May 2008


Reaching for the skies
Part Two : Between the wars

On the 90th anniversary of the RAF,
Dave Jamieson 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 here.

Last 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 between them.

Sir Hugh Trenchard

Luckily, Winston 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.

Trenchard had 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.

Throughout the 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 leaving London.

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 shortly after
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 were built.

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.

Hurricanes in flight

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.

Part three next month