Military aviation as we see it today is only 30 years old. In 1908 A Verdon Roe made the first aeroplane flight in England, and in 1911 an Air Battalion was formed; but it was not until April 13th, 1912 that the issue of a Royal Warrant formally constituted the Royal Flying Corps with two wings, one Naval, the other Military.
In August 1914 the RFC had 179 aircraft, and the Royal Naval Air Service (as the Naval Wing was then called) had 39 aeroplanes, 52 seaplanes and seven airships. Though the Germans were far ahead of us in airship design, their air force took the field in 1914 with about 100 aircraft only (including those used for home defense) and a total personnel at the front of about 550. Their first seaplane unit on active service, consisting of two 120-hp Friedrichshafen machines, was not formed till December, 1914.
The RFC figures, though impressive, were misleading. Less than 100 planes were fit for service and the personnel numbered little over 2,000. Nevertheless they were quickly in action. As early as August 13 Squadrons Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5, flying a miscellany of Farman biplanes, Avros and Bleriot monoplanes landed in France, and on the 27th an RNAS squadron crossed to Belgium. On August 22nd an air reconnaissance discovered Von Kluck's Second Corps near Grammont, north of Mons information which necessitated an immediate British retreat to avoid outflanking. Thanks to the RFC the news came in time and encirclement was avoided. In the same week, hand grenades and petrol bombs were dropped by hand. War in the air had begun.
By the middle of October aircraft were spotting for artillery, and soon gunner officers were making flights to plot enemy batteries. In November it became clear that the fronts were established and the main outlines of air warfare could be discerned. Three things were in demand: wireless sets, since this signaling method was independent of the weather; cameras, to photograph enemy positions; and machine guns for air combat and ground strafing.
Throughout the early battles of the war the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres the main duties of the RFC were observation, liaison work and artillery direction the latter by means of Very signals more often than by wireless telegraphy. The RNAS, keeping watch for enemy submarines or minelayers and carrying out preventive attacks on German airship sheds from bases at Dunkirk and Antwerp, provided, too, for the home defense of Britain.
The conception of an air offensive in which there should be coordination of air and ground operations came in 1915. At Nueve Chapelle British troops went into attack with a composite picture of the enemy's hidden defenses to guide them. In this operation and in the second battle of Ypres, the RFC were recognized by the commander in chief to be indispensable. Thus when, after a year of war, Colonel Trenchard took over air command from Sir David Henderson, it was agreed that the expansion of the RFC should keep pace with that of the expeditionary force, which had already increased from four to 30 divisions. Following a period of skepticism, generals were becoming air-minded. When Colonel Brancker put forward plans for 50 squadrons, Lord Kitchener made only one addition to the minute: "Double it."
The Battle of Loos in September and October of 1915 showed what air mastery could accomplish. Determined air attacks on their railway traffic attacks made more deadly by an improved bombsight impeded German troop movements. But late in October came the counter-stroke the Fokker single seater monoplanes, strong numerically and equipped with machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller. For a time the Fokker, a "flying gun" which aimed directly at the target ahead, was predominant. The British Vickers "gun-bus" could usually hold its own in single combat, but reconnaissance aircraft were almost helpless and orders were issued that they should fly in formation of not less than four.
Meanwhile the RNAS were rendering distinguished service at Gallipoli where they enjoyed undisputed technical superiority. Versatility was their virtue. Drachen balloons from the base ship Manica, spotted with outstanding effect against both Turkish land forces and battleships. Seaplanes directed monitor fire on forts and troop concentrations, and brought off the first aerial torpedo hit on a supply vessel. A continuous watch was maintained from the air over submarine routes and minefields, while land patrols kept off enemy aircraft. Turkish camps, communications and trenches were constantly subjected to attack, air reconnaissance enabling British troops to anticipate countermeasures. Though the campaign did not succeed in its object, British aircraft did their work well.
Nor were tasks nearer home neglected. Submarine bases in Flanders were bombed and the submarine scout airship or "blimp" was put into service. A daring raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen (Lake Constance) by three British planes based at Belfort had been made in November, 1914. Then once again the threat of the Zeppelin to British home security was temporarily checked by the destruction of two out of three of the newest type of raiders, one being bombed in its shed at Evere, and the other destroyed in the air over Ghent by bombs dropped from a Morane monoplane.
By 1916, de Havilland scouts and formation flying were overcoming the initial advantage of the Fokker fighter, and British synchronized fire control gears, though slow in development, eventually surpassed the German types. The RFC had confirmed its instinctive belief that aggression was the best means of air defense. For army cooperation a new method of "contact patrol" was devised. This enabled observers to report accurately on enemy positions, to advise headquarters of their own troops' progress, and to transmit messages from the front lines to their divisional HQ.
The RFC were thus prepared to afford maximum support to the infantry in the battle of the Somme. Employing cooperative control and determined to fight the air war over the enemy's lines, they made a notable contribution to the early British successes. By a massed bombing offensive on railways, aerodromes, distribution points, and billeting centers, they gave the German troops a feeling of defenselessness. Throughout the entire course of the war the morale of the infantry on either side was greatly affected by any failure of air power.
It was not until the German High Command concentrated new pursuit squadrons of the Albatros type, that the RFC felt their mastery threatened. By that time the morale of the German armies had suffered a devastating blow, for they had been forced to abandon the onslaught on Verdun. The new German planes were too late to exercise maximum effect, but they achieved considerable successes.
In the period September to November home defense aircraft, now placed under War Office control, accounted for seven Zeppelin raiders. Night-flying training was also inaugurated at Hounslow to provide for greater security against bombing raids. Relieved of defense responsibilities in Britain, the RNAS intensified its offensive against aerodromes and Zeppelin bases in Belgium, besides taking part in attacks on munition centers in Germany.
Fighting squadrons of the RNAS reinforced the RFC during the battle of Arras and in the Flanders offensive of 1917. Heavy air fighting and fierce struggles for local supremacy were part of the artillery preparation for Allied attacks. The enemy retired, but to prepared positions behind the Hindenburg Line. This retirement was harassed by the first systematic low-flying attacks a technique which when first tried out at Arras and the battle of Messines, caused confusion among enemy transport columns, and remained afterwards an important aspect of air cooperation. For the second time, however, the enemy produced fighting aircraft of a superior quality. "Circus" formations appeared the first under the famous Richthofen and the German Air Service reached the peak of its power. Throughout the third battle of Ypres and at Cambrai air engagements were so continuous and severe that up to 30 per cent casualties were suffered by the RFC personnel. The losses inflicted on their opponents may be judged from the fact that in August alone 135 enemy aircraft were destroyed and another 103 forced down; 1,860 hostile batteries were brought under artillery fire through air cooperation; while 304 gun pits were destroyed and 803 damaged.
The gratitude of the troops may be judged from this notice which appeared in The Times "In Memoriam" column:
To an Unknown Airman shot down 23rd November, 1917, attacking a German strong point southwest of Bourlon Wood, in the effort to help out a company of the Royal Irish Rifles, when other help had failed.
In January, 1918, General Trenchard returned to England to become Chief of Staff to the newly created Air Ministry, and it was under Maj Gen J M Salmond that the British crews and aircraft were put to the severest test of the war. In March, 1918, the Germans began their drive towards Amiens. The RFC were called on to stem this advance. Low-flying and bombing attacks continued regardless of risk, mechanics keeping every available machine in the air. Two and a half million rounds of ammunition were fired on enemy troops. The westward thrust was held. In one week as many as 220 German aircraft were forced down by British airmen flying Sopwith and Bristol fighters. The RFC had again established air superiority over their adversary.
That this superiority continued was in no small degree the result of training and technical progress made about the same time. The original Central Flying School at Upavon had been supplemented by centers for recruit training at Halton, for wireless operators at Farnborough, observers at Brooklands, riggers at Reading and for aerial gunnery at Hythe. But no striking advance was made in flying training until the introduction of the Gosport system late in 1917. Every possible maneuver was taught in this school of special flying. When Gosport pupils reached the Western Front, maneuvers till then considered desperate risks, were practiced as routine tactics to bewilder and defeat the enemy.
The RNAS were not outdistanced in the race for technical improvement. As a result of long research, aeroplanes were successfully launched from the platforms of light cruisers or from the turrets of battle cruisers, thus gradually replacing seaplanes for ships' use. Boat seaplanes of a new type, operating from Felixstowe in a sectional patrol known as the "Spider's Web," played an important part in reducing the serious losses caused by submarine attacks on merchant shipping. These flying boats accounted for two submarines in the last week of July, having previously destroyed two Zeppelins engaged on reconnaissance. Aeroplanes taking off from cruisers in the North Sea then went into the attack and a third Zeppelin fell in flames.
Special aircraft carriers were now designed, of which the Argus was the first. Other developments included the towing of kite-balloons by submarine and the construction of small airships for fleet reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrol. Seaplanes and aeroplanes could then be put to the more exacting task of bombing enemy bases at Bruges, Ostend and Zeebrugge, or of intercepting German Gothas which now replaced the Zeppelins in raids over London and southeastern England.
The daylight attacks on London, and the competition for supplies of aircraft, more than anything else, were the basic reasons for creating an Air Ministry and amalgamating the two air services. Competition between the RFC and RNAS for aeronautical supplies, and differences of policy in their use, had caused pronounced public disquiet. When on July 7, 1917, 22 German aeroplanes raided London in broad daylight killing 103 people and wounding 316, and, despite 95 pursuing planes and the fire of 57 gun stations, got clear with only one loss this through engine trouble there was a strong demand for revised organization and combined defense measures. Public clamor resulted in the retention for home defense of 400 planes. Probably the total enemy forces available for raiding hardly ever exceeded a tenth of this figure.
Later in the year came the Air Force (Constitution) Act and on April 1, 1918 the Royal Air Force came into being. The decision to break with traditional policy, both in Great Britain and elsewhere, of having only two military services, a Navy and an Army, was not lightly undertaken by the War Cabinet, headed by Lloyd George. It came only after a full and impartial inquiry by a special committee presided over by General Smuts, a member of the War Cabinet, and after various other methods of overcoming the difficulties which had arisen had been thoroughly tried and tested. In retrospect, this decision to create a separate Air Ministry, a unified Air Force, and an independent Air Staff is seen to have been a change of great historic world importance.
The German spring offensive of 1918 had provided the RAF with perfect ground targets: troops in movement. Bristol and Camel squadrons had held the attacks of "circus" formations, while low-flying assaults were made on the advancing enemy. Now came the Allied counter offensive. The RAF concentrated 1,390 aircraft on the Amiens front against a German force of 340. Air cooperation with infantry and tank advances nullified the effect of anti-tank guns, while bombing attacks impeded the assembly and supply of German reinforcements. Sweeps by as many as 65 aircraft in formation cleared the sky of enemy forces and intensive bombing of hangars destroyed many machines. German countermeasures were thus paralyzed. When the Allied advance became so rapid that reserves of food for the forward troops were exhausted, RAF squadrons transported rations to the front lines and the advance went forward.
Now everywhere came signs that the Central Powers were cracking. The campaign in which the effects of air predominance show most clearly was conducted in Palestine. By grounding the enemy air force and thus preventing reconnaissance, General Allenby sprang a surprise attack over ground made familiar from aerial photographs. Smokescreens dropped by contact patrols enabled attacking infantry to reach the enemy lines. Communications were disrupted by bombing and possible routes of escape were constantly watched. The Turks broke. Their retreat led through narrow defiles and here all available aircraft were immediately concentrated. To quote Lawrence: "at a cost of four Air Force casualties we destroyed an Army Corps." Sustained bombing and machine-gun fire turned retreat to rout, and rout to chaos. By the end of September, of the seventh and eighth Turkish armies, no organized body remained.
While the peripheral forces were cracking, air blows were struck at the heart of the enemy. A result of the Gotha raids on London was the decision of the General Staff determined to bomb industrial areas in Germany. The VIIIth RAF Brigade carried out 57 raids on Cologne, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Mainz and Coblenz, and so successful were these attacks that it was decided to constitute a separate long-range bombing force whose specific task would be bombing. During the five months of its existence the Independent Force, created in June, 1918, under General Trenchard's command, extended the bombing offensive to Gotha aerodromes, railways and Rhineland chemical works. Though it inflicted much damage on German war industry, its most powerful effect was moral. Recurrent bombing by day and night undermined the German nation's capacity for resistance. Plans were prepared to bomb Berlin, and a fleet of Handley-Page long distance bombers were in readiness three days before the Armistice.
The RAF had mastered the Zeppelins. Of the Gothas, six out of 38 were destroyed, in their final attempt on the capital. Fokker and Albatros had been overcome and Circus had been decisively beaten. But though German resistance at home and in the field was weakening, their sea attacks continued. To attack the menace at its roots combined naval and air sorties were made on Ostend and Zeebrugge in April and May, 1918. Both bases were decisively damaged, and 12 submarines and 23 torpedo boats were trapped in the Bruges canal. Meanwhile, for home waters, a new antisubmarine organization had been formed in which kite balloons, seaplanes, aeroplanes and airships all played a part. In the course of the year these forces sank or damaged 31 submarines. A further scheme was evolved to check U-boat movements at sea. Lighters towed by destroyers were employed as flying-boat platforms, and by this means reconnaissance was carried out over Heligoland Bight, where enemy minesweepers were clearing lanes for outgoing U-boats. The aircraft carrier Furious took part in these operations and her pilots had the satisfaction of destroying two Zeppelins in their sheds at Tondern. But the German naval air service still showed high morale and running fights between British flying boats and German seaplanes continued to take place as near home as the Thames estuary.
Once in the lead on the field the RAF gave the German forces no respite. In the Battle of Bapaume they proved as brilliant a vanguard in the advance as they had formed a rearguard when the British were forced to retreat. As the Germans were drawn back, air units from Dunkirk helped to disorganize their communications, paralyzing their reserve troops by intensive machine-gun assault and clearing enemy bases from the Belgian coast.
By this time American squadrons were in France operating under the RAF command. Though few in number, they distinguished themselves by daring and tenacity. On August 13, 1918, the 17th US Aero Squadron took a part in the celebrated low-flying raid on the aerodrome at Varssenaire near Ostend. Three flights of Fokkers were bombed on the ground and the whole target was devastated. British and American pilots flying Camels dived low through the smoke to machine gun their various objectives. Though the force employed numbered over 60, they returned to their bases without loss.
The German Air Service fought hard, but organized bombing of railways, destruction of batteries, concentrated fire on strong points, and perfect cooperation with infantry movements carried the day. The Hindenburg Line was soon in Allied hands and by November 11 Mons was taken. The war was won and in the words of Sir Douglas Haig's dispatch in "The advance to victory":
"The ever-increasing size of the RAF and the constant improvement in the power and performance of machines, combined with the unfailing keenness of pilots and observers" had played a large part. The conditions of the Armistice was designed to prevent any resumption of the struggle. Germany handed over to the Allies 2,000 aeroplanes.
In November, 1918, the RAF had over 200 squadrons 22,647 aircraft of all types including 3,300 on first-line strength, together with 103 airships. Personnel totaled 291,000 officers and men. Operations had taken this force to Italy (where they shot down 400 enemy planes) to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sudan, West Africa, India and the Near East. Not only in numbers, but in range, speed and rate of climb the RAF led the world. Service aircraft had reached a ceiling of 24,000 feet and speeds exceeding 140 mph; the North Sea type airship was capable of flights of a hundred hours' duration.
Flying had made great strides but it was still an instrument of war rather than of peace. Civil aviation could not absorb the disbanded pilots. But a fortunate few were able to recapture the pioneering spirit of the years before the war. In June, 1919, Capt John Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten Brown flew a Vickers Vimy aeroplane from St Johns, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Ireland, in just over 16 hours. Next month the airship R-34 crossed from East Fortune, Scotland, to Long Island and back, sending wireless reports regularly to the Air Ministry in London throughout a cruise of 6,000 miles. In November Capt Ross Smith, Lieutenant Keith Smith and two Australian crew piloted a Vimy by five stages from Hounslow to Port Darwin, Australia. Setting out from Brooklands the following February, Wing Com P Van Rynefeld and Flight Lieut Q Brand, after crashing their original Vickers machine en route, reached Cape Town by March in a de Havilland. In 1921 RAF planes operated an official air mail service between Cairo and Baghdad, crossing Iraq. They were guided on their course by tracks plowed over the Syrian desert.
The Cairo-Baghdad route was part of a considered plan. Mr Churchill, as Secretary of State for Air, had in 1919 put forward a scheme from the Chief of Air Staff for the permanent organization of the RAF. The bulk of service units were to be stationed overseas in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India. Egypt, by its situation and climate, formed the natural headquarters of the Air Force in the Near and Middle East. With detachments of seaplanes at Malta and Alexandria to support the squadrons in Cairo, the RAF could watch over a main highway of world commerce.
Attention having been turned to air communications within the Empire, long distance service flights were undertaken for the sake of experience and to test the reliability of British aircraft. Air Vice-Marshal Sir Sefton Brancker had flown with Alan Cobham from London to Rangoon and back in 1924; in 1927 a flight of four Supermarine flying boats, under Group Captain Cave-Brown-Cave's command, completed a cruise of 23,000 miles to Singapore. From there they made a circuit of Australia and survey flights to Hong Kong in preparation for regular air services. In the same year Flight Lieut C R Carr and Flight Lieut L E M Gillman flew 3,419 miles from Cranwell to the Persian Gulf in less than 35 hours flying time; and from the same station in 1929 Squadron Leader A G Jones-Williams and Flight Lieut N H Jenkins made a record non-stop flight to Karachi.
The pursuit of records was deliberate. No better means of keeping a peacetime air force on its toes could be found. There was in addition the series of Hendon Air Pageants which provided a useful stimulus not only to young pilots but also the public imagination. It was not, however, till Britain won the Schneider Trophy that the tremendous advance in flying speed which ten years of experiment had achieved was brought home to the man in the street. The speed of 281 mph which Flight Lieut S N Webster reached in winning the coveted award appeared prodigious. And when Flying Officer D. Waghorn reached 328 mph in the contest and Squadron Leader A H Orlebar broke the world's record at 357.5 mph, it was plain that the Supermarine Rolls-Royce seaplane S.6 was capable of terrific performance. Two years later, in 1931, Flight Lieut J N Boothman completed the course of 217 miles at 340 mph, thus securing the trophy permanently for his country, but Flight Lieut G H Stainforth reached 407 mph not long afterwards in a world record attempt and competent designers were prepared to prophesy that this figure would not long hold first place.
Records were won on the drawing board, but the designers were always in close touch with the men who flew. The relations between pilots, Air Ministry, and aircraft construction firms were astonishingly frank and cordial. It was as though all concerned knew that a day might come when much might depend on the closeness of this relationship.
For the time being, however, there seemed little prospect of war, and the occasional operations overseas in which the RAF figured, appeared little more than routine police work to a public unaware of the distances and dangers involved.
In 1920 air operations conducted in Somaliland were the main factor in the overthrow of the "Mad Mullah," who had defied authority since 1900.
On the Northwest Frontier, aircraft were also proving their worth. The RAF checked the outrages of the Mahsud tribes in Waziristan by bombing their evacuated villages. For the loss of two men a campaign, which in 1919 had proved inconclusive after costing 1,329 casualties among ground forces, was successfully concluded in two months.
Air action was prompt, economical and humane. When a tribe in Afghanistan took up arms against King Amanullah, cut the road in the Khyber Pass and isolated the British Legation in Kabul, RAF squadrons from Egypt and Baghdad saved the situation. Crossing mountainous country in severe weather, they evacuated 600 civilians from Kabul, flying 57,000 miles for the loss of only two aircraft. In the same year, 1928, Aden Protectorate, 42,000 square miles of territory bordering the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, was placed under control of the Royal Air Force. This had been a most difficult military command in which law and order was constantly set at naught within a few miles of the capital Aden. Soon the solitary RAF squadron had the situation completely in hand at a cost of £8,000 compared with an Army estimate of about £10,000,000.
On January 1, 1920, the Air Ministry took over the entire research, design, construction and supply of aircraft from the Ministry of Munitions. As a final measure of unification, civil aviation and the airship service were also placed under the control of the Air Council.
In 1923 the Prime Minister, Mr Baldwin, stated that our needs in regard to air defense should be:
"In addition to meeting the essential air power requirements of the Navy, Army, Indian and Overseas commitments, British air power must include a home defense air force of sufficient strength adequately to protect us against air attack by the strongest air force within striking distance of this country."
By 1934 it was clear that Britain's frontier lay on the Rhine. Germany was building up an air force and the British government "determined in no conditions to accept any position of inferiority with regard to what air force may be raised in Germany in the future." The program of squadrons for home defense was raised to 75 to be completed in five years, so that by 1939 the total British first-line air strength at home and abroad was to be 1,304 aircraft. Estimates based on good authority were already crediting Germany with 1,000 military aircraft, and in 1935 Hitler declared that Germany's air strength was equal to that of Britain. More serious than this was the fact that her power to expand this strength rapidly was incomparably greater than ours. There were then 580 aircraft available for home defense, but plans were set in motion whereby in March, 1937, the strength of the RAF based at home would reach 1,500 first-line aircraft.
This time the scheme was undertaken in earnest. Thirty-two new aerodrome sites were chosen and preparations were made to recruit an additional 2,550 pilots. One of the methods to overcome difficulties of expansion in production was the institution by Viscount Swinton of the so-called "shadow" factory scheme. These "shadow" factories were, in fact, huge state-owned workshops managed by the captains of the motor industry on a management fee basis: five firms in the automobile industry built the component parts of selected aero-engines, two factories turned out air-frames and others made propellers, carburetors and bombs. Separate works then assembled the whole output into complete aircraft or engines. In the course of time this subdivision of contracts became vastly more widespread, so that no temporary stoppage could halt the provision of equipment needed by the Royal Air Force whose first-line program had now risen to 1,750 aircraft for home defense.
A reorganization of the RAF at home was felt to be necessary to control and operate the greatly increased number of RAF squadrons. In July, 1936, four commands were created, all responsible directly to the Chief of Air Staff and Secretary of State at the Air Ministry. The Command entitled "Air Defense of Great Britain" was scrapped and in its place Bomber Command took over control of all bomber squadrons and Fighter Command of all fighters, army cooperation squadrons and the Observer Corps. To Coastal Command was allocated flying boats and general reconnaissance squadrons which worked mainly with the Royal Navy and also the administration ashore of squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm which composed the shipborne aircraft operating with the Navy. Training Command was made responsible for all training units. The RAF was thus organized on a war footing at home into three operational commands and one non-operational, the basis of which was that units were grouped in accordance with their duties. To strengthen the reserve situation a Volunteer Reserve was formed, initially capable of training 800 pilots annually in centers close to important cities, as well as various classes of air mechanics.
Since 1924 units of the RAF normally embarked in carriers and battleships had been known as the Fleet Air Arm. Naval officers provided 70 per cent of the flying personnel, the RAF 30 per cent. Supplies and repairs were organized by the Air Ministry, but the Navy exercised complete operational control. In 1937 the Admiralty was given full responsibility for the personnel, aircraft and shore bases of the Fleet Air Arm. Its first line strength of 181 aircraft in 1936 was re-planned to reach 350 in 1939; its personnel was to increase from 3,000 to approximately 10,000 officers and men. Six aircraft carriers and two seaplane carriers were insufficient for the needs of fighter planes, torpedo spotters, dive bombers, float planes and amphibian flying boats. Building began on a further six aircraft carriers, of which the Ark Royal was one.
Types of aircraft new to the service were on show at the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon in June, 1936. Hurricane, and Spitfire fighters made their first public appearance and prototypes of the Vickers, Wellingtons, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitleys and Handley-Page Hampden bombers were demonstrated, together with the lighter Fairey Battle day bomber; the Westland Lysander army cooperation monoplane was there too. Among technical developments, the automatic pilot "George" had solved many of the problems associated with long distance flying, while incorporation of eight guns in British fighters and of power- operated turrets with a battery of machine guns in British bombers was to change the whole tenor of air combat. But information on both points was then a closely guarded secret and, as the result showed, it was kept. To train air crews in day and night flying, navigation, wireless, blind flying, bombing and gunnery, the RAF selected the twin-engined Airspeed Oxford, and for high-speed practice the Miles Master. The results of their training were shown in the 18th and last Air Display when under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding's command, the RAF made a mass-formation "fly past" of 260 aircraft, timed to perfection and flying in one great square of 150,000-hp at 2,000 feet above spectators. With flights flying 50 yards apart and squadrons a hundred, only matchless precision and air sense could have combined such a team in united maneuver.
Meanwhile the combined strength of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm had risen from 1,020 first-line aircraft in January 1935 to 2,031 in 1938, squadrons for home defense numbering 123. But quality was deemed more important than numbers and it was decided that obsolescent types of aircraft must be replaced with all possible speed. A special mission to the United States solved part of the problem. Two hundred Lockheed airliners, which were regarded as a more suitable type than any military aircraft seen, were ordered for conversion to reconnaissance duties, and orders for 200 two-seater North American Harvard trainers were also placed. The use of the Link trainer for teaching blind flying was also decided upon in advance of its service adoption in America. Other missions followed, and in Canada and Australia Hampden bombers and Bristol Beauforts were made. Naval flying boats, modified to military requirements, provided the RAF with the Sunderland, a monoplane with an overload range of 2,500 miles. The Air Ministry was given authority to buy up to the full capacity of the aircraft industry, so that Sir Kingsley Wood, succeeding Viscount Swinton as Air Minister, was able to double aircraft production before the end of 1938. The rate of output was then between 3,500 and 4,000 aircraft a year about seven times the pre-expansion figure for which 100,000 workers were employed and £84,112,000 was the estimated cost that year.
Large as this outlay may have seemed, the means could hardly be too great for the ends in view. The RAF had four roles to fulfill: the protection of Britain; the guarding of our trade routes; the defense of our territories overseas; and the active provision of help to our Allies, both locally and by offensive bombing operations against a common enemy. To improve protection against low-flying aircraft, the barrage balloon defenses were instituted and later increased to 47 units; and since defense was then our chief concern, priority was given to the construction of fast fighters over bomber aircraft. To exercise our bombers whose range had outstretched the relatively short flights possible within Great Britain, training flights of several hundred British machines to the south, center and southwest of France and back without landing were authorized by France in 1939. Not only was this fine training for British pilots but gave a practical demonstration to the people of France of our common problems and of our solidarity with them.
The real race lay ahead. In numbers the Luftwaffe had probably twice the combined strength of the British and French air forces; and many of its pilots had experienced modern war conditions in Spain. Throughout, the Nazi government had never disclosed the size or scope of its various plans for developing the Luftwaffe while, owing to democratic procedure, having full knowledge of the financial appropriations authorized numbers of personnel and other vital information about the British and French Air Forces. But the postponement of war was to prove of inestimable value to the RAF. Hurricanes were by then in fair supply; Spitfires were following on and our modern bomber types were coming within sight (although the heavies were not to come off the production line until about two years later).
When general mobilization was proclaimed on August 31, 1939, Britain's air strength was still small but growing. Her task was to hold the enemy until she could herself take the lead. Stamina and speed were both required, but the Royal Air Force were confident that they possessed these qualities. They were fortified, too, by the knowledge that during the years between the first World War and the present they had had the advantages of a central Air Staff concentrating on air problems and the employment of Air Forces in all possible roles. History will pass judgment in due season on the Air Staff, on the quality of their foresight and on the accuracy of their conception in the employment of the RAF. But there are indications already of the value of their work the high speed eight-gun fighter, the power-operated multi-gun turrets, the speedy ultra-heavy bomber, and last but not least, radiolocation. Two of these with the crews won the Battle of Britain; the other two with their crews have made possible the powerful and successful raids on Germany.
So it is with runners of the greatest stamina and speed who normally start a handicap race from scratch. This sign of their estimated quality may prove a serious disadvantage at first; but there is one compensation. Scratch starters can take the measure of all adversaries ahead, observe their maximum pace, and then, when that pace begins to tell, make their own most determined spurt. Once they take the lead there is little hope for their opponents. Since the day when the Stukas and dive bombers were mastered near London in the Battle of Britain in September, 1940, the RAF has not looked back, Since then the RAF has achieved parity with the German Air Force. Once again the Royal Air Force has developed that extra spirit which will help to ensure the victory of the United Nations.
This article was originally published in the September, 1942, special Royal Air Force issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 177-181, 186, 188.
The original article includes 11 photos.
Photos from the RAF.