The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom’s air and space force. It was formed towards the end of the First World War on 1 April 1918, becoming the first independent air force in the world, by regrouping the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Following the Allied victory in 1918, the RAF emerged as the largest air force in the world at the time and since its formation, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history. The RAF’s mission is to support the objectives of the British Ministry of Defence (MOD), which are to “provide the capabilities needed to ensure the security and defence of the United Kingdom and overseas territories, including against terrorism; to support the Government’s foreign policy objectives particularly in promoting international peace and security”. The RAF describes its mission statement as “to provide an agile, adaptable and capable Air Force that, person for person, is second to none, and that makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission”. The mission statement is supported by the RAF’s definition of air power, which guides its strategy. Air power is defined as “the ability to project power from the air and space to influence the behaviour of people or the course of events”. Today, the Royal Air Force maintains an operational fleet of various types of aircraft, described by the RAF as being ‘leading-edge’ in terms of technology. This largely consists of fixed-wing aircraft, including those in a range of roles, including fighter and strike, airborne early warning, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Most of the RAF’s aircraft and personnel are based in the UK, with many others serving on global operations, mainly at long-established overseas bases. Although the RAF is the principal British air power arm, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and the British Army’s Army Air Corps also operate armed aircraft. Whilst the British were not the first to make use of heavier-than-air military aircraft, the RAF is the world’s oldest independent air force, that is, the first air force to become independent of army or navy control. Its headquarters was located in the former Hotel Cecil in London. This was a grand hotel built 1890–96 between the Thames Embankment and the Strand. It was named after Cecil House, also known as Salisbury House, a mansion belonging to the Cecil family, which occupied the site in the seventeenth century. Designed by architects Perry & Reed, the hotel was the largest in Europe when it opened with more than 800 rooms. The proprietor, Jabez Balfour, later went bankrupt and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The hotel provided accommodation and the base for Gandhi’s South African delegation campaigning for Indian rights in the Transvaal in 1906. It was requisitioned for the war effort in 1917 by the Air Board, and the very first headquarters of the fledgling RAF took up part of the hotel from 1918 to 1919. The hotel was largely demolished in 1930, and Shell Mex House now stands on its site. After the war, the RAF was drastically cut and its inter-war years were relatively quiet. The RAF was put in charge of British military activity in Iraq, and carried out minor activities in other parts of the British Empire, which included establishing bases to protect Singapore and Malaya. The RAF’s naval aviation branch, the Fleet Air Arm, was founded in 1924 but handed over to Admiralty control on 24 May 1939. The RAF adopted the doctrine of strategic bombing, which led to the construction of long-range bombers and this became its main bombing strategy in the Second World War.
The Royal Air Force underwent rapid expansion prior to and during the Second World War. Something I did not know until I began my research for this blog post was that under something called the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
of December 1939, the air forces of British Commonwealth countries trained and formed “Article XV squadrons“ for service with RAF formations. Many individual personnel from these countries, and exiles from occupied Europe also served with RAF squadrons. By the end of the war the Royal Canadian Air Force had contributed more than thirty squadrons to serve in RAF formations and similarly, approximately a quarter of Bomber Command’s personnel were Canadian. Additionally, the Royal Australian Air Force represented around nine percent of all RAF personnel who served in the European and Mediterranean theatres.
Following victory in the Second World War, the RAF underwent significant re-organisation, as technological advances in air warfare saw the arrival of jet fighters and bombers. During the early stages of the Cold War, one of the first major operations undertaken by the RAF was the Berlin airlift, codenamed Operation Plainfire. Between 26 June 1948 and the lifting of the Russian blockade of the city on 12 May 1949, the RAF provided 17% of the total supplies delivered. The RAF then saw its first post-war engagements in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Before Britain developed its own nuclear weapons, the RAF was provided with American ones, then following the development of its own arsenal, the British Government elected on 16 February 1960 to share the country’s nuclear deterrent between the RAF and submarines of the Royal Navy, first deciding to concentrate solely on the air force’s V bomber fleet. Following the development of the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines, the strategic nuclear deterrent passed to the navy’s submarines on 30 June 1969 and with the introduction of Polaris, the RAF’s strategic nuclear role was reduced to a tactical one. This role was continued by the V bombers into the 1980s and until 1998 by the Panavia Tornado.
For much of the Cold War the primary role of the RAF was the defence of Western Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union, with many squadrons based in West Germany.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the RAF’s focus returned to expeditionary air power, and since 1990 the RAF has been involved in several large-scale operations. The RAF’s 90th anniversary was commemorated on 1 April 2008 by a flypast of the RAF’s Aerobatic Display Team the Red Arrows and four Eurofighter Typhoons along the River Thames in a straight line from just south of London City Airport, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the RAF Memorial and the Ministry of Defence building. Since the end of the Cold War, four major defence reviews have been conducted and these have resulted in steady reductions in manpower and numbers of aircraft, especially combat aircraft such as fast-jets. As part of the latest 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the BAE Systems Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft was cancelled due to over spending and missing deadlines. Other reductions saw total manpower reduced by 5,000 personnel to a trained strength of 33,000 and the early retirement of the BAE Harrier GR7 and GR9.
In recent years, fighter aircraft have been increasingly required to scramble in response to Russian Air Force aircraft approaching British airspace. Both RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray provide QRA aircraft, and scramble their Typhoons within minutes to meet or intercept aircraft which give cause for concern. Lossiemouth generally covers the northern sector of UK airspace, whilst Coningsby covers the southern sector. At the start of the scaled QRA response, civilian air traffic controllers might see on their screens an aircraft behaving erratically, not responding to their radio calls, or note that it’s transmitting a distress signal through its transponder. Rather than scramble Typhoons at the first hint of something abnormal, a controller has the option to put them on a higher level of alert, ‘a call to cockpit’. In this scenario the pilot races to the hardened aircraft shelter (HAS) and does everything short of starting his engines. On 4 October 2015, a final stand-down saw the end of more than seventy years of RAF Search and Rescue (SAR) provision in the UK. The RAF and Royal Navy’s Westland Sea King fleets, after over 30 years of service, were retired. A civilian contractor, Bristow Helicopters, took over all of the responsibility for UK Search and Rescue and a new contract means that all UK SAR coverage is now provided by Bristow aircraft. The Royal Air Force celebrated its 100th anniversary on 1 April 2018 and it marked the occasion on 10 July 2018 with a flypast over London consisting of 103 aircraft. Between March 2020 and 2022, the RAF assisted with the response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. This saw the service provide repatriation flights and aeromedical evacuations of COVID-19 patients, drivers and call-handlers to support ambulance services and medics to assist with the staffing of hospitals, testing units and vaccination centres. The RAF has also been involved with COVID-19 relief operations overseas, repatriating stranded nationals and delivering medical supplies and vaccines to British Overseas Territories and military installations. Here in the United Kingdom, front-line flying operations are focussed at eight stations, these being Coningsby, Marham, Lossiemouth, Waddington, Brize Norton, Northolt, Benson and Odiham. It is at Barkston Heath, Cranwell, Shawbury and Valley where flying training takes place, with each forming part of the UK Military Flying Training System which is dedicated to training aircrew for all three UK armed services. Specialist ground crew training is focused at Cosford, St Mawgan and St. Athan. Operations are supported by numerous other flying and non-flying stations, which have a support enabler role. Overseas, the UK operates permanent military airfields in four British Overseas Territories and these contribute to the physical defence and maintenance of sovereignty of the British Overseas Territories and enable the UK to conduct expeditionary military operations. At its height in 1944 during the Second World War, more than 1,100,000 personnel were serving in the RAF. As of 1 January 2015, the RAF numbered some 34,200 regular and 1,940 Royal Auxiliary Air Force, giving a combined strength of 36,140 personnel. In addition to the active elements of the RAF, that is both regular and Royal Auxiliary Air Force, all ex-regular personnel remain liable to be recalled for duty in a time of need, and this is known as the Regular Reserve. In 2007, there were 33,980 RAF Regular Reserves, of which 7,950 served under a fixed-term reserve contract.
Officers hold a commission from the Sovereign, which provides the legal authority for them to issue orders to subordinates. The commission of a regular officer is granted after successfully completing the 24-week-long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell. To emphasise the merger of both military and naval aviation when the RAF was formed, many of the titles of officers were deliberately chosen to be of a naval character, such as flight lieutenant, wing commander, group captain and air commodore. Other ranks attend the Recruit Training Squadron at RAF Halton for basic training. The titles and insignia of other ranks in the RAF were based on that of the Army, with some alterations in terminology. Over the years, this structure has seen significant changes, for example, there was once a separate system for those in technical trades, and the ranks of chief technician and junior technician continue to be held only by personnel in technical trades. RAF other ranks fall into four categories and these are Warrant Officers, Senior Non-Commissioned Officers, Junior Non-Commissioned Officers and Airmen. Having completed basic training, all go on to elementary training and on completion of that, aircrew are then streamed to either fast jet, multi-engine, or rotary training. Multi-engine aircrew, weapon systems officer (WSO) and weapon systems operator (WSOp) students are trained at RAF Cranwell. Multi-engine aircrew then go to their Operational Conversion Unit or to a front-line squadron. Training is also provided for rotary-wing aircraft as RAF helicopters support the British Army by moving troops and equipment to and around the battlefield. Helicopters are also used in a variety of other roles, including in support of RAF ground units and heavy-lift support for the Royal Marines. As for the aircraft, there are far too many to detail here individually, but each have their specific roles to play, right from basic training to advanced fast jet. In terms of the future of the RAF, in July 2014 the House of Commons Defence Select Committee released a report on the future force structure that envisaged a mixture of unmanned and manned platforms, including further F-35, Protector RG1, a service life extension for the Typhoon (which would otherwise end its service in 2030) or a possible new manned aircraft. On 5 October 2015, it was announced that the Scavenger programme had been replaced by “Protector”, a new requirement for at least 20 unmanned aerial vehicles and on 7 October 2015, it was revealed that Protector will be a derivative of the SkyGuardian with enhanced range and endurance. In July 2018, at the Farnborough Airshow, the Defence Secretary announced a £2bn investment for BAE Systems, MBDA and Leonardo to develop a new British 6th Generation Fighter to replace Typhoon in 2035. Also in July 2018, a General Atomics US civil-registered SkyGuardian was flown from North Dakota to RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo where it was given RAF markings. It was formally announced by the Chief of Air Staff that No. 31 Squadron would become the first squadron to operate the Protector RG1 as it will be known in RAF service. On 22 March 2019, the Defence Secretary announced the UK had signed a $1.98bn deal to procure five Boeing E-7 Wedgetails to replace the ageing Boeing E-3D Sentry fleet in the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) role. As of May 2020, the first E-7 was expected to enter RAF service in 2023 with the final aircraft arriving in late 2025 or early 2026. In July 2020, the Ministry of Defence signed a contract for three Protectors with an option on an additional thirteen aircraft. In December 2020, it was announced that the Wedgetail AEW1 will be based at RAF Lossiemouth. The 2021 Defence Command Paper also cut the Wedgetail order down to just three aircraft. The Sentry AEW1s were officially withdrawn on 28 September 2021. The 2021 Defence Command Paper also confirmed the order for sixteen Protectors, despite the fact that the 2015 SDSR originally laid out plans for more than 20.
Following the tradition of the other British armed services, the RAF has adopted symbols to represent it, using them as rallying devices for members and promote esprit de corps. British aircraft in the early stages of the First World War carried the Union Flag as an identifying feature, but this was easily confused with Germany’s Iron Cross motif. So in October 1914, the French system of three concentric rings was adopted, with the colours reversed to a red disc surrounded by a white ring and an outer blue ring. The relative sizes of the rings have changed over the years and during the Second World War an outer yellow ring was added to the fuselage roundel. Aircraft serving in the Far East during the Second World War had the red disc removed to prevent confusion with Japanese aircraft. Since the 1970s, camouflaged aircraft carry low-visibility roundels, either red and blue on dark camouflage, or washed-out pink and light blue on light colours. Most non-camouflaged training and transport aircraft retain the traditional red-white-blue roundel. The RAF’s motto is Per Ardua ad Astra and is usually translated from Latin as “Through Adversity to the Stars”, but the RAF’s official translation is “Through Struggle to the Stars”. The choice of motto is attributed to a junior officer named J S Yule, in response to a request for suggestions from a commander of the Royal Flying Corps, Colonel Sykes. The badge of the Royal Air Force was first used in August 1918 and in heraldic terms, it is: “In front of a circle inscribed with the motto ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’ and ensigned by the Imperial Crown an eagle volant and affronté head lowered and to the sinister”. Although there have been debates among airmen over the years about whether the bird was originally meant to be an albatross or an eagle, the consensus is that it was always an eagle. I know that for me, it has to be an eagle!
According to a news report, a certain private school in Washington was once faced with a unique problem. A number of 12-year-old girls were beginning to use lipstick and would put it on in the bathroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints. Every night, the maintenance man would remove them and the next day, the girls would put them back. This became too much, so finally the principal decided that something had to be done. She called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the maintenance man. She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian, who had to clean the mirrors every night.
To demonstrate how difficult it had been to clean the mirrors, she asked the maintenance man to show the girls how much effort was required. He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned a mirror with it. Since then, there have been no lip prints on the mirrors.
There are teachers, and there are educators…
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