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 airforce.
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 reconnaissance aircraft.
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 airforce 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 fatigue.
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 Command.
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 nighttime 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 raids.
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 attacking."
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 160,000 tons.
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.