partly
because the under-used resources of the RNAS could then be redirected
to the Western Front, agreed to Smuts’ proposition.
On November 29, 1917, the Air Force bill received Royal Assent and in
January, 1918, the Air Ministry was formed, with Lord Rothermere as
the first Secretary of State for Air and Major-General Sir Hugh
Trenchard as the first Chief of the Air Staff.
Finally, on April 1, 1918, the RFC and the RNAS amalgamated to form
the Royal Air Force under the control of the new Ministry. A female
branch of the new Service, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was also
formed, while the RAF Nursing Service was added two months later.
When World War I ended in November, 1918, Britain’s RAF had 27,333
officers and 263,837 other ranks, as well as 25,000 WRAF members, and
was equipped with 22,647 aircraft and 103 airships. Overseas, there
were 133 front-line squadrons, 15 flights and 270 aerodromes, and in
Britain, 55 front-line squadrons, 75 training squadrons and depots,
plus 401 aerodromes. It was the most powerful air force in the world.
However, the RAF found it had a new battle on its hands when peace
arrived, not waged in the skies but in government committee rooms, in
Parliament and in the newspapers. The problem was that the powers that
ran the Army and Navy both wanted their toys back. There was no point,
they argued, in having a joint air force, now that the threat of war
had lifted, so they wanted to disband the RAF and share its resources
Sir Hugh Trenchard
Churchill was appointed Minister for War after the general
election in late 1918 and was told by the Prime Minister, David
Lloyd George, to “Take the air with you!” It is generally accepted
that the work Churchill then undertook with Trenchard formed the
basis of the modern RAF.
resigned as Chief of the Air Staff just two weeks before the RAF’s
inauguration in 1918 after falling out with the Air Secretary,
Lord Rothermere. But Churchill reinstated him the following year
and the two men worked together until Churchill’s move to the
Colonial Office in 1921.
There were practical problems to be addressed. The uniforms and
ranks of the RAF’s army and navy ancestry had been retained but
the new service needed its own.
|The first attempt
to merge the army’s khaki and the navy’s blue into an RAF uniform
was described by a senior RAF figure as being like something worn
by, “the gentleman who stands outside the cinema”. So, it was not
long before the now familiar RAF blue uniform was adopted.
And it was King George
V who finally ended lengthy discussions on the design of the RAF
ensign (pictured right) by agreeing that the red, white and blue
roundal, the emblem of First World War flyers, should be set
against a sky blue background alongside the union flag.
On December 11, 1919, the Chief of the Air Staff wrote a note to the
Minister for War about the permanent organisation of the RAF. The
Trenchard Memorandum, as it became known, put the emphasis heavily on
flying and engineering to establish roots for the new service.
From this came the
establishment of the cadet college at Cranwell, the staff college and
flying school at Andover and a technical apprentice training scheme at
Halton in Buckinghamshire. One of Halton’s most famous graduates who
went on to become an Air Commodore, inventing the jet engine along the
way, was Frank Whittle. The No 1 School of Technical Training remained
at RAF Halton until 1993 when it moved to RAF Cosford.
But despite the Government’s acceptance of Trenchard’s proposals, the
RAF continued to struggle against Government cuts, as well as efforts
by both army and navy to have their airborne resources returned. After
the war, the RAF suffered serious cuts in staff numbers and the
disbandment of the Women’s RAF. Officers numbers were reduced by more
than 23,000 to just 3,280, 21,000 cadet pilots had been demobbed and a
new total of just 25,000 other ranks reflected a drop of 227,000. In
addition, equipment and real estate were disposed of at bargain
prices. It appears to have been due almost solely to the persistence
of Trenchard that the service survived at all.
Numerous committees in the early 1920s finally concluded that the RAF
should remain an independent service and by 1923 had established a
Home Defence Air Force to protect the UK from enemies within striking
distance. As time went by, the concept of a strategic bomber force as
part of a national deterrent, as envisaged by Trenchard, became a
central part of RAF thinking.
By the mid 1920s, 25 of the planned 52 squadrons had been formed. In
addition, Trenchard’s idea for an equivalent of the Territorial Army
led to the formation of the first four Auxiliary Air Force squadrons,
while University Air Squadrons appeared at Cambridge, London and
Oxford; both of these developments were to prove hugely beneficial
when Britain’s air defences faced a major test in the coming war. The
RAF was also developing its policing role with a practice known as Air
Control to monitor large areas of territory at reasonable cost, with
campaigns in British Somaliland and Iraq laying its foundations.
However, in the world’s political stability of the time, the
Government delayed the spending necessary for the remainder of the
planned squadrons; it would not be forthcoming until after the Geneva
Conference failed and Germany began to expand her military resources
in the mid 1930s.
Meantime, the navy had not given up its claim on the air. In April
1924, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force was formed to manage
aircraft normally on aircraft carriers and fighting ships. The First
Sea Lord was David Beatty, the youngest British admiral since Nelson,
and he continued to argue forcefully that the navy should manage its
own air arm since the Admiralty was responsible for the efficiency of
Britain’s Fleet. Although Earl Beatty’s tenure ended in 1927, the
arguments continued until, in May, 1937, the Fleet Air Arm was taken
over by the Admiralty and renamed the Air Branch of the Royal Navy.
1920s and 1930s, civil aviation in Britain was controlled by the
Air Ministry. It was inevitable that the RAF was highly involved
in establishing civil air transport as a means of communication in
the Commonwealth and the Empire. After all, RAF pilots had
operated passenger and mail services to the near continent since
1919 and were flying further afield as part of normal operations.
The first major
mail route officially opened in 1921 and linked Cairo with
Baghdad. In time, landing strips were established alongside fuel
tanks at points across the desert and letters from home were
reaching British troops in Iraq a remarkable five days after
The pioneering RAF flights in Africa became the routes which civil
airliners would follow and in 1924 Imperial Airways was launched.
Flights to the Empire began three years later when a Cairo to Basra
route opened and by mid 1937, Imperial had celebrated its 1,000th
flight. In November 1939, Imperial merged with British Airways Ltd – a
private airline established in 1935 and operating throughout Europe –
to form British Overseas Airways Corporation.
Alcock and Brown
an historic and dramatic arrival in Ireland
|The RAF continued
to push the boundaries of aviation further, faster and higher. The
first big success for British aviation had come in June, 1919,
when Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown made
the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to
Ireland in 16 hours 12 minutes.
In 1929, a non-stop
flight was made from Cranwell to Karachi, while in 1933 Squadron
Leader Gayford and Flight Lieutenant Nicholetts set a new world
record by flying the 5,439 miles from Cranwell to South West
Africa in 57 hours 25 minutes. Another record was established in
1938 when a single-engined monoplane bomber, the Vickers Wellesly,
flew non-stop from Upper Heyford to Darwin in Australia. An
altitude record was set in 1937 by Flight Lieutenant Adam who took
a Bristol 138 monoplane to 53,937 feet.
The 1930s also saw the introduction of new technologies which were to
prove invaluable in the coming conflict. In December 1935, five
top-secret warning stations became operational to watch out for
aircraft approaching London and the Thames Estuary. They used a new
invention called radio direction finding (RDF) and could detect
movements 75 miles from the coast. Their existence was not publicly
acknowledged until 1941 and by 1943 the American name, radio direction
and ranging (RADAR) was adopted.
|In late 1935, the
first Hurricane aircraft took off, followed four months later by
the first Spitfire. The new RDF system and RAF fighter aircraft
formed the world’s first Integrated Defence System.
In July 1936, four functional commands were created – Fighter,
Bomber, Coastal and Training, later to be joined by Balloon,
Maintenance and Reserve – and re-equipping plans were formed. In
the following years, the reserve strength increased, new flying
schools opened and new airfields, depots and training facilities
Then in December,
1937, a decision was taken which is now regarded as one of the
most pivotal points in RAF history before World War II.
The Minister for Coordination of Defence, Sir Thomas Inskip, shifted
the priority of the build-up of air-borne forces in preparation for
war. Until then, it had been considered vital to match the German
forces numerically, but Inskip changed the emphasis from offensive to
defensive. Fighter planes were to take priority over bombers. This
change of policy has been credited with establishing Britain’s air
superiority, especially during the Battle of Britain.
However, when war was declared in September 1939, the RAF’s fighting
force was only about half of that of the Luftwaffe. What the British
did have, however, was the quality of its aircraft and, above all, the
superior training of its crews.