On April 1, 1918, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) is formed as an amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). The RAF took its place beside the British navy and army as a separate military service with its own ministry.
In April 1911, eight years after the American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first-ever flight of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft, an air battalion of the British army’s Royal Engineers was formed at Larkhill in Wiltshire. The battalion consisted of aircraft, airship, balloon and man-carrying kite companies. In December 1911, the British navy formed the Royal Naval Flying School at Eastchurch, Kent. The following May, both were absorbed into the newly created Royal Flying Corps, which established a new flying school at Upavon, Wiltshire, and formed new airplane squadrons. In July 1914 the specialized requirements of the navy led to the creation of RNAS.
Barely more than a month later, on August 4, Britain declared war on Germany and entered World War I. At the time, the RFC had 84 aircraft, while the RNAS had 71 aircraft and seven airships. Later that month, four RFC squadrons were deployed to France to support the British Expeditionary Force. During the next two years, Germany took the lead in air strategy with technologies like the zeppelin airship and the manual machine gun. England’s towns and cities subsequently underwent damaging bombing raids and its pilots were defeated in the skies by German flying aces such as Manfred von Richthofen, dubbed The Red Baron.
Repeated German air raids led British military planners to push for the creation of a separate air ministry, which would carry out strategic bombing against Germany. On April 1, 1918, as a result of these efforts, the RAF was formed, along with a female branch of the service, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF).
By the war’s end in November 1918, the RAF had dropped 5,500 tons of bombs and claimed 2,953 enemy aircraft destroyed, gaining clear air superiority along the Western Front and contributing to the Allied victory over Germany and the other Central Powers. It had also become the largest air force in the world at the time, with some 300,000 officers and airmen—plus 25,000 members of the WRAF—and more than 22,000 aircraft.