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The Royal Air Force was originally part of the Army and Navy and when it was formed in April 1918 Britain was the first country in the world to have an independent air force. The new RAF was the most powerful air force in the world and had 300 000 personnel and nearly 23,000 aircraft at one point. This included the Women’s Royal Air Force – known as the WAAF.
To emphasise the connection between military and naval aviation many of the titles of the officers were selected to be naval in character such as Flight Lieutenant, Wing Commander, Group Captain and Air Commodore. We tend to think of the RAF only being critical during the Second World War when in fact the RAF fighter aircraft were crucial in stopping the Imperial Germany Army spring offensive in 1918.
After the First World War and the inevitable defence cuts the independent, and still temporary, RAF had to wait for nine months to see if they would be retained. The service as a whole was reduced in strength to 35,000 personnel.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the RAF expanded rapidly and British aircrew were trained in Commonwealth countries and the secondment of whole squadrons and tens of thousand personnel. Canada particularly contributed more than thirty squadrons and almost 25% of bomber command personnel were Canadian.
My stepfather went to Canada to train and I remember him telling me the best thing about it were the huge portions of thing that were no longer available in Britain.
The Battle of Britain was when the RAF was said to have saved the country from defeat. These brave boys in blue held the Luftwaffe off in the most prolonged air campaign in history. There were only a few hundred RAF fighter pilots and according to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Historians have now said that that Hitler would have been able to invade even if the RAF had been defeated because of the actions of the Royal Navy in the English Channel and I tend to agree with this.
The women who served in the WAAF were absolutely vital during World War II as without them taking over many of the positions that men had held there wouldn’t have been enough aircrew to fly the aircraft.
There were three strands of the RAF for aircrew – Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command. When didn’t have a choice and after initial training were allocated randomly. I have read in a couple of autobiographies of fighter pilots that tall and well-built men go into fighter command they wouldn’t be able to eject from the cramped cockpit of a fighter.
My father was put in Coastal Command where eventually he became a squadron leader and flew four-engined aircraft. My stepfather was also in the RAF and was said to be the only trainee pilot to have crashed a Tiger Moth. He became a navigator and was posted to Burma. He was a Warrant Officer.