Royal Air Force

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The RAF was formed in April 1918 when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were amalgamated to improve co‐ordination. After the armistice the new force was drastically reduced, falling to less than 50 aircraft in 1922 for home defence. It also struggled for its independent existence against the army and navy, defended by Lord Trenchard. Even so, the RNAS was resurrected in 1924 as the Fleet Air Arm, jointly administered until 1937 when it was handed over to the navy. A cadet college was opened at Cranwell in 1920 and a staff college at Andover in 1922. For many years the doctrine that the bomber would always get through, especially when supported by the prime minister, Baldwin, suggested that defence was useless. But the invention of radar in 1935 and the successful flights of the Hurricane (1935) and Spitfire (1936) tipped the balance back to defence.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Germans had substantial but not overwhelming numerical superiority with some 4,000 planes to Britain's 2,000: the French air force, in poor shape, had some 1,500. But while the British figures included sedate Gloster Gladiators and Hawker Furies (not very furious with a top speed of 223 m.p.h. and introduced in 1931), the Luftwaffe had been completely re‐equipped after Hitler's rise to power.

A major problem for the Royal Air Force was its growing commitments, especially after the entry of Italy (1940) and Japan (1941) extended the war to north Africa and the Pacific. From the fall of France in May 1940 the role of the RAF was essentially defensive. During the Battle of Britain its resources were severely stretched, even more in trained aircrew than in machines, with the life expectation for fighter pilots down to four or five weeks. On 8 August 1940, Goering issued an order to ‘wipe the British Air Force from the sky’. But his first surprise was that the Stuka dive‐bombers, which had spread terror in Poland and France, proved slow and vulnerable to Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Royal Air Force was not destroyed, Goering switched to softer targets with raids on British cities, and operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, was called off.

The counter‐offensive could now develop. The strategic issue became whether a massive bombing campaign could pound Germany into surrender without the need for a bloody invasion. The great proponent of that view was ‘Bomber’ Harris. In June 1942 he mustered a scratch force of just over 1,000 aircraft (including training personnel) for a demonstration onslaught on Cologne, and followed up his success with a memo against ‘the disastrous policy of military intervention in land campaigns of Europe’. But the evidence is dubious. Churchill pointed out that civilian morale is often surprisingly resilient under intolerable suffering and aircraft losses were heavy. Bomber Command lost 55,000 men during the war—more, it has been said, than all the officers killed in the First World War. Until the end of 1944 German production of tanks, guns, and fighter aircraft continued to increase, with factories camouflaged and dispersed.


Subjects: British History.

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