RAF: The Establishment of a Peacetime Service

To understand why the fantasy figure of the airman was created, it is necessary to explore the political establishment of the airforce after the war. To guarantee its place as a permanent military body, the Royal Flying Corps began a series of reforms, under the aegis of General Smuts, in 1917–1918 that ended the division of military and naval aviation and formed the RAF.8 This unification report became one of the most important documents of the 1914–1918 war, developed because, as official naval historian Arthur Marder explained, the ‘intensified competition between the Army and Navy for aircraft’ was wasting resources. Instead the Smuts report of August 1917 ‘recommended the fusion of the RNAS and RFC … under an Air Ministry and Air General Staff.’ This did not immediately mean that the air service was better resourced, but established a system for efficiency. Most significantly, it gave overall control to an aerial ministry rather than a military or naval representative.

The Royal Air Force came into being on 1 April 1918, almost six years after the Royal Flying Corps was first formed. The significance of the Smuts Report is that it made the airmen of the First World War unique. Through their actions, aerial combat was recognized and embodied in a third service, and there would never again be division of control for aerial resources. Yet the disappointment and political manoeuvring between the Admiralty and the War Office that the report engendered had ramifications for the professional culture of the RAF for more than a decade.

Naval pilots were reluctant to accept the new regime. Major Draper of 8 Squadron (No. 208 RAF) was dismayed at the loss of naval identity. ‘I know everyone from myself down to the last man were very upset at the change,’ he complained, because they lost ‘that special distinction which had earned for Naval 8 a reputation second to none … . Unofficially we never dropped the old ways completely.’ Draper then referred to a post-war photograph clearly showing some members of the Squadron still sporting their old RNAS uniforms. ‘PIX,’ a fellow RNAS pilot, described a farewell dinner held on 31 March 1918, demonstrating the loyalty naval men felt towards their dying service. The ‘Royal Naval Air Service was passing away’, he mourned:

It was the oldest of the two British flying services having its origins in 1910 … . But the debt which the nation owes to it for the development of engines and efficient aircraft, no less than for its operations on land and sea over the whole world, had hardly been appreciated … . And now its people were asked to give up the legends about the mighty pilots who had created the service, the traditions which had accumulated so rapidly in war time, the uniform and routine which so well fitted their work, the comradeship which had permeated the personnel owing to its limited number, and the name which numberless brave men had laid down their lives to make honourable … . Below the khaki! I feel hardly human.

His epitaph for the service demonstrates the extremely strong allegiances men had formed to the notion of their flying group. The RNAS man was always naval first and pilot second. The resistance of naval pilots was only in the form of words as their duties still had to be performed. It ‘was a bitter blow to most of us to be suddenly shorn of our glories as sailors’, wrote the pilots of Portsmouth Command, ‘and to discard the Naval uniforms and customs, but again officers and men sunk their personal feelings and entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of things.’ Their words encapsulated the feeling of loyalty and duty, irrespective of service, with which veteran-pilots chose to represent their time at war.

The RFC, however, made little comment on the change; its uniform, titles and chain of command remained largely unaltered. The Smuts report, although necessary to establish the air service as a separate political institution, was not designed to win the allegiance of its pilots. It was based on operational necessities that resulted in frequent clashes between its political and organizational centres, and the needs of its pilots in the inter-war period. Once airmen had achieved their independent status, the airforce seemed at a loss, with nothing left to prove. Although the establishment of the RAF was a political and economic necessity, it did not result in a coherent purpose for the peacetime service. ‘As a result,’ historian Malcolm Cooper argued, ‘the RAF entered the post-war period poorly integrated into the defence community and quite lacking in a clearly defined strategic function.’ This shift from action to politics defined the inter-war period and explains the loss of direction sustained by the RAF at this time.

War had given the RFC both a political standing and a united purpose, but in the 1920s, the RAF found its new role difficult to sustain. First, it suffered from the necessary reduction of all services and the mass demobilization of its men. The Royal Flying Corps had relied heavily on the enthusiasm of youth and the initiative of its pilots to improve combat methods, so the return of a large proportion of these men to the civilian world was a significant blow to the drive of the new air service. The War Office estimated a total of 150,000 men were serving in the RAF by 12 March 1919, but insisted on reducing this to 79,570. The vast majority of these men were between 20 and 30 years old and had exemplified the youthful drive of the service. The RFC, unlike its fellow services, had an informal culture; developments were sustained and propelled by the men within. Without the unifying purpose of war, decline was understandable. Malcolm Cooper’s vivid description of the ‘bonfires of unwanted aircraft’ burning throughout the country could be seen as a metaphor for the shift from action to politics that left the RAF as a vulnerable veteran of war rather than the world-leading service it had been in November 1918.

To survive, the RAF had to carve a permanent role in Britain’s armoury and demonstrate its independent value in both war and peace. The new service, therefore, capitalized on the exuberance of its remaining young men and their enthusiasm for flight, focusing on the development of the new bomber aircraft. A formal Boy’s Service was created, based on a wartime precedent, to feed new recruits through the training system and ensure the RAF’s sustainability. ‘The Air Force also enlists boys between the ages of 15 and 16½, after an entrance examination conducted by the Local Education Authority,’ contemporary writer Wilkinson Sherrin explained, where they were given ‘a first-class technical training and then serve 10 years with the regular Air Force’. This was far longer than service during the war but would offer greater opportunity to train and develop men.

The University Air Squadrons (UAS) also capitalized on the growing association of youth and flight to entice the young men of Oxford and Cambridge into the air. This created and maintained a reserve of potential flyers should war recur. Most importantly, the association with Cambridge in particular allowed the RAF to exploit and promote the academic study of aeronautics at the highest level. Consequently, a Research Flight was included in the Cambridge squadron to develop and test new methods. To further emphasize the link between the study of aeronautics and the role of the pilot, Sir Bennett Melville Jones was simultaneously the university’s first Professor of Aeronautics and the leader of the Research Flight. Once established, academic study was undertaken to further embed the ‘science of flight’ into the country’s academic centres, with ‘investigations ranged from upper air microbiological experiments to the causes of aircraft accidents’. The UAS was a mutually advantageous arrangement, offering an exciting career path to educated recruits, whilst utilizing the resources of the nation’s finest research institutions to refine the processes of aviation.

The University Air Squadrons were extremely popular with Oxbridge students. The Oxford squadron easily filled the hundred student places with a large waiting list. Applications were so numerous that senior members of the institution could select only the most outstanding candidates, adding to their sense of exclusivity and privilege. The majority of men demobilized in 1920 were between 20 and 25 years old, which meant they would have been recruited during the ‘traditional’ university years. The UAS training was similar to wartime teaching, Boys’ Service veteran John Ross explained, with ‘lectures on air navigation, rigging, airmanship and engines’. The UAS offered consistent training to recruits during their time at University, slowly building their knowledge. To do this, Ross explained, each man ‘received an average of nine flights per term, totalling five hours and 45 minutes (dual and solo). Each flight was of about 35 minutes’ duration.’ Over three terms for three years, this culminated in a valuable body of experience and an instinctive knowledge of flight. After taking written and practical examinations, successful candidates were awarded the Air Ministry Proficiency Certificate and could apply to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and then for a permanent commission in the RAF. Should war return to Europe, the University pilots could be readied for active service. This strengthened the position of the RAF and ensured that flight became not only an exciting privilege, but also a serious academic pursuit. By thus exploiting the union of youth and flight, the RAF attracted considerable notice.

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