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Per Ardua Ad Astra


Per Ardua Ad Astra: Part One

Report by Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork.

The Royal Air Force can trace its beginnings to the summer of 1917, when German bombers mounted a series of air raids over London. As a result, General Jan Smuts, a distinguished South African soldier and statesman, was invited to examine the air defence of Great Britain.

An Air Council came into being on 2 January 1918 and the foundation of the RAF took effect on 1 April 1918 when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were absorbed into its structure. Thus, the RAF became the first truly independent air force of any major power free to fully develop all the applications of aerial warfare.

Bristol F2b Fighter

Early days

The newly-created RAF faced a critical situation on the Western Front following the signing of an armistice between Russia and Germany. This allowed the Kaiser's troops to be moved to France where a massive offensive began on 21 March 1918. The RAF flew air reconnaissance sorties, concentrated air attacks against the advancing Germans, and fighting patrols to intercept enemy aircraft.

In June 1918 the Independent Air Force was formed and its longrange aircraft attacked industrial targets in Germany at night, the forerunner to the strategic bomber force of World War Two. At the end of the bloodiest war in history, on 11 November 1918, the RAF had 22,544 machines and almost 360,000 men, in addition to 25,000 personnel in the Women's Royal Air Force. The majority were based in north-west Europe but squadrons were also deployed to Italy, the Balkans, Palestine, Egypt, north and south Russia and India.

Within a few months, the size of the RAF was reduced dramatically. Major General Hugh Trenchard became Chief of the Air Staff in March 1919 and drew up a paper, setting out his thoughts on the necessary proportions of the RAF, which led in December 1919 to a White Paper of immense importance to the future of the Air Force.

Trenchard recommended that the few squadrons the RAF possessed in 1919 should be allocated to home Defence, the Middle east, India, the Navy and the Army. His paper went on "we now come to that on which the whole future of the Royal Air Force depends, namely the training of its officers and men".

He placed great emphasis on creating a fierce loyalty through the comradeship of a backbone of regular officers and men, trained at the RAF Cadet College Cranwell, Lincolnshire; the apprentice school at Halton, Buckinghamshire, and at a new RAF Staff College. This quality of character was particularly necessary for the post-war personnel of the RAF, not only because of their task in shaping the new service, but also in ensuring its survival and expansion in the hostile environment created by the Royal Navy and the Army.

Air Control

In the years that followed World War One, the greater part of the new RAF was deployed overseas to provide close support for the Army and the new role of air policing. Egypt became the keystone of the entire post-war deployment of RAF combat units and approval was given to establish seven squadrons.

A training wing and schools for pilot and gunnery training soon followed. Eight squadrons were to be based in India and three in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Thus, more than half of the RAF's squadrons were overseas.

The service soon proved its worth in providing close support and control when, in January 1920, a small force of Airco Dh 9s, which bombed the tribesmen's positions and put them to flight, crushed an insurrection in Somaliland. This success indicated that a handful of RAF squadrons could partly replace the British Army overseas by garrisoning large areas of the Empire, such as Egypt, Iraq and the north-west frontier of India, at a much lower cost.

The principle of air control was brought to the Middle East in October 1922 when an airman, Air Vice-Marshal John Salmond, was appointed in overall command in Iraq, providing security for the country. It was quickly recognised that forces on the ground, however modest in size, would be needed to support and complement air action.

In Iraq, locally recruited Levies came under RAF command and a number of Armoured Car Companies were formed. The squadrons, and the RAF's own ground forces, were in regular conflict with dissident tribesmen throughout Iraq, from northern Kurdistan to the southern desert.

A principal adversary in many of these small campaigns was Sheikh Mahmud who enjoyed the self-styled appointment as the RAF's chief training officer in bombing. Properly applied, air control never failed, and damage and casualties to both sides were minimal. Its success in Iraq and Transjordan led to air control being adopted in the Aden Protectorate.

The other principal area of activity was the north-west frontier of India. The RAF had first become involved on the Afghanistan frontier in 1919 and for the next 20 years, squadrons were constantly in action against the tribes of Waziristan.

Hawker Hardys

In 1925 the first independent air action of any size, known as 'Pink's War' after its RAF commander, Wing Commander R C M Pink, was mounted against Waziri dissidents. After 54 days of bombing operations, the tribal leaders agreed to peace terms and the operation became a case study with an impact on the question of the future allocation of RAF and Army resources.

Following inter-tribal disorder in Afghanistan at the end of 1928 the RAF pioneered yet another application of air power. It became necessary to evacuate the British women and children from the Legation in Kabul. During one of the severest winters on record, flying over the mountains and country that offered no opportunity for successful forced landings, 586 people were rescued.

Empire air routes and pioneering flights

Immediately after the war, attention was directed towards the important problem of air communications within the empire, and the building and development of Imperial air routes. The RAF was instrumental in establishing airmail routes, initially between Britain, France and Germany, at the end of World War One.

In December 1918 a Handley Page V/1500 made the first through flight to India and this heralded the beginning of long-range route flying by the RAF across many challenging areas of the world. The air route from Egypt to Iraq was of the greatest importance. As early as February 1919, two Dh 4s had made the flight from Baghdad to Cairo and by 1921 a desert route was established between these two cities.

A ploughed track was constructed across the desert, with refuelling facilities at a series of staging posts on the route. Converted bombers flew mail and passengers between the two capitals, paving the way for Imperial Airways to take over the route, flying through to India on scheduled services in early 1927.

By the mid-1920s, the RAF had started a series of long-range flights designed to explore routes and facilities and to test the feasibility of rapid reinforcement. In October 1925, three Dh 9As flew from Cairo to Kano in Nigeria and back, and six months later four Fairey IIIDs completed an epic flight from Cairo to Cape Town and back, before flying to England.

In 1927, four Supermarine Southampton flying-boats of the Far East Flight carried out a combined flag-waving and marine base exploration tour to Singapore via India, before flying on to Australia and Hong Kong and returning to Singapore to form the first resident squadron on the island base. A non-stop flight in April 1929 from Cranwell to Karachi in a Fairey Long-Range Monoplane was followed, in February 1933, by another record-breaking flight when Squadron Leader O R Gayford and Flight Lieutenant G e Nicholetts flew a similar aircraft non-stop from Cranwell to Walvis Bay in South Africa, creating a world record distance of 5,309 miles (8,543km).

In November 1938, two Vickers Wellesleys of the Long-Range Development Unit flew non-stop from Ismailia in Egypt to Darwin in Australia, a distance of 7,162 miles (11,526km) taking 48 hours 10 minutes. In addition to long-distance records, the RAF established a number of speed and height records. After three consecutive victories, the RAF won the Schneider Trophy outright in 1931 when Flt Lt J N Boothman flew a Supermarine S 6B. Two weeks later, flying the same aircraft, Flt Lt G h Stainforth gained the world speed record at 407.5mph (655.8km/h), the first aircraft in the world to fly faster than 400mph (643.7km/h).

Height records captured less attention, but in September 1936 Sqn Ldr F R D Swain, flying a specially-built Bristol 138 monoplane, reached 49,967ft (15,229m). Nine months later Flt Lt M J Adam, in the same aircraft, raised the record to a remarkable 53,937ft (16.4km).

Expansion and World War Two

In response to Germany's extensive rearmament programme, the RAF began a series of expansion schemes in 1934. These resulted in a major aircraft production programme, an extensive airfield building scheme and a rapid expansion of the flying and ground training schemes.

Based on the technology perfected for the Schneider Trophy contests, the hawker hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire appeared, powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin, which was later developed for the Avro Lancaster, Dh Mosquito and other war-winning aircraft, not least the US-built North American Mustang. As a result of the comprehensive expansion that took place, by the outbreak of World War Two on 3 September 1939, the RAF had grown to 175,000 officers and other ranks and almost 8,000 aircraft were available.

During the early months of the war the RAF suffered some severe reverses in Norway and France, when it became apparent that many of the less-capable aircraft were outclassed by their opponents. But in the Hurricane and Spitfire, the RAF possessed two outstanding fighters.

After the fall of France, the first year of the war was dominated by the Battle of Britain, which commenced in July 1940 and was officially declared over on 31 October 1940. During this period the RAF fought a fierce aerial battle to prevent the invasion of the British Isles.

Under the command of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the aircrew of Fighter Command - later immortalised by Winston Churchill as 'The Few' - steadily gained command of the skies. The climax came on 15 September 1940 when the Luftwaffe launched waves of attacking aircraft, which were met and beaten by the RAF fighters.

German losses were heavy and Hitler realised that the prospect of an air victory had vanished. The plans to invade were postponed and never resurrected.

56 Squadron scramble

Pilots of 56 Squadron scramble to their Hurricanes at North Weald, Essex, in 1940 [Picture: KEC]

For the rest of the war, the RAF developed a comprehensive day and night fighter organisation built around aircraft, early warning radars and a complex control and reporting system. The Luftwaffe never again returned to the skies of Britain in force. With command of the skies over the British Isles, Fighter Command went on the offensive and mounted thousands of sorties over north-west Europe.

In the later years of the war, the greatest threat posed to the country came from the V-1 flying-bombs launched from sites in northern France, and later from Heinkel He 111 bombers operating over the North Sea. Fighters, balloons and the guns of anti-aircraft units, including the RAF Regiment, accounted for almost 4,000 shot down by the end of the war.

Coastal Command

The RAF's contribution to beating the U-Boat menace in the Battle of the Atlantic was immense and started from the earliest days of the war and lasted until the final surrender in May 1945. At the outset of the war the outdated and short-range Avro Ansons and biplane flying-boats posed little threat with their puny weapons, but their presence as convoy escorts acted as a deterrent.

The advent of very long-range aircraft, air-to-surface radar, the Leigh Light and more capable weapons steadily gave the initiative to Coastal Command, and by mid-1943 the U-Boats were on the defensive, although they continued to pose a serious threat to the crucial convoys crossing the Atlantic and to Russia. It is generally accepted that aircraft of Coastal Command sank at least 192 submarines and 19 others in conjunction with ships of the Royal Navy. The RAF's strategic bombers destroyed over 20 and others were lost as a result of mining operations by aircraft of the RAF.

However, success cannot be measured by statistics alone. It will never be known how many attacks by U-Boats were thwarted by the presence of Coastal Command aircraft flying their ceaseless patrols and convoy protection sorties.

From early 1943, Coastal Command built up a number of Strike Wings of Bristol Beaufighters and Mosquitos. each had a formidable firepower and they constantly attacked shipping sailing along the Dutch and Norwegian coasts carrying crucial raw materials for the Ruhr industries.

Bomber Command

From the first days of the war, it became clear that the RAF's bombers were vulnerable on daylight operations and the Command turned to a night bombing offensive. Following the fall of France in June 1940 until the Allies landed in Normandy four years later, it was Bomber Command that carried the war to Germany in the European theatre.

Following a critical report on the accuracy of the bomber squadrons in April 1942, the new Commander-in-Chief, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, made radical alterations to the way the force operated. The advent of the four-engine bombers, more powerful weapons, better navigation and bombing aids, and the creation of the Pathfinder Force, gave much greater hitting power and allowed Harris to send over 1,000 bombers out to attack the major industrial centres of Germany with his squadrons of Lancasters, Short Stirlings, Handley Page Halifaxes and Mosquitos.

Bomber Command suffered its heaviest loss in a single raid when 795 aircraft were sent to attack the city of Nuremburg on the night of 30 March 1944. Against intense night-fighter attacks, 95 aircraft were lost, a casualty rate of 11.9%. A total of 545 British, Commonwealth and Allied airmen were killed, more than were lost in Fighter Command throughout the Battle of Britain.

Set against the terrible losses were some outstanding operations where skill and courage were in abundant evidence. None more so than the epic attack by Lancasters of 617 Squadron against the Ruhr Dams in May 1943, the breaching of the walls of Amiens prison in February 1944 by a force of Mosquito bombers and the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz in a north Norwegian fjord in November 1944.

As the war came to an end, Bomber Command turned its attention to humanitarian aid. During Operation MANNA thousands of tons of supplies were dropped to the starving Dutch population before the squadrons began the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war during Operation exodus.

By the end of the war, 364,514 individual sorties had been flown and almost a million tons of weapons dropped, but the cost in aircrew lives was grievous, with 47,268 killed on operations and over 8,000 on non-operational duties. More than 13,000 men from the Commonwealth also lost their lives in Bomber Command.

Part Two >>

Image 1: FR4583, a Bristol F 2b Fighter of 208 Squadron, carries out a patrol over the pyramids of Egypt during the 1920s. Photograph: Key–Gordon Swanborough Collection.

Image 2: A formation of Hawker Hardys from 30 (Bomber) Squadron en route to Mosul, Northern Iraq, to protect the oil pipeline in November 1937. Photograph: Key-Gordon Swanborough Collection.

Image 3: Pilots of 56 Squadron scramble to their Hurricanes at North Weald, Essex, in 1940. Photograph: KEC.

Reproduced from an original article published by Key Publishing Ltd in the RAF 90th Anniversary Official Souvenir Brochure. Copies available from