THE ROYAL AIR FORCE AT 100
A PERSONAL VIEW by Group Captain Patrick Tootal OBE DL RAF (Retd) Hon Secretary of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust CIO and the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and Founder DefenceSynergia Member
On the 1 April 2018 the Royal Air Force celebrated its centenary. I am proud to have served in the Royal Air Force for a third of its existence, 33 and a bit years. This dates me! Looking in my logbook, I flew a Chipmunk basic training aircraft from RAF Colerne, near Bath to RAF West Malling and return on 1 April 1968, the 50th Anniversary of the RAF. I had to avoid RAF Odiham in Hampshire both ways as it was the location of the 50th Anniversary of the RAF celebrations. I was not invited! I was only a lowly Flight Lieutenant. I still remember running upstairs in “Costas” to file my return flight plan. (The original control tower has been sympathetically refurbished and is a business centre with a Costa coffee bar at Kings Hill the former RAF West Malling) What follows is my personal view of the world’s first independent air force at 100.
My time in the RAF could be termed as a Cold War warrior. WW2 was over and Suez in 1956 was a bad memory for Britain’s post war history. I was on the RAF’s battle management staff at High Wycombe in the Falkland’s conflict and I was the Defence Attaché in Buenos Aires during the first Golf War. As OC LXX Squadron I commanded the deployment of a Para Field Medical team to Lusaka following the Kolwezi massacre and the operation to evacuate UK and friendly foreign nationals from Tehran in January 1979. No JHQ in those days, just a contingency plan and when activated, a suitable detachment commander was nominated.
For the Lusaka operation I was playing touch rugby with a team from 41 TAS on a squadron exchange from Pope AFB when the station commander called me to the touch line. He said go home, pack a bag, return to the operations room for a telephone brief from Group Captain Ops at Upavon. Fourteen hours later having “deadheaded” on a Hercules I arrived at Lusaka via Cairo. As I climbed out of the Hercules every man and his dog wanted to talk to me. I had three Hercules and a VC10 full of Paras and field equipment on the airport but no tents. Her Majesty’s High Commission had ignored all the Trans Op signals and no accommodation had been fixed!! Trucky crews are normally criticised for their over generous needs for accommodation so I charged them to sort it out. As ever, they rose to the occasion and the Para’s were delighted with their four-star accommodation in down-town Lusaka. However, I digress.
The RAF’s key role was then and still is the air defence of the UK, but all our offensive efforts were focused on the facing threat from the Warsaw Pact. When ‘the Wall’ came down our armed forces then went into a period of limited wars in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all these conflicts air power was a key element in each campaign. As I write the RAF is still heavily involved in air operations in the Middle East.
However, I am running ahead of myself. The War Cabinet on the 11th July 1917, decided ‘That the Prime Minister and General Smuts in consultation with representatives of the Admiralty, General Staff and Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief Home Forces, with other such experts as they may desire should examine: a. the defence arrangements for Home Defence against air raids and b. the air organization generally and the direction of aerial operations. However, it was the ‘Smuts report’ of August 1917 in response to the second of these questions that led to the recommendation to establish a separate Air Service. His recommendation was accepted, and the RAF was officially formed on the 1 April 1918 with the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps. The newly created Royal Air Force was then the most powerful air force in the world, with over 20,000 aircraft and over 300,000 personnel (including the Women’s Royal Air Force).
With the First World War over on 11 November 1918 the RAF had to fight to retain its brief existence. Spending on defence was cut to the bone. In 1919 at the behest of the Treasury the “Ten Year Rule” was introduced. It presupposed that there would be no major war involving Britain for 10 years. It turned into a rolling assumption so by the time it was abandoned in 1932 it was assumed that there would be no war until 1942! Thus, the founding father of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, had two major battles to fight. To establish a new service to rank with the RN and Army and find a role for a peacetime service.
Trenchard said that the RAF was the youngest service, but it would be the best. To this end the RAF Cadet College at Cranwell to train officers, the RAF technical Apprentices School at Halton, the Central Flying School and the Auxiliary Air Force were formed. All these establishments ensured the RAF would meet the challenges of the Second World War. He did not stop here. He promoted the RAF. The RAF Central Band, still in service today, was formed in 1920 with famous composers as directors of music, has a proud and distinguished heritage. Distinguished architects were selected to design RAF buildings and Sir Edwin Lutyens was involved in designing the buildings for the post 1934 expansion of RAF bases. Trenchard also promoted “air mindedness” in the British population with the annual RAF Pageants at Hendon.
After the First World War Air Control was a policy advocated by Trenchard as a means of securing British interests overseas by suppressing uprisings primarily in the Middle East from the air using fewer personnel and at lower cost than using ground forces. This policy was so effective that throughout the 1920s and 1930s the situation in Iraq was kept in control largely by bombing or sometimes by simply overflying troublesome elements. Today Operation ‘Shader’ the operational code name given to the contribution of the United Kingdom in the ongoing military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) shows that, in a modified form, Air Control is still an effective role of the RAF.
I will not attempt to recount the RAF’s magnificent and costly contribution to winning the Second World War. My father was sadly killed on a bombing raid in late February 1945 and became one of the 55,573 aircrew lost in Bomber Command. When I read stories about the Bomber offensive it was the equivalent of going “over top” on the Western Front in the First World War. The courage and dedication of RAF aircrew owed much to the traditions and ethos of the RAF laid down by Trenchard. Nor should we forget the tremendous impact of the RAF’s tactical air forces on the successful breakout from Normandy and the liberation of Europe.
Most of my operational career was flying transport aircraft. Transport Command in my time was perhaps the Cinderella of the RAF commands. Not for me the steely eyes and lantern jaw of the fighter pilot. However, I was always quick to point out that you can’t go out and bite someone unless you had the wherewithal to do it. The bombs and missiles that were needed were provided by our suppliers and delivered by us “truckies” as we were often called. Recent conflicts have show that the RAF will always need a robust transport fleet of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
I enjoyed my time in RAF. I attended the RAF Staff College, a must for any officer to progress in the RAF. The first exercise was a study of the Battle of Britain. For many this Battle was the coming of age for the RAF. Fighter Command’s victory in the Battle of Britain inflicted the first defeat on Nazi forces and with Britain unconquered she was the springboard for the liberation of Europe in 1944.
This was the start with my involvement in with the Battle of Britain. After Staff College I became the personal staff officer for Air Marshal Sir Dennis Crowley-Milling. He was Douglas Bader’s wingman in the Battle. Through Sir Dennis I met Douglas Bader, Al Deere and Sir Andrew Humphrey, all veterans of the Battle. I also worked for MRAF Lord Cameron who flew as a Sgt pilot in the Battle. I was also in regular contact with Wing Commander Pat Hancock, the Secretary of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, the association of all members of The Few. Little did I know that 33 years later I would be become the secretary.
Meeting these great men was the start of my association with the Battle of Britain. I became the Hon Secretary of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust in 1998 at the invitation of Wing Commander Geoffrey Page. He spotted me on a visit to the Memorial with my RAFA branch in 1995. Someone suggested to Geoffrey that, as a recently retired group captain who had not gone senile, I would be ideal for the job! Driven by his vision the Trust over the years has created an appropriate Memorial and a fitting tribute to the Few and the many who supported them at Capel-le-Ferne. I became secretary of the Fighter Association in 2006 and have had the rare privilege of working with ‘The Few’. Membership was some 350. Sadly, only some 10 are still with us aged from 97 to 101.
Quite naturally my review of the RAF at 100 is dominated by the decisive victory in the Battle of Britain. Since its formation in 1918 the RAF has made a major contribution to the country’s recent history. Some of which I have touched on. The RAF continues to deliver air power successfully in support of our national interests. As a ‘trucky’, in my time I remember the various humanitarian airlifts we did in Nepal, the Sahel and Ethiopia to relive starvation. As the world’s first independent air Force the RAF can be justly proud of what it has achieved both in delivering air power and as a force for good in the world. Only recently the helicopter force was helping those snow bound in Cumbria.
I spent a third of my life in the RAF, it was an honour to serve and I had many happy times with a wonderful bunch dedicated people all determined to deliver on any task given to them. On Easter Sunday I made a birthday toast to the Royal Air Force. Per Ardua ad Astra, Over and out.
The Battle of Britain Fighter Association is an exclusive club. Many have tried to join over the years, but the sole criterion for membership has remained as tough as it ever was. If you received the Battle of Britain Clasp to the 1939/45 Star for service in the air, under the control of Fighter Command, between 10 July and 31 October 1940 you are eligible. Otherwise you are not, however distinguished your contribution to the war effort may have been.
Just under 3000 airmen qualified for the award of the clasp and nearly 1400 of them did not survive the war, so by the time of the inception of the Association in 1958, the potential membership was extremely limited. At its highest point, there were a little over 1000 members, while the attrition of the years has now reduced that figure to 8.
Gatherings took place at the RAF Club, Piccadilly and the then RAF Reserve Club before the Fighter Association came into being. The first Chairman was Air Commodore Stanley Widdows, CB, DFC, who had commanded 29, a Blenheim squadron, for almost the entire Battle. There must have been little discussion over the position of President, with Lord Dowding accepting the post. When Lord Dowding died in 1970, his position was left open as a mark of respect.
In 1978 that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother agreed to become Patron. Following her death His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales became Patron
Every September, members meet to mark Battle of Britain weekend at Westminster Abbey and, less solemnly, at their AGM and annual reunion. The Importance of the Few is summed up by this quote by Dr Jeremy A Crang, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Edinburgh:
‘Of all the British combatants in the Second World War, the Few have obtained a unique and legendary place in the historiography of war. Such is their fame that the identity of every airman who took part in the Battle is known and is a matter of public record.’ It was debated in Parliament in 1944 and it was concluded by the Secretary of State for Air ‘that the Battle of Britain ought to be especially commemorated by the award of a star or clasp.’ This resulted in the issue of the Battle of Britain Clasp for those aircrew who qualified in May 1945.