The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, and that might be an alternative motto for the RAF. Since its inception in the last year of the first world war, the RAF has been involved in almost continuous air operations around the world. What’s more, many of the troublesome ‘hotspots’ of today’s world would have been very familiar to members of the RAF nearly a century ago. The Typhoons, Tornados and Reapers operating over Iraq and Syria today are doing much the same job as the Bristol Fighters and de Havilland 9As of the 1920s. When Tornado F3s and later Typhoons were deployed to the Baltic to contain the Russians in 2004 and 2014, they were following in the footsteps of their forebears in 1919. Likewise, the world’s first large-scale airlift, the Kabul Airlift, was carried out in Afghanistan by the RAF in 1928. And although Typhoons were attacking enemy tanks in the Libyan desert in 2011, so were Hurricanes in 1942.
The RAF motto, Per ardua ad astra, was coined by Frederick Sykes, a man pretty much forgotten by a service which looks upon Hugh Trenchard as ‘the Father of the RAF’. It is true that Trenchard played a major role in the formation of the RAF and, indeed, he was the first Chief of the Air Staff, but he was only one of a number of makers and shakers and his first stint as Chief of the Air Staff lasted only a few weeks. Personally, I identify the two key players as the South African statesman, soldier and scholar Jan Smuts — whose report recommended the amalgamation of the RNAS and the RFC into a single independent service — and Frederick Sykes.
Sykes, who succeeded Trenchard as Chief of the Air Staff in 1918, was an experienced aviator who had written many of the operations manuals for the RFC. He was also an accomplished administrator who nurtured the RAF through its first year of independence. Unfortunately, Trenchard hated him. History, as we all know, is written by the victors and when Trenchard was reappointed as Chief of the Air Staff in 1919 he ensured that his rival Sykes’ good work was excised from the public memory. At least his motto survives.
Of course, the achievements of the service over the past century are human ones, but I believe that the cult of the individual cuts right across the team ethos of the RAF. We can be in awe of the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain, but we must never forget that behind every successful Spitfire flight were several hours of hard grind by the fitters and riggers who serviced the aircraft. Behind every V-bomber at nuclear readiness was a crew chief who coordinated the work of the many technicians whose labour kept the aircraft serviceable. Indeed, the success of every air campaign reflects as much on the engineers, air traffic controllers, fighter controllers, suppliers and administrators as it does on the aircrew who flew and fought.
Despite all this, the history of the RAF is largely defined by its aircraft rather than individual people, and in particular the Sopwith Camel, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Avro Lancaster and the Avro Vulcan. While it is true that the Camel was one of the outstanding aircraft of the first world war, it was actually the decidedly unglamorous Royal Aircraft Factory RE8, a plodding workhorse of an aeroplane, that formed the backbone of the ‘Corps’ squadrons whose work was so vital to the success of the land operations in all of the theatres of war through 1918. The Lancaster still enjoys tremendous popularity, but if I were to choose the most outstanding four-engined aeroplane of the second world war, I would go for the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The Liberator swung the balance in the Battle of the Atlantic and without the vital part played by Coastal Command in that campaign, there could have been no D-Day. The Liberator also saw important RAF service in the Mediterranean, Central Europe and the Balkans, as well as playing a crucial role in Burma.
It is right that the Vulcan should be held in such esteem: armed with the Blue Steel stand-off missile, the delta-winged bomber took its place on the front line as part of the UK’s nuclear deterrent and, in later years, it also played an important part in the liberation of the Falkland Islands. But the Handley Page Victor also served as a nuclear bomber with Blue Steel missiles, and it was the Victor in its role as an air-to-air refuelling tanker that enabled the Vulcan to reach the Falklands in 1982. Indeed, the Victor proved to be the longest serving of the V-bombers and one can argue that in its role as a tanker it contributed far more to the effectiveness of the RAF in campaigns from the Falklands to the Persian Gulf, as well as supporting the air defences of the UK, than did the Vulcan during its service. Should we not remember the Victor as being the ‘iconic V-bomber?’
However, of all the aircraft types in the popular history of the RAF, it is the Spitfire which fully deserves its place. It was arguably the only truly modern aeroplane in the RAF inventory on the outbreak of the second world war and it was one of the only types (other than perhaps the Vickers Wellington) that remained in large-scale production and front-line service throughout the conflict. Spitfires fought in all the major theatres of war from the Battle of Britain to the Burma campaign and in every case they tipped the balance of air superiority in favour of the RAF. The Spitfire rightly deserves its reputation as a superb machine and one of the most effective aircraft ever to have been operated by the RAF.
Michael Napier is the author of The Royal Air Force —A Centenary of Operations (Osprey).