100 wings

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

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.