The history of the Royal Air Force, the air force of the United Kingdom, spans nearly a century of British military aviation.

The RAF was founded in 1918, toward the end of World War I by merging the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. After the war the RAF was greatly reduced in size and during the inter-war years it was used to "police" the British Empire. The RAF underwent rapid expansion prior to and during the Second World War. During the war it was responsible for the aerial defence of Great Britain, the strategic bombing campaign against Germany and tactical support to the British Army around the world.

During the Cold War, the main role of the RAF was the defence of the continent of Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union, including holding the UK's nuclear deterrent for a number of years. After the Cold War, the RAF was involved in several large scale operations, including the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War.

Formation and the inter-war years


Whilst the British were not the first to make use of heavier-than-air military aircraft, the RAF is the world's oldest independent air force of any significant size and the first air force to become independent of army or navy control.[1] The RAF was founded on 1 April 1918 by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service and was controlled by the British Government Air Ministry which had been established three months earlier. The Royal Flying Corps had been born out of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and was under the control of the British Army. The Royal Naval Air Service was its naval equivalent and was controlled by the Admiralty. The decision to merge the two units and create an independent air force was a response to the events of World War I, the first war in which air power made a significant impact. The creation of the new force was based on the Smuts Report prepared by Field Marshal Jan Smuts for the Imperial War Cabinet on which he served.

To emphasize the merger of both military and naval aviation in the new service, many of the titles of officers were deliberately chosen to have a naval flavour, such as Flight Lieutenant, Wing Commander, Group Captain, and Air Commodore.

The newly created RAF was the most powerful air force in the world on its creation, with over 20,000 aircraft. The squadrons of the RFC kept their numerals while those of the RNAS were renumbered from 201 onwards. The RAF's last known surviving founder member is the World War I veteran Henry Allingham. A war memorial was commissioned after the war in central London.

Policing the Empire and activities in Great Britain

An RAF aircraft in SomalilandFollowing the end of World War I and the accompanying British defence cuts, the newly-independent RAF took up the task of policing the British Empire from the air. It was argued that the use of air power would prove to be a more cost-effective way of controlling large areas than by using conventional land forces. Sir Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of the Air Staff, had formulated ideas about the use of aircraft in colonial policing and these were first put into practice in 1920 when the RAF and imperial ground units defeated rebel Somaliland dervishes. The following year, in 1921, the RAF was given responsibility for all British forces in Iraq with the task of 'policing' the tribal unrest. The RAF also saw service in Afghanistan in 1928, when following the outbreak of civil war, the British Legation and some European diplomatic staff based in Kabul were cut off. The operation to rescue them, the Kabul Airlift, was the first evacuation of civilians by air.

It was during the inter-war years that the RAF had to fight for its survival - many questioned the need for a separate air force, especially in peacetime. To prevent itself being disbanded and its duties returned to the Army and the Navy, the RAF spent considerable energies keeping itself in the public eye by such things as aviation record attempts. In 1936, a reorganisation of RAF command saw the creation of Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command.

Naval aviation

The creation of the RAF removed all aircraft and flying personnel from the Navy, although the Admiralty remained in control of aircraft carriers. On 1 April 1924, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force was formed under Air Ministry control. It consisted of those RAF units that were normally embarked on aircraft carriers and fighting ships.[2] The Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, his air staff and his successors argued that "air is one and indivisible" and hence that naval aviation was properly the responsibility of the RAF. The Admiralty took the opposite view and, during the first half of the 1920s, pressed hard for the return of naval aviation to their control. It has been argued that the British defence arrangements in the inter-war years had a serious impact upon the doctrinal development of British naval air power as the Navy lacked experienced naval aviators.[3]

During the 1920s and first half of the 1930s, Government spending on the RAF was limited and the air staff put a higher priority on strategic bombing than on naval aviation. The result of this was that by the late 1930s the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with outdated aircraft in limited numbers. By 1936, the Admiralty were once again campaigning for the return of naval aviation to their control. This time they were successful and on 30 July 1937, the Admiralty took over responsibility for the administration of the Fleet Air Arm. Under two years later, on 24 May 1939, the Fleet Air Arm was returned to full Admiralty control under the Inskip Award and renamed the Air Branch of the Royal Navy. Land-based aircraft of Coastal Command which defended the United Kingdom from naval threats remained under RAF control.

World War II (1939–1945)

RAF Darrell's Island, Bermuda, during WWII.The RAF underwent rapid expansion following the outbreak of war against Germany in 1939. This included the training of British aircrews in British Commonwealth countries under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and the secondment of many whole squadrons, and tens of thousands of individual personnel, from Commonwealth air forces. For example, by the end of the war, the Royal Canadian Air Force personnel had contributed more than 30 squadrons to service with RAF formations; almost a quarter of Bomber Command's personnel were Canadian. [5]. Similarly, about nine per cent of the personnel who served with the RAF in Europe and the Mediterranean were seconded from the Royal Australian Air Force.[6] To these and other British Commonwealth peronnel were later added thousands of men from other countries, including many who had fled from German-occupied European countries.

A defining period of the RAF's existence came during the Battle of Britain. Over the summer of 1940 the RAF held off the Luftwaffe in perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history. This arguably contributed immensely to the delay and cancellation of German plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom (Operation Sea Lion). Of these few hundred RAF fighter pilots, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said in the House of Commons on August 20, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".[7] However, in recent years some military historians have controversally suggested that the RAF's actions would not have prevented an invasion and that key deterrent was the Royal Navy's command of the sea.

Residential area of Hamburg after the 1943 RAF attack (Operation Gomorrah)The main RAF effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. From May 31, 1942 RAF Bomber Command was able to mount large-scale night raids, sometimes involving up to 1,000 aircraft. From mid-1942 increasing numbers of these aircraft were heavy four-engined bombers such as the Handley-Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster. Noteworthy raids include Operation Millennium against Cologne, the first 1000-bomber raid; Operation Chastise, the 'Dambusters' raids on targets in the Ruhr Valley; Operation Gomorrah, the destruction of Hamburg; and the 'Battle of Berlin'. The lighter, fast two-engine de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber was used for tactical raids like Operation Carthage, a raid on the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, as well as a night-fighter. The value of this campaign to the allied war effort has been disputed and it can be argued that it was a diversion or resources away from other vital areas - regardless of its moral implications.

There exists considerable historical controversy about the ethics of large-scale firebombing attacks against German cities during the last few months of the war, such as the bombing of Dresden, the bombing of Pforzheim, the bombing of Heilbronn and other German cities.

Cold War (1945–1990)

The Avro Vulcan was a strategic bomber used during the Cold War to carry conventional and nuclear bombs.After victory in World War II, the RAF was to be further re-organised, as technological advances in air warfare saw the arrival of jet fighters and bombers. Before Britain developed its own nuclear weapons the RAF was provided with American nuclear weapons under Project E. After Britain developed its own nuclear weapons, the RAF's V bomber squadrons took sole responsibility for carrying the UK's nuclear deterrent until the development of the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines. Following the introduction of Polaris in 1968 the RAF's strategic nuclear role was reduced to a tactical one, using the WE.177 gravity bombs. This tactical role was continued by the V bombers into the 1980s and until 1998 by Tornado GR1s.

The primary role of the RAF in the Cold War years was the defence of Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union, with many squadrons based in Germany. With the decline of the British Empire, global operations were scaled back, and RAF Far East Air Force was disbanded on October 31, 1971.

Despite this, the RAF fought in many battles in the Cold War period. The RAF played a minor role in the Korean War, with flying boats taking part. However, the Suez Crisis in 1956 saw a large RAF role, with aircraft mainly flying from Cyprus and Malta. The Konfrontasi against Indonesia in the early 1960s did see use of RAF aircraft, but due to a combination of deft diplomacy and selective ignoring of certain events by both sides, it never developed into a full scale war.

Falklands War

Vulcan over Ascension Island on 18 May 1982The Falklands War in 1982 was mainly fought by the Navy and Army due to the distance of the battlefield from friendly airfields. However RAF aircraft were deployed in the mid-Atlantic on Ascension Island and on board the Navy's aircraft carriers alongside aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. The most high profile RAF missions in this conflict were the famous Black Buck raids using Avro Vulcans flying from Ascension Island. However, the Service did many other things during the conflict, with its helicopters in the Falklands themselves, its Harrier GR3s flying from HMS Hermes, its fighter aircraft protecting Ascension, maritime patrol aircraft scanning the South Atlantic, and tanker and transport fleet helping in the enormous logistical effort required for the war.


In 1991 over 100 RAF aircraft took part in the Gulf War, in virtually every conceivable role. It marked an important turning point in the RAF's history as it was the first time the service had used precision-guided munitions in significant amounts. Later the Kosovo War in 1999 saw the RAF fight over Europe for the first time since World War II. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan saw the RAF provide support to the United States by the provision of tankers and reconnaissance aircraft and as bases.

RAF GR4 Tornado fighter on a combat misson over Iraq during Operation Telic.The 2003 invasion of Iraq saw a large RAF deployment to the Gulf. The RAF also staged the base for the 4 US B-52 Bombers which attacked Iraq almost every night. The only RAF losses were a friendly fire incident when an RAF Tornado jet was shot down by a US Patriot missile killing both pilot and Weapons Systems Operator due to the Patriot missile mistakenly recognising the Tornado as a Mig, and a Hercules transport plane shot down by ground fire killing the ten personnel on board just after take off from the US controlled airfield

In 2004, RAF Panavia Tornado F.3s deployed to the Baltic States to provide the British contribution to the NATO-led Baltic Air Policing operation.[9]

Currently, as part of Operation Herrick, RAF Harriers are based at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, operating in the close air support role against the Taliban. As part of Operation TELIC, Merlin and Puma helicopters operate from Basrah, protected by the RAF Regiment, forming 903 Expeditionary Air Wing.

The RAF's 90th anniversary was commemorated on 1 April 2008 by a flypast of 9 Red Arrows and 4 Typhoons along the Thames, in a straight line from just south of London City Airport Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the RAF Memorial and (at 13.00) the Ministry of Defence building

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