The Creation of the Royal Air Force



The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in 1912 and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in 1914, in response to the growing awareness of the role that aircraft could play in military operations. This role was believed to be primarily for reconnaissance.

Over the course of the First World War, the role or roles that the RFC and RNAS could undertake and support were greatly expanded to include communication, air defence, aerial combat and attack/bombing. Key issues had arisen on the overlapping of roles in the two branches and, crucially, supplies of aircraft and the training of personnel appeared to be in competition with one another.

Investigation of the overlap and problems of supply were investigated by Lord Derby’s Joint War Air Committee (February 1916), an Air Board under Lord Curzon (May 1916) and another Air Board under Lord Cowdray (January 1917). Both men saw the benefits of a united single air service, but the former did not believe it could be achieved during wartime.

After aerial attacks against the UK, resulting in civilian casualties, Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed General Jan Christian Smuts to a government committee to examine air defence. Smuts had as his close adviser Sir David Henderson. They recommended in two reports, issued on 19 July and 17 August 1917, to unify the RFC and RNAS to create a new service. It was this recommendation that formed the basis of the bill put before Parliament in November 1917.

General Haig and others were concerned about the formation of a new force, but the need to solve pressing problems at home and on the fighting fronts overrode individuals in the Army and Navy senior command.

Smuts believed that an independent air force in the future would become the forward point for any military action:

‘There is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industries and populous centres on a vast scale may become one of the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.’

The Air Force Constitution Act 1917

Preparations for the service were kept largely quiet in the months following the reports. There were concerns about the impact it would have on the enemy if they knew about a new service being created.

The Act was put before Parliament on 29 November 1917 for:

An Act to make provision for the establishment, administration, and discipline of an Air Force, the establishment of an Air Council, and for purposes connected therewith.

In its body, it provided information for raising a force:

Raising and number of Air Force.

It shall be lawful for His Majesty to raise and maintain a force, to be called the Air Force, consisting of such number of officers, warrant officers, non-commissioned officers, and men as may from time to time be provided by Parliament.

It also covered the discipline and pay conditions and ensured the transfer to the new Air Force of the members of the Naval (RNAS) and Military (RFC) Forces. Also explored was the transfer of equipment.

Other sections of the Act were in keeping with the conditions and organisation of the military of 1917, some of which have been overtaken by subsequent acts.

Additions to the Act included the provision that the new RAF would come into being on 1 April 1918, when it would be given Royal Assent. The four months beforehand were important in order to carry out the transfer and set up the new service.

The Act was passed on 29 November 1917.