On the advice of General
Jan Smuts, it was decided in April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force (RAF)
by amalgamating the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) with the Royal Flying
Corps (RFC). Also formed at this time was Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF).
Under the leadership of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, the next nine months saw
9,000 women recruited as clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and storekeepers.
General Hugh Trenchard was appointed chief of staff and by December, 1918,
the RAF had more than 22,000 aircraft and 291,000 personnel, making it the
world's largest air force.
Over the next twenty years the RAF was developed as a strategic bombing
force. One of the most important figures in this was Air Chief Marshal
Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, who was Commandant of the RAF Staff College (1926-30)
and Director of Operations and Intelligence at the Air Ministry before
being appointed Commander in Chief of Bomber Command in 1937.
A fleet of light and medium monoplane bombers were developed during this
period, notably the Vickers Wellington. The RAF also obtained two fast,
heavily armed interceptor aircraft, the Hawker Hurricane and the
Supermarine Spitfire, for defence against enemy bombers.
The British government grew increasingly concerned about the growth of the
Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany and in 1938 Vice Marshal Charles Portal,
Director of Organization at the Air Ministry, was given the responsibility
of establishing 30 new air bases in Britain.
In September 1939 Bomber Command consisted of 55 squadrons (920 aircraft).
However, only about 350 of these were suitable for long-range operations.
Fighter Command had 39 squadrons (600 aircraft) but the RAF only had 96
The performance of the RAF was considered disappointing during Germany's
Western Offensive in 1940. It emerged that daylight bombing against German
targets was highly costly against modern fighter planes such as
Messerschmitt Bf109, the Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers Stuka. The
Supermarine Spitfire performed well at Dunkirk when they protected British
forces being evacuated from France. By the end of the campaign the RAF had
lost more than 900 aircraft.
Immediately after the defeat of France, Adolf Hitler ordered his generals
to organize the invasion of Britain. The invasion plan was given the code
name Sealion. The objective was to land 160,000 German soldiers along a
forty-mile coastal stretch of south-east England. Within a few weeks the
Germans had assembled a large armada of vessels, including 2,000 barges in
German, Belgian and French harbours.
However, Hitler's generals were very worried about the damage that the
Royal Air Force could inflict on the German Army during the invasion.
Hitler therefore agreed to their request that the invasion should be
postponed until the British air force had been destroyed.
By the start of what became known as the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe
had 2,800 aircraft stationed in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway. This
force outnumbered the RAF by four to one. However, the British had the
advantage of being closer to their airfields. German fighters could only
stay over England for about half an hour before flying back to their home
bases. The RAF also had the benefits of an effective early warning radar
system and the intelligence information provided by Ultra.
The German pilots had more combat experience than the British and probably
had the best fighter plane in the Messerschmitt Bf109. They also had the
impressive Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers Stuka. The commander of Fighter
Command, Hugh Dowding, relied on the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine
Spitfire that had performed well during the Western Offensive.
On the 12th August, 1940, the German airforce began its mass bomber
attacks on British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter
airfields. During these raids radar stations and airfields were badly
damaged and twenty-two RAF planes were destroyed. This attack was followed
by daily raids on Britain.
As a result of the effective range of the Luftwaffe, the battle was mainly
fought over southern England. This area was protected by Fighter Command
No. 11 under Keith Park and Fighter Command No. 12 led by Trafford
Leigh-Mallory. They also but received support from the squadrons based in
the eastern counties.
During the battle Trafford Leigh-Mallory came into conflict with Keith
Park, the commander of No. 11 Fighter Group. Park, who was responsible for
the main approaches south-east of London, took the brunt of the early
attacks by the Luftwaffe. Park complained that No. 12 Fighter Group should
have done more to protect the air bases in his area instead of going off
hunting for German planes to shoot down.
Leigh-Mallory obtained support from Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas,
assistant chief of air staff. He was critical of the tactics being used by
Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command. He took the view
that RAF fighters should be sent out to meet the German planes before they
reached Britain. Park and Dowding rejected this strategy as being too
dangerous and argued it would increase the number of pilots being killed.
Between 1st and 18th August the RAF lost 208 fighters and 106 pilots. The
second half of the month saw even heavier losses and wastage now
outstripped the production of new aircraft and the training of pilots to
fly them. Those British pilots that did survive suffered from combat
The climax of the Battle of Britain came on the 30th-31st August, 1940.
The British lost 50 aircraft compared to the Germany's 41. The RAF were
close to defeat but Adolf Hitler then changed his tactics and ordered the
Luftwaffe to switch its attack from British airfields, factories and docks
to civilian targets. This decision was the result of a bombing attack on
Berlin that had been ordered by Charles Portal, the new head of Bomber
The decision by Hermann Goering to concentrate on area bombing brought an
end to the Battle of Britain. During the conflict the Royal Air Force lost
792 planes and the Luftwaffe 1,389. There were 2,353 men from Great
Britain and 574 from overseas who were members of the air crews that took
part in the battle. An estimated 544 were killed and a further 791 lost
their lives in the course of their duties before the war came to an end.
Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, the new chief of the air staff, had
agreed with Trafford Leigh-Mallory and William Sholto Douglas in their
dispute with Keith Park and Hugh Dowding during the Battle of Britain. In
November 1941, he replaced Dowding with Douglas as head of Fighter
Command. Park also lost his post and Leigh-Mallory now became head of
Fighter Command No. 11.
William Sholto Douglas now developed what became known as the Big Wing
strategy. This involved large formations of fighter aircraft deployed in
mass sweeps against the Luftwaffe over the English Channel and northern
Europe. Although RAF pilots were able to bring down a large number of
German planes, critics claimed that they were not always available during
emergencies and prime targets became more vulnerable to bombing attacks.
During the Blitz the RAF had to concentrate on using its resources to
defend Britain. Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe made
127 large-scale night raids. Of these, 71 were targeted on London. The
main targets outside the capital were Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth,
Bristol, Glasgow, Southampton, Coventry, Hull, Portsmouth, Manchester,
Belfast, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff.
In the summer of 1941 attacking by the Luftwaffe began to decrease. This
enabled the RAF to develop a more offensive role. Fighter Command, now
under the leadership of Air Marshal William S. Douglas, began to be used
to escort light bombers over Europe.
Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal and the new head of Bomber Command,
Arthur Harris, developed the policy of area bombing (known in Germany as
terror bombing) where entire cities and towns were targeted. Portal and
Harris argued that the main objectives of night-time blanket bombing of
urban areas was to undermine the morale of the civilian population.
From the summer of 1941 attacks on Germany were steadily increased. Losses
were high and during night time raids the RAF had the problem of
inaccuracy. The effectiveness of strategic bombing was not improved until
the introduction of the Avro Lancaster in the second-half of 1942. This
new plane had oboe, an improved navigational device based on radar, and
this increased bombing accuracy. The use of pathfinders and the employment
of the De Havilland Mosquito and the Hawker Typhoon, as a high-altitude
photo-reconnaissance aircraft also helped improve the success of these
In 1941 the RAF introduced the idea of a tour of duty. Each tour being
thirty sorties or 200 flying hours. After each tour of duty air crew were
given a six-month rest from operations at a flying training establishment.
By 1942 less than half of all bomber crews survived their first tour.
These figures got worse in 1943 when only one in six were expected to
survive their first tour, while only one in forty would survive two tours.
Faced with these losses Arthur Harris demanded that Winston Churchill
provided more resources for Bomber Command. He argued that if he had 6,000
bombers at his disposal he would force the German government to surrender
and there would be no need for an Allied invasion of Europe.
In 1942 scientists in Britain developed an idea that they believed would
confuse Germany's radar system. Given the codename of Window the strategy
involved the Pathfinder Force dropping strips of metallised paper over the
intended target. By early 1943 a series of tests had shown Bomber Command
that Window would be highly successful. However, the British government
feared that once the secret was out, the Germans would use it to jam
Britain's radar system. It was not until July 1943 that permission was
finally given to use Window during the bombing of Hamburg.
Window was a great success and was employed by the RAF for the rest of the
war. The Germans were forced to change its strategy in dealing with
bombing raids. As Air Marshall Arthur Harris later pointed out: "The
Observer Corps now plotted the main bomber stream and orders were
broadcast to large numbers of fighters with a running commentary giving
the height, direction and whereabouts of the bomber stream, and of the
probable target for which it was making or the actual target which it was
Throughout 1943 the Royal Air Force bombed German cities at night while
the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) under Carl Spaatz used its B-17
planes for its precision daylight operations. In August 1943 repeated
incendiary attacks on Hamburg caused a firestorm and 50,000 German
civilians were killed. By the end of 1943 the Allied air forces had
dropped a total of 200,000 tons of bombs on Germany.
Despite objections from Arthur Harris and Carl Spaatz, the bombing
campaign changed during the summer of 1944. As part of Operation Overlord,
the task of the RAF and the USAAF was to destroy German communications and
supply lines in Europe. The destruction of German oil production was also
made a priority target and by September, 1944, the Luftwaffe's fuel supply
had been reduced to 10,000 tons of octane out of a monthly requirement of
In June, 1944, Nazi Germany began using the V1 Flying Bomb, a pilotless
monoplane that was powered by a pulse-jet motor and carried a one ton
warhead. Over the next few months Germany fired 9,521 V-I bombs on
southern England. Of these 4,621 were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire or
by RAF fighters such as the new turbojet fighter, the Gloster Meteor.
By the end of 1944 the Allies had obtained complete air supremacy over
Germany and could destroy targets at will. Arthur Harris now devised
Operation Thunderclap, an air raid that would finally break the morale of
the German people. To enable maximum impact to take place Harris chose
Dresden as his target. This medieval city had not been attacked during the
war and was virtually undefended by antiaircraft guns. On 13th February
1945, 773 Avro Lancaster bombers attacked Dresden. During the next two
days the USAAF sent 527 heavy bombers to follow up the RAF attack. The
resulting firestorm killed around 135,000 people.
During the Second World War the RAF reached a total strength of 1,208,843
men and women. Of these, 185,595, were aircrew. The RAF also had the
services of 130,000 pilots from the British Commonwealth and 30,000
aircrew from Britain's defeated European allies.
During the war the RAF used 333 flying training schools. In all, between
1940 and 1945 the scheme trained out aircrew from Britain (88,022), Canada
(137,739), Australia (27,387), South Africa (24,814), Southern Rhodesia
(10,033) and New Zealand (5,609).
This air campaign killed an estimated 600,000 civilians and destroyed or
seriously damaged some six million homes. A total of 70,253 RAF personnel
were lost on operations during the Second World War. Of these, 47,293 came
from Bomber Command.