Military Wiki
Royal Flying Corps
Royal Flying Corps roundel. The roundel was adopted by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. The roundel has been adopted by Commonwealth air forces, replacing the red circle with a national symbol
Active 13 April 1912 – 1 April 1918
Disbanded merged into RAF, 1918
Country  British Empire
Allegiance King George V
Branch  British Army
Size 3,300 aircraft (1918)
Motto(s) Per Ardua ad Astra
Wars World War I
Sir David Henderson
H M Trenchard
RFC Badge Royal Flying Corps Badge

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air arm of the British Army during the First World War, until it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force. During the early part of the war, the RFC supported the British Army, by artillery co-operation and photographic reconnaissance. This work gradually led RFC pilots into aerial battles with German pilots and later in the war included the strafing of enemy infantry and emplacements, the bombing of German military airfields and later the strategic bombing of German industrial and transportation facilities.

At the start of World War I the RFC, commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, consisted of five squadrons – one observation balloon squadron (RFC No 1 Squadron) and four aeroplane squadrons. These were first used for aerial spotting on 13 September 1914, but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Aerial photography was attempted during 1914, but again only became effective the next year. By 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet, and interpreted by over 3,000 personnel. Parachutes were not available to pilots of the RFC's heavier-than-air craft – nor were they used by the RAF during the First World War – although the Calthrop Guardian Angel parachute (1916 model) was officially adopted just as the war ended. By this time parachutes had been used by balloonists for three years.[1][2]

On 17 August 1917, South African General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy. The formation of the new service would, moreover, make the under-utilised men and machines of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) available for action across the Western Front, as well as ending the inter-service rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF was under the control of the new Air Ministry. After starting in 1914 with some 2,073 personnel, by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel in some 150 squadrons.

Origin and early history

Royal Flying Corps cap badge

With the growing recognition of the potential for aircraft as a cost-effective method of reconnaissance and artillery observation, the Committee of Imperial Defence established a sub-committee to examine the question of military aviation in November 1911. The following February the sub-committee reported its findings which recommended that a flying corps be formed and that it consist of a naval wing, a military wing, a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations of the committee were accepted and on 13 April 1912 King George V signed a royal warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps. The Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers became the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps a month later on 13 May.

The Flying Corps' initial allowed strength was 133 officers, and by the end of that year it had 12 manned balloons and 36 aeroplanes. The RFC originally came under the responsibility of Brigadier-General Henderson, the Director of Military Training, and had separate branches for the Army and the Navy. Major Sykes commanded the Military Wing[3] and Commander C R Samson commanded the Naval Wing.[4] The Royal Navy however, with different priorities to that of the Army and wishing to retain greater control over its aircraft, formally separated its branch and renamed it the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914, although a combined central flying school was retained.

The RFC's motto was Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity to the stars"). This remains the motto of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and other Commonwealth air forces.

The RFC's first fatal crash was on 5 July 1912 near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Killing Captain Eustace B. Loraine and his observer, Staff Sergeant R.H.V. Wilson, flying from Larkhill Aerodrome. An order was issued after the crash stating "Flying will continue this evening as usual", thus beginning a tradition.

In August 1912 RFC Lieutenant Wilfred Parke RN became the first aviator to be observed to recover from an accidental spin when the Avro G cabin biplane, with which he had just broken a world endurance record, entered a spin at 700 feet above ground level at Larkhill . Four months later on 11 December 1912 Parke was killed when the Handley Page monoplane in which he was flying from Hendon to Oxford crashed.


Sopwith Camel

Aircraft used during the war by the RFC included:

Structure and growth

RFC Bleriot XI monoplanes at Netheravon, 1914

On its inception in 1912 the Royal Flying Corps initially consisted of a Military and a Naval Wing with the Military Wing consisting of three squadrons each commanded by a major. The Naval Wing, with fewer pilots and aircraft than the Military Wing, did not organise itself into squadrons until 1914 separating itself from the RFC that same year. In November 1914 the Royal Flying Corps, even taking the loss of the Naval Wing into account, had expanded sufficiently to warrant the creation of wings consisting of two or more squadrons. These wings were commanded by lieutenant-colonels. In October 1915 the Royal Flying Corps had undergone further expansion which justified the creation of brigades, each commanded by a brigadier-general. Further expansion led to the creation of divisions, with the Training Division being established in August 1917 and RFC Middle East, being raised to divisional status in December 1917. Additionally, although the Royal Flying Corps in France was never titled as a division, by March 1916 it comprised several brigades and its commander (Trenchard) had received a promotion to major-general giving it in effect divisional status. Finally, the air raids on London and the south-east of England led to the creation of the London Air Defence Area in August 1917[5] under the command of Ashmore who was promoted to major-general.


Two of the first three RFC squadrons were formed from the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers: No. 1 Company (a balloon company) becoming No. 1 Squadron, RFC, and No. 2 Company (a 'heavier than air' company) becoming No. 3 Squadron, RFC. A second heavier-than-air squadron, No. 2 Squadron, RFC, was also formed on the same day.

No. 4 Squadron, RFC was formed from No. 2 Sqn in August 1912, and No. 5 Squadron, RFC from No. 3 Sqn in July 1913.

By the end of March 1918, the Royal Flying Corps comprised some 150 squadrons.

The composition of an RFC squadron varied depending on its designated role, although the Commanding Officer was usually a Major (in a largely non-operational role), with the Squadron 'Flights' (annotated A, B, C etc.) the basic tactical and operational unit, each commanded by a Captain. A 'Recording Officer' (of Captain/Lieutenant rank) would act as Intelligence Officer and Adjutant, commanding two or three NCOs and ten other ranks in the Administration section of the Squadron. Each flight contained on average between six to ten pilots (and a corresponding number of observers, if applicable) with a Senior Sergeant and thirty-six other ranks (as fitters, riggers, metalsmiths, armourers, etc.). The average squadron also had on complement an Equipment Officer, Armaments Officer (each with five other ranks) and a Transport Officer, in charge of twenty-two other ranks. The Squadron transport establishment typically included 1 car, 5 light tenders, 7 heavy tenders, 2 repair lorries, 8 motorcycles and 8 trailers.[6]


Wings in the Royal Flying Corps consisted of a number of squadrons.

When the Royal Flying Corps was established it was intended to be a joint service and given the rivalry that existed between the British Army and Royal Navy certain new terminology was thought necessary in order to avoid marking the Corps out as having a particularly Army or Navy ethos. Accordingly, the Corps was originally split into two wings: a Military Wing (i.e. an army wing) and a Naval Wing. By 1914, the Naval Wing had become the Royal Naval Air Service, having gained its independence from the Royal Flying Corps.

By November 1914 the Flying Corps had significantly expanded and it was felt necessary to create organizational units which would control collections of squadrons; the term "wing" was re-used for these new organizational units.

The Military Wing was abolished and its units based in Great Britain were re-grouped as the Administrative Wing.[7] The RFC squadrons in France were grouped under the newly established 1st Wing and the 2nd Wing. The 1st Wing was assigned to the support of the 1st Army whilst the 2nd Wing supported the 2nd Army

As the Flying Corps grew so did the number of wings. The 3rd Wing was established on 1 March 1915 and on 15 April the 5th Wing came into existence. By August that year the 6th Wing had been created and in November 1915 a 7th Wing and 8th Wing had also been stood up. Additional wings continued to be created throughout World War I in line with the incessant demands for air units. The last RFC wing to be created was the 54th Wing in March 1918 just prior to the creation of the RAF.[8]


Following Sir David Henderson's return from France to the War Office in August 1915, he submitted a scheme to the Army Council which was intended to expand the command structure of the Flying Corps. The Corps' wings would be grouped in pairs to form brigades and the commander of each brigade would hold the temporary rank of brigadier-general. The scheme met with Lord Kitchener's approval and although some staff officers opposed it, the scheme was adopted.[9]

The following brigades were established (the date of establishment is shown in parentheses):

  • I Brigade (16 January 1916)
  • II Brigade (23 October 1915)
  • III Brigade (16 January 1916)
  • IV Brigade (1 April 1916)
  • V Brigade (15 December 1915)
  • VI Brigade (15 January 1916)
  • Middle East Brigade (1 July 1916)
  • Palestine Brigade (5 October 1917)
  • VII Brigade (October 1917)
  • Training Brigade (Middle East) (14 December 1917)
  • VIII Brigade (28 December 1917)

The IX, X and XI brigades were formed as part of the Royal Air Force and never existed as RFC formations.


United Kingdom

Name From To County Country Current use
RFC Andover 1917 1918 Hampshire England British Army Headquarters
Ashington 1916 1918 Northumberland England
Beaulieu 1915 1918 Hampshire England
Beaumont Landing Ground 1916 1916 Essex England
Bekesbourne 1916 1918 Kent England
Beverley 1916 1918 Yorkshire England
RFC Bicester 1917 1918 Oxfordshire England Bicester Airfield
RFC Biggin Hill 1916 1918 Greater London England London Biggin Hill Airport
Bournes Green Landing Ground 1917 1917 Essex England
Bracebridge Heath Landing Ground 1916 1918 Lincolnshire England
Braceby 1916 1918 Lincolnshire England
Braintree Landing Ground 1917 1918 Essex England
Brattlesby 1916 1918 Lincolnshire England
Brooklands Landing Ground 1914 1918 Surrey England
Broomfield Court 1916 1916 Essex England
Buckminster 1916 1918 Lincolnshire England
Burnham-on-Crouch Landing Ground 1916 1916 Essex England
Bury St Edmunds 1916 1916 Suffolk England
RFC Castle Bromwich 1918 1918 West Midlands England Industry/ Housing
RFC Catterick 1914 1918 North Yorkshire England Marne Barracks
Chattis Hill 1917 1918 Hampshire England
RFC Chiddingstone Causeway 1916 1918 Kent England Open land
RFC Doncaster 1916 1918 South Yorkshire England Doncaster Racecourse
RFC Elsham 1916 1918 North Lincolnshire England Farmland
RFC Finningley 1915 1918 South Yorkshire England Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield
RFC Ford Junction 1917 1918 West Sussex England Industry
RFC Halton 1914 1918 Buckinghamshire England RAF Halton (flying)
RFC Harpswell 1916 1918 Lincolnshire England Farmland/ Museum
RFC Hooton Park 1917 1918 Merseyside England Industry/ Museum
RFC Hylton 1916 1918 Tyne and Wear England Industry
RFC Kenley 1917 1918 Greater London England Kenley Aerodrome
RFC Lake Down 1917 1919 Wiltshire England Open land
Larkhill 1912 1914 Wiltshire England (MoD land) - Artillery training
RFC Manston 1915 1918 Kent England Manston Airport
RFC Marham 1916 1918 Norfolk England RAF Marham (flying)
RFC Martlesham 1916 1918 Suffolk England Housing
RFC Molesworth 1917 1918 Cambridgeshire England RAF Molesworth (non-flying)
RFC Northolt 1915 1918 Greater London England RAF Northolt (flying)
RFC North Weald 1916 1918 Essex England North Weald Airport
RFC Netheravon 1913 1918 Wiltshire England AAC Netheravon
RFC Perton 1916 1918 Staffordshire England Housing
RFC Red House Farm 1917 1918 Wiltshire England MoD Boscombe Down (flying)
RFC Rochford 1915 1918 Essex England London Southend Airport
RFC Stow Maries 1917 1918 Essex England Museum (Airfield)
RFC Shawbury 1917 1918 Shropshire England RAF Shawbury (flying)
RFC Sutton's Farm 1915 1918 Greater London England Housing/ Open land
RFC Upavon 1912 1918 Wiltshire England RAF Upavon (flying)
RFC Upper Heyford 1916 1918 Oxfordshire England Heyford Park
RFC Waddington 1916 1918 Lincolnshire England RAF Waddington (flying)
RFC Wyton 1916 1918 Cambridgeshire England RAF Wyton (non-flying)
RFC Yatesbury 1916 1918 Wiltshire England Farmland/ Museum
RFC Ayr 1917 1918 South Ayrshire Scotland Ayr Racecourse
Bogton 1917 1918 Ayrshire Scotland
RFC Montrose 1913 1918 Angus Scotland Industry/ open land
RFC Stirling 1916 1918 Stirling Scotland Farmland
RFC Turnhouse 1915 1918 City of Edinburgh Scotland Edinburgh Airport
RFC West Fenton 1917 1918 East Lohian Scotland Industry/ Museum


The Royal Flying Corps Canada was established by the RFC in 1917 to train aircrew in Canada. Air stations were established in southern Ontario at the following locations:

  • Camp Borden 1917–1918
  • Armour Heights Field 1917–1918 (pilot training, School of Special Flying to train instructors)
  • Leaside Aerodrome 1917–1918 (Artillery Cooperation School)
  • Long Branch Aerodrome 1917–1918
  • Curtiss School of Aviation (flying-boat station with temporary wooden hangar on the beach at Hanlan's Point on Toronto Island 1915–1918; main school, airstrip and metal hangar facilities at Long Branch)
  • Deseronto Airfield, Deseronto 1917–1918 (pilot training)
  • Camp Mohawk (now Tyendinaga Mohawk Airport) and Camp Rathburn – located at the Tyendinaga Indian Reserve near Belleville 1917–1918 (pilot training)
  • Hamilton (Armament School) 1917–1918
  • Beamsville Camp (Aerial fighting)

Other locations

  • St-Omer, France 1914–1918 (headquarters)
  • Ismailia, Egypt (training)
  • Aboukir, Egypt 1916–1918 (training)
  • Abu Sueir, Egypt ?-1918 (No. 4 flight training school)
  • El Ferdan, Egypt (training – No. 17 TDS)
  • El Rimal, Egypt (training – No. 19 TDS)
  • Camp Taliaferro, North Texas, USA 1917–1918 (training)

First World War

Recruiting poster

The RFC was also responsible for the manning and operation of observation balloons on the Western front. When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France in August 1914, it had no observation balloons and it was not until April 1915 that the first balloon company was on strength, albeit on loan from the French Aérostiers. The first British unit arrived 8 May 1915, and commenced operations during the Battle of Aubers Ridge. Operations from balloons thereafter continued throughout the war. Highly hazardous in operation, a balloon could only be expected to last a fortnight before damage or destruction. Results were also highly dependent on the expertise of the observer and was subject to the weather conditions. In order to keep the balloon out of the range of artillery fire, it was necessary to locate the balloons some distance away from the front line or area of military operations. However, the stable platform offered by a kite-balloon made it more suitable for the cameras of the day than an aircraft.

For the first half of the war, as with the land armies deployed, the French air force vastly outnumbered the RFC, and accordingly did more of the fighting. Despite the primitive aircraft, aggressive leadership by RFC commander Hugh Trenchard and the adoption of a continually offensive stance operationally in efforts to pin the enemy back led to many brave fighting exploits and high casualties – over 700 in 1916, the rate worsening thereafter, until the RFC's nadir in April 1917 ; dubbed 'Bloody April'.

This aggressive if costly doctrine did however provide the Army General Staff with vital and up-to-date intelligence on German positions and numbers through continual photographic and observational reconnaissance though the entire war.

1914–15 – Initial actions with the British Expeditionary Force

At the start of the war, numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 squadrons were equipped with aeroplanes. No. 1 Squadron had been equipped with balloons but all these were transferred to the Naval Wing in 1913, No. 1 Squadron reorganised itself as an 'aircraft park' for the British Expeditionary Force.

The RFC's first casualties were before the Corps even arrived in France. Lt Robert R. Skene and Air Mechanic Ray Barlow were killed on 12 August 1914 when their probably overloaded plane crashed at Netheravon on the way to rendezvous with the rest of the RFC near Dover.[10] Skene had been the first Englishman to do a loop in an aeroplane.

On 13 August 1914, 2, 3, and 4 Squadrons, comprising 60 machines, departed Dover for the British Expeditionary Force in France. The 5 Squadron joined them a few days later. The aircraft took a route across the English Channel from Dover to Boulogne. They then followed the French coast to the Bay of the Somme before travelling inland by following the river to Amiens. When the BEF moved forward to Maubeuge the RFC accompanied them.

On 19 August the Corps undertook its first action of the War with two of its aircraft performing aerial reconnaissance. The mission was not a great success. In order to save weight each aircraft carried a pilot only instead of the usual pair of pilot and observer. Because of this, and poor weather, both of the pilots lost their way and only one was able to complete his task.

On 22 August 1914, the first British aircraft to be shot down by the Germans was lost. The crew, pilot Second Lieutenant Vincent Waterfall and observer Lt. Charles George Gordon Bayly of 5 Squadron flying an Avro 504 over Belgium were killed by infantry fire.[11][12]

Also on 22 August 1914, Captain L E O Charlton (Observer) and his Pilot, Lieutenant Vivian Hugh Nicholas Wadham made the crucial observation of the 1st German Army's approach towards the flank of the British Expeditionary Force. This allowed the BEF Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir John French to realign his front and save his army around Mons.

Next day on 23 August 1914 the RFC found itself fighting in the Battle of Mons and two days after that the Flying Corps gained its first air victory. On 25 August Lt C.W. Wilson and Lt C.E.C. Rabagliati forced down a German Etrich Taube which had approached their aerodrome while they were refuelling their Avro 504. Another RFC machine landed nearby and the RFC observer chased the German pilot into some nearby woods.

After the British retreat from Mons, the Corps fell back to the Marne where in September the RFC again proved its value by identifying von Kluck's First Army's left wheel against the exposed French flank. This information was significant as the First Army's manoeuvre allowed French forces to make an effective counter-attack at the Battle of the Marne.

Sir John French's (the British Expeditionary Force commander) first official dispatch on 7 September included the following: "I wish particularly to bring to your Lordships' notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance has been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations. Fired at constantly by friend and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have remained undaunted throughout. Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded in destroying five of the enemy's machines."


Early in the war RFC aircraft were not marked with any national insignia. Union Flags markings in various styles were painted on the wings (and sometimes the fuselage sides and/or rudder) at a squadron level when RFC aircraft were fired upon by "friendly" ground forces – but the large red St. George's cross was liable to be mistaken for the crosses on German aircraft. By late 1915 the RFC had officially adopted the familiar French cockade (roundel) marking, but with the colours in reverse order (blue circle outermost). Contrary to usual French practice at the time, this was applied to the fuselage sides as well as the wings. Largely to avoid "friendly" attack in the air, the rudders of RFC aircraft were painted (again, in order to match those of their French allies) with the red, white and blue stripes of the tricolour.

Later in the war, a "night roundel" was used for night flying aircraft – especially the Handley Page O/400 heavy bombers. This dispensed with the (very conspicuous) white circle of the "day" marking.

Roles and responsibilities

Wireless telegraphy and photo-reconnaissance

Later in September, during the First Battle of the Aisne which followed, the RFC made use of wireless telegraphy to assist with artillery targeting and took aerial photographs for the first time.[13] From 16,000 feet a photographic plate could cover some 2 miles by 3 miles of front line in sharp detail. In 1915 Lieutenant-Colonel JTC Moore-Brabrazon designed the first practical aerial camera. These semi-automatic cameras became a high priority for the Corps and photo-reconnaissance aircraft were soon operational in numbers with the RFC. The camera was usually fixed to the side of the fuselage, or operated through a hole in the floor. The increasing need for surveys of the western front and its approaches made extensive aerial photography essential. Aerial photographs were exclusively used in compiling the British Army's highly detailed 1:10,000 scale maps introduced in mid-1915. Such were advances in aerial photography that the entire Somme Offensive of July—November 1916 was based on the RFC's air-shot photographs.

Artillery observation

One of the initial and most important uses of RFC aircraft was observing artillery fire behind the enemy front line at targets that could not be seen by ground observers. The fall of shot of artillery fire were easy enough for the pilot to see, providing he was looking in the right place at the right time; apart from this the problem was communicating corrections to the battery.

Development of procedures had been the responsibility of No 3 Squadron and the Royal Artillery in 1912–13. These methods usually depended on the pilot being tasked to observe the fire against a specific target and report the fall of shot relative to the target, the battery adjusted their aim, fired and the process was repeated until the target was effectively engaged. One early communication method was for the flier to write a note and drop it to the ground where it could be recovered but various visual signalling methods were also used. This meant the pilots had to observe the battery to see when it fired and see if it had laid out a visual signal using white marker panels on the ground.

The Royal Engineers' Air Battalion had pioneered experiments with wireless telegraphy in airships and aircraft before the RFC was created. Unfortunately the early transmitters weighed 75 pounds and filled a seat in the cockpit. This meant that the pilot had to fly the aircraft, navigate, observe the fall of the shells and transmit the results by morse code by himself. Also, the wireless in the aircraft could not receive. Originally only a special Wireless Flight attached to No. 4 Squadron RFC had the wireless equipment. Eventually this flight was expanded into No. 9 Squadron under Major Hugh Dowding. However, in early 1915 the Sterling lightweight wireless became available and was widely used. In 1915 each corps in the BEF was assigned a RFC squadron solely for artillery observation and reconnaissance duties. The transmitter filled the cockpit normally used by the observer and a trailing wire antenna was used which had to be reeled in prior to landing.

The RFC's wireless experiments under Major Herbert Musgrave, included research into how wireless telegraphy could be used by military aircraft. However, the most important officers in wireless development were Lieutenants Donald Lewis and Baron James in the RFC HQ wireless unit formed in France in September 1914. They developed both equipment and procedures in operational sorties.

An important development was the Zone Call procedure in 1915. By this time maps were 'squared' and a target location could be reported from the air using alphanumeric characters transmitted in Morse code. Batteries were allocated a Zone, typically a quarter of a mapsheet, and it was the duty of the RFC signallers on the ground beside the battery command post to pick out calls for fire in their battery's Zone. Once ranging started the airman reported the position of the ranging round using the clock code, the battery adjusted their firing data and fired again, and the process was repeated until the pilot observed a target or close round. The battery commander then decided how much to fire at the target.

The results were mixed. Observing artillery fire, even from above, requires training and skill. Within artillery units ground observers received mentoring to develop their skill, this was not available to RFC aircrew. The were undoubtedly some very skilled artillery observers in the RFC, but there were many who were not and there was a tendency for 'optimism bias' – reported target rounds that weren't. The procedures were also time consuming.

The ground stations were generally attached to heavy artillery units, such as Royal Garrison Artillery Siege Batteries and were manned by RFC wireless operators, such as Henry Tabor.[14] These wireless operators had to fend for themselves as their squadrons were situated some distance away and they were not posted to the battery they were colocated with. This led to concerns as to who had responsibility for them and in November 1916 squadron commanders had to be reminded “that it is their duty to keep in close touch with the operators attached to their command, and to make all necessary arrangements for supplying them with blankets, clothing, pay, etc” (Letter from Headquarters, 2nd Brigade RFC dated 18 November 1916 – Public Records Office AIR/1/864)

The wireless operators' work was often carried out under heavy artillery fire in makeshift dug-outs. The artillery batteries were important targets and antennas were a lot less robust than the guns, hence prone to damage requiring immediate repair. As well as taking down and interpreting the numerous signals coming in from the aircraft, the operator had to communicate back to the aircraft by means of cloth strips laid out on the ground or a signalling lamp to give visual confirmation that the signals had been received. The wireless communication was one way as no receiver was mounted in the aircraft and the ground station could not transmit. Details from: "Henry Tabor's 1916 War Diary". 

By May 1916 306 aircraft and 542 ground stations were equipped with wireless.

Covert operations

An unusual mission for the RFC was the delivery of spies behind enemy lines. The first mission took place on the morning of 13 September 1915 and was not a success. The plane crashed, the pilot and spy were badly injured and they were both captured, (two years later the pilot, Captain T.W. Mulcahy-Morgan escaped and returned to England). Later missions were more successful. In addition to delivering the spies the RFC was also responsible for keeping them supplied with the carrier pigeons that were used to send reports back to base. In 1916 a Special Duty Flight was formed as part of the Headquarters Wing to handle these and other unusual assignments.

Aerial bombardment

The obvious potential for aerial bombardment of the enemy was not lost on the RFC, and despite the poor payload of early war aircraft, bombing missions were undertaken. Front line Squadrons (at the prompting of the more inventive pilots) devised several methods of carrying, aiming and dropping bombs. Lieutenant Conran of No 3 Squadron attacked an enemy troop column by dropping hand grenades over the side of his cockpit; the noise of the grenades caused the horses to stampede. At No 6 Squadron, Captain Louis Strange managed to destroy two canvas-covered trucks with home-made petrol bombs.

In March 1915 a bombing raid was flown, with Captain Strange flying a modified BE-2c to carry four 20 lb bombs on wing racks released by pulling a cable fitted in the cockpit. Attacking Courtrai railway station, Strange approached from low-level and hit a troop train causing 75 casualties. The same day Captain Carmichael of No 5 Squadron dropped a 100 lb bomb from a Martinsyde S1 on the railway junction at Menin. Days later, Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse of No 2 Squadron was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross after bombing Courtrai station in a BE2c.

In October 1917 No 41 Wing was formed to attack strategic targets in Germany. Consisting of No 55 Squadron (DH-4), No 100 (FE-2b) and No 16 (Naval) Squadron (Handley Page 0/100) the Wing was based at Ochey commanded by Lt-Colonel Cyril Newall. Its first attack was on Saarbrücken on 17 October with 11 DH-4s and a week later nine 0/100s carried out a night attack against factories in Saarbrücken, while 16 FE-2b's bombed railways nearby. Four aircraft failed to return. The Wing was expanded with the later addition of Nos 99 and 104 Squadrons, both flying the DH-4 into the Independent Air Force.

Ground attack—army support

Aircraft were increasingly engaged in ground attack operations as the war wore on, aimed at disrupting enemy forces at or near the front line and during offensives. While formal tactical bombing raids were planned and usually directed at specific targets, ground-attack was usually carried out by individual pilots or small flights against targets of opportunity. Although the fitted machine guns were the primary armament for ground attack, bomb racks holding 20 lb Cooper bombs were soon fitted to many single seat aircraft. Ground attack sorties were carried out at very low altitude and were often highly effective, in spite of the primitive nature of the weaponry involved, compared with later conflicts. The moral effect on ground troops subjected to air attack could even be decisive. Such operations became increasingly hazardous for the attacking aircraft, as one hit from small arms fire could bring an aircraft down and troops learned deflection shooting to hit relatively slow moving enemy aeroplanes.

During the Battle of Messines in June 1917, Trenchard ordered the British crews to fly low over the lines and strafe all available targets. Techniques for Army and RFC co-operation quickly evolved and improved and during the Third Battle of Ypres over 300 aircraft from 14 RFC squadrons, including the Sopwith Camel, armed with four 9 kg (20 lb) bombs, constantly raided enemy trenches, troop concentrations, artillery positions and strongholds in co-operation with tanks and infantry.

The cost to the RFC was high, with a loss rate of ground attack aircraft approaching 30 percent. The first British production armoured type, the Sopwith Salamander, did not see service during the First World War.

Home defence

In the UK the RFC Home Establishment was not only responsible for training air and ground crews and preparing squadrons to deploy to France, but providing squadrons for home defence, countering the German Zeppelin raids and later Gotha raids. The RFC (and the Royal Naval Air Service) initially had limited success against the German raids, largely through the problem of locating the attackers and having aircraft of sufficient performance to reach the operating altitude of the German raiders.

With the bulk of the operational squadrons engaged in France few could be spared for home defence in the UK. Therefore training squadrons were called on to supply home defence aircraft and aircrews for the duration of the war. Night flying and defence missions were often flown by instructors in aircraft deemed worn-out and often obsolete for front-line service, although the pilots selected as instructors were often among the most experienced in the RFC.

By December 1916 there were 11 RFC home defence squadrons, and by the end of the war 14 RAF Squadrons were established.


As the war moved into the period of the mobile warfare commonly called the Race to the Sea, the Corps moved forward again. On 8 October 1914 the RFC arrived in Saint-Omer and a headquarters was established at the aerodrome next to the local race course. Over the next few days the four squadrons arrived and for the next four years Saint-Omer was a focal point for all RFC operations in the field. Although most squadrons only used Saint-Omer as a transit camp before moving on to other locations, the base grew in importance as it increased its logistic support to the RFC.

Trenchard in command in France

Trenchard in the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps

Hugh Trenchard was the commander of the Royal Flying Corps in France from August 1915 until January 1918. Trenchard's time in command was characterised by three priorities. First was his emphasis on support to and co-ordination with ground forces. This support started with reconnaissance and artillery co-ordination and later encompassed tactical low-level bombing of enemy ground forces. While Trenchard did not oppose the strategic bombing of Germany in principle, he opposed moves to divert his forces on to long-range bombing missions as he believed the strategic role to be less important and his resource to be too limited. Secondly, he stressed the importance of morale, not only of his own airmen, but more generally the detrimental effect that the presence of an aircraft had upon the morale of opposing ground troops. Finally, Trenchard had an unswerving belief in the importance of offensive action. Although this belief was widely held by senior British commanders, the RFC's offensive posture resulted in the loss of many men and machines and some doubted its effectiveness.[15]


Before the Battle of the Somme (1916) the RFC mustered 421 aircraft, with 4 kite-balloon squadrons and 14 balloons. These made up four brigades, which worked with the four British armies. By the end of the Somme offensive in November 1916, the RFC had lost 800 aircraft and 252 aircrew killed (all causes) since July 1916, with 292 tons of bombs dropped and 19,000 Recce photographs taken.

As 1917 dawned the Allied Air Forces felt the effect of the German Air Force's increasing superiority in both organisation and equipment (if not numbers). The recently formed Jastas, equipped with the Albatros fighter, inflicted very heavy losses on the RFC's obsolescent aircraft, culminating in Bloody April, the nadir of the RFC's fortunes in World War I.

To support the Battle of Arras beginning on 9 April 1917, the RFC deployed 25 squadrons, totalling 365 aircraft, a third of which were fighters (scouts). The British lost 245 aircraft with 211 aircrew killed or missing & 108 as prisoners of war. The German Air Services lost just 66 aircraft from all causes.

By the summer of 1917, the introduction of the next generation of technically advanced combat aircraft (such as the SE5, Sopwith Camel and Bristol Fighter) ensured losses fell and damage inflicted on the enemy increased.

Close support and battlefield co-operation tactics with the British Army were further developed by November 1917, when low-flying fighter aircraft co-operated highly effectively with advancing columns of tanks and infantry during the Battle of Cambrai.

1917 saw 2,094 RFC aircrew killed in action or missing.


The disastrous defeat of the Italian Army by Austro-Hungarian and German forces in the Battle of Caporetto led to the transfer of 3 RFC Sopwith Camel fighter squadrons (28, 45 and 66), two two-seater squadrons (34 and 42, with RE8s) and No. 4 Balloon Wing to the Italian Front in November 1917. No. 139 Squadron (Bristol Fighters) were added in July 1918.

Other theatres of operations

RFC Squadrons were also deployed to the Middle East and the Balkans. In July 1916 the Middle-East Brigade of the RFC was formed under the command of Brigadier General W G H Salmond, concentrating RFC units based in Macedonia, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa under one unified command. In the Middle East units had to make do with older, often obsolete equipment before being given more modern aircraft. The Palestine Brigade of the RFC was formed in October 1917 to support General Allenby's ground offensive against the Turks in Palestine.

Despite their relatively small numbers the RFC gave valuable assistance to the Army in the eventual defeat of Turkish forces in Palestine, Trans Jordan and Mesopotamia(Iraq).


The German Offensive in March 1918 was an all-out effort to win the war before the industrial and numerical might of the USA could be brought to bear on the Western Front. In the weeks following the launch of the attack, RFC crews flew unceasingly, with all types of aircraft bombing and strafing ground forces, often from extremely low level, meantime also bringing back vital reports of the fluid ground fighting.

The RFC contributed significantly to slowing the German advance and ensuring the controlled retreat of the Allied Armies did not turn into a rout. The battle reached its peak on 12 April, when the newly formed RAF dropped more bombs, and flew more missions that any other day during the war. The cost to halting the German advance was high however, with over 400 aircrew killed and 1000 aircraft lost to enemy action.

Amalgamation with the RNAS

On 17 August 1917, General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy.

Surprisingly, Trenchard was opposed to a new service[citation needed]. He had always felt that the purpose of the RFC was to support the Army and the RNAS to support the Navy, leaving him worried that a new service wouldn't provide the same level of tactical battle field support. He was also concerned about the careers of the pilots. Because of the high demands on RFC pilots many of them became burned out and were unable to continue in combat. Since pilots were seconded to the RFC from other regiments they could return to those units once they were no longer able to fly. In a separate service this would no longer be an option. The formation of the new service however would make the underutilised men and machines of the RNAS available for action across the Western Front, as well as ending the interservice rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement.

On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force. The RAF was under the control of the new Air Ministry. After starting in 1914 with some 2,073 personnel by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel.

Recruitment and training

Many pilots were initially seconded to the RFC from their original regiments by becoming an observer. Some RFC ground crew (often NCO's or below) also volunteered for these flying duties as they then received supplementary flying pay. There was no formal training for observers until 1917 and many were sent on their first sortie with only a brief introduction to the aircraft from the pilot. Once certified as fully qualified the observer was awarded the coveted half-wing brevet. Once awarded this could not be forfeited so it essentially amounted to a decoration. Originally in the RFC, as in most early air forces, the observer was nominally in command of the aircraft with the pilot having the role of a "chauffeur". In practice, this was reversed at an early stage in the RFC, so that the pilot normally commanded the aircraft. Most operational two seaters of the period did not have dual controls (an exception was the F.K. 8), so that the death or incapacity of the pilot normally meant an inevitable crash – but nonetheless many observers gained at least rudimentary piloting skills, and it was very common for experienced observers to be selected for pilot training.

Applicant for aircrew generally entered the RFC as a cadet via the depot pool for basic training. The cadet would then generally pass on to the School of Military Aeronautics at either Reading or Oxford. Following this period of theoretical learning the cadet was posted to a Training Squadron, either in the UK or overseas.

Colonel Robert Smith-Barry, a former CO of 60 Squadron, appalled at the poor standard of newly trained pilots and high fatality rate during training in 1915–16, formulated a comprehensive curriculum for pilot training, and with the agreement of Trenchard, returned to the UK to implement his training ethos at Gosport in 1917. The immediate effect was to halve fatalities in training. The curriculum was based on a combination of classroom theory and dual flight instruction. Students were not to be discouraged from potentially dangerous manoeuvres but were exposed to them in a controlled environment so that the student could learn to safely rectify errors of judgement.

Dual flying training usually weeded out those not suitable for flying training ( approximately 45% of the initial class intake) before the remaining cadets were taught in the air by an instructor ( initially a 'tour-expired' pilot sent for a rest from an operational squadron in France, without any specific training on how to instruct). After flying 10 to 20 hours dual instruction, the pupil would be ready to 'go solo'.

In May 1916 pilots under instruction were further trained for fighting in the air. Schools of special flying were set up at Turnberry, Marske, Sedgeforth, Feiston, East Fortune and Ayr, where finished pilots could simulate combat flying under the supervision of veteran instructors.[16]

In 1917, the American, British, and Canadian Governments agreed to join forces for training. Between April 1917 and January 1919, Camp Borden in Ontario hosted instruction on flying, wireless, air gunnery and photography, training 1,812 RFC Canada pilots and 72 for the United States. Training also took place at several other Ontario locations.

During winter 1917–18, RFC instructors trained with the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps on three airfields in the United States accommodating about six thousand men, at Camp Taliaferro near Fort Worth, Texas. Training was hazardous; 39 RFC officers and cadets died in Texas. Eleven remain there, reinterred in 1924 at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where a monument honours their sacrifice.

Seven training squadrons were located in Egypt at five training depot stations.

As the war drew on the RFC increasingly drew on men from across the British Empire including South Africa, Canada and Australia. As well as individual personnel, the separate Australian Flying Corps (AFC) deployed Nos 1, 2, 3 and 4 Squadrons AFC (which the RFC referred to as 67, 68, 69 and 71 Squadrons). Over 200 Americans joined the RFC before the United States became a combatant. Eventually Canadians made up nearly a third of RFC aircrew.

Although as the war progressed and training became far safer, by the end of the war, some 8,000 had been killed while training or in flying accidents.[16]


Parachuting from balloons and aircraft, with very few accidents, had been a popular "stunt" for several years before the war. In 1915 inventor Everard Calthrop offered the RFC his patented parachute. On 13 January 1917, Captain Clive Collett, a New Zealander, made the first British military parachute jump from a heavier-than-air craft. The jump, from 600 feet, was successful but although parachutes were issued to the crews of observation balloons, the higher authorities in the RFC and the Air Board were opposed to the issuing of parachutes to pilots of heavier-than-air craft. It was felt at the time that a parachute might tempt a pilot to abandon his aircraft in an emergency rather than continuing the fight. The parachutes of the time were also heavy and cumbersome, and the added weight was frowned upon by some experienced pilots as it adversely affected aircraft with already marginal performance. It was not until 16 September 1918 that an order was issued for all single seater aircraft to be fitted with parachutes, and this did not eventuate until after the war.[2]

End of the war

At the end of the war there were 5,182 pilots in service (just 2% of the RAF). In comparison the casualties from the RFC/RNAS/RAF for 1914–18 totalled 9,378 killed or missing, with 7,245 wounded. Some 900,000 flying hours on operations were logged, and 6,942 tons of bombs dropped. The RFC claimed some 7,054 German aircraft and balloons either destroyed, sent 'down out of control' or 'driven down'.[17]

Eleven RFC members received the Victoria Cross during the First World War. Initially the RFC did not believe in publicising the victory totals and exploits of their Aces. Eventually however, public interest and the newspapers' demand for heroes lead to this policy being abandoned, with the feats of aces such as Captain Albert Ball raising morale in the service as well as on the "home front".

For a short time after the formation of the RAF, pre-RAF ranks such as Lieutenant, Captain and Major continued to exist, a practice which officially ended on 15 September 1919. For this reason some early RAF memorials and gravestones show ranks which no longer exist in the modern RAF. A typical example is James McCudden's grave, though there are many others.

Commanders and personnel

Maj Gen H M Trenchard in 1917, by William Orpen


Lt Gen Sir David Henderson, during the latter part of the War.

The following had command of the RFC in the field:[1]

The following served as chief of staff for the RFC in the field:[2]

  • 5 August to 22 November 1914 Major Frederick Sykes
  • Post vacant
  • 20 December 1914 to 26 May 1915 Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Sykes
  • 26 May 1915 to 12 March 1916 Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Brooke-Popham
  • 19 March 1916 to 16 October 1916 Colonel Philip Game
  • Unknown
  • 1 April 1918 to 25 November 1918 Brigadier General Francis Festing (RAF not RFC)

Some members of the RFC

Militarily prominent

Otherwise prominent

Fictional representations of the RFC

Novels and short stories

  • The Biggles series (1932-1999): a series of youth-oriented novels and short story collections by W. E. Johns (an RFC veteran)
  • The Bandy Papers (1962-2005): a series of novels by Donald Jack chronicling the exploits of a fighter ace, Bartholomew Wolfe Bandy
  • Goshawk Squadron (1971) and its prequels, by Derek Robinson
  • The Bloody Red Baron (1995): the second novel of the alternate-history Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman, which primarily follows the exploits of a unit of the RFC and their enemy rivals
  • Phoenix and Ashes (2004): a fantasy novel by Mercedes Lackey
  • Across the Blood-Red Skies (2010), by Robert Radcliffe

Film and TV

  • Hell's Angels (1930): a film directed by Howard Hughes, starring Jean Harlow
  • The Dawn Patrol (1938): a film directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven (a remake of a 1930 original).
  • "The Last Flight" (1960): an episode of The Twilight Zone TV series
  • Aces High (1976): a film directed by Jack Gold, starring Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer and Simon Ward
  • Wings (1977–78): a BBC TV series
  • "Private Plane" (1989): an episode of the Blackadder TV series

See also


  1. Beckett, p. 254.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lee (1968) pp.219–225
  3. "No. 28609". 17 May 1912. 
  7. "British Military Aviation in 1914 – Part 3". RAF Museum Web Site – Timeline of British Military Aviation History. RAF Museum. Retrieved 3 June 2008. 
  9. Boyle, Andrew (1962). "Chapter 6". Trenchard Man of Vision. St. James's Place London: Collins. pp. 157. 
  10. Raleigh 1922, p.286.
  11. "Casualty Details:Vincent Waterfall". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
  12. Jackson 1990, p.56.
  13. The British Air Services Memorial at St Omer
  14. "Henry Tabor's 1916 War Diary". Henry Tabor's 1916 War Diary. Retrieved 20 June 2010.
  15. Jordan, David (2000). "The Battle for the Skies: Sir Hugh Trenchard as Commander of the Royal Flying Corps". In Matthew Hughes and Matthew Seligmann. Leadership in Conflict 1914–1918. Leo Cooper Ltd.. pp. 74–80. ISBN 0-85052-751-1. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 'First of the Few', Denis Winter, 1982
  17. History of the RAF, Bowyer, 1977 (Hamlyn)
  18. Ash, Eric (1998). Sir Frederick Sykes and the air revolution, 1912–1918. Routledge. p. 62. ISBN 0-7146-4382-3. 


  • Barker, Ralph (2002). The Royal Flying Corps in World War I. Robinson. ISBN 1-84119-470-0. 
  • Drew, George A. (1930). Canada's Fighting Airmen. MacLean. 
  • Lee, Arthur Gould (1968). No Parachute. Harrolds. 
  • Jackson, A.J. (1990). Avro Aircraft since 1908 (Second ed.). London: Putnam. ISBN 0-85177-834-8. 
  • Raleigh, Walter (1922). The War in the Air: Being the Story of The part played in the Great War by The Royal Air Force: Vol I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

External links

Preceded by
Air Battalion
Royal Flying Corps
Military Wing (1912–18) and Naval Wing (1912–14)

Succeeded by
Royal Air Force
On amalgamation with the RNAS
Preceded by
Early naval aviation

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