Royal Air Force
It is not easy to compute exact figures for aircraft at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 since some were trainers, some unserviceable, and some obsolescent. The Germans had substantial but not overwhelming numerical superiority with some 4,000 planes to Britain's 2,000: the French air force, in poor shape, had some 1,500. But while the British figures included sedate Gloster Gladiators and Hawker Furies (not very furious with a top speed of 223 m.p.h. and introduced in 1931), the Luftwaffe had been completely re-equipped after Hitler's rise to power.
A major problem for the Royal Air Force was the spread of its commitments, especially after the entry of Italy (1940) and Japan (1941) extended the war to north Africa and the Pacific. But it received vital help from the Dominions' air forces, which provided about a quarter of the squadrons. From the fall of France in May 1940 the role of the RAF was essentially defensive, save for raids on enemy airfields and occasional bombing attacks to boost morale. During the Battle of Britain its resources were severely stretched, even more in trained aircrew than in machines, with the life expectation for fighter pilots down to four or five weeks. On 8 August 1940, Goering issued an order to ‘wipe the British Air Force from the sky’. But his first surprise was that the Stuka dive-bombers, which had spread such terror in Poland and France, proved slow and vulnerable to Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Luftwaffe, operating over enemy territory and using bombers, suffered disproportionate losses in aircrew. The number of planes lost is a matter of dispute, since both sides issued exaggerated claims for kills, but the Germans lost about twice the number of machines. What is not in dispute is that the Royal Air Force was not destroyed, that Goering switched to softer targets with raids on British cities, and that operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, was called off.
Meanwhile Coastal Command struggled against the U-boat menace. More than 120 merchant ships were sunk in the month of March 1943 alone. But by May 1943 better-organized convoys, improved weapons of attack, and the introduction of new long-range aircraft like the Sunderland, Catalina, and Liberator, which could bridge the ‘Atlantic gap’, gave Britain the edge.
The counter-offensive could now develop. The strategic issue became whether a massive bombing campaign could pound Germany into surrender without the need for a bloody invasion. The great proponent of that view was ‘Bomber’ Harris. In June 1942 he mustered a scratch force of just over 1,000 aircraft (including training personnel) for a demonstration onslaught on Cologne, and followed up his success with a memo against ‘the disastrous policy of military intervention in land campaigns of Europe’. But the evidence is dubious. Churchill pointed out that civilian morale is often surprisingly resilient under intolerable suffering, mass bombing was less destructive of the German war effort than had been hoped, and aircraft losses were very heavy. Bomber Command lost 55,000 men during the war—more, it has been said, than all the officers killed in the First World War. Until the end of 1944 German production of tanks, guns, and fighter aircraft continued to increase, with factories camouflaged and dispersed. Allied air power was also needed to cover the Normandy landings in June 1944, to deal with the V1 flying bombs which began to arrive in Britain a week after D-Day, and to attack launching sites for V2 rockets from September 1944 onwards.
Since the end of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force has taken part in a number of campaigns—the Berlin Airlift of 1948/9 when 147 planes flew more than 63,000 sorties; the Suez operation in 1956 when Egyptian airfields were bombed; the Falklands War of 1982 when the possession of Ascension Island was critical and air cover was provided largely by ship-borne Harriers; and the Gulf War of 1990 when the Tornado squadron in its low-level attacks had a bad first week. But its main tasks from the 1950s were to carry the British nuclear deterrent in the V-bomber force and to retain operational efficiency in the face of shrinking resources.
J. A. Cannon
Raleigh, W. A., and and Jones, H. A. , The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force (6 vols., Oxford, 1922– );
Terraine, J. , The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939–1945 (1985).