1918 is a key date in the history of aviation, one could almost say it’s when professional aviation was born. It was of course, the birthday of the Royal Air Force (RAF). 100 years later IMechE Headquarters was privileged to be on the flight path for the celebratory fly-past on 10th June, and close to an exhibition of planes at Horse Guards.
The formation of the RAF, as an independent service alongside the British Army and Royal Navy, was a world first. It had its own secretary of state and ministry, with more than 290,000 personnel and 23,000 aircraft. The new service was immediately put to work over the Western Front (during the First World War), where they supported ground forces. In June the first commander was appointed, Major Gen Sir Hugh Trenchard. The RAF provided a bombing force of nine squadrons, with one squadron of Camels for escort work.
The origins of the RAF started eight years after the first flight of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft, when the air battalion of the British Army’s Royal Engineers was formed at Larkhill, Wiltshire in April 1911. The battalion consisted of aircraft, airship, balloon and man-carrying kite companies. In December 1911, the British Navy formed the Royal Naval Flying School, Eastchurch. Then in May 1912, both were absorbed into the newly created Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which established the Central Flying School, Upavon and formed new airplane squadrons. The RFC consisted of a Military Wing (administered by the War Office) and a Naval Wing (administered by the Admiralty). The School taught pilots operational flying. The Naval Wing was separated from the RFC in 1914 to form the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
One month later, on August 4, Britain entered the First World War. At the time, the RFC had 84 aircraft, and the RNAS had 71 aircraft and seven airships. Later that month, four RFC squadrons were deployed to France to support the British Expeditionary Force. However, over the next two years of the War, Germany took the lead in air strategy with technologies such as a manual machine gun, whilst England suffered bombing raids and frustration in the skies against German “flying aces”. Repeated German air raids led British military planners to push for the creation of a separate air ministry, which would carry out strategic bombing against Germany.
On 1st April 1918, the RAF was formed by the amalgamation of the RFC and the RNAS. Members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) had worked on air stations belonging to the RFC and RNAS. When discussions about forming the RAF were underway, concerns were raised about the loss of this specialised female workforce. These led to the formation of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), also on 1st April 1918. That same day, Bristol F.2B fighters of the 22nd Squadron carried out the first official missions of the RAF. It was quickly recognised that “There is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use.” (General Jan Christian Smuts). On 21st September 1918, RAF aircraft in Palestine attacked and destroyed the retreating Turkish Seventh Army at Wadi el Fara. TE Lawrence wrote that, “It was the RAF that converted the retreat into a rout”. The RAF had shown their power well beyond the coast of Europe.
By November 1918, the RAF had gained air superiority along the Western Front and had 300,000 officers and airmen, with more than 22,000 aircraft. Although this declined to around 2,000 aircraft by the start of the Second World War (September 1939), operational imperative meant the RAF was built-up again. By the War’s end in 1945, the strength of the RAF was nearly one million personnel.
At 11am 11th November 1918 the Armistice with Germany came into force and fighting on the Western Front ended. A few months later, the Department of Civil Aviation was formed within the Air Ministry to regulate commercial aviation in the UK. Also in 1919, the War Cabinet approved a gift of 100 surplus aircraft to each dominion of the Empire and to India. Aircraft offered included de Havilland DH9 and DH9A bombers, Sopwith Dolphins and Salamanders, Bristol F2Bs, Royal Aircraft Factory SE5A fighters and Avro 504 trainers. The Imperial Gift (as it was known) paved the way for Australia, Canada and South Africa to establish their own air forces.
See our WWI exhibition for more on the use of aircraft during the First World War.
[Exhibition images by Sarah Rogers, Library and Information Setvices Manager and aerial images by Lynda Bailey, Content Marketing Executive.]