Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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Development of the RAF Branch Structure

Apart from a few members of the RFC Special Reserve, virtually all officers in the pre-war flying services were seconded from the Army or Royal Navy (including the Royal Marines) but from late-1914 onwards increasing numbers were commissioned directly into the RFC and/or RNAS on short-term ‘for the duration’ engagements. The Army’s somewhat ‘tribal’ organisation involved a relatively complicated career structure but, in brief, in peacetime officers would normally ascend the promotion ladder in strict seniority governed by the numerical establishment of their regiment or corps, resulting in quite slow, but steady, progress. There was, however, some potential for leapfrogging the queue by acquiring ‘brevet’ rank, ie one (or more) higher than that to which one would normally have been entitled, often by serving on secondment away from one’s parent regiment. Wartime pragmatism (and casualty rates) demanded much higher rates of advancement in the field and thus far more extensive use of ‘brevet’ and/or ‘temporary’ ranks, involving further complexities as to whether these were paid or unpaid – thus by 1916 Trenchard (who would probably still have been a major of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in peacetime) was a brevet colonel (temporary major-general) in the RFC. As a result, officers serving with the RFC whose names appear in wartime Army Lists had two dates of seniority, one relating to the Army as a whole, the other to his regiment.  These were often only a few months apart for direct recruits, the first being the original date of commissioning and the second that of gazetting to the RFC, ie qualification as a pilot, although, for officers seconded from other regiments, the difference could be rather longer, often in excess of a year. 

To begin with, all RFC officers were pilots who were differentiated by their employment ‘grade’ (rather than their rank – although there was a close correlation between rank and grade) as Wing, Squadron or Flight Commanders or mere Flying Officers.  As the war progressed, however, the structure became more complex and by 1918 the RFC section of the Army List had, in addition to those dealing with pilots, pages dedicated to Staff, Observer, Balloon and Equipment Officers.  Individuals could migrate from one page to another; thus many Observer Officers became Flying Officers, ie pilots, while a grounded pilot could become an Equipment Officer.  

The RNAS was a much smaller organisation and commissioned membership was confined solely to those who were ‘graded’, i.e. pilots (and, from 1917, observers), all other officers working in support of the RNAS being provided by the RN and/or RNVR.  It is, incidentally, of some interest to note that, despite the de facto independence of the RNAS, the more conservative elements of the bureaucracy had ignored this reality and the Army and Navy Lists both continued to reflect the de jure situation whereby the RFC was still supposedly divided into Military and Naval Wings – raising interesting constitutional questions about the legal status of the RNAS.   

When the RAF was created in 1918 it organised itself on broadly RFC lines by adapting the Army’s arrangements to create a ‘branch’ structure, officers retaining the ability to switch branches as their styles of employment changed.  The branches reflected by the early Air Force Lists were:-


Aeroplane & Seaplanes Officers qualified as pilots and employed on flying duties
Administrative Officers employed on Administration duties (even if qualified as pilots).
Airship Officers qualified and employed on flying duties on Airships.
Kite Balloon Officers employed to man the Kite Balloon sections
Medical  Medical Officers.  These would have previously been provided by the RAMC and RN
Observer Officers qualified and employed on observer duties in aeroplanes
Staff Officer Officers employed on staff duties at HQ's
Technical Officers employed on Maintenance, Supply and similar duties


One of Trenchard’s earliest post-war decisions was that all officers in the peacetime RAF were to be pilots, with the exception of those carrying out certain specialised tasks, the latter being enrolled within the Accounts, Stores (from 1936, Equipment), Medical, Dental, Chaplains and Legal Branches. All other officers, were commissioned into the General Duties Branch, which was responsible for carrying out all basic air force functions, that is to say, the conduct and supervision of all aspects of flying and engineering, including armament, wireless and photography, and carrying out all staff and administrative duties. The GD Branch was also responsible for providing the commanders of all operational units, which implied that only those officers who served in it were eligible for promotion to the highest ranks of the new Service. In contrast, the rank ceiling available to officers of the specialist branches was limited to that of the Head of each Branch.  (with thanks to Wg Cdr C G Jefford for assistance in re-writing the above section)

Very little change to this basic structure occurred until the rapid expansion of the 1930's, which necessitated a vast increase in the overall officer requirement of the service.  This came about due to the introduction of new units, many of which had no need for qualified pilots to command them and the formation of separate station headquarters with staffs independent of the resident squadrons.  The recruitment of specialists for "duration only" service also added to this expansion and as a result the number of branches was gradually increased with the most important change taking place in ? 1940.  Up until this time, all engineering, signals and armament officers had completed courses of instruction at the relevant training school following normal training as pilots and a period on normal squadron duties.  Having trained in their specialism, they would then alternate these duties with the normal flying and staff duties of a General Duties Officer.  However, the growing complexity of modern aircraft and equipment was beginning to demand a greater degree of specialisation than could be provided by 'temporary' technical staff.  As a result it was decided to form a separate Technical Branch with the sub-divisions of Engineering, Signals and Armament.  Those officers so qualified, were transferred to this new branch, although for many years, officers would still move between GD and Technical branches as they alternated operational or technical postings.  The GD Branch  also began to change from 1939, when the decision was taken to make Air Gunners official members of aircrew.  Up to then air gunners had been recruited from the ground staff, given extra pay for undertaking these duties but on returning from flying duties they had had to return to their ground trades.  The majority of air gunners were appointed to the rank of sergeant but some were commissioned to act as gunnery leaders and by the end of WW2, some air gunners had actually risen to command squadrons.   The other addition to the GD Branch was that of Air Observers, who were needed in the new multi crew aircraft to relieve the pilots of the additional tasks of navigation and bomb aiming.  The increased administrative demands of the enlarged RAF was satisfied by the recruitment/appointment of retired officers, academics, qualified administrators and the like who were commissioned into another new branch, named Administrative and Special Duties Branch (A.S.D.), again with a number of specialised sub-divisions.  Therefore by August  1940 the Branch structure had expanded to:-  

General Duties

General Duties (Air Gunners)

General Duties (Air Observer)

Technical (Engineers)

Technical (Signals) Technical (Armament)
Ballo on A.S.D. (for Administrative duties) A.S.D. (for Intelligence duties)
A.S.D. (for Marine Craft duties) A.S.D. (for Photographic duties) A.S.D. (for PT duties)
A.S.D. (for Assistant Provost Marshal duties) A.S.D. (for Special duties) Meteorological
Equipment Accountant Medical
Dental Chaplain Legal

Further changes continued throughout WW2 with sub-divisions being added to GD and Technical Branches whilst the Administrative and Special Duties Branch was restructured and a further new branch was added with the formation of the RAF Regiment in 1942.  Therefore by October 1945 the Branch structure had been refined into:-

General Duties General Duties (Air Gunners & Wireless Operator (Air) General Duties (Flight Engineers)
General Duties (Navigators) General Duties (Navigation Instructors) General Duties (Meteorological Observers)
Technical (Engineers) Technical (Electrical Engineers) Technical (Signals)
Technical (Armament) Technical (Airfield Construction) Balloon
A.S.D (for Administrative and Miscellaneous duties) A.S.D. (Special duties (Armament)) A.S.D. (Special duties (Engineers))
A.S.D. (Special duties (Marine Craft)) A.S.D. (Special duties (MT)) A.S.D. (Special duties (Photography))
A.S.D. (Special duties (Signals)) Equipment Accountant
Medical Dental Chaplain
Legal Meteorological RAF Regiment

As the post war run down of the RAF continued, further changes took place, these mainly involved the gradual abolition of the Administrative and Special Duties Branches (which appears to have been split into a number of new Branches in about 1947) and the Balloon Branch.  One point which had become apparent during the war was that pilots and other aircrew officers were needed to fill the vast number of operational and staff posts on squadrons, stations, Group and Command HQ's and the Air Ministry.  This had left none spare to carry out the various technical and administrative duties carried out by GD officers pre 1939, hence the formation of the wide range of specialised branches.  It became obvious there were a large number of roles requiring commissioned officers which could be fulfilled by those without experience as pilots or aircrew.

The remaining branches underwent further rationalisation and in many cases where retitled.

By 1980, the branch structure had become:-

General Duties* General Duties (Ground)* Photographic Interpretation*
Engineer* Supply* Administrative *
Security* Marine* Medical
Dental Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service Medical Technician (Medical Section)
Medical Technician (Dental Section) Medical Secretarial  Chaplains
Legal   Directors of Music 

From 1986 those branches marked (*) were grouped together as the Policy Branches and Air Officers in those branches were shown in the same section of the gradation lists in the Air Force Lists.  Officers of Group Captain and below were still grouped in the Air Force Lists in blocks according to branch.  Air Officers of the remaining branches were shown in the same blocks as the remainder of their branch.

By 1996, further rationalisation had resulted in the following:-

General Duties General Duties (Ground) (Air Traffic Control) General Duties (Ground) (Fighter Control)
General Duties (Ground) (Intelligence) Engineer Supply
Administrative (Secretarial) Administrative (Training) Administrative (Catering)
Administrative (Physical Education) Security (RAF Regiment) Security (Provost)
Medical Dental Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service
Medical Technician (Medical Section) Medical Technician (Dental Section) Medical Secretarial
Chaplains Legal Directors of Music

The first major change in the branch structure for a number of years occurred on 1 April 1997, with the formation of Operations Support branch.  This  branch brought together four of the existing branch specialisations and added a new one, these being:-

Operations Support (Air Traffic Control) Operations Support (Fighter Control) Operations Support (Intelligence)
Operations Support (RAF Regiment)   Operations Support (Flight Operations)

The Flight Operations sub-branch was designed to utilise specially trained officers in operations posts  and in headquarters previously filled by aircrew officers on ground tours.  Most of these officers would be ex-aircrew thereby removing them from the General Duties list and freeing posts at the higher levels giving opportunities of advancement to junior officers not previously available.  Another major advantage is that officers in the new sub-branch will be able to utilise their experience but without receiving flying pay.  

This page was last updated on 09/06/17 using FrontPage 2003©

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