Royal Air Force

The military air force of one of the world’s most powerful countries.

The Royal Air Force is the airborne fleet and pride of the United Kingdom. The history of this air fleet dates as far back as 1880 when balloons were first used in British military maneuvers at Aldershot. Britain’s first military air unit, the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, was founded in 1911, and one year later, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was constituted. Three days after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked World War I, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed from the naval wing of the RFC. These two branches of the British military constituted Britain’s air force throughout most of World War I. Finally, on April 1, 1918, the Royal Air Force was founded by reamalgamating the RNAS and RFC. The RAF was engaged in several small wars between the two World Wars, but it was World War II that offered the service the opportunity to show their true prowess.

The Battle of Britain

The RAF particularly distinguished itself in 1940 during the Battle of Britain and prevented a German invasion. The German dictator Adolf Hitler saw England as a key target to be taken for his own designs. The Battle of Britain began its first phase of defense against the German aggression in August and September of 1940, when the fall of France had left Britain exposed to immediate German invasion. This period also forms what has been referred to as the most dangerous period of the war. England had scarcely enough equipment to arm two divisions, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, raised the fighting spirit in the people and particularly among the RAF pilots who were called on night after night to fight in the skies over England. His famous words regarding the absolute need for victory are well known: “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!”

Hitler’s plan for Operation Sea Lion, the German code name for their planned invasion of Great Britain, called for heavy use of the German Luftwaffe air fleet. In order to achieve a successful invasion, it was necessary for the Luftwaffe to gain control of the airspace above the English Channel and, geographically, the southern portion of England. In the first phase of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy the Royal Air Force and its bases. Initially it seemed as if the Luftwaffe had a better advantage and would be successful in their battle for control of British airspace and indeed Britain itself. The British credit the determination and courage of the Royal Air Force pilots who fought the Germans in the air as one of the key factors that led to the success of the Royal Air Force. The RAF also greatly benefitted from a newly developed radar warning system. While the British suffered great damage and loss of life from the continued air raids and attacks from the Luftwaffe, the Germans suffered severe losses as well. Home defenses were prepared that had strengthened coastal areas, and local militia volunteers supported the RAF in any way they could. Later called the Home Guard, their ranks swelled to about half a million and worked for the defense of the country, as well as helping the RAF in any way possible.

It was generally assumed that Hitler had a grandiose scheme for Operation Sea Lion, but in truth there was no such plan. The Germans had hardly thought beyond the defeat of the French government, simply assuming that once France had been conquered and occupied—knocked out of the war, as it were—the British would see the folly of further armed resistance and capitulate. In actuality, it was not until May, 1940, that Hitler began to formulate thoughts about the invasion of Britain, and not until approximately July that preparations for a landing in England began to take shape. Such a plan required naval power and a command of critical airspace. Churchill and his war advisory ministers faced what he termed the “hateful decision” that the French fleet could not fall into German hands to be used against England, and thus, after a long and heated debate with the war ministers, knowing that superiority at sea was their only serious advantage, British warships began a bombardment and destruction of French naval fleets in Oran, Nigeria, and Dakar, French West Africa.

At the same time, Germany increased and intensified their air raids against Britain. Furious at the British for not capitulating and surrendering, Hitler issued orders for an all-out campaign, with orders to seek out and destroy the Royal Air Force, their bases, and the British aircraft industry itself. For approximately three weeks in late August and early September, 1940, an average of one thousand Luftwaffe planes were over Britain daily. Their targets were airfields, known factories, suspected radar stations, and the famed docks of East London. The Germans had successfully used a technique called Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” whereby they invaded by sea, land, and air. They could not use the Blitzkrieg successfully to land in England, but they did indeed blitz from the skies day after day, night after night, in an attempt to wear down the pilots, people, and government of King George VI.

Initially, the RAF was unorganized, and there was doubt they could hold against the German onslaught. However, by the first week of September, the RAF grew in strength and sheer determination as the pilots flew round the clock to keep the Germans from gaining critical air superiority. By mid-September, 1940, the RAF was displaying greater effectiveness and efficiency in the air, and were downing two Luftwaffe planes for every one British loss. Thus, the German attempt to invade England was a dismal failure and cost them dearly. Hitler finally conceded that his Operation Sea Lion plans were in defeat and postponed and eventually cancelled further land or sea plans to invade England. He was forced to disperse the shipping units poised for the invasion, and by the end of September, 1940, the British government felt safe in assuming that there would be no invasion of their island homeland.

The Germans continued heavy night raid bombing, as defenses were rendered more difficult at night because of darkness and cloud cover. Hitler moved to systematically destroy any identifiable center of British industry. Particularly during the winter of 1940-1941, London was under constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe. On the night of December 8-9, 1940, more than four hundred Luftwaffe bombers blitzed London, inflicting great damage. Other industrial areas, including Coventry, Birmingham, Plymouth, and Liverpool, suffered the same heavy air attacks. In June, 1941, Hitler diverted his attention to Russia, which diminished the pressure on England and its Royal Air Force. Ultimately, just a handful of courageous pilots had saved the island, and Prime Minister Churchill gratefully thanked the Royal Air Force pilots, saying that “never had so many owed so much to so few.”

There were great odds against the RAF, but one of their main advantages was their planes. The German planes were heavy and could only fly for a limited time without returning to refuel. The planes were also big and bulky, making changes in flight pattern and maneuvering difficult, if not impossible. The RAF flew in smaller planes, the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. While these are the most popularly known planes, there were others that fought in the Battle of Britain and throughout the war, such as the Gloster Gladiator and the Bristol Blenheim. The British aircraft gained advantage from their ability to dart and dive around, above, and below the heavier Luftwaffe planes. It was hard for the Germans to hit such moving targets. The British planes were lighter and smaller, and ultimately proved far more efficient in the long run. There are restoration programs underway to restore some of the original Spitfire and Hurricane planes.

The Modern RAF

Today, the Royal Air Force is a viable fleet of aviation power. Their training is world-renowned and intense. The Battle of Britain is not forgotten as pilots and career service personnel train in various schools and branches of the Royal Air Force. They are the air defense system of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, incorporating other Commonwealth nation units among their own, training together in a common cause of defense and international friendship. In May, 2001, the British Ministry of Defense announced plans to incorporate New Zealand’s top combat pilots after that country decided to scrap the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s fighter squadrons. Anticipating what may be the largest ever influx of New Zealand airmen into the Royal Air Force since World War II, the Ministry of Defense is nonetheless looking to fill their many vacancies, primarily for pilots, but also for necessary support personnel such as doctors and engineers. The Royal Air Force has indicated its willingness to pursue any enquiry received from the New Zealand service. Ironically, the Royal Air Force has been suffering an outflow of pilots despite greater and special financial incentives to remain in RAF service. New Zealand’s termination of its fighter squadrons comes at a beneficial time for the RAF, affording the RAF the opportunity to recruit fully trained pilots who could easily assimilate the RAF’s culture and traditions. Planning to sell off its fighter planes and equipment, New Zealand’s fleet could easily supply the shortages the Royal Air Force is facing in planes and helicopters.

Present career training in the Royal Air Force includes such specific and demanding work as the air battle combat support course. This particular course is done in four phases, which culminate in war games. Run twice a year for two intensive weeks, each class is limited to eighteen students, who must demonstrate the ability to withstand the class. Other classes include the air electronic warfare course, an intensive aerosystems course, an air battle staff course, and an air electronic warfare course.

Senior RAF personnel study joint targeting and missions, joint air weapons systems, senior officers air warfare, and targeting and battle damage assessment. If one takes the aerosystems course, the phases contain such topics as platforms and weapons, navigation, electronics and communications, information systems, sensors, and integrated systems. With a long history behind it, the Royal Air Force remains one of the strongest air force fleets in the modern world.


  • James, T. C. G. The Battle of Britain. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2000. The RAF’s official history of its defining moment.
  • Nesbit, Roy Conyers. RAF: An Illustrated History from 1918. Thrupp, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. Published to commemorate the RAF’s eightieth anniversary, this history, written by a well-known aviation writer, covers all the service’s main’s campaigns. Profusely illustrated.
  • Royal Air Force Web Site. ( .html) This site will provide many links for various types of information about the RAF. Various links navigate an amazing network of information, including extensive bibliographies and technical aircraft information.

Battle of Britain


Military flight


World War II

Two Hawker Hurricane Mark I fighter planes take off on August 15, 1940, to fight in the Battle of Britain.

(Hulton Archive)