This week sees the 100th anniversary of the oldest dedicated air force in the world, the Royal Airforce or RAF.
The formation of the RAF was partly a bureaucratic cost-saving exercise by the Prime Minister Lloyd George. He wanted to bring down the expense of having two air forces in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service by amalgamating them into one.
There were two organisations costing lots of money. The army and navy were negotiating their own contracts, ordering their own aircraft and doubling up on training, so the PM said ‘enough is enough’.”
At the time the military was also exploring the idea of broadening the role of aviation. During the war, planes had been tethered solely to the needs of the army and navy, but now the government was looking at using them to strategically bomb German cities and defend Britain.
Over the last century the aircraft and technology the Royal Air Force deploys has changed beyond recognition.
Yet what has remained immutable is the bravery and dedication of those who serve in its ranks.
In the years leading up to the First World War there had been skepticism that aviation would ever have a meaningful role to play in battle. The French general, Ferdinand Foch, who would go on to become the Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War, was quoted in 1911 saying: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value”.
In fact one of my relations, an aviation pioneer and entrepeneur Claude Grahame White famously landed his plane on Executive Avenue outside the Whitehouse and rather than be arrested, he was widely applauded by the American police who came to pat him on his back for his airmanship.
Whilst Claude was very much in it for his own ends, to make money at his aircraft factory in Hendon, London it is indicative of the situation that he had to encourage the Whitehouse to consider spending money on military planes in the first place… something that ever since has not been that big of a problem! (You can visit RAF Hendon Museum which has planes from WW1 right up to the 21st century with me at Ye Olde England Tours)
Those early years gave rise to the rapid development of aeroplanes from novel innovations into deadly war machines that could give land and sea forces a decisive edge.
But aviation advances showcased at European air displays in the ensuing years convinced the military top brass of the major powers that planes could provide a crucial tactical advantage and in 1912 Britain established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
By 1914 the generals were convinced of the coming value of airplanes and all the major players had bought aircraft and started an air force wing.
In the early months of the war the challenge was fitting the light wooden and canvas aircraft with heavy machine guns. As the RFC initially grappled with the problem, the first fighter pilots instead carried handheld weapons with them into battle.
In the first weeks they were very frustrated as they had no decent weapons to take down other planes so they took up carbine rifles, shotguns, revolvers and even grenades, but to drop those on an enemy plane was almost impossible.
Even when machine guns were successfully mounted the challenge then was where to place them to allow the pilot to shoot forwards without shredding the plane’s wooden propeller.
The Germans were the first to crack the conundrum by inventing an interrupter system that instantaneously paused the propeller midair to allow a pilot to shoot through it.
These early developments set the pace for what was a continual arms race between the Germans and Allies to improve their planes throughout the war.
By the end of the conflict the clunky, weaponless aircraft that the powers had started the war with had been honed into nimble and lethal machines.
The early pilots were a mix of volunteers and recruits with the army and navy actively seeking out men who had a mechanical background, such as car and motorbike owners.
Yet many men also volunteered for the service. Some did as they saw the force as a way out of the trenches, others were enticed by publicity around the heroic Aces and the idea of the noble one-on-one duels between enemy pilots.
While being a pilot meant spending nights in a warm bed at a base and eating warm meals in a mess, the chances of survival dropped precipitously for the men who signed up.
Although some planes were fitted with armour plates to shield the pilots from fire, these made the aircraft much slower and easier targets, so many did without.
As well as the threat of being shot down by enemy pilots, the light structures were also vulnerable to ground fire from rifles and machine guns.
The life expectancy of pilots during the First World War was notoriously short and during the bloody Battle of Arras in 1917 it dropped to as low as 17.5 flying hours for British pilots.
Constant spectre of death took a huge psychological toll on the early pilots, many of whom suffered nightmares about their greatest fear – going down in a burning plane.
Those who did survive and took down increasing numbers of enemies were lionized in the press as Aces.
But the longer pilots survived the more they tended to become fatalistic and potentially more reckless. One notable example was Germany’s infamous ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, who was the most deadly pilot in the conflict with 80 kills.
He was killed in the last year of the war when he inexplicably went against his own advice which was never follow a potential victim low down and he was killed on April 21, 1918 as he followed an aircraft almost to the ground and was killed by ground fire.