Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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The Development of British Military Aviation

[Balloon Store | Balloon Section | Balloon Companies | Air Battalion | RFC | RNAS | RAF]

Balloon Store

British military aviation began in the last quarter of the19th Century, when an interested group of Army officers started to experiment with hydrogen filled balloons.  These activities took on a more substantial form when an Army Balloon Equipment Store was set up at Woolwich in 1878.  An officer of the Middlesex Militia, Captain J L B Templar was appointed as its instructor and became the first prominent personality in British Military history.  Controlled by the Royal Engineers, it moved to Chatham in 1882 where, it was later joined by a factory, depot and school.  Personnel and equipment saw active service in 1884 and 1885 during the Bechuanaland and Sudan expeditions respectively, before the formal establishment of a Balloon Section in 1890. 

Balloon Section

Formed at Aldershot in 1890, the Balloon Factory and Balloon School moved to the same location, from Chatham, in 1892.  The South African (Boar) War of 1899 - 1901 provided the impetus for ballooning to develop in the British Army.  They proved extremely useful during operations at Ladysmith, Zwarts Kop, Magersfontein and Bloemfontain to mention but a few.

Balloon Companies

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.

Air Battalion

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

However, 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: -

1)        The establishment of a Flying Corps,

2)        Within the Flying Corps, the establishment of a Naval Wing,

3)        Within the Flying Corps, the establishment of a Military Wing,

4)       The establishment of a Central Flying School., to serve both Wings

5)       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.

One 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 1911. 

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

As 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.  

Supply Problems

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.

Royal Air Force

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 Force (RAF).   

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

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