The growing recognition of the potential for aircraft as a cost-effective method of reconnaissance and artillery observation, led the Committee of Imperial Defence to established a sub-committee to examine the question of military aviation in November 1911.
The following February the sub-committee recommended that a flying corps be formed and should consist of a naval wing, a military wing, a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations of the committee were accepted and on April 13th 1912 King George V signed a royal warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps. The Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers became the military wing of the Royal Flying Corps a month later on May 13th.
The Flying Corps' initial allowed strength was 133 officers, and by the end of that year it had 12 manned balloons and 36 aeroplanes. The RFC came under the responsibility of Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, the Director of Military Training, and had separate branches for the Army and the Navy. Major Sykes commanded the military wing and Commander C R Samson commanded the naval wing. The Royal Navy however, with different priorities to that of the Army and wishing to retain greater control over its aircraft, formally separated its branch and renamed it the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914, although a combined central flying school was retained.
The RFC's first fatal crash was on July 5th 1912 near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Those killed were Captain Eustace B. Loraine and his observer, Staff Sergeant R.H.V. Wilson, flying from Larkhill Aerodrome. An order was issued after the crash stating "Flying will continue this evening as usual", thus beginning a tradition which continues to this day.
In August 1912 RFC Lieutenant Wilfred Parke RN became the first aviator to recover from an accidental spin when the Avro G cabin biplane, with which he had just broken a world endurance record, entered a spin at 700 feet above ground level at Larkhill Aerodrome. Four months later on December 11th 1912 Parke was killed in the crash of the Handley Page monoplane in which he was travelling from Hendon to Oxford.
At the start of World War I the RFC, commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, consisted of five squadrons – one observation balloon squadron (RFC No 1 Squadron) and four aeroplane squadrons RFC No 2 and No 3 Squadron which were the first fixed-wing flying squadrons in the world. On 19th August the Corps undertook its first action of the war with two of its aircraft performing aerial reconnaissance. The mission was not a great success. In order to save weight each aircraft carried a pilot only instead of the usual pair of pilot and observer. Because of this, and poor weather, both of the pilots lost their way and only one was able to complete his task. Two days later on August 23rd 1914 the RFC found itself fighting in the Battle of Mons and two days after that the Flying Corps gained its first air victory. On August 25th Lt C.W. Wilson and Lt C.E.C. Rabagliati forced down a German Etrich Taube which had approached their aerodrome while they were refueling their Avro 504. Another RFC machine landed nearby and the RFC observer chased the German pilot into some nearby woods.
When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France in August 1914, it had no observation balloons and it was not until April 1915 that the first balloon company was on strength, albeit on loan from the French Aérostiers. The first British unit arrived on the 8th May 1915, and commenced operations during the Battle of Aubers Ridge. Operations from balloons then continued throughout the war. Highly hazardous in operation, a balloon could only be expected to last a fortnight before damage or destruction. Results were also highly dependent on the expertise of the observer and were subject to weather conditions. In order to keep the balloon out of the range of artillery fire, it was necessary to locate the balloons some distance away from the front line or area of military operations. However, the stable platform offered by a kite-balloon made it more suitable for the cameras of the day than an aircraft.
Heavier than air craft were first used for aerial spotting on September 13th 1914, but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication at Aubers Ridge on May 9th 1915. Aerial photography was attempted during 1914, but again only became effective the next year and by 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet, and were interpreted by over 3,000 personnel. In 1914 with the land armies deployed, the French air force vastly outnumbered the RFC, and accordingly did more of the fighting. Despite the primitive aircraft, aggressive leadership by RFC commander Hugh Trenchard and the adoption of a continually offensive stance operationally in efforts to pin the enemy back led to many brave fighting exploits and high casualties – over 700 in 1916, the rate worsening thereafter, until the RFC's nadir in April 1917; dubbed 'Bloody April'.
This aggressive if costly doctrine did however provide the Army General Staff with vital and up-to-date intelligence on German positions and numbers through continual photographic and observational reconnaissance though the entire war. The RFC was also responsible for the manning and operation of observation balloons on the Western front.
Parachutes were not available to pilots of the RFC's heavier-than-air craft during the First World War – although the Calthrop Guardian Angel parachute (1916 model) was officially adopted just as the war ended. By this time parachutes had been used by balloonists for three years.
On August 17th 1917, South African General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy. The formation of the new service would, moreover, make the under-utilised men and machines of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) available for action across the Western Front, as well as ending the inter-service rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement.
Therefore on April 1st 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF was under the control of the new Air Ministry. After starting in 1914 with some 2,073 personnel, by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel.
By the end of 1918 and the Great War the composition of an RFC/ RAF squadron varied depending on its designated role, although the Commanding Officer was usually a Major (in a largely non-operational role), with the Squadron 'Flights' the basic tactical and operational unit, each commanded by a Captain. A 'Recording Officer' (of Captain/Lieutenant rank) would act as Intelligence Officer. Each flight contained on average between six to ten pilots (and a corresponding number of observers depending on the type of squadron) with a Senior Sergeant and thirty-six other ranks (as fitters, riggers, metalsmiths, armourers etc.) transport and support sections completed the squadron strength.
At the end of the war there were 5,182 pilots in service (just 2% of the RAFstrength). In comparison the casualties from the RFC/RNAS/RAF for 1914–18 totalled 9,378 killed or missing, with 7,245 wounded. Some 900,000 flying hours on operations were logged, and 6,942 tons of bombs dropped. The RFC claimed some 7,054 German aircraft and balloons either destroyed, sent 'down out of control' or 'driven down'.
Eleven RFC members received the Victoria Cross during the First World War. Initially the RFC did not believe in publicising the victory totals and exploits of their Aces. Eventually however, public interest and the newspapers' demand for heroes led to this policy being abandoned, with the feats of Aces such as Captain Albert Ball raising morale in the service as well as on the "home front".
For a short time after the formation of the RAF, pre-RAF ranks such as Lieutenant, Captain and Major continued to exist, a practice which officially ended on September 15th 1919. For this reason some early RAF memorials and gravestones show ranks which no longer exist in the modern RAF. A typical example is James McCudden's grave, though there are many others.
The RFC's motto was Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity to the stars"). This remains the motto of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and other Commonwealth air forces today.
Written by Geoff Heading