100 years in the air – RAF100

In this week’s blog –  originally published on Beyond the Trenches – Dr Emma Hanna from the University of Kent talks about the origins of the RAF, one hundred years on from its formation.

Apart from the film Wings (1927) and W.E.John’s Biggles (1932-68), it’s likely that most people’s knowledge of the war in the air 1914-18 has been influenced by Rik Mayall’s highly sexed, upper class and deranged pilot, Squadron Leader Lord Flashheart, in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). The history of air power in the First World War has been poorly served by professional historians. In the 1960s, Geoffrey Norris’ The Royal Flying Corps: A History was the first to consider the experiences of the individual airman. On television, the dearth of good quality archive footage from 1914-18 prevented Tony Essex, producer of The Great War (BBC, 1964), giving aerial warfare adequate attention in the well-known series.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was created from the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers by the Aerial Navigation Act on 1st April 1912, under the dual command of the War Office and the Admiralty. By 1914, the Admiralty had asserted full control over naval flying and established the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). When war was declared in August 1914, four squadrons of the RFC accompanied the BEF with 109 officers and 66 aeroplanes. Many RFC airmen transferred from the Army. The majority were from the officer class, as a precondition of entry to the RFC was the acquisition of a Royal Aeroclub Certificate which cost £75 (£4000). Still, the RFC was a popular choice for recruits. Over the course of the war it expanded its role from intelligence-gathering to include aerial combat, short and long-range bombardment, home defence, agent dropping and artillery support.

On 1st April 1918,  around 400,000 personnel serving in the RFC and 55,000 from the RNAS were reconfigured into the Royal Air Force.

It was not an easy merger. One issue was that the RNAS used a lot of nautical/naval jargon which stumped many RFC commanders who had little idea what their new colleagues were talking about. As the official history, Sir Walter Raleigh’s War in the Air, underlined in 1922, ‘[o]fficial records do not in themselves make history. They are colourless and bare.’

Sholto Douglas complained that modern books were ‘lacking in a feeling for the temper of that time’. This was why he published Years of Combat in 1963 and Arthur Gould Lee released No Parachute five years after that. Cecil Lewis had already published Sagittarius Rising in 1936, appearing in The Great War (BBC, 1964), bringing out a new edition shortly afterwards. For all its wonderful detail, however, Sagittarius Rising is to the RFC/RAF what Goodbye to All That is for the Army; a fascinating insight into one man’s wartime experiences.

But Lewis never intended to speak for every airman who served.

Alan Clark’s Aces High (1973) is colourful but often wrong. It is untrue that the RFC/RAF did not have any chaplains, for example. The indomitable Reverend Pat Leonard (DSO) was in November 1917 attached to four squadrons of the RFC near Poperinghe. Despite his popularity with the men, Leonard generally failed to get the flyers to worship. His most effective technique of getting a congregation together was ‘to go round the huts and wake up all those who signified their intention of coming. […] by lighting a lamp or switching on their torchlight so that it shines in their eyes […]’.

Recent research on the RFC/RAF has done much to open up Britain’s early air warfare, but a history which increases our knowledge of airmen’s wartime cultures is much-needed. This is why the British Journal of Military History recently published a special edition which focuses solely on the war in the air, free of charge: http://bjmh.org.uk/index.php/bjmh. However, there is still much work to be done.

About the author:

Dr Emma Hanna is an historian of the First World War based at the University of Kent and Co-Investigator on the AHRC funded Gateways to the First World War Engagement Centre.

Image: THE ROYAL FLYING CORPS ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 9971) Officers of No. 207 Squadron RAF, at Ligescourt, 29 August 1918. In front of them, on a trolley, are the largest and smallest aerial bombs and behind them the long fuselage and two swivel gun mountings in the rear gunner’s cockpit of a Handley-Page Bomber. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205245686

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