Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation
The Air Force (Constitution) Act of 1917 brought into being two bodies, the Air Ministry and the Royal Air Force. However, to appreciate the starting position of the RAF in terms of its organisational structure, we need to examine the legacy of its predecessors. The Balloon Section and the Air Battalion had been purely Army units and therefore traditional Army unit titles were adopted, Section, Company and Battalion. The formation of the Royal Flying Corps brought fresh problems in that it was intended to be a ‘joint service’ unit but the British services have a long tradition of rivalry and attempts to establish a unit able to work within a common organisational framework was not going to be easy, particularly with regard to unit titles and designations.
obvious solution lay in adopting titles already in use by both services and new
titles with no previous connection to either service but reflecting the medium
in which the new branch would operate, the air. As a result the RFC was to be divided into two WINGS, a new
title, one military and one naval, whilst the basic formations within each Wing
would be the SQUADRON, a title used by both the Royal Navy and the Army.
The sub-division of the squadron would be given another new title, the
as we saw in Chapter 1, the Naval Wing eventually gained its independence from
the RFC, which now effectively became a Corps in the Army.
When in 1915, the need arose to expand the organisational structure of
the RFC, it was logical to group squadrons into larger units and to re-use the
term WING. When yet another level
of command was needed to cope with expansion, the RFC reverted to a traditional
Army title, BRIGADE. By 1918, the Brigade remained the highest operational level
of subordinate unit, although a Training Division had been set up in Britain.
Originally squadrons in the Military Wing had been designated by numbers,
which gave no indication of role or location, the numbers being allocated purely
in sequence. By 1918 there was some duplication of these numbers as a
result of the formation of Training Squadrons.
The operational Squadrons in the fields used the numbers whilst the
Training Squadrons had the role designation (Training) added.
Naval Wing on the other hand had tended to group it aircraft in squadrons named
after the location of the unit (e.g. Eastchurch Squadron). However, by the beginning of World War 1 the basic RNAS
operational unit was called the WING. These
Wings were designated by numbers and were often sub-divided into squadrons,
usually designated by letters. Later
in the war, the RNAS adopted a system more in line with the RFC in adopting
numbered squadrons. This was
achieved by either splitting up the Wings into separate squadrons or
redesignating the Wings as squadrons. However,
the RNAS continued to operate independent flights and squadrons named after
their locations as were Airship units.
the RAF came into being on 1 April 1918, some form of rationalisation was
needed. The basic unit was kept as
the Squadron, sub-divided into Flights, whilst the next level adopted was the
Wing. As the majority of RAF
squadrons were ex-RFC, it was logical to maintain the Army system in France and
Wings continued to be grouped into Brigades.
RNAS numbered squadrons were redesignated by the addition of 200 to their
existing number; e.g. No 1 Squadron RNAS became No 201 Squadron RAF.
Those RNAS squadrons without numbers were allocated numbers in the 200's
whilst independent flights were grouped into squadrons, for administrative
purposes, given numbers but left to operate independently.
All ex-RNAS units, operating in France, where placed under the command of
a Wing or Brigade for operational control.
However, Airship units were left under the control of the Admiralty and
therefore did not come in line with this system, continuing to be identified as
little seemed to change in France, back in Britain, a completely new
organisational structure was established as the Air Council had decided to set
up their own support services, such as Medical, Equipment and Administration
rather than rely on the existing Army facilities.
As a result RAF units at home where formed into new units, named GROUPS,
with a numbers of Group being controlled by an AREA Headquarters.
At this stage an Area was the largest sub-unit and was classified as a
COMMAND, a Command being directly responsible to the Air Ministry with no
intermediate level of authority. Areas where formed on a Geographic basis,
controlling all units in their terroritary regardless of their role, whilst
Groups were given specific roles, such as Training, Operational, Marine
Operational, etc. Two of the
Marine Operational Groups, No’s 5 and 29, which controlled ex-RNAS units, were
temporarily raised to Command status, during late 1918/early 1919.
The Area system was also adopted in the Middle East, where an Area HQ was
established with Groups formed to control the operational units in smaller
zones, such as Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Italy. The only other part of
the world at that time with a RAF presence was India, where the RFC had sent No
31 Squadron in 1915. Initially
those units based in India were formed into a Group within Middle East Area.
point of contention between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry was the operation
of aircraft from carriers and of airships. The Admiralty initially won the concession that airship
design, procurement and their operation would remain with them, although the
personnel were transferred to the RAF. However,
the aeroplanes as well as the personnel were transferred to the RAF, although
they continued to operate from Royal Navy ships as before.
These units were eventually named ‘Air Force Contingents’ and
although administered by the Air Ministry, their personnel came under naval
orders and the Navy (Discipline) Act whilst aboard ship.
the rundown to the RAF after WW1 the Areas where gradually amalgamated until
only two Areas existed, Northern and Southern.
However, ex-RNAS units had usually been controlled by Groups set up for
that specific purpose and these Groups would often be responsible for units
stationed in geographical locations in another Groups or even Area’s
territory. This problem was solved
by the formation of Coastal Area in 1919 to control all units involved in the
operation of maritime aircraft and aircraft operating with the Fleet.
looked at the organisation of the RAF at home during this period, let us now
turn our attention to the service overseas. On 1 April 1918, the bulk of the
RAF's operational strength was based in Northern France, leaving in Britain
those units involved in training, home defence and maritime patrol.
The RAF in the Field continued to run on the same lines as the RFC had
previously. Squadrons were grouped
into Wings and Wings into Brigades. Wings
continued to be attached to a specific Army and to operate in all the required
roles along the active front of that Army.
However, France was not the only overseas theatre to see RAF units in
action. To look
at the post-war organisational developments, let us take each area in turn
starting with the mainland of Europe. With the Armistice in November 1918 came the run-down of the
RAF in France, although there was a HQ for France and Flanders until early 1920.
This HQ was mainly concerned with maintenance, disposal
and return of aircraft to Britain. Those
units which accompanied the Army into Germany as occupation forces came under
the command of RAF Rhine but by early 1920 the total RAF strength in Germany was
down to a single squadron (No 12). However,
with the disbandment of No 12 in July 1922, an RAF presence in Europe came to an
end, although RAF Rhine had disbanded in 1920, No 12 then coming under the
direct control of the Army of Occupation.
main overseas command once the war in Europe was over became the Middle East.
The Middle East Brigade (later retitled Middle East Area) controlled both
operational and training units in Egypt and Palestine as well as units operating
in the Mediterranean and Aegean. As
in Britain the ex-RFC units carried on much as before whilst the ex-RNAS units
were either renumbered or grouped into numbered squadrons.
A number of Groups were established within Middle East Area, some being
given numbers whilst others were named after the geographic areas they covered.
Back in Britain the country had initially been divided into 5 Areas, identified by a number, however just over a month later these five Areas had been renamed with geographic titles.
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