The British Royal Air Force (RAF) has been on the forefront of aerial combat since its inception on April 1, 1918, 100 years ago. Initially, most flight operations were still in their infancies and run out of the British Navy. However, by early 1918, the first World War had been raging for approximately four years, forcing the rapid development of wartime assets in the air. Germany was a force to be reckoned with in this regard, boasting top tier aerial technology and skilled pilots, like Manfred von Richthofen, or the “Red Baron,” a German captain who won some 80 victories in the air. The British sought to meet these challenges, and they would build the largest air force in the world at the time. They would allegedly shoot down 2,953 enemy aircraft over the duration of the war.
The RAF again answered the call in WWII, making huge strides in aerial combat technology and conducting numerous famous missions. In 1940, German forces were encroaching upon Britain, preparing themselves for an all out invasion of the island by both sea and air in what would be known as the Battle of Britain. The British had suffered massive losses, and despite the successful evacuation at Dunkirk, now faced being totally overrun by German forces. This kicked off a vicious battle in the skies, where the RAF kept the Germans at bay, in what would become the first major campaign exclusively fought in the sky. 1,542 British air crew were killed, taking 2,585 enemy air crew with them. The German Luftwaffe successfully ran several raids on British population centers like London, but simply could not entirely overcome the British RAF. On 15 September, the Nazis attempted an all out assault in an attempt to take the country, and the RAF once again repelled them — the RAF lost 26 aircraft and Germany lost 60. Crediting the RAF with saving the British, Churchill famously said “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
As wars progressed, so did the technology and capabilities of the RAF. On top of the expected planes and helicopters, they have their own intelligence apparatus, military police, logistics arm, medical, chaplains and legal branches. Today, they are publicly engaged in 13 missions across four different continents, and are operating in 22 separate countries.
The RAF is conducting several celebrations, remembering the last 100 years of successful, meritorious service to the UK. Special exhibitions, re-enactments, military balls, museum specials, memorials for the fallen, and much more has been planned to this end.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.