Royal Air Force celebrates 100th anniversary

News Article / April 18, 2018

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By Major William March

The Royal Air Force came into being on April 1, 1918, with the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. The RAF is celebrating its 100th anniversary throughout this year, and the Royal Canadian Air Force will be celebrating its shared history of training, warfighting and mutual respect with the RAF.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) have had a long relationship. To a great extent, our shared history, heritage and traditions were established during the First World War, nurtured during the inter-war period, and solidified during the Second World War.

Canada did not possess an air force until the closing days of the First World War, when two RAF squadrons were designated as “Canadian” and a nascent Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was stood up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Young Canadians seeking the adventure of flight joined the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service, and, after amalgamation of the two organizations on April 1, 1918, the RAF.

Whether they came from the farms and cities of the Dominion or transferred from the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe, they trained, lived, fought and sometimes died with their British counterparts. Hundreds of Canadians served with the Imperial Flying Services and, after the establishment of a military training program in Canada in 1917, the number grew to thousands. Yet even as the guns of this war fell silent on November 11, 1918, there were nationalist stirrings amongst Dominion airmen. However, their aspirations would be shaped by a shared understanding and vision of military aviation based on the RAF.

The inter-war period saw the emergence of a RCAF that, although patterned to a great extent after the RAF, was beginning to develop its own cultural identity exemplified by the “bush pilots in uniform” approach to civil government air operations. Assisted by a British “gift” of more than 100 surplus aircraft, and building upon training and experience gained during the war, the Canadian Air Force developed gradually until, on April 1, 1924, it was granted the “Royal” sobriquet and became a permanent part of the Canadian defence landscape.

Its regulations, uniforms, training focus and even its ensign were patterned after those of the RAF. These were the years when Imperial Defence, defence cooperation between the major parts of what would become known as the British Commonwealth, was a subject of great debate. On air power matters, the RAF took the lead and worked with countries such as Canada through the provision of doctrine, tactics and potential aircraft requirements. Training and developmental opportunities, through exchange postings and attendance at the RAF Staff College, ensured close ties between the two air forces – a link that became even more important as war once again loomed on the horizon.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the RAF had accepted a limited number of Canadians to serve as aircrew within its ranks. When combined with those “colonials” who had remained with the RAF after the last conflict, “CAN-RAF” personnel were engaged against Germany and Italy from the beginning of hostilities on September 3, 1939. So many Canadians were in the RAF that it was decided to group a number of them together into No. 242 “Canadian” Squadron, which would rise to fame during fighting in France and England during 1940.

Although determined to chart its own course during the conflict, having declared war a week later, on September 10, Canada was not slow in coming to England’s support. Less than a year later, No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron joined the “few” in defending England during the Battle of Britain, but this was only a drop in the bucket compared to thousands of aircrew forthcoming from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP).

Whether graduates of the RCAF, or RAF stations in Canada, Commonwealth aircrew once again found themselves serving together throughout the world. As the RCAF grew and matured, it sought to field its own distinctly national squadrons and formations such as No. 6 Group, Bomber Command, through a process of “Canadianization.” Official policy that insisted on Canadians manning Canadian units only accounted for a small number of BCATP aircrew, and the majority would serve in RAF squadrons throughout the war.

The end of the Second World War found the RCAF adjusting to a new Cold War reality. However, even as it adjusted to a new focus on continental defence and closer ties with the United States Air Force (USAF), the RCAF still retained close ties with its parent service. A decision was taken to perpetuate the 400-series squadron numbers which had been assigned by the RAF to avoid numerical confusion. Training, exchange and educational opportunities were strengthened and increased. Often, RCAF and RAF personnel worked side by side on peacekeeping, humanitarian and, when necessary, combat operations.

Spurred on by common defence interests and organizations such as the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD), the RCAF and USAF began to adopt similar doctrine and equipment. However, the “spirit” of the RCAF remained intertwined with the RAF, supported by the shared memories of the two air forces’ veterans.

A new century has not dimmed the connection. Members of the RCAF and RAF once again find themselves serving side by side in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The uniforms and outlook may have changed but the central air power ethos, established during two world wars, has not. No longer as a child-parent relationship, the RCAF and RAF are ready to meet an uncertain future as peers.

Major March is a historian with the RCAF's Directorate of History and Heritage.

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