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- Location: Groningen , Netherlands
At the commencement of the First World War Britain had some 113 aircraft in military service, the French Aviation Service 160 and the German Air Service 246. By the end of the war each side was deploying thousands of aircraft.
The RFC was formed in April 1912 as the military (army and navy) began to recognise the potential for aircraft as observation platforms. It was in this role that the RFC went to war in 1914 to undertake reconnaissance and artillery observation. As well as aircraft the RFC had a balloon section which deployed along the eventual front lines to provide static observation of the enemy defences. Shortly before the war a separate Naval Air Service (RNAS) was established splitting off from the RFC, though they retained a combined central flying school.
The RFC had experimented before the war with the arming of aircraft but the means of doing so remained awkward - because of the need to avoid the propellor arc and other obstructions such as wings and struts. In the early part of the war the risk of injury to aircrew was therefore largely through accidents. As air armament developed the dangers to aircrew increased markedly and by the end of the war the loss rate was 1 in 4 killed, a similar proportion to the infantry losses in the trenches.
For much of the war RFC pilots faced an enemy with superior aircraft, particularly in terms of speed and operating ceiling, and a better flying training system. The weather was also a significant factor on the Western Front with the prevailing westerly wind favouring the Germans. These disadvantages were made up for by determined and aggressive flying, albeit at the price of heavy losses, and the deployment of a larger proportion of high-performance aircraft. The statistics bear witness to this with the ratio of British losses to German at around 4 to 1.
When the RFC deployed to France in 1914 it sent four Squadrons (No.s 2,3,4 and 5) with 12 aircraft each, which together with aircraft in depots, gave a total strength of 63 aircraft supported by 900 men. By September 1915 and the Battle of Loos, the RFC strength had increased to 12 Squadrons and 161 aircraft. By the time of the first major air actions at the first Battle of the Somme, July 1916, there were 27 Squadrons with 421 aircraft plus a further 216 in depots. The RFC expansion continued rapidly thereafter putting considerable strain on the recruiting and training system as well as on the aircraft supply system.
At home, the RFC Home Establishment was responsible for training air and ground crews and preparing squadrons to deploy to France. Towards the end of the war the RFC provided squadrons for home defence, defending against German Zeppelin raids and later Gotha bomber raids. The RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had limited success against the German raids largely through problems of locating the attackers and reaching the operating altitude of the Zeppelins.
The RFC was also deployed to the Middle East, the Balkans and later to Italy. Initially the Middle East detachments had to make do with older equipment but were eventually given more modern machines. The RFC (in relatively small numbers) was able to give valuable assistance to the Army in the eventual destruction of Turkish forces in Palestine, Trans Jordan and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
In the final days of the RFC, over 1200 aircraft were deployed in France and were available to meet the German offensive of 21 March 1918 with the support of RNAS squadrons. From 1 April these forces combined to form the Royal Air Force as an independent armed service. From small beginnings the air services had grown by the end of the war to an organisation of 290,000 men, 99 Squadrons in France (with 1800 aircraft), a further 34 squadrons overseas, 55 Home Establishment squadrons and 199 training squadrons, with a total inventory of some 22,000 aircraft.
Major General HughTrenchard as Commander of the RFC in France for much of the war was the driving force behind the expansion of the air service supported by the Director General of Military Aviation Major General Sir David Henderson. General Trenchard was strongly committed to supporting the ground forces and sharing their burden of attrition. He convinced the Army Commander-in-Chief, General Haig, of the contribution of the air service and won his support for the expansion of the RFC in France (against the competing pressures for home defence and a long range bombing force, which ironically, Trenchard was later to command).
A Pilot's war
A Pilot's war gives a more detailed insight into life in the RFC from the perspective of a number of officers.
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