Great Britain-Royal Air Force

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raf aircraft cig cards

Very nice full set (50 cards) of British cigarette cards depicting “Aircraft Of The Royal Air Force”, issued in 1938.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) came into being in 1918 and was an independent force on an equal footing with the Royal Navy and the army. Its civilian head was the secretary of state for air, who presided over the Air Council. The top uniformed officer was the chief of the air staff. Until May 1940, there was also, on the Air Council, an air member for development and production, but this position was obviated by the creation of a separate Ministry of Air Production. In 1941, this ministry was reintegrated into the Air Council and was headed by the controller of research and development.

Operationally, the wartime RAF was divided into Bomber Command, Fighter Command, Coastal Command, Reserve Command, and Training Command. Training Command subsequently absorbed Reserve Command but was itself divided into Flying Training Command and Technical Training Command. Before the war ended, more commands were added: Army Co-Operation Command, Balloon Command, Maintenance Command, and Ferry Command (responsible for delivering aircraft from factories to combat units). In practice, Coastal Command was under the control of the Admiralty, and Fighter Command assumed control of all homeland air defense, including antiaircraft artillery. Each RAF command was organized into groups, which were in turn divided into squadrons. Fighter groups also featured a “fighter wing,” which was intermediated between the group and squadron level.

Bomber Command

True strategic bombing targets cities, but does so mainly to destroy industrial production and transportation networks, then only secondarily to terrorize the civilian population and undermine a nation’s will to continue to fight the war. Strategic bombing is a form of economic warfare, which directly attacks war production and other industrial and transportation enterprises. Among British as well as American air officers were many who believed that a large-scale program of strategic bombing could create a devastating and therefore decisive economic effect, including, ultimately, the complete destruction of the enemy’s war economy. Despite significant political resistance in Britain and the United States during the 1930s, advocates of strategic bombing managed to persuade their governments to fund the design and construction of heavy four-engine bombers (including, in Britain, the Wellington, Whitley, and Hampden; and in the United States, the B-17, B-24, and B-29), which were the necessary platforms from which heavy, long-range bombing could be executed.

The British conducted strategic bombing under cover of night. This had the advantage of making the bombers difficult to intercept with fighters or to hit with ground-based antiaircraft artillery. Early in the war, long-range fighters were unavailable to escort the bombers deep into enemy territory; this made the bombers especially vulnerable. Yet night bombing had the distinct disadvantage of rendering targets all but invisible; precision bombing was therefore out of the question; therefore, the British employed carpet- bombing (also called area-bombing) techniques. Instead of targeting particular industrial plants or transportation hubs, for example, the British would bomb an entire urban area, hoping to hit valuable industrial targets in the process. This was a highly destructive approach, but there was no guarantee that a raid would hit anything of real strategic value.

Fighter Command’s Finest Hour

After initial skirmishes over the Channel during July and early August, the battle of Britain began officially for the Luftwaffe on Adlertag (“Eagle Day”), or August 13, 1940, which commenced the protracted Operation ADLERANGRIFF (“Eagle Attack”). Although the fight in the sky was extremely dramatic at the time and in later recollection, at no point was the RAF on the verge of defeat. It lost many aircraft and good men in fighting over the south, but it was able to replace both without drawing down its main reserves by depleting the defense of the north of Britain. The fundamental problem for the Germans was a basic failure to understand that air warfare by its nature was attritional and therefore, that the RAF could not be eliminated in a single “decisive battle.” The Luftwaffe was also ill-equipped for the mission, with slow medium bombers with inadequate bomb loads and fighters escorts of still more limited range. That was true even though it had tried to develop a strategic bombing capacity before the war and had a significant lead in long-distance navigation and other blind-bombing aids.

There were several keys to the outcome. The RAF fighter force was larger than the Luftwaffe realized when the fight began, despite heavy losses over France and the Low Countries in May and June. Also, Britain was able to significantly outproduce Germany in fighter aircraft throughout the campaign: Luftwaffe intelligence calculated a fighter replacement rate of 180-300 per month, whereas the RAF actually achieved a rate of nearly 500 per month. The Wehrmacht held back resources from German fighter production, which underachieved its goal by 40 percent in the summer of 1940. The RAF thus readily replaced its aircraft losses where the Luftwaffe did not. Similar erroneous estimates of RAF losses marked incompetent Luftwaffe intelligence reports throughout the battle. Also, the fight took place over Britain. That meant the RAF recovered many downed pilots but the Luftwaffe lost aircraft and crews: nearly 1,400 aircraft all told and many crews killed, taken prisoner, or lost in the Channel. British training schemes were already operating at full tilt, whereas the Luftwaffe’s were not. The RAF therefore did not have to draw down main reserves from the center and north of the country without also replacing those more idle squadrons with fresh aircraft and pilots. Fighter Command was further aided by a series of bad decisions born of sheer Nazi arrogance and the erratic decision-making system in Germany. The most fateful of these was Hitler’s choice-provoked by rage over two small British raids against Berlin-to switch bomber targeting from RAF airfields to attacks on British cities. That caused many civilian deaths but allowed the RAF to continue to attrit German bombers and fighters alike. The fundamental reason for the German defeat was the fact that the Luftwaffe was asked to improvise a strategic air campaign for which it did not have the right planes or doctrine, against sophisticated British air and ground defenses in preparation over several years. Finally, the Luftwaffe had no precedent, let alone direct experience, in attacking an enemy that waited behind a comprehensive early warning radar system and had an excellent command-and-control radio net with which to direct fighter air defenses.

Coastal Command

From 1936 RAF Coastal Area operations were elevated to a full Coastal Command. The Royal Navy and RAF thereafter cooperated in coast watch, shipping defense, and anti-submarine warfare around Britain’s coasts and over the North Sea. In 1941 the Admiralty was given operational control of the aircraft of RAF Coastal Command, although its assets remained listed under the RAF order of battle. Through late 1940 the anti-submarine element of Coastal Command was limited by lack of “Sunderland” or other reconnaissance aircraft, and by a more urgent need to fl y invasion-watch missions. During 1941 longer-range aircraft were added, and anti-submarine reconnaissance was emphasized. There followed a growing role for older bombers in hunting and killing U-boats, as new four-engine heavy bomber types began to leave British factories and deploy over the continent. This led to serious interservice arguments: RAF Bomber Command’s Arthur Harris did not want heavy bombers used for defensive purposes. It required direct intervention by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1942, to guarantee that the Royal Navy got the long-range reconnaissance aircraft and bombers it needed for its vital battle at sea.

Tactical Air Force

RAF units supported British and Allied ground and naval forces in all theaters in Africa and Europe. The Regia Aeronautica was blasted from the skies of East Africa by the RAF by the end of 1941. The Western Desert Air Force then established theater superiority over the Italian and German air forces in North Africa. Waves of RAF fighters strafed enemy ground forces by day, while tactical bombers struck troop and armor concentrations and supply points at night. Long-range indirection was carried out against deep rear targets such as supply depots and rail lines. Total victory was achieved early in 1943. Meanwhile, fighter defense of Malta survived heavy Axis assault to inflict devastating bomber losses on the Luftwaffe and catastrophic losses on all asset classes of the Regia Aeronautica. The campaign continued to Sicily and Italy in the second half of 1943. The RAF became highly tactically innovative as it applied lessons from North Africa that carried over to the fight in Italy, then France and Germany in 1944-1945. For instance, close support of ground forces was reduced in favor of winning the air battle at some remove; overall operations were directed from a single headquarters; actionable intelligence was closely integrated into air operations; and sophisticated control and communications systems were established between air and ground forces based on mobile radio transmitters carried in trucks that accompanied the troops and armor. Above all, as Richard Overy has noted, the RAF came to understand that maintaining air superiority meant continuous and unrelenting pursuit of the enemy. From these interservice lessons, and given its multinational cast, the RAF was able to fairly smoothly work out inter-Allied relations as larger American forces arrived in the ETO.

The RAF was supplemented by the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Also, the air forces of the dominions, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, were incorporated into the RAF, as were elements of the air forces of nations that had been invaded and occupied by the Germans: Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Norway, and Poland. Although these elements were absorbed into the RAF, they were often permitted to retain their unique identity by forming into national legions or squadrons. Women also played a role in the RAF through the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service. The RAF drew many of its ground personnel, especially radar operators, plotters, and radio communications monitors, from the WAAF.

Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)

A British volunteer aviation unit comprised mainly of civilian pilots. For reasons of age, gender, or health-there were several one-armed or one-eyed ATA pilots-these pilots were not draftable into active duty with the RAF. Although the ATA was administered and clerked by British Airways civilians, it was nonetheless put under command of the RAF, and its pilots were issued an RAF-style uniform. As military pilots were pulled from RAF ferry duties into combat, the ATA took up the load of flying urgent supplies within Britain, then the still more urgent business of ferrying aircraft from factories and storage facilities to forward air bases. ATA tasks included long-haul ferries of Lend-Lease aircraft manufactured in the United States and flown to the southern UK via Newfoundland, Iceland, and Scotland. Despite early RAF resistance to allowing women pilots into the ATA, a group of eight women began ferrying single-engine Tiger Moth trainers as early as November 1939-wartime necessity proved a partial gender equalizer. By the end of the war, 166 women pilots served in the ATA. They ferried all types of RAF aircraft during the war, including several Meteor jets. Twelve women qualified to fly four-engine heavy bombers, while 82 were certified on various medium bombers. Other women served as ATA grounds crew or mechanics. ATA male pilots ferried combat aircraft directly to bases in France from mid-1944. They were joined in that duty by female pilots from September. Civilian pilots of the ATA- representing 30 Allied nationalities-ferried 300,000 military aircraft by the end of the war.

The British army, navy, and air force all drew on conscription for personnel. However, all RAF aircrews were volunteers, many of them trained through the British Empire Air Training Scheme, in which the dominions participated extensively. Indeed, the time-consuming training of aircrews, especially pilots, was the chief factor limiting the effectiveness of the RAF-a far more limiting factor than aircraft production.

The RAF numbered 193,000 men at the outbreak of war in September 1939 and peaked at 992,000 in September 1944. The WAAF had 17,400 women in September 1940 and peaked at 180,300 in September 1943. RAF losses included 69,606 killed, 6,736 missing, 22,839 wounded, and 13,115 taken as prisoners of war.

List of Second World War Victoria Cross recipients

List of Victoria Cross recipients of the Royal Air Force

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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