RAF Tornados

A Century In The Air: Stunning Book Reveals RAF History In All Its Glory

RAF Tornados

Article by Michael Napier: Author of The Royal Air Force - A Centenary of Operations

Most people's ideas about the history of the RAF consist of Sopwith Camels over the Western Front, Spitfires and Hurricanes fighting the Battle of Britain and Lancasters carrying out the Bomber Offensive over Germany.  

Some will recall that RAF Vulcans maintained the country’s nuclear deterrent in the 1960s - and that those same Vulcans bombed Port Stanley airfield during the Falklands War.  

They might also remember the RAF participation in the first Gulf War and perhaps they might even mention the recent conflict in Afghanistan, although that seems to be chiefly considered to be an army campaign. 

While that version of events is not incorrect, it is an account that does not even begin to scratch the surface of the exploits and achievements of the Service in its first century of existence.

Throughout the 100 years since it was born into the final year of the First World War, the RAF has been involved in almost continuous air operations around the world.  

What’s more, many of the troublesome “hotspots” of today’s world would have been very familiar to members of the RAF nearly a century ago.  

For example, the RAF was fighting in north and south Russia and the Baltic Sea in 1919 and 1920, it was in action against insurgent jihadists in northern Iraq in 1923 and the world’s first ever large-scale airlift was carried out in Afghanistan by the RAF in 1928.

Royal Marines RAF
An airlift in Afghanistan today – of members of 40 Commando, the Royal Marines - done by a Chinook (image: Crown Copyright)

Furthermore, while these events were happening, RAF squadrons were involved in almost continuous operations in Iraq, Palestine, India and China.  

In the Inter-War years, most of the RAF frontline units were based overseas, policing the Empire and until the expansion of the mid-1930s, there were actually remarkably few flying squadrons back in the UK.

The story of the Battle of Britain in 1940 is well-known and, as the defining moment of the independent RAF, it deserves re-telling; but we should also remember that at the same time that the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command were taking on the Luftwaffe over southern England, the RAF was heavily involved in campaigns over Eritrea, the Red Sea and Egypt.  

 Indonesian–Malaysian confrontation
Blast from the past – the WW2-era aircraft the Avro Shackleton is seen here flying over the Borneo jungle in the 1960s (image: RAFM)

During the Second World War, the RAF played a vitally important part in every theatre of operations, but to my mind, there were two particular campaigns to which the RAF made a critical contribution: firstly, the Battle of the Atlantic, where the long-range patrol aircraft of Coastal Command were crucial elements in defeating the U-boats and secondly Burma, where RAF transport aircraft provided the only means to keep the army supplied and reinforced over long distances and otherwise impassable jungle.  

So, if any aircraft types should be remembered as the iconic symbols of the RAF during the Second World War, perhaps they should be the Liberator and the Dakota. (Dakotas were also used to drop paratroopers, shown on the cover of the article to the left).

RAF transport aircraft proved their worth again after the War during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, which took place at the same time that RAF fighters were in combat with Israeli aircraft over Sinai and RAF fighter-bombers were participating in the first stages of the Malayan Emergency.   

Cold War aircraft
The Cold War-era English Electric Lightning F6 (image: Crown Copyright)

Although no RAF fighter squadrons took part in the Korean War in the opening years of the 1950s, RAF flying boat squadrons did - and so did around 70 RAF fighter pilots who flew combat missions while seconded to the USAF and RAAF.  

In fact, the 1950s were a period of continuous operations for RAF aircraft in Malaya, Suez, Arabia and Kenya.  The action continued into the subsequent decade, when crises in Kuwait, Borneo, Cyprus, Aden and Rhodesia also called for intervention, in varying degrees, by RAF aircraft.

The Troubles which began in Northern Ireland in 1969 were the start of a thirty-year commitment for the RAF Support Helicopter Force and the Air Transport fleet, while the 1970s brought more operational commitments including two Cod Wars, another crisis in Cyprus, and others in Oman and Belize.  

RAF Harrier jump jet
A BAe Harrier GR3 in Belize (image: Richard Cooke)

Then came the Falklands conflict of 1982, during which long-range radar reconnaissance missions by Nimrods and Victors secured the route of the Task Force as it headed to liberate the islands. The subsequent Vulcan raids on East Falkland were made possible by the air-to-air refuelling support from - once again - the Victor tankers.  

RAF Harriers played their part, too, as did a number of RAF pilots who flew with the Sea Harrier squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm.  

Although there were no “hot wars” between the Falklands conflict and the Gulf War nine years later, the intervening years saw operational detachments by RAF aircraft in the Falklands, Belize and Northern Ireland - and not forgetting, of course, the continuous watch of the Quick Reaction Alert fighters (and their supporting tankers) and the Search and Rescue helicopters.

Helicopter South East Asia
A Westland Wessex HC2 helicopter in Hong Kong, used for Search and Rescue, Army support and to help fight drug smuggling (image: RAFM)

The Gulf War in 1991 was preceded by a massive air campaign in which RAF aircraft played an important part, but that was just the start of continuous air operations by the RAF over Iraq which lasted (apart from a short break between 2010 and 2013) for the next quarter of a century, right up to the present day.  

In that time the whole range of RAF aircraft, from transports to tankers, from helicopters to intelligence-gatherers, and from drones to combat jets, have also been involved - again almost continuously - in air campaigns over Bosnia (1993-98), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000), Afghanistan (2001-2016), Libya (2011), Nigeria (2014), the Baltic Sea (2004 and 2014) and the Black Sea (2017).

“The Royal Air Force - A Centenary of Operations” tells the story of how the RAF has carried out its “core business” - the application of air power - over the last 100 years.  My “operational” approach, concentrating on the work of the front-line units, gives a slightly different perspective on the story to that of the more usual “organisational histories,” which have been done many times before.  It is a fascinating story of endeavour which describes the work of a service which has very much earned its keep in every one of its 100 years of existence.

Go here to pick up a copy of Michael Napier’s book, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Cover image: Two Panavia Tornado GR1s, which entered service in 1982 (image: Richard Cooke)

Osprey Publishing

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