RAF marks 75 years patrolling 'undivided sky': First independent air force was born of belief that, in war, mastery of sky would be decisive. Christopher Bellamy reports

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD's first independent air force came into being 75 years ago yesterday. The Royal Air Force was born in the belief that war in the third dimension - the sky - was war of a new and different kind.

Some of the first members of the RAF, now in their nineties, who transferred from the Army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 were present at yesterday's royal review. Both older services later regained their own air arms, but the existence of the RAF has never been seriously challenged.

The review at RAF Marham in Norfolk, the station which provided many of the crews who fought in the Gulf war, was not open to the public, and was only the fourth royal review in its history - the others were for George V's silver jubilee (1935), the coronation (1953) and the Queen's silver jubilee (1977).

The RAF's independent status derived from a far-sighted view that air forces, in addition to helping the older services defeat enemy armed forces on sea and land, had a decisive individual role to play in destroying industry and the will of government and populace to resist.

The vision was years ahead of the reality, which makes Britain's decision to create an independent air force - unique at the time - even more extraordinary.

A second advantage of independence soon became apparent, however. The new service had its own command structure and could control an operation overseas without reference to the other services. By the end of 1919, the first Chief of Air Staff, Major General Sir Hugh Trenchard, had developed the theory that the vast areas of desert and mountains of the British Empire could be controlled from the air far more easily and economically than by the traditional ground garrisons and patrols - a theory that was soon proved right in the East African region of Somaliland, and Iraq.

During the Second World War the RAF was the country's first line of defence, reflecting rapid technological advance. The strategic bombing of Germany - the RAF's raison d'etre - proved of questionable value. Although diverting German resources which otherwise would have been used against Allied armies, it was itself expensive in life and in the latest technology.

Only with the nuclear weapon and, later, the precision-guided bomb, could air power really play the role the creators of the RAF envisaged for it. Appropriately, the RAF's V-bombers carried Britain's first 'nuclear deterrent'.

The first flimsy aircraft had only appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, they were used for reconnaissance by armies and navies, quickly usurping the historic role of cavalry. But, by 1918, some had the vision to insist that air forces were no mere appendage of armies or navies. They were something different, waging a new kind of war in the 'undivided sky'.

By the end of the First World War, the new service comprised 22,647 heavier-than-air aircraft and 103 airships in 383 squadrons, with more than 300,000 personnel, including 25,000 women.

At that time, the new air force still wore khaki - the now familiar shade of Air Force grey-blue was not introduced until 1 October 1919. At first, gold lace rings similar to those of naval officers were worn to denote rank, giving, according to Customs and Traditions of the Royal Air Force, a 'somewhat Ruritanian effect'. Legend has it that Lily Elsie, a beautiful comedy actress, had some say in its adoption through a relationship with one of the Air Council's members.

Another legend attributes the distinctive colour to the collapse of the Tsarist Russian war effort in 1917. A million yards of greyish-blue cloth intended to make greatcoats for the Russian Army lay in British warehouses. It was unsuitable for dyeing khaki or Navy blue and was adopted for the new Air Force.

After the 1914-18 war, David Lloyd George, Prime Minister at the time, had planned to abolish the new service. It was a time of colossal defence cuts, dwarfing those being implemented now. But, in spite of opposition from the Royal Navy and Army, the RAF survived.

Trenchard's brilliant theory of 'air policing' developed and proved in the Twenties contributed to this survival. Moreover, Winston Churchill, as Secretary of State for War and Air from January 1919 to February 1921, was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea: 'The Air Force to be the principal force or agency of control while the military and naval forces on the ground and river would be an ancillary power.'

In 1920, an Italian officer, Giulio Douhet, was compiling a treatise on air power which suggested that air forces could win wars virtually alone, or at least, contribute 'preponderantly' to victory. Fittingly, 71 years later, technology finally caught up with Douhet. If ever a war was won 'preponderantly' by air power, it was the Gulf conflict.

(Photographs omitted)