Book Review: ‘The Birth of the RAF, 1918’, by Richard Overy

Marking the RAF’s centenary, this is the story of how the world’s first air force was created.

Such was the explosive pace of aviation engineering in the early 20th century that the interval between the first sustained heavier-than-air flight and the routine deployment of aircraft in the First World War was less than a decade. While it is hard to imagine Orville and Wilbur Wright ever foreseeing statistics on such a scale, by the end of the war Britain alone had lost 36,000 aircraft and 16,600 airmen.

For most of the war, management responsibility for aerial warfare was shared – often with open hostility – between the Army and the Navy. By 1 April 1918 responsibility had been wrested from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and a new department, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was created.

As the RAF celebrates its centenary, Richard Overy takes us through the background circumstances to the formation of an institution that few thought necessary, even fewer wanted, but surprised many by surviving a hundred years.

In ‘The Birth of the RAF, 1918: The World’s First Air Force’ (Allen Lane, £14.99, ISBN 9780241274217), Overy takes as his starting point the changing nature of warfare itself a century ago. Until the First World War, engagements were fought either at sea or on land, ensuring only military personnel were involved in combat. Civilians were safely at home on dry land miles away from the action. But, with the rapid development of powered flight, this was about to change.

Despite the aeroplane’s influence in aerial warfare initially being for mostly tactical purposes such as reconnaissance, there was a clear indication of how important it would become as a strategic weapon. Although it is a matter of record that there were ‘dogfights’, aircraft were being put to more deadly effect strafing trenches and bombing behind the lines. As Zeppelins dropped their payload on targets in Britain for the first time it became clear that what defined a battle ‘front’ was changing. While initial raids in East Anglia did little to weaken the war effort, as Overy says: “the sheer novelty of attacks on British soil against British civilians explains the exaggerated reaction of press and public.”

The creation of the RAF was the political response to a military issue, with both Army and Navy remaining bitterly against an independent air force that would never have existed without powerful figures in Whitehall such as Winston Churchill controlling the levers.

The broad outline conceals a textured tale of intrigue and internal wrangling, where opposing characters from the Army and Navy pit their wits against each other in a scramble to prevent the formation of the RAF. Overy does a brilliant job, telling the story in capsule form (you can read the book in a few hours), while making clear that while, despite the RAF being inauspiciously formed on April Fools’ Day, the events that led up to it were certainly no laughing matter.

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