The Royal Air Force was formed on 1st April 1918 from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Its first commander was Sir Hugh Trenchard, often referred to as the ‘Father of the Royal Air Force’.
The RAF was the first air force in the world not to be part of an army or navy, and at the time - towards the end of the First World War - it was also the biggest. The new service adopted the rousing motto 'Per Ardua ad Astra' (Through Struggle to the Stars) and, in due course, a distinctive blue-grey uniform.
The Sopwith Camel and the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 are the best known of the British aircraft in service when the RAF was established towards the end of First World War. Both were very capable fighters in the right hands, in an era when air combat was still very much in its infancy, aircraft were lightly armed, dogfights occurred at relatively low speeds and pilots were not issued with parachutes.
Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5
After the war ended, Britain entered a period of disarmament and the Royal Air Force was cut back considerably. Indeed during the early 1920s, the continued independent existence of the RAF was very much in doubt.
Trenchard and his supporters needed to demonstrate that the RAF offered good value for money, and successfully made the case to politicians that the RAF should police the empire. As a result, the RAF was active in Somaliland, Iraq and over the North West Frontier.
Trenchard eventually retired as Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1930. Although he had secured the RAF’s future, set up the world’s first military air academy at Cranwell and also established a civilian reserve known as the Auxiliary Air Force, the focus on value for money meant by the time of his departure the RAF was not at the forefront of technological innovation. In fact, its aircraft were still rather similar in design to those that had fought during the First World War. Notwithstanding that, the RAF’s biplane fighters could put on spectacular displays of aerobatics and tight formation flying and the annual Air Pageant at Hendon was a very popular event.
Air Pageant at Hendon
As the decade progressed, the political situation in Europe deteriorated rapidly, bringing with it the very real prospect of a second major war with Germany. The RAF underwent a huge expansion programme, the Air Ministry ordering large numbers of new types in a desperate attempt to modernise and close the gap with the Luftwaffe.
Some of these aircraft, such as the Bristol Blenheim, were already outmoded by the time they entered RAF service but fortunately for the RAF, and Britain more generally, two new fighter aircraft, powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, proved to be the right aircraft at the right time: the Hurricane and the Spitfire
Both types were to play a vital role in defeating the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940,
but the RAF’s victory was aided in no small measure by the foresight of Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding who, in the run-up to war, had conceived and developed an integrated air defence system which included the use of Radar.
The Battle of Britain became the RAF’s defining moment, creating the legend of ‘The Few’ and turning the Spitfire into a national icon.
As the war continued, the RAF went increasingly on the offensive. From 1942 onwards, Bomber Command carried out a strategic bombing offensive, targeting cites and industrial centres in Germany by night, with huge raids involving bombers such as the Stirling, the Halifax, the Wellington and the legendary Lancaster.
Bomber Command was led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris whose preference for ‘area bombing’ was, and still remains, controversial.
Bomber Command did however carry out some audacious precision attacks too, including the legendary Dam Busters raid using ‘bouncing bombs’ carried on specially adapted Lancaster’s and daylight pinpoint attacks on high security buildings utilising the remarkably versatile Mosquito.
RAF Coastal Command was very active over the Atlantic, employing Consolidated B-24 Liberators and other long range patrol aircraft to hunt elusive U-Boats with increasing success as the war progressed.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
And, under the cover of darkness, the RAF ferried secret agents into and out of occupied territory, making use of the Lysander’s short take-off and landing capability. The RAF also played a key role in the D-Day landings, attacking air and ground targets, transporting paratroops and towing troop gliders.
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was established early in the war to meet the anticipated high demand for trained aircrews. Training facilities were established in South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand taking the pressure off British air bases.
It proved to be a very successful programme. Generally, new pilots received their primary flying training in the Tiger Moth, a biplane that had first entered RAF service back in 1932.
As soon as the Second World war ended, the RAF (now emerging into the jet age) found itself facing a new threat: the Soviet Union. In 1948-49 the RAF participated in the Berlin Air Lift, using the Douglas DC-3 Dakota and other piston-engined transports to bring supplies into the city after the soviets blocked access to sectors under western control.
Douglas DC-3 Dakota
The NATO alliance was created in 1949, and ever since then the RAF has operated within NATO’s multi-national integrated military structure. The British have however maintained an independent nuclear deterrent since the early1950s, and up until the end of the 1960s it was the RAF’s V-Force (the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan) that provided the nuclear weapons strike capability. These aircraft looked like something out of science fiction when they first appeared.
Later, in the Falklands War (1982), conventionally-armed Vulcans were utilised in the ultra long range Black Buck raids on Port Stanley airfield, refuelled in mid-air by Victors that had been converted to tankers. RAF pilots flew some Royal Navy Sea Harriers in the air-to-air combat role (shooting down five Argentinian aircraft) as well as ground attack missions in Harrier GR3s.
Royal Navy Sea Harriers
For many years during the Cold War the Shackleton, a direct descendant of the Lancaster, was used to track soviet submarines, whilst rapid response fighters such as the Phantom were regular scrambled to ‘intercept’ long-range Soviet reconnaissance aircraft approaching UK airspace.
The elegant Vickers/BAC VC10 airliner was utilised by the RAF as a strategic transport aircraft, and later as an in-flight refuelling tanker.
The Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Force (SARF) helped to provide around-the-clock airborne search and rescue cover for the United Kingdom, flying bright yellow Sea King helicopters. Most of SARF's operational activity entailed the rescue of civilians from the sea, mountains or floods. SARF’s duties transferred to a civilian contractor in 2015.
The RAF’s Tornados saw active service in the 1990s during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and they were utilised extensively in the Gulf War (1990-1991) and Iraq War (2003). The type remains operational today, in a tactical strike role, alongside the Eurofighter Typhoon which acts principally as an air defence fighter.
The heavy-lifting Chinook helicopter has seen extensive service transporting troops, ordnance and military supplies in various combat zones, including Afghanistan.
Today the RAF also uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for surveillance work and for airstrikes against militant forces, but with the F-35 Lightning II due to enter service soon, the RAF seems set to continue to operate manned strike aircraft for many years to come.
F-35 Lightning II