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Why we have an Air Force

Find out about the RAF and its history


Air Force

The Air Force is known as the Junior Service because it’s the youngest of the three services.  Whilst we’ve had soldiers and sailors for hundreds of years, aircraft only took to the skies properly early in the last century.

During World War One, there was no Royal Air Force.  The Army had the Royal Flying Corps that was occupied with the war in France, whilst the Navy had the Royal Naval Air Service that primarily defended its dockyards and arsenals against air attack.  But as the war developed, the Germans began to use airships and planes to bomb our cities.  The planes of the RFC and RNAS weren’t able to get within striking distance of the Germans who could outfly them.  And so in April 1918 the Royal Air Force was created to defend the skies over Britain.

A typical aircraft from that era, the Sopwirth Camel was a bi-plane – these have two wings – one above the other. They were 6 metres long and would fly at around 115 miles per hour. To see the enemy, they’d use binoculars and to navigate – well, it would be nothing more than compasses and maps!

Compare that with a modern plane – such as the Tornado GR4.  It’s twice as long, uses radar, satellite and infrared technologies – and can travel at nearly one THOUSAND miles an hour! In fact, speed is one of the biggest reasons why we have an air force.

Planes can travel much faster than land-based vehicles and so are able to respond quickly to threats – or to get help where it is needed.   Another benefit is all about having a bird’s eye view…

Aircraft travelling at 40,000 feet above land can perform reconnaissance – that’s observing what’s going on and making recordings and taking measurements – which is massively important to help us identify threats or pinpoint where aid should be sent. Of course one of the most important times we need an air force is in battle.

The RAF are right at the forefront of modern combat – and at no other time has this been more crucial than during the Second World War.

During World War Two, the world saw some of the most ferocious air combat of all time.  During the Battle of Britain, London and other parts of the country were battered by air raids from the German air force.  It was called The Blitz – over 32 thousand people were killed, and 18 thousand bombs were dropped on London alone.

The RAF responded by sending out all its fighters to stop the German bombers from reaching their targets.  And sending bombers on bombing raids on German cities and factories – it caused so much chaos that Hitler was forced to halt his plans – an important step in winning the war.

These days there isn’t as much need to defend our own airspace, and the types of wars that occur tend to be very different to those in the past.  The RAF are more likely to be on expeditionary tours – going to other parts of the world to help make countries secure or to offer aid.  In the last few years they have seen action in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Operationally, the RAF is structured into three groups. One group controls the RAF’s combat fast jet aircraft – planes like the Typhoon, Lightning II and Tornado.  A second group controls the strategic and tactical air transport aircraft – such as air transport using Hercules and the impressive Globemasters, air-to-air refuelling and intelligence surveillance.  The third Group is responsible for recruiting, personnel management and training.

All RAF personnel receive initial training that teaches them about RAF culture and equips them with basic skills.  They also receive specialist training in one of over 50 different roles – from chefs and photographers to technicians and RAF Regiment Gunners protecting the bases.  And when trained, they will be based either at one of the many bases in the UK or at one of the RAF’s four permanent overseas bases – on Cyprus, Ascension Island, Gibraltar and Falkland Islands.

Most bases are like small, self-contained towns with shops, gyms, playing fields, crèches, post offices, cinemas and even bowling alleys. Some are close to large cities while others are more remote because things like night flying need to be conducted in less populated areas.  Wherever they are, on base or in the sky – home or abroad, the RAF is an important part of our Armed Forces.

Like the other services, the RAF also have their pageantry – although you’ll see it in the sky rather than on the ground.  As well as the Red Arrows, one of the world’s premier aerobatic display teams, there’s the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which flies historic planes like the Spitfire and Lancaster bombers, the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team and the RAF Chinook Display Team.

If you want to find out more about the history and roles of the RAF, why not visit the RAF Museum in Hendon.

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Life in the Armed Forces

Find out about Life in the Armed Forces

More From Life in the Armed Forces