Life before the RAF: the young air services and Parliament

The 1 April 2018 marks 100 years since the formation of the Royal Air Force, a particularly poignant anniversary for our Public Engagement Officer, Sammy Sturgess who is a former member of the Service herself and she graduated from basic training on the 90th anniversary of the RAF. Today she explains the prelude to the formation of the world’s first independent Air Force through debates in Parliament and legislation concerning the young air services in Britain from the late 1900s and through the First World War…

RAF plaqueA few short years after the fledgling flights of aeronautical pioneers Count Ferdinand von Zepplin in 1900 and Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903, MPs began to see the potential of aeronautical engineering and navigation for the purpose of national defence. The Aerial Navigation Special Committee was appointed by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith in May 1909 along with ‘special and adequate funds’ (Hansard HOC 05.05.1909)  for the development of this new technology.

Colonel Arthur Lee, later 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham told the House of Commons on 2nd August 1909, ‘I cannot help thinking that in the very near future it [aerial navigation] is going to be a practical condition in warfare with which we shall have to reckon’. He showed particular concern in relation to falling behind the technological advancements of other European powers, ‘we cannot afford to be left behind, but I am afraid that so far there is no doubt…that we have been’ (Hansard HOC 02.08.1909). This was with particular reference to France and Germany and the threat that they might cause to national security. As the Marquess of Lansdowne put it to the House of Commons a few months earlier on 23 November 1908,

You have new inventions, greater facilities for concentrating troops, greater facilities for carrying them across the seas, new modes of navigating the sea, and, indeed, of navigating the air…you have all these things, and I am glad, therefore, to take note of the fact that up to this point His Majesty’s Government are ready to concede freely that the problem of invasion has undergone very great changes.

These changes became evident as the First World War progressed and in 1915 the German military used Zepplins to strategically attack Britain’s war effort with air raids on industrial heartlands. The House of Commons discussed numerous issues relating to the air raids, its seems initially in 1915 these were mainly financial, such as ‘compensation to householders and others whose property has been injured by raids of enemy aircraft or warships’, ‘voluntary State insurance against air raids’  and the financial remuneration of women unable to work due to air raids.

During the First World War Britain’s air power was divided between two forces, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which was operated by the Army. From an early stage of the war advancements in aerial navigation ostensibly proved their worth in the eyes of the Admiralty achieving high commendation from its first Lord, Winston Churchill in 1915, ‘the Royal Naval Air Service which did not exist three years ago, which is already making a name for itself, and which has become a considerable and formidable body’ (Hansard HOC 15.02.1915). And, the Under-Secretary of State for War, Mr Tennant said of RFC pilots that, ‘the British pilot has proved himself on every occasion, I believe without exception, to be absolutely superior to the German pilot’ (Hansard HOC 08.02.1915). Regardless of the validity of Mr Tennant’s opinion, it seems that not all parliamentarians shared his enthusiasm, in February 1916 Lord Oranmore and Lord Browne expressed their concern over what they deemed as German aerial superiority owing to their successful Zepplin raids. The Lords questioned His Majesty’s Government on matters of building British Zepplins and aeroplanes, anti-aircraft weaponry, and the better coordination of forces.

Smuts Report.PNG
‘Smuts Report’ – Review of British Air Services, 1917

It seems that coordination and governance of this new form of military might became an ever increasing issue as the war drew on. The Air Board was formed in May 1916 in an attempt to facilitate better cohesion between the RNAS and the RFC. The military as a whole grew on an unprecedented scale; however, comparatively the expansion of the air fleet far surpassed that of the Army and Navy. According to Lieut-Colonel Sir Alan Burgoyne in February 1917 this rapid growth led to continued difficulties in the governance of the air services, even under the authority of the Air Board. Meanwhile the Germans upped the ante in their raids and began to conduct long-range bombing missions with Gotha aeroplanes.

In 1917 South African gentleman and Boer War veteran, General Jan Smuts was commissioned by the Imperial War Cabinet to conduct a review of the British Air Services. He published his report in August 1917, its principal recommendation being ‘That an Air Ministry be instituted as soon as possible, consisting of a Minister with a consultative Board on the lines of the Army Council or the Admiralty Board, on which the several departmental activities of the Ministry will be represented’ (Review of British Air Services, 1917). This review became known as the Smuts Report and can be read in full online on the RAF Museum’s website. Smuts deemed that superior governance and organisation of the air services was essential to Britain’s war effort and the significance of air power was only going to increase with time.

Air Force Act 1917
Air Force Constitution Act, 1917

The Smuts Report paved the way for the passing of the Air Force Constitution Act 1917, which received royal assent from King George V on 29 November. The Act allowed for the establishment of an independent Air Force and an Air Council. On the 1 April 1918 the RNAS and RFC amalgamated and the Royal Air Force was born. It was accompanied by the Air Ministry which maintained responsibility for managing the RAF’s affairs until 1964.

It is plain to see the magnitude of importance that this innovative technology held at this significant juncture in modern warfare in the early twentieth century. Aerial navigation and aviation went from an underdeveloped, underfunded and largely unknown technology to an independent Force on equal footing to the two senior British services, the Navy and the Army, in little over a decade. So today we say happy birthday to the Royal Air Force and here’s to the next 100 years!


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2 thoughts on “Life before the RAF: the young air services and Parliament

  1. A most interesting piece – most of the details are unfortunately relatively unknown to the general British public – and little publicized.

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