RAF 100: Celebrating the legends of the skies
- Credit: MoD/Crown copyright 1912
This year Britain’s youngest armed service marks its centenary anniversary.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) milestone is to be marked with a parade through central London and a Buckingham Palace fly-past involving about 100 aircraft on July 10.
Through the celebrations it commemorates past service, recognises serving members and inspires the next generation.
The RAF and Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) began operations on April Fool’s Day 1918.
It followed months of wrangling about whether it was a good idea to join the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service while the First World War was raging.
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Stuart Hadaway, senior researcher at the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, explained: “A lot of people thought wartime was not a good time.
“It would take up resources and personnel. But those in favour won out.”
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The creation of a government air ministry led to the country gaining superiority of the skies. By taking charge of production more and better aircraft began taking off. Aviation technology saw huge advances.
“There’s literally nothing else like it in the history of mankind where things moved so fast in such a short period of time,” Mr Hadaway said.
But after the First World War the RAF had to fight for its survival with the army and navy wanting their own flying services.
“The RAF had to justify its existence so it came up with ideas of strategic bombing and policing the empire,” Mr Hadaway said.
The proposal won out as it removed a need for boots on the ground, something senior commanders wanted to avoid after the devastating losses of the First World War.
As war fears grew in the 1930s funding for Britain’s air defences grew with technological leaps made as radar and new fighters like the Spitfire entered production.
“Had that not been in place the Germans would have knocked us out of the war in 1940 or 1941. It gave us the means to strike back,” Mr Hadaway said.
When Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe airforce launched large scale attacks on Britain in July 1940 the RAF kept guard of the skies. Many British fighters took off from bases around London, including RAF Hornchurch.
Victory in the Battle of Britain led wartime prime minister Winston Churchill to recognise the RAF saying: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“Most people took it to mean the 3,000 men of Fighter Command, but by ‘the few’ he meant the entire RAF, everybody at every level,” Mr Hadaway said.
After the war ended the RAF continued to grow switching to jet aircraft with bases around the world despite the British empire shrinking.
In the Cold War when relations between the West and the Soviet Union led to tensions the RAF kept control of Britain’s nuclear weapons before they were transferred to the navy in 1969.
It’s a service used to constant change.
“It almost changes from government to government through the 1950s to 1980s,” Mr Hadaway said. “In the ’50s and ’60s it’s about keeping the empire going. In the ’70s it was about defending the UK and West Germany. After the Falklands war it was about building the capacity to carry out expeditionary forces. It has been a real roller-coaster ride.”
“But if you had to characterise the RAF’s history over the last 100 years it has to be one of technological development. It has always pushed the boundaries of technology.”
But it is also a history of welcoming talented individuals with diverse backgrounds.
“The RAF approach has almost always been that if you have the skills to do the job, then you are good enough,” Mr Hadaway said.