RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force

  • Published

RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force by Richard Overy. W. W. Norton & Co, 2018, 150 pp.

“For good or ill, air mastery is today the supreme expression of military power and Fleets and Armies, however necessary, must accept a subordinate rank.”

Thus ends RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force, with a 1919 quote from Winston Churchill. The new book by Richard Overy, a professor at the University of Exeter in England, details how the Royal Air Force was formed. Only 10 years after the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, European militaries were investing and experimenting with military aircraft. Less than 15 years later, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force was created as a separate and equal third service in the British military out of the six-year-old auxiliary Royal Flying Corps (RFC).


 Overy starts his work in April 1912, with the establishment of the RFC. Proceeding chronologically, the narrative ends in 1919. Initially founded as an auxiliary service, the RFC was a necessary innovation. The RFC used small wood and cloth biplanes in reconnaissance in support of ground forces and artillery spotting roles across the Western Front. It was not until late 1915 that the RFC “classed counter-force operations as a key function.” But the force grew rapidly, fielding tens of thousands of aircraft by the end of the war.  

RAF focuses on the bureaucratic and administrative developments of the RFC and its transition to the RAF, with particular emphasis on the intragovernmental struggle to establish the new service. This focus is both the key strength and weakness of the work. Absent are the voices of the young pilot and mechanics themselves, as are the descriptions of aerial combat and austere aerodrome conditions. The exhilaration of dogfighting and the pain of counting far fewer planes return than sortied. But that does not seem to have been Overy’s intent. He is much more comfortable detailing the more mundane but essential work of building a service. What uniforms will be worn? What is the official ensign? Will the new service use Navy or Army rank structures? All decisions that have to be signed off by King George V himself. RAF is more a book about the bureaucratic and political struggle to create a new service than about the men who flew over the battlefields in France.


The recent declaration of a Space Force in the US Department of Defense is an uncanny allegory. Like the creation of RFC which Ovrey labels “a political decision. . . not a decision dictated by military necessity,” the Space Force was initiated by the civilian side of the government. Also akin to the RFC, the Space Force will pull existing commands and units away from control of the Army, Navy, and Air Force in a move that is more consolidation than creation. If the allusion between the forces holds true, the Space Force will struggle for years before it is entrenched as a service. It took the RFC and RAF almost half a decade before they were finally free of Army and Admiralty attempts to dissolve them.

Overy writes about the strategic directions of the young force. During the war, German Zeppelin raids on London quickly brought home defense to the top of the British military’s priorities list. RFC squadrons, which were initially used only to support the Army and Navy, were raised for the home front and tasked with combat air patrols. These units and the tactics they developed were the precursors to Churchill’s “The Few” that protected Britain from the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. But eventually the British developed their own doctrine of strategic bombing in retaliation. Overy tells us that the tonnage of bombs the RAF dropped on “strategic targets” in the First World War could have been dropped by a dozen heavy bombers of the Second World War in a single raid. The raids on German cities, although insignificant in the tonnage of bombs dropped, foreshadowed the character of the next war 25 years later. 

The author also misses an opportunity to contrast the development of the RAF with equivalent organizations in the US, Germany, Italy, and France. All of the major powers were rapidly developing air services during the war, but the other is mentioned only briefly. It is only a page toward the end of the work that he makes clear that the RAF was unique in its status as an equal and third service. The US Air Force was not established as a separate service until 1947, almost 30 years after the RAF. He also gives only the faintest tease of an analysis of the effectiveness of establishing a separate service. In almost all respects, the RAF entered the Second World War behind her counterparts, despite being a separate service. German aviation had mastered close air support operations, and Japanese and American aviation had made huge developments in carrier borne aviation. The saving grace of the RAF was their investment in home defense, which Overy paints as “the one element in the RAF that was technically up to date and reasonably prepared [in 1939].” A network of fighters, radars, and ground defense ultimately proved decisive in the Battle for Britain and bought the island nation enough time to upgrade the rest of her air forces.

RAF is a short read at less than 150 pages, but the bureaucratic focus keeps it from being a quick read. Absent from the treatise is a treatment of the development of the RAF up to 1939 and more content focused on the tactical and operational successes and failures. Discussion of the RAF during the interwar years and across the British Commonwealth would better balance the book. That said, the narrative will prove invaluable to anyone who is pursuing significant organizational change. It also elucidates some of the RAF’s oldest traditions—even the structures and insignia that influenced the USAF. The story of the RAF is a study in institutional innovation—the challenge of building an organization that by 1918 would consist of hundreds of thousands of airmen and 10,000 aircraft in a few short years. RAF is a companion to similar books that detail the birth of institutions like the Special Air Service, the Royal Marine Commandos, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was an organization built around a new type of weapon and a new type of warfare, with every decision literally made on the fly.


1stLt Walker Mills, USMC
USMC Base Camp Pendleton, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."