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The Royal Air Force in the Great War

In 1912 aviation was definitely introduced as a new arm, into the establishment of all the great armies. The first impetus to this movement was given by France, where aeroplanes have been employed in the army maneuvers since 1910. In Great Britain an effective forward step, on similar lines, was made in 1912 by the creation of the Royal Flying Corps. This body forms a separate entity from either of the two services, from both of which its members are recruited. It comprises a Military Wing and a Naval Wing, each divided into sections of 8 aeroplanes. The chief training centre is situated at the Central Flying School at Upavon, and its main depot at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. At the end of 1912, the establishment of the Military Wing consisted of one airship and kite section, and three aeroplane sections, the personnel and material of which, however, were not complete.

At the beginning of the war, the army and the navy had each a service of aircraft — the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service — and each had a separate administrative organization for the supply of airplanes and seaplanes. There was also a Joint Air Committee, under the Committee on Imperial Defense, composed of members from the War Office and the Admiralty, to secure cooperation. By the middle of February, 1916, a plan of division had been agreed to, under which the navy was responsible for defensive measures until hostile craft reached the British coast, and thereafter the army was responsible, under the control of Field Marshal Sir John French, commander in chief for home defense.

The Royal Flying Corps was organized in 1912 in England in response to a demand that the importance of aéronautics be recognized by forming a special branch devoted to aviation in the British military service. From the date of its origin, with Major Seely as its first commandant, the Royal Flying Corps showed a remarkable progress in expansion and rsonnel. Starting with a total enlisted force of less than one thousand officers and men, it became even in the early years of the World War, one of the most efficient and highly organized branches of the service.

The Royal Flying Corps (military wing) was organized Jan. 16, 1915. Before the reorganization in 1915, 8 aeroplane squadrons, each of 18 aeroplanes, had been organized. In October 1915 the composition of the British armies included the Royal Flying Corps (under Trenchard) in three wings. In September 1916 the British Expeditionary Force in France continuing its expansion was reorganized into five armies, including the Royal Flying Corps (under Trenchard) in five brigades.

In 1916 the Royal Flying Corps, while preserving its name and orgamzation unchanged, became, by inclusion, a division of the Royal Air Service, which included the naval dirigible, kite balloon, and blimp branches of the aviation service. The Royal Flying Corps was recruited principally from Great Britain, the Dominion of Canada, Australia and the United States. The commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces complimented the service for the invaluable aid that it offered at the Somme, Vimy, Messines and Ypres, where it distinguished itself equally as a fighting unit and as an essential factor in the success of the ground operations.

In May, 1916, an Air Board was formed, with Lord Curzon as chairman, to succeed the Air Committee, with larger powers over questions of policy, but without executive functions. This board is said to have done good work within its limited powers; but to have suffered from the same defects as the Air Committee. The refusal of the Admiralty to cooperate in any plan which would in any way deprive the Royal Navy of its independence led to incessant controversies. In January, 1917, the supply of aircraft was transferred to the Ministry of Munitions.

In February 1917, the officials of the Ministry of Munitions, the Admiralty and the War Office dealing with aeronautics were transferred to the Air Board offices. This second Air Board came into being under the New Ministries and Secretaries Act of 1916; and under this Act the president of the Air Board was specifically " deemed to be a Minister,' and the Air Board a " Ministry." When the Admiralty and the War Office communicated to the Air Board the numbers of aeroplanes, seaplanes, and accessories required by the two Services for a given period, and when the Air Board had determined to what exient these requirements could be, complied with and had come to a decision regarding design, requisitions were passed to the Controller of Aeronautical Supplies, whose department (a section of the Ministry of Munitions) was also housed in the Air Board Office. The Air Board also dealt with similar requisitions by Allied Governments (other than those in connexion with lightcr-than-air craft and wireless telegraphy). The Air Ministry did not have complete jurisdiction over the entire air service. The task of home defense against air raids remained under the army; while airships continued under the control of the navy.

The Royal Air Force itself did not come into being until 01 April 1918. At that time the R.F.C. at home consisted mainly of (a) the Training Division, (b) the 6th Brigade (Home Defence), (c) the Balloon Wing, and (d) miscellaneous establishments. The R.N.A.S. units were organized into a number of groups directly under the Admiralty. On the formation of the R.A.F. the United Kingdom was divided into five areas, comprising all units of the new service (with the exception of a few directly under the Air Mmistry). Kach area was further subdivided into groups. The Training Division and its brigades were done away with, the former's functions being assumed by the training directorate of the Air Ministry The technical administration of airship stations remained under the control of the superintendent of airships at the Admiralty, naval operation groups were under the naval commandcr-in-chief concerned for operations, but their maintenance and administration was the concern of the appropriate area headquarters. Units of the R.A.K. serving with the Grand Fleet were entirely controlled by the commander-in-chief.

At the same time it was decided to form an Independent Air Force. Squadrons No. 55, 216 and 100, were then sent to the Nancy area, and they carried out bombing operations against German towns during the closing months of the year and the spring of 1018. By April iqi8 the 8th Brigade, as the force was designated, had been reenforccd by No. 09 Squadron; and when now it was reestablished as the Independent Air Force six more squadrons (104, 0,7, 215, 115, no and 45) were added. By August 1918 the Royal Flying Corps (now designated " The Royal Air Force") in France had been increased by the creation of the Independent Air Force (under Trenchard), which took up positions in rear of the French and was concerned with long-distance bombing.

At the date of the armistice, the 11th of November 1918, there were operating in France and Belgium ninety-nine squadrons of the Royal Air Force. In August 1914 there had been less than two hundred and fifty officers in the service, all told; in November 1918 there were over thirty thousand. In August 1914 the total of machines, available for immediate war service, was about a hundred and fifty; in November 1918 there were more than twenty-two thousand in use, almost all of them enormously more powerful and efficient than the best machines of the earlier date. In the course of the war the British air forces accounted for more than eight thousand enemy machines; dropped more than eight thousand tons of bombs on enemy objectives; fired more than twelve million rounds of ammunition at targets on the ground; took more than half a million photographs; brought down nearly three hundred enemy balloons; and suffered a total of casualties not far short of eighteen thousand.

Not less important in its influence on the fortunes of the war than any of these achievements, perhaps more important than all of them, was the work done by aircraft in detecting movements of the enemy and in directing the fire oi our gunners upon hostile batteries. This work cannot be exactly assessed or tabulated, but the German gunner knew where to look for the enemy he most dreaded.

In planning the post-war organization of the R.A.F., it was assumed that in the immediate future nothing in the nature of a general mobilization need be contemplated, that efforts should be concentrated on providing for existing needs, and on founding a highly trained and efficient force, inherently capable of expansion should the necessity arise. The purpose was, accordingly, to limit the number of service squadrons to what was considered essential to meet existing responsibilities, to devote the remaining resources to perfecting the training of officers and men, and to construct a sound framework on which to build the R.A.F. of the future. In forming the framework it was felt that the main portion of the R.A.F. would consist of an independent force, together with the personnel required to carry out aeronautical research. In addition, there would be a small part of it specially trained for work with the navy, and a small part specially trained for work with the army. It seemed possible that the main portion, the Independent Air Force, would grow larger and larger, and become the predominating factor.

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Page last modified: 22-08-2016 18:34:13 ZULU