This month will mark a very important date in military history, but what did it really mean for the men who took to the skies? Rebecca MacNaughton finds out
celebrating the centenary of the RAF
ON 11th November 1918, the guns of the First World War fell silent as allied forces celebrated victory – but only seven months earlier, the engines had rumbled and the propellers had rattled in one of Britain’s riskiest military moves.
Britain’s early dominance in the air depended on two separate branches of air power, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), but in 1917 their weaknesses were catastrophically exposed. Daylight raids made by German Gotha bombers in June 1917 left hundreds of people dead and more injured, and London devastated by bombs.
With both services competing for the same engines, change was necessary. General Jan Christian Smuts was appointed to solve the crisis, and his recommendation to amalgamate the forces was eventually awarded Royal Assent. On 1st April 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formally created. It was a gamble – that same spring saw Germany make its most powerful offensive yet.
Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome (SMGWA) near Maldon, Essex, not only saw this change happen, but still operates today. The site functions as a working aerodrome and with several museums open to the public, it operates guided tours and hosts specialist event days featuring reproduction aircraft, to celebrate the history and impact of the RFC’s 37 Squadron.
“To transfer from the RFC to the RAF took a lot of faith,” says Ian Flint, chief executive of SMGWA Trust. “They had come from a culture in which regiment – in every sense of the word – is key. But in the RAF, there was no tradition and no insignia – they didn’t even have their own uniforms. It was an unnerving change for lots of people, but it was also exciting.”
Those who served at Stow Maries played a vital role in defending London and the British mainland from German advances. Following their transition to the RAF in 1918, they had 219 personnel and 16 aircraft recorded as present. “But the RFC itself was more than just people and engines – it was knowledge – and that was also something that had to be factored in,” Ian says. “Up until then, very little in the way of organisation had been written down. Most of the knowledge had been built on the ground, through doing, and it had to be passed on. This either happened in 1918, during combat actions, or long after armistice had been declared.”
In 1919, three months into peacetime, Stow Maries saw its
staff increase to approximately 300 people. This was the first time that the squadron had all been together at one station, but a month later the staff were transferred to Biggin Hill. The site closed its doors as an RAF base and returned to its age-old farming role. In 2007, it was discovered through a private concern.
Now part of a major conservation project, the site is working towards a grant of £4.3 million from the National Lottery, and hopes to be transformed into a major visitor attraction. On 31st March, it will host a conference about the history of the RAF, becoming just one of the many places around the country to celebrate the centenary.
Between April and September, RAF100 will steer a nationwide schedule of special events to commemorate, celebrate and inspire. A key component of the programme will be the RAF Baton Relay, which will visit 100 sites in 100 days. A national aircraft tour will also visit major cities in the UK, including Cardiff, Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester.
It is hoped that the next generation will also be inspired to learn more
Whilst the campaign celebrates those who have selflessly defended the nation, RAF100 will also teach. Research has shown that understanding of the force is limited among young females and minority groups, and it is hoped that by educating and attracting a more diverse workforce, the next generation will better reflect the nation they serve.
Last November, a youth and STEM programme was also rolled out across England, expected to reach up to two million students aged nine to 15. The aim is to build an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths, both to better equip future fleets and to ease the national skills shortage. The programme includes 1,000 STEM boxes distributed to schools, 100 curriculum-based activity days, residential courses at RAF bases and a new Air Researcher Badge implemented for Scouts UK.
The youth programme promotes a founding principle of the RAF to deliver first-class education and training, and by reaching out to young people and minority groups, it is clear that RAF100 is more than just a commemorative event. With veterans and their families joining in celebrations across the country, it is hoped that the next generation will also be inspired to learn more.
Right: Royal Air Force scouting planes in WWI
The last flying Vulcan
WWI Royal Air Force officers
The Stow Maries Aerodrome