Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation
The Development of British Military Aviation
[Balloon Store | Balloon Section | Balloon Companies | Air Battalion | RFC | RNAS | RAF]
As a result of their success in South Africa and the resultant need to expand the Army's resources, a number of further Balloon Companies were formed in April 1905. Still a part of the Royal Engineers, the expansion also included a new Army Balloon Factory and an enlarged Balloon School being established at Farnborough, thereby starting the long association of the site with aviation, which it still retains today as the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. It was here in 1907 that Britain's first military airship was designed and built.
Despite the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903, official interest in 'heavier-than-air' flying was negligible. However, from 1908 events were beginning to show that this new form of flying showed promise and steps were taken to remedy the situation. In April 1911 the Balloon Section was raised in status to the Air Battalion, under the command of Major Alexander Bannerman. This consisted of two Companies, No 1 taking over the role of the ‘old’ Balloon Section whilst No 2 introduced the aeroplane into British military operations. At the same time the Army Balloon Factory was re-named the Army Aircraft Factory.
Royal Flying Corps
before the end of the year (18 November 1911), the Committee of Imperial Defence
had appointed a sub-committee to examine the whole question of military
aviation. This Technical
Sub-Committee reported its findings on 28 February 1912, which were: -
The establishment of a Flying Corps,
Within the Flying Corps, the establishment of a Naval Wing,
Within the Flying Corps, the establishment of a Military Wing,
The establishment of a Central Flying School., to serve both Wings
The establishment of an Aircraft Factory
As a result of these recommendations, King George V signed a Royal
Warrant on 13 April 1912 establishing the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) with the Air
Battalion being absorbed on 13 May. Whilst
each Wing was intended to operate alongside its respective parent service, there
was no initial intention that each Wing should be separate from each other.
It was intended that each Wing whilst recruiting from its parent service
would also act as a reserve for the other.
This would require both Wings, whilst specialising in operations relevant
to its parent service, to practice the tasks and skills of the other.
The Central Flying School on the other hand was staffed by both Naval and
Army personnel and was intended to give pilots already holding Royal Aero Club
Certificates, military training before undertaking specialised training within
the appropriate Wing. The Royal
Aircraft Factory replaced the Balloon Factory at Farnborough for the design and
production of aircraft to equip both Wings.
of the first drawbacks to this new organisation was the fact that there was no
overall commander of the RFC, each Wing having a commanding officer, who took
his orders directly from the relevant ministerial department (Admiralty or War
Office). At this time much of the
work undertaken by both Wings was experimental and developmental, neither side
having any definite ideas on the employment of aircraft.
The Military Wing carried out exercises with ground troops developing
reconnaissance techniques, whilst the Naval Wing carried out experiments in
flying off ships. One of the
leading officers in the Naval experiments was Squadron Commander Samson, who had
also been one of the first four Naval officers selected for pilot training in
Traditionally the British Army was responsible for the
defence of the mainland leaving the Royal Navy the responsibility of protecting
the shipping lanes and the approaches to the coast. With the invention of aircraft a new dimension was added to
the equation but by the outbreak of World War 1 the problem of who would defend
Britain against air attack had not even been considered, let alone solved.
The Military Wing had concentrated its efforts in supporting the Army in
the field and when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to France, it
was logical that the Military squadrons of the RFC should accompany it.
A further problem to the defence of the UK lay in the procurement
policies of the two Wings. Although
supposedly a ‘joint’ formation, control and administration of each Wing was
still the responsibility of the Admiralty and War Office separately.
However, soon after formation the two controlling ministries established
differing procurement polices. The
War Office utilised the resources of the Royal Aircraft Factory whilst the
Admiralty relied on the developing commercial sector.
At this time the supply of suitable engines was a major
factor in the availability of machines, they were and would continue to be
ordered and accounted for totally separate to airframes for the rest of the war.
The Royal Aircraft Factory produced its own engines, which tended to be
light but low powered, whilst more powerful units were available from commercial
manufacturers, the Factory was unable to utilise them due to official policy.
The Admiralty on the other hand decided not to rely on the Royal Aircraft
Factory and was therefore able to specify the larger, more powerful engines for
its aircraft when placing its orders. The
Admiralty using the argument that it needed aircraft able to operate from the
sea on floats, thus increasing the weight and thereby requiring more powerful
engines were able look elsewhere; as the Factory at Farnborough being unable to
use these engines was not developing seaplanes.
Therefore at the outbreak of war in August 1914, the UK
was effectively left undefended against air attack.
As a result and also partly due to the fact that the only means of
carrying out an attack would be by German Navy Airships, the Admiralty offered
to undertake the air defence of the UK. However,
the Admiralty also took a very strategic view of defence and rather than simply
position aircraft at bases in the UK, they sent units to operate from the
coastal areas of France tasked with the destruction of these airships either
before they reached British shores or in their sheds.
These operations would eventually lead to the development of long range
strategic bombing of Germany, a role considered by many not to belong to the
Admiralty. The Military Wing on the
other hand, who thought this type of operation to be more in their remit, were
unable to do anything about it, due to the lack of resources and the demands
being made upon it by the BEF.
Royal Naval Air Service
each Wing of the RFC developed its own policies and techniques they gradually moved
further apart with the Naval Wing soon being, unofficially, called the Royal
Naval Air Service (RNAS). The
formalisation of this arrangement took a step closer on 1st July
1914, when the Admiralty announced that the Officers of the Naval Wing would form
part of the
Military Branch of the Royal Navy, but it was 29th July 1915 before
the split became official. During
1915 the Military Wing had continued to expand in order to meet the needs of an
expanding BEF in terms of reconnaissance, bombing and more recently, fighting
enemy machines. This had lead to a
massive increase in the training system at home and as a result the War Office
felt that it should assume its traditional responsibility for home defence.
This was duly returned to it on 10th February 1916.
After the Cuxhaven Raid of 1914, the next major event for the RNAS came
in 1915 with the launching of the Galippoli Campaign.
Here the RNAS seaplanes operating from carriers or island bases were
ideally suited and it was during this period that aircraft were first used to
launch aerial torpedoes against shipping.
So by the start of 1916, the roles of the two air services
were becoming fairly well established, but problems were increasing with regard
to the supply of airframes and engines. Attempts
were made to co-ordinate the requirements of the two air arms, see
next page, but they always lacked the executive power needed to force
decisions on the Admiralty and War Office.
Therefore, complaints continued regarding the inequalities in the supply
of equipment, to the point that the RNAS was able to loan squadrons to the RFC
for operations on the Western Front and for home defence.
With the breakaway of the RNAS from the RFC, in 1915, the expansion of each continued but whereas the CFS had provided the military training for both air arms, it now became a purely RFC unit with the RNAS setting up their own training establishment at Cranwell. As a result the demands for airframes and engines as well as personnel increased still further, the pressures on the available resources. At the same time the home defence squadrons, usually equipped with obsolete and ageing machines were finding their task even more difficult posing serious questions as to the effectiveness of those forces.
In July 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed
General Jan Smuts to look into both the supply problems and the air defences.
As will be seen on the next page, he decided that the answer to both problems
was basically to amalgamate the two air arms under a single command structure
and to head that command structure with a ministerial department with equal
standing to the Admiralty and War Office. The
resulting legislation, The Air Forces (Constitution) Act of 1917, laid down the
framework for the establishment of an Air Ministry.
The central feature of the Air Ministry would be an Air Council on the
lines of the Board of Admiralty and Army Council, whose initial task would be to
plan and bring about an amalgamation of the RFC and RNAS into the Royal Air
This page was last updated on 09/06/17 using FrontPage 2003©
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