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One Hundred Years of the British Royal Air Force
Crossing class and gender boundaries, the men and women of the RAF continue to shape the story of Great Britain
By guest contributor Rebecca Seward, ProQuest metadata editor
Now know ye that it is Our Will and Pleasure that the Air Force to be established pursuant to the said Act shall be styled the ‘Royal Air Force’.” – Rothermere1
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the British Royal Air Force. Established toward the end of World War I, the RAF united squadrons from the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service became the world’s first air force to operate separately from army or navy command.
Whereas wealthy, highly educated young men previously made up the flying corps, the RAF took a more inclusive approach to recruitment. The need for staff to support the number of RAF missions created career opportunities for young men – and women – from all social classes.
By the 1930s, no matter where a cadet started within the organization, with hard work and dedication, it was possible to become an engineer or a pilot.
"Concerning the officers and men of the service… they are recruited from those who are the more virile and adventurous among the youth of the nation. In skill, resource and courage they leave nothing to be desired. A point of interest is that it is not only the officers who fly, for those who enter the ranks and become sergeants a number are trained as pilots and given their places in the machines." – Marquess O.Londonderry2
In addition to breaking down class barriers, the RAF also overcame gender boundaries. World War I brought the first mass mobilization of women into the work force in the United Kingdom. Women assumed posts as farmers, factory workers and essential maintenance workers. When the Women’s Royal Air Force was created, the so-called “penguins” (officers with no flying experience) took up positions in engineering and other flight preparation work.
But these women didn’t immediately have the respect of their male counterparts:
Possibly it is because they will not and cannot fly that they have already won for themselves the nickname of "penguins". There are some however, who are unkind enough to insinuate, that this sobriquet is attributable to their ungainly and penguin like gait when, arrayed in breeches, puttees and uniform coat, they endeavour to emulate the masculine stride and military strut of their male comrades."3 – The Washington Post
After 1920, the need for auxiliary support declined and the Women’s Royal Air Force closed. For the next twenty years the RAF busied itself providing military support to the colonies. The RAF recruited from across the former British Empire and was therefore a very diverse service with many pilots flying missions all over the world.
In 1939 World War II created a new need for military strength and the RAF once again rallied to the cause of war. The Battle of Britain, as the war of the skies was called, became one of the RAF’s defining victories but was also one of the most tragic parts of the RAF’s history. Approximately half of the pilots who flew in this war died in the battle and it left a large deficit of personnel. The sacrifice, and contributions to ultimate victory, of these troops can never truly be quantified, then-Prime Minister, Winston Churchill acknowledged:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."4 – Winston Churchill
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was resurrected in 1939 and by 1940 women were training as pilots and flying planes on civilian missions throughout the war, delivering newly-manufactured planes and carrying supply loads.
The Air Transport Auxiliary women were respected for their vital role in the war effort5:
There are nine members of this body, which is managed for the Air Ministry by British Airways. Miss Pauline Gower is the First Officer and has eight Second Officers under her -all women pilots of daring, skill and experience. They receive salary and flight pay, and wear dark-blue uniform with special A.T.A wings.
Over the last century, the RAF has been an essential pillar of British military power, and increasingly in demand. The air support and transport services provided by this branch of the armed forces ranges from missions in war zones to humanitarian efforts. Notably, Prince William flew rescue missions with the RAF before flying emergency helicopter sorties for the East Anglia Air Ambulance Service. Additionally, one of the most recent actions of the RAF brought supplies to parts of Britain cut off by the unexpected snow fall in this past spring.
Beyond flight, numerous trades function within the RAF, spanning fields such as communications, maintenance, the sciences, health and medicine and aircraft mechanics, providing training and career opportunities for auxiliary personnel. With nearly 35,000 people currently employed by the organization, the RAF has critically shaped the past – and is shaping the future – of Great Britain.
For further research, check out these resources:
History Vault – related modules include:
- World War I: British Foreign Office Political Correspondence
- World War I: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, and Diplomacy in the World War I Era
- World War II: U.S. Documents on Planning, Operations, Intelligence, Axis War Crimes, and Refugees
- Women at Work during World War II: Rosie the Riveter and the Women’s Army Corps
ProQuest Military Database – Spanning over 700 publications, this database includes diverse content types including scholarly journals, trade and industry journals, magazines, government reports, conference papers and more, for coverage across all government and military branches.
ProQuest British Periodicals – This resource offers facsimile page images and searchable full text for nearly 500 British periodicals published from the seventeenth century through to the twentieth century.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers – Historical newspaper content is among researchers’ most sought-after primary source material. With more than 50 premier historical titles, ProQuest Historical Newspapers™ is the definitive newspaper digital archive empowering researchers to digitally travel back through centuries to become eyewitnesses to history.
Help students and researchers gain insight from first-hand accounts of military and diplomatic relations spanning time and borders with access to an array of resources from ProQuest.
- ROTHERMERE. (1918, Apr 01). "The Royal Air Force." The Piloteer: The Magazine of Cranwell Station, R.N.A.S., 2, 37. Available from Trench Journals and Unit Magazine of the First World War.
- LONDONDERRY, M. O. (1935, Jun 28). “Great Britain's Royal Air Force.” The Palestine Post (1933-1950). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- (1918, Apr 14). "FAIR BRITISH AERO WORKERS ARE KNOWN AS ‘PENGUINS.’" The Washington Post (1877-1922). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Harry, C. P. (2000, 08). “The Few Who Fought the Battle of Battles.” The Field, 296, 86-89. Available from ProQuest British Periodicals.
- "WE TAKE OFF OUR HAT TO THESE PILOTS OF THE AIR TRANSPORT AUXILIARY, for Being the First Women Ferry Pilots for R.A.F. Machines." (1940). The Sketch, 189(2451), 76. Available from ProQuest British Periodicals.