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1 December 2018

RAF Centenary

Tag(s): History
In this remarkable year of anniversaries it is worth noting the centenary of the foundation of the Royal Air Force (RAF). I have no particular connections with the RAF, but recall the words of Winston Churchill to the effect that while the Army and the Navy could lose the Second World War only the Air Force could win it. My father fought in the Army, my wife’s father was a Commander in the Chilean Navy while her stepfather was a pilot in the Chilean Air Force. On the ground he was somewhat of a mild mannered man but in the air he was a tiger. I once flew with him and was amazed by his supreme confidence and his total mastery of his instruments.

On one occasion he and my mother-in-law visited us in England. He then told me of his plans to buy a second hand two seater in the US which he would fly down to Chile and then use to teach other pilots. He bought the plane in Kansas where there is a giant market for second hand aircraft and flew single handed the huge journey to Santiago. On flying over Colombia he requested permission to land. He was asked for his name. “Dario Escobar” he replied. Escobar is of course the name of the notorious cocaine gangster and so he had some difficulty with the security services. Then on flying over Peru he was short of fuel and requested permission to land. Relations between Peru and Chile are not cordial at the best of times and that night their two football teams were playing in a World Cup qualifier which Chile duly won. Again permission was refused and Dario had to eke out the remainder of his fuel before reaching the northern most airport in Arica in Chile. He flew out over the Pacific and then glided back in on the wind currents.

Founded in the last year of World War I by the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Air Force saw action globally, from the British Isles across Europe and the Middle East as far as India. Adapting to the nation’s post-war needs in the 1920s and 30s, the RAF established itself in the role of colonial police, using these novel and intimidating machines to maintain law and order in the Empire.

In the desperate struggle against the Axis powers in World War II, the RAF entered into an extremely effective fighting force, and in the post-war years the service was deployed not just in Europe, where the UK took a key role as a leading NATO power during the Cold War, but also the Mediterranean, Middle East and Far East. During the Falklands War, the RAF conducted long-range bombing strikes as well as reconnaissance and supply missions.

More recently in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, with high-tech aircraft, helicopters and increasingly, unmanned aerial vehicles, the RAF has continued to play its vital role in supporting the national interest around the globe, from humanitarian relief missions to counter-insurgency warfare.

While everyone knows of the role the RAF played in defending Britain during the Battle of Britain and then of its subsequent role in bombing Nazi Germany into submission, what is perhaps less well known is its role in these humanitarian missions. Just last year the Caribbean was hit by two devastating hurricanes, known as Irma and Maria. Hurricane Irma struck the Leeward Islands on 6 September, where it wrought major damage in the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and Anguilla. Two days later a Globemaster, a Voyager and an Atlas were dispatched from RAF Brize Norton carrying 200 troops from 40 Commando RM, as well as engineers, medical specialists and essential supplies. The aircraft flew to Barbados, which was the nearest suitable runway. Over the next few days, further Globemasters transported three Puma HC2 helicopters to the region. The second hurricane, Maria, struck the Windward Islands on 18 September and once again extensive damage was caused particularly in Dominica. When HMS Ocean arrived in the area four days later it brought two RAF Chinooks as well as its own complement of helicopters. Meanwhile a shuttle service comprising a Hercules and an Atlas had been set up to distribute supplies such as food, bottled water and shelters from Barbados to the storm-damaged islands. In addition a Globemaster assisted the French government to transport heavy equipment to Guadeloupe.

This aspect of the RAF’s activities in particular, and indeed those of all of the Armed Forces in general is not at all well understood. It is a major failing of the Armed Forces themselves and of the political leaders that they do not emphasise this point when making the case for public expenditure on the Armed Forces. There have been numerous examples of when the RAF has gone to battle not against another enemy nation but against terrorists, drug smugglers, pirates and other nefarious groups. We need defending against such people just as much as against the Nazis.

Earlier this year my wife and I visited RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.  We were shown round by the officer in charge. RAF Akrotiri remains sovereign British territory as does another base on the island. Just look at a map and you will instantly see its strategic importance. It is close to most of the world’s trouble spots and on many occasions has played an important role in evacuating British and other innocent civilians from some terrible conflict.

Also this year we attended a VIP Gala Dinner in celebration of the centenary at the RAF Museum in Hendon. We had drinks under the wings of a Lancaster bomber accompanied by WWII Lancaster bomber pilot Rusty Waughman. We also heard from ex-Flight Commander and Tornado pilot Michael Napier, the author of ‘The Royal Air Force: A Centenary of Operations’ which I have used as a source for part of this blog. It is a fascinating history with rich detail on the operations and aircraft of the RAF. However, if I have a criticism, it is that there is hardly any coverage of one operation that I think of as perhaps the most daring of all, The Dambusters. Here’s what Michael Napier says about that extraordinary night in 1943.

“Amongst these area attacks, in a remarkable feat of airmanship, 19 Lancasters of 617 squadron carried out a night time low-level precision attack on three dams in the Ruhr valley on 16 May. Two of the dams were breached but the critical Sorpe dam was undamaged and eight of the aircraft were lost; however, perhaps the most important legacy of the raid was the concept pioneered by Wg Cdr G.P.Gibson DSO* DFC* of a ‘Master Bomber’ controlling each individual attack by VHF radio to ensure its accuracy.”

No mention of Barnes Wallis, nor his invention of the astonishing bouncing bomb!

Source: The Royal Air Force: A Centenary of Operations’ Michael Napier.  Osprey Publishing 2018

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