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Around the Great War > Aviation > 1918, the birth of the Royal Air Force

1918, the birth of the Royal Air Force

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Established on the 1st of April 1918, the British Royal Air Force is one of the oldest air forces in the world. In this article, we will explore its history and explain how it came into being.

During World War 1, it quickly became obvious that no nation would be able to win the war without investing in air power. While balloons and dirigibles had been used by militaries for some time, the introduction of aeroplanes opened a whole new dimension in the sky. Planes circling the enemy trenches could direct artillery fire - nimble fighters harassed and shot down enemy aeroplanes, and mighty bombers could destroy previously safe targets far from the frontlines. Without a strong air component, no major power could hope to win The Great War.

Amongst all major powers during World War One, air assets remained under the control of the traditional branches of Army and Navy. Independent air forces did not exist until the Royal Air Force appeared in 1918. But how and why did Britain, home to the Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Navy’s Royal Naval Air Service, form an independent air branch when all other nations didn’t?

British ideas on air power before the Great War

The advantages of an air force independent of the Army and Royal Navy were clear from the start. Even before the war started, Britain was considering the establishment of an independent air force[1]. Preliminary plans were drawn up, financing and force structures considered. Yet, with the commencement of hostilities in 1914, these plans were shelfed. After all, now was the time to win a war and not handicap efforts by reshuffling the force structure[2]. Instead, the Royal Flying Corps of the Army and the Royal Naval Air Service of the Navy kept Britain in the air independently of each other.

What are the advantages of an independent Air Force?

Generally, an independent air force allows for a more efficient and economically functioning force. This is because aircraft development and design, tactics development as well as maintenance and standardization would follow one centralized vision, instead of multiple among separate functioning entities. Adding to this was that the Army and Navy often considered aerial assets as merely an extension of their own operations. Rather than seeing it as a separate cog in the machinery of war, well able to contribute by itself, this limited the scale and scope of aerial operations.

As air power generally is a supporting element of ground and naval operations, this in itself was not immediately troublesome. After all, it was only by 1916 that the war above the trenches had really taken off and this was new ground for everyone involved. Yet, Army and Naval control of air assets also meant that air power would never develop organically by itself, through experimentation and trials and error. The control of the service branches could indeed be stifling to doctrinal and tactical advances.

As one Member of Parliament put it : ‘For the essential truth on which the Flying Service must be founded is that only aviators understand aviation. The great gain of a separately organized Air Service would be its emancipation from the control of the Admiralty and the War Office, who are very apt to think they know more than they do.’ – Hugh Cecil MP, Aug. 1917[3]

The slow reorganization of British air power

The challenges associated with maintaining and equipping two separate air forces gave reason to find a solution by creating a centralized, independent Air Branch. Yet, the initial opinion was that the war had to be won first - so for now, Britain aimed to only pool scarce resources and create unity to matters related to aircraft design and production.

In early 1916, the Joint War Air Committee was formed. But within a few months, theinitiative broke down. Given no binding powers, it had little influence in the first place. Even membership was problematic. The Army’s representative was of the Army Council; this allowed him to commit to a course of action. Yet, the Navy’s representative was de-facto a liaison officer, useful only for passing information between the Air Committee and the Admiralty[4].

This early failure was perhaps inevitable, yet unresolved issues provided the impetus to try again.

Thus, in May 1916 the Joint Air Board was established, requiring each service to send members with insight and decision-making powers[5]. The Board held privileges that made it more than a token effort. It could

  1. discuss matters of air policy,
  2. make recommendations on equipment procurement, 
  3. refer recommendations to the War Committee should either service decline to cooperate.

Additionally, it was

  1. supposed to prevent competition between the Army and Navy
  2. provide a campus dedicated to problem-solving in matters of equipment and air policy.[6]  

Early setbacks and disagreements on air power

Initial progress was slow. After all, the authority of the Air Board was not yet established. Case in point: when the Admiralty passed budgetary expenditures to the Treasury in August 1916, it bypassed the Air Board completely and the Board’s naval representative was unable to answer specific questions[7]. The Joint Air Board existed but it was merely a sideshow in the politics of war

Disagreements between the Army and Navy seemed irreconcilable[8]: the latter favoured long-range bombers, the former a consistent overall fighting strength on the frontlines involving fighters, reconnaissance and ground attack[9]. The ratio between bombers and fighters influenced all sorts of logistical problems, from aircraft engine production and training, to required raw materials and basing[10]. Britain, even with production help from France, could not fulfil the material deliveries that both the Army and Navy demanded.

Two steps forward, one back

By the end of 1916, the thirty-plus meetings of the Air Board had achieved little. Yet the war continued and the need for arbitration became ever more pressing, and these meetings helped slowly break up the stalemate. In early 1917, the Second Air Board was convened. Crucially, its competences and powers were expanded. The following statement sums up this initial breakthrough:

For the purposes of organizing and maintaining the supply of aircraft in the national interest in connection with the present war, it shall be lawful for His Majesty to establish an Air Board […]

[…], the President of the Air Board shall be deemed to be a Minister appointed under this Act. The Air Board shall, in relation to aircraft have such powers and duties of any Governmental Department or Authority, […][11].

The Air Board itself was made up of various representatives, with the major players represented by the Navy, Army, the Controller of Aeronautical Supplies, and the Petrol Engine Department. This allowed the Air Board to decide what aircraft should be produced and to whom (Army or Navy) they were delivered. The Board handled the first part of this logistical nightmare very well. Nevertheless, it remained a far cry from an actual Air Ministry. As the stalemate on the frontlines continued, a battle of epic proportions raged within the Air Board. A daily office barrage of memos, pens and ink culminated in an archetypical bureaucratic slugging match, with both the Army and Navy finding little compromise.

1917 – Escalation and arbitration

Now well into 1917, the air war was rapidly escalating. For Britain, three problem areas became particularly pressing.

  • First, all air elements on the Western Front had to be strengthened in the face of mounting German pressure,
  • Second, anti- U-Boat warfare became ever more important,
  • And third, the inadequate air defence of the home island.[12]

These elements were largely defensive in nature and are somewhat at odds with the Royal Navy’s enthusiasm for offensive long-range bombing missions.

There remained misgivings about creating a new Ministry, staff and force during a raging war, but it became ever more important. Home defence specifically, due to mounting public pressure after the Gotha raids mid-1917, gave politicians the impetus to find a solution[13]. By the Fall of 1917, the Smuts Committee worked on establishing the feasibility and need for an Air Ministry[14]. It concluded that the best solution for Britain was indeed the establishment of an independent air force.

The bureaucratic breakthrough

Thus far, the Air Board had power over production, but none over training, doctrine or air policy. To capitalize on the increased availability of aircraft and the doctrinal advances, a dedicated Air Staff was necessary, as was the corresponding Air Ministry. As Hugh Trenchard put it: Britain needed an ‘air force spirit’[15]. This would be no easy task.

The complexity of creating a new service branch should not be understated. The logistical and organizational aspects are critical by themselves, but even more fundamental questions such as the chain-of-command, storage, procurement, recruitment, training and even the soldiers’ pay had to be answered.

As the complexity of the task became clearer, the army worried that the transfer of squadrons from the RFC to the RAF could weaken the Allied aerial presence along the frontline and give the Germans free reign. Field Marshall Douglas Haig doubted the new air force’s ability to take up the crucial task of training in such a short time[16]. The already tight integration of the RNAS in the Navy provided additional challenges. There were also worries that a civilian at the helm of an Air Ministry would not bring the necessary panache required to win the war.

One report of the time read:

‘An Air Ministry with a civilian head and uncontrolled by any outside Naval and Military [Army] opinions, exposed as it would inevitably be to popular and fractional clamour, would be very liable to lose its sense of proportion and be drawn towards the spectacular, such as bombing reprisals and home defence, at the expense of providing the essential means of co-operation with our Naval and Military [Army] Forces.’ – Hugh Trenchard, Aug. 1917[17]

The irony of this report from 1917 is that it came from Hugh Trenchard, the man who would later be put in overall command of the RAF and become one of its fiercest defenders, as well as a proponent of strategic bombing.

Nevertheless, it suddenly all moved very fast. In November 1917, the Air Force Bill, also known as the Air Force Act, was introduced to Parliament, a short while later it was passed. In it, it exclaimed:

‘It shall be lawful for His Majesty (George V) to raise and maintain a force, to be called the Air Force […][18]

The Royal Air Force

On the 2nd January 1918, the Air Ministry became a reality. Just a few months later and without any fanfare or celebration, on 1st April 1918, the Royal Air Force was formally established. The matter of fact manner this formality was conducted in speaks volumes about the apprehensions regarding the RAF many, including soldiers and officers, had at the time. The Army and Navy now surrendering administration and ownership of men, material and equipment. A force of 165000, incl. 25000 officers became independent. Only 8% of them were aviators[19]. Some caveats remained: personal was initially transferred as a temporary force for a period of a maximum of four years. Problems resulting out of this would later come to hound the RAF during the inter-war years, which were not kind to the air service.[20] In addition, the Navy retained operational control over naval aircraft at sea and balloons remained part of the army. As well as that, the Independent Bombing Force - which conducted strategic bombing under Trenchard[21] - answered directly to the Air Ministry. For the rest, anything that flew, belonged to the RAF.

Why April 1st?

You might now ask yourself, why was the 1st of April chosen as the day the RAF came into existence? After all, it seems poor timing to conduct such a massive undertaking on Aprils Fool’s Day. This inconvenient timing wasn’t lost on policy makers at the time, but April 1st also represented the start of the next fiscal year. Thus, it was the obvious bureaucratic choice[22].

Aspects of the Royal Air Force

Britain was the only country among all major belligerents to create an independent force while fighting the war. Sure enough, Germany gave their air commanders considerable freedom during various stages of the war, and France had an arguably stronger air service, but both kept their planes firmly in the hands of established service branches. Also, America was only just getting started building up an air service. And while Finland created its independent air force in March 1918, it was embroiled in a civil war, lacking centralized leadership and had only a handful of planes.

Noteworthy too is that public opinion did in fact play some part in creating the RAF. It wasn’t that Britons at home demanded an independent service – obviously they couldn’t care less if it was the RFC, RNAS or RAF that did the fighting - but the Gotha raids and continuing vulnerability at home created a demand for structural change on how the war was conducted. While Britain could have continued with both the RFC and RNAS, and created the RAF after the war, the fact that they chose to do it in wartime presents a practical solution to the situation they found themselves in. Yet, it should also be remembered that neither America, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy or Russia found themselves in the same position as Britain, where the need for an independent air service was similarly pressing.

Of course, just because the RAF existed did not mean that all problems were off the table. For now, it was equal in title only. The new service had yet to build up its service branch, a tradition of its own and establish itself as a fundamental piece within Britain’s military. Indeed, the early commanders of the RAF had to painstakingly defend the RAF’s ground and assets over the coming months and years, not just from politicians and the treasury, but also the Army and Navy[23]. Indeed, the future of the RAF was called into question multiple times, its disbandment even considered but these efforts ultimately failed[24]. As the service was reduced considerably after the Great War, from 185 squadrons to a mere 28, it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that it bloomed up once more.

[1] Ian Philpott, The Birth of the RAF, 2013; p.123
[2] Ibid; p.123
[3] Richard Overy, Birth of the RAF 1918, 2018, p.20
[4] Ian Philpott; p.123
[5] Richard Overy, The Bombing War, p. 21
[6] Ian Philpott; p.124
[7] Ian Philpott; p.124
[8] John Sweetman, Crucial Months for Survival, p. 529
[9] Tami Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, pp. 26
[10] Ian Philpott; p.126
[11] Birth of RAF, 2013; p.127
[12] Birth of RAF, 2013; p.127
[13] Tami Biddle, pp. 29-35,
[14] Richard Overy, p.22
[15] Birth of RAF, 2013; p.128
[16] Birth of RAF, 2013; p.128
[17] TNA, AIR 1/718/29/9, Trenchard to Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 30 Aug 1917, quoted in Richard Overy, 2018, p. 34
[18] TNA, MEPO 2/1622, Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917, 29 Nov 1917, pp.1,2,4. quoted in Richard Overy, 2018, p. 122
[19] Richard Overy 2018, pp. 47-48
[20] Richard Overy 2018, p. 38
[21] Richard Overy, pp. 22-23,
[22] Richard Overy, 2018, p. 43 and British Electoral Facts: 1885-1975, ed. Frederick Walter Scott Craig, p. 74:
[23] John Sweetman, p. 533
[24] Richard Overy 2018, pp. 81 - 114