On April 1 the country commemorated the centenary of the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), which is the world’s oldest independent air force. 

While Britain was not the first country to make use of heavier-than-air aircraft for military purposes, the RAF was the first air force to become independent of army or navy control.

The RAF was founded by amalgamating the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. It was controlled by the British Government Air Ministry which had been established three months earlier.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had been under the control of the British Army. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was its naval equivalent and was controlled by the Admiralty.

The decision to merge the two services and create an independent air force was a response to the events of World War I, the first war in which air power made a significant impact. 

To emphasize the merger of both military and naval aviation in the new service, many of the titles of officers were deliberately chosen to be of a naval character, such as flight lieutenant, wing commander, group captain, and air commodore.

The bravery of the men who took to the air in what were machines that had been far from perfected must be greatly admired. The beginning of WWI in the year 1914 was only eleven years after the first controlled powered flight by the Wright Bros, on December 17 1903. 

The potential for aircraft in warfare had only just been realised, and at that time the main role was seen as observing the enemy positions, with actual aerial combat only coming as a consequence of that.

Something like 19 out of every 20 aerial sorties flown during WWI were reconnaissance missions. There is no doubt that such aircraft played an increasingly key role in the conflict yet there had been considerable resistance to their introduction before the war. 

Many Generals in the British Army doubted the value of aircraft. Traditionally cavalry units had been the army’s ‘eyes’, but aircraft soon proved their worth to both sides in the conflict.

They became indispensable on the Western Front when trench warfare reduced cavalry to immobility all along the front. They soon became so effective, and therefore important, that fighter aircraft were developed specifically to shoot down the reconnaissance aircraft.

The newly created RAF was the most powerful air force in the world on its creation, with over 20,000 aircraft and more than 300,000 personnel. This includes around 30,000 airwomen who served with the Women’s Royal Air Force.

The squadrons of the RFC kept their numerals while those of the RNAS were renumbered from 201 onwards. At the time of the merger, the Navy’s air service had 55,066 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations.

The remaining personnel and aircraft came from the RFC. A memorial to the RAF was commissioned after the war in central London.

Following the end of World War I and the accompanying British defence cuts, the newly independent (and still temporary) RAF waited nine months to see if it would be retained by the Government.

6,500 officers, all holding temporary commissions or seconded from the Army and Navy, applied for permanent commissions. The Cabinet sanctioned a maximum of 1,500 and the Air Ministry offered 1,065 to the applicants, publishing the first list on 1 August 1919, 75 per cent of them short-term (two to five years). 

The service as a whole had been reduced in strength to 35,500, but was now established firmly as the third fighting force, with the British Army and the Royal Navy.

The RAF’s last known surviving founder member was the World War I veteran Henry Allingham who died in 2009 aged 113.

During WWI several thousand local men served in either the RFC, RNAS or RAF, mostly as Air Mechanics, servicing and maintaining the aircraft.

In last week’s Nostalgia, we told the story of Wycombe’s official WWI flying ace Maurice Mealing, who was awarded the Military Cross. The district has a long association with aviation, which has been comprehensively described in the book by local authors Ian Simmons and Dave Scott entitled High Wycombe’s Contribution to Aviation. 

They detail the important role carried out by local men such as Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and George Holt Thomas. De Havilland went on to achieve a national reputation as an aircraft-designer but Holt Thomas, who established a factory in Wycombe at the end of WWI solely to manufacture aircraft, is much less well-known.

He was a remarkable man, multi-talented, but unfortunately the factory quickly became redundant following the WWI Armistice on Nov 11, 1918.
Another local pioneer in the design and manufacture of aircraft was Sir (Charles) Richard Fairey, who lived in Iver.

He founded his company in 1915 at the age of only 28 and played a leading part in the growth of the aviation industry from the early flying days to the era of supersonic flight.

From the company came the Fairey Delta II, which was the first aircraft to take the world airspeed record above 1,000 miles per hour. 

It established this new record on March 10, 1956 when it averaged 1,112 mph in level flight. Other records which he secured for Britain was the non-stop long-distance record of 5,309 in 1933 and the helicopter speed record of 124 mph in 1948. Sir Richard was also a keen yachtsman, with many trophies to his name.

A local man who became a high-ranking officer in the RAF was Robert Jope-Slade who lived at Medmenham. In the Great War he joined the RNAS and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on Sept 14 1917 for his bravery during a bombing raid on Snellegem Aerodrome in Belguim.

He remained in the RAF in the inter-war period, being progressively promoted to Group Captain. 

In WWII he was killed on 5 May 1941 during a mission in Egypt and is remembered with honour on the Alamein Memorial.

Copies of the book High Wycombe’s Contribution to Aviation are available for £10 from Wycombe Museum or directly from the author Dave Scott davescott321@btinternet.com.