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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : The RAF

1918 to present


The RAF was founded in April 1918. It has always been known as the 'junior service' because it was the last to be formed of the three services.

The RAF fought in every major theatre of the Second World War. Its most famous campaign was the Battle of Britain, when between July and September 1940, the RAF fought off a hugely superior German air force, denying the Luftwaffe air supremacy over southern England and therefore preventing the German invasion of Britain.

The largest RAF effort was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany which began in May 1942. Bomber Command also had the highest loss rate of any major branch of the British armed forces, with 55,000 aircrew dying in bombing raids over Germany.

In 1936, the RAF had been organised into separate Commands by role, a structure which remained throughout the war. These were Bomber, Fighter, Control and Training Commands. Additional wartime Commands were Army Co-operation, to develop air operations in support of ground forces, Balloon, Maintenance and Transport. Each Command was made up of a number of groups, which was itself divided into squadrons.

The RAF underwent rapid expansion following the outbreak of war. The men of the regular pre-war air force were joined by those from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, formed in 1924 to provide a reserve of manpower, and the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), who were put on the active list when war was imminent and who were vital to the RAF's performance, particularly during the Battle of Britain. In February 1942 the RAF Regiment was formed to protect airfields from airborne troops. At its wartime peak, there were 60,000 men in the RAF Regiment.

The RAF was supported by the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and by Princess Mary's Nursing Service.

The air forces of the Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were incorporated into the RAF, as were the air forces of European countries under Nazi rule, including Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Norwegian and Polish airmen, who were given their own national squadrons. Indians and West Indians were also recruited.

Conscription applied to the RAF, but all aircrew were volunteers. It soon became clear that there were not sufficient resources to train replacements for anticipated losses amongst aircrew, and so the British Empire Air Training Scheme was introduced in December 1939. This eventually provided more than 168,000 men from the Dominions.

During the Second World War, the RAF reached a total strength of 1,208,000 men and women, of whom 185,000 were aircrew. About 70,000 RAF personnel were killed.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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