Moustaches, Cossacks and an inland lighthouse: a brief history of the Royal Air Force

When did the Royal Air Force (RAF) begin, who founded it and why? Here, Group Captain Fin Monahan explores the RAF's fascinating history and reveals some curious facts about its past – from the truth about handlebar moustaches, to the slang that originated during airborne campaigns…

A Royal Air Force fighter squadron 'scrambles' after receiving the signal to engage the enemy during the Battle of Britain. (Photo by William Vandivert/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In 1917, German Gotha bombers easily penetrated London’s air defences in a series of deadly attacks that shocked the public. In one raid 162 people were killed, and the deaths of 18 children in a school in Purley caused a public outcry.

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Following these attacks, Lieutenant General Jan Smuts (a former Boer enemy of Britain) was commissioned to review British air power; he recommended that the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) should be amalgamated into an entirely new service. Thus, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force was born.

A flight of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of No 73 Squadron RAF, over France, 19 April 1940. (Photo by S. A. Devon/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An Air Council was established to run RAF matters and it rapidly set about rewriting orders and conditions of service, choosing uniforms, and deciding which traditions to appropriate from the other services to allow personnel to transition seamlessly from the Royal Navy and the British Army into the brand-new force. Much of the inspiration behind the new flags, medals, uniforms, ranks, badges, training and customs was traditional, giving the new service instant identity and unity. However, the challenges of aviation had bred a new type of warrior during the First World War, and the way these airmen interpreted their world was fascinating.

The symbols, humour and quirky traditions have evolved and united the RAF for the last century, giving its personnel the courage, grit and selflessness needed to face threats and deal with often terrifying odds against survival.

Damage in London following the first bombing raid by German zeppelins, May 1915. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Damage in London following the first bombing raid by German Zeppelins, May 1915. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

“Knights of the air”

Early aviation was modern, romantic and dangerous – and appealed particularly to eccentric risk-takers. Little over a decade after the invention of the first successful aeroplane, the First World War broke out; the dangers of flying were increased even further as aviators took warfare into the skies. MP and former RNAS aviator Noel Pemberton-Billing noted that because of aviation’s “gallantry and… constant risks, not only war risks but peace risks, it attracts a temperamental type of man”. The press, meanwhile, highlighted the chivalry of the First World War, calling the airmen “knights of the air”.

However, as one First World War pilot named Parker wrote: “The war that started with no small amount of chivalry became a dog eat dog affair before it reached the end, and man was controlled by his most savage emotions and animal instincts.”

Female aviators Dorothy Spicer and Pauline Gower in a bungalow in Reading, 9 September 1931. Gower later became an officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary's No 5 Ferry Pilots Pool. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The reality of wartime flying was harsh: aircrew flew long hours in the cold in unreliable craft with a very limited understanding of the principles of flight. First World War pilot Cecil Lewis said that aircrew lived “either in the stretch or sag of nerves. We were either in deadly danger or we were in no danger at all.” Life expectancy was very low and aircrew, who flew most of the war without parachutes, were terrified of losing control in a spin or burning to death in stricken craft after being shot down.

To deal with the terrible odds against survival, the frequently eccentric aircrew adopted interesting ways of coping. In particular, they developed a stoic and peculiarly nonchalant, self-deprecating humour and slang that served to reinforce a deep sense of identity. Robert Brooke-Popham, who commanded No 3 Wing in the First World War and rose to senior command in the RAF, wrote: “Airmen exhibit a certain joyous carelessness of life, perhaps because they can feel with Peter Pan that ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’ – just a big adventure, nothing more.”

RAF biplanes in flight at Hendon Air Pageant, 1923. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
RAF biplanes in flight at Hendon Air Pageant, 1923. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The majority of aircrew who went into combat were young officers who, unlike their naval and army officer counterparts, did not have the responsibility of many junior ranks under their command. Boyish humour, high jinks, singing and heavy drinking were commonplace during downtime. Some aviators saw aspects of military life – dress, appearance, saluting and discipline – as rather mundane, perhaps due to their peculiar situation; not only was it an extremely stressful environment, but they also felt very privileged. After all, few people at that time, beyond their relatively small group, knew or understood the enchanting freedom of soaring in the third dimension.

In his introduction to Enemy Coast Ahead, the book by Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC – leader of the legendary ‘Dambusters’ – Arthur Harris, air officer commanding-in-chief of Bomber Command, condoned and explained the social exuberance of his personnel:

“I do not attempt to excuse them, if only because I entirely approve of them… Remember these crews, shining youth on the threshold of life, lived under circumstances of intolerable strain. They were in fact – and they knew it – faced with the virtual certainty of death… if on occasion the anticipation of an event, or the celebration of a success and an unexpected survival, called for a party, for letting off of steam… who among the older generations who sent them and tens of thousands like them to their deaths, will dare criticise?”   

Wing Commander Guy Gibson (centre) with members of his squadron, known as 'The Dambusters'. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Wing Commander Guy Gibson (centre) with members of his squadron, known as ‘The Dambusters’. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

However, modern interpretations of early aviators – such as Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart – often over-emphasised their eccentric qualities without acknowledging the supreme professionalism of RNAS, RFC and RAF personnel. While Gibson’s book revealed the lighthearted spirit of the RAF, it also underlined the steely skill of personnel in their conduct of aerial warfare. The support personnel and aircrew were highly technical people working in extremely well-structured organisations. Although the junior service had a slightly more relaxed approach than its forebears, this was a source of great strength to these pioneers of aviation, encouraging dynamism, innovation and supreme professionalism in the Force’s hangars, cockpits and control towers. As new airborne technology changed the face of warfare for ever, the RAF gave its aviators and personnel a new home for a novel culture to develop, independent of its navy and army ancestry.

Hawker Hurricane in flight, Battle of Britain, World War II, 1940. A Hawker Hurricane of Fighter Command on its way to intercept German bombers as they crossed the south coast of England. Fought between 10 July and 31 October 1940, the Battle of Britain was the first major battle to be won in the air. The RAF's victory in the battle effectively prevented the Germans from attempting an invasion. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The symbols and identity of the new RAF

Early in the First World War, when visibility was poor, the union flag painted on the wings of British aircraft was sometimes mistaken by British forces for the German cross, resulting in allied gunners firing on their own aircraft. Major-General Henderson, commander of the RFC, wrote to the French requesting permission to allow British aircraft to adopt the French aircraft identification symbol, with the colours reversed.

The French symbol originated from the cockade, a knot of red, white and blue ribbon worn by French revolutionaries in the late 18th century. After amalgamation of the RNAS and the RFC in 1918, the RAF continued to use this roundel on its aircraft; today it is painted on all British military aircraft and is one of the most widely used and iconic symbols of the Service. It appears on the RAF Ensign, and was particularly prominent during the RAF centenary celebrations this year.

An RAF ensign. (Ian Hainsworth / Alamy Stock Photo)
An RAF ensign. (Ian Hainsworth / Alamy Stock Photo)

Another well-known symbol of the RAF is the ‘Wings’ badge. In 1912, when in command of the RFC Military Wing, Major Frederick Sykes (later the RAF’s second chief of the air staff) drew a design for an embroidered flying badge incorporating the stylised wings of a swift that met the approval of Major-General Henderson. The RFC wore the badge on the left breast, an unusual position for British Army badges of the era. The RNAS, meanwhile, introduced a similar badge depicting an eagle, worn in the more traditional position on the uniform sleeve. Upon amalgamation, the RAF decided to keep the ‘Wings’ badge in the RFC position on the chest, but changed its appearance from a representation of the wings of a swift to incorporate the naval wings of an eagle. All aircrew in the RAF would subsequently be awarded a flying badge; two wings for pilots and a single wing for all of the other aircrew branches and trades. Describing customs of the RAF in 1961, aviation historian PG Hering wrote that “throughout the world, there can be no badge which is so highly prized and so much sought after [as] the outstretched wings that form the basic design of the pilot’s badge”.

In the 1930s, the RAF undertook an enormous expansion in response to the growing threat from Adolf Hitler’s Germany. By 1944, the Force comprised 1.2 million men and women in uniform and had 432 main and 111 satellite airfields. Historian Robin Higham called this building project “the largest civil engineering project since the railways”.

Officer cadets stand on parade at the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire, whilst the Red Arrows display team performs a flypast. (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2018)
Officer cadets stand on parade at the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire, whilst the Red Arrows display team performs a flypast. (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2018)

The impact of the architecture on members of the RAF was important; in addition to hangars and technical buildings, personnel needed convivial surroundings, married quarters, churches, messes, post offices and leisure facilities. Pre-eminent architect Edwin Lutyens and the Royal Fine Art Commission approved Archibald Bulloch’s standard pattern architectural plans for identical buildings and hangars to be erected across the country, giving the RAF familiar buildings that provided comfortable surroundings for the men and women of the RAF, while reinforcing the new cultural identity of the junior service.

Designs for barrack blocks, messes and station HQs incorporated impressive faux-Georgian windows, while more important buildings boasted columns and intricate finishing touches. A particular quirk of RAF architecture can be found in the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire: the architect James Grey West was, reputedly, inspired by aspects of the front of Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Despite its landlocked location, in a nod to Cranwell’s origins as a training establishment for the Royal Naval Air Service, a lighthouse was incorporated in its grand dome that served as a useful navigation aid for generations of student aviators.

Edward, Prince of Wales, in the rear seat of a Bristol F.2B Fighter with Captain WG Barker of No. 139 Squadron during his flight in 1918, while on a visit to the Italian Front. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image H1608)

The first RAF airshows

In July 1920 the RAF held an air pageant at RAF Hendon. It was so popular that it overwhelmed the transport system and blocked roads for miles around. Over the years, the pageants became increasingly impressive and incorporated mock-ups of enemy positions, forts and ships. In 1937, a spectacular reconstruction of an enemy port attack was seen by more than 200,000 people. Royalty, politicians and the public were given an impression of how RAF operations such as air defence, maritime strikes and long-range independent bombing of enemy positions were conducted. It was also an opportunity for the RAF to demonstrate how its aeroplanes were being used to quell unrest in the empire at a fraction of the cost of using garrisons of soldiers.

Spectators clamber onto the roofs of their cars to watch the 1935 Royal Air Force Pageant at Hendon Aerodrome, London. (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Spectators clamber onto the roofs of their cars to watch the 1935 Royal Air Force Pageant at Hendon Aerodrome, London. (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The tradition, started at Hendon in 1920, continues to play an important role in giving the public access to the RAF, while also promoting the UK at home and overseas.  Formed in 1965, the Red Arrows – the famed aerobatic display team which flies in distinctive Hawk fast-jets – were seen by over 1.2 billion people at airshows around the world and on social media in 2016/17 alone, promoting iconic British brands, engineering, culture and education as part of the GREAT Campaign.

Test pilot Melitta Schiller (right), Berlin, June 1943. (Photo by DRK/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

Instilling an ‘Air Force spirit’

In 1919, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Trenchard wrote a document entitled Permanent Organisation of the Royal Air Force. It proved to be an important blueprint for how the new service should be structured. It had been assumed that RAF personnel would be trained by the navy and the army, but Trenchard insisted that, for the RAF to develop an ‘Air Force spirit’, personnel would need to be trained in the RAF’s own institutions. In addition to the RAF College at Cranwell, where new officers were trained, Trenchard established an apprentice scheme at RAF Halton to train boys in technical trades, and a Staff College at Andover for senior officers. The apprentice school attracted high calibre boys who could not afford a private education. They would help establish the extremely high standards of engineering that were key to the RAF’s outstanding performance in the Second World War. Earl Mountbatten, speaking at a 1962 graduation, said “the Battle of Burma was won here in the classrooms and workshops of Halton”.

Meanwhile, the RAF College conducted officer training, with all cadets undertaking pilot instruction. The college allowed the future officers of the RAF to develop in an environment that encouraged ‘air-mindedness’ and a strong sense of identity.

The RAF College at Cranwell conducted officer training, with all cadets undertaking pilot instruction. (Pool Photo RAF - Handout/Getty Images)
The RAF College at Cranwell conducted officer training, with all cadets undertaking pilot instruction. (Pool Photo RAF – Handout/Getty Images)

Senior officers were provided with the RAF Staff College. From the very first course, they set about studying the lessons from the First World War and how aeroplanes should be used in future combat. The apprentice school, the officer cadet college and the staff college formed the backbone of the new Service, in which the RAF attitudes, humour, slang and informal rules, developed from the early days of aviation, would flourish.

In 1918, introducing a new uniform to the newly formed RAF was an emotive subject; members of the RNAS and the RFC identified deeply with the ones that they would give up on amalgamation. An attempt to assuage all was made: the cut of the new RAF uniform was an army design, while the buttons and officer cap badge were very similar to those on the RNAS uniform. Initially the uniform was an army khaki colour; however, a striking blue mess dress for officers was approved in RAF Memorandum No 2 for the duration of the First World War. The Air Council then agreed that the RAF should wear blue. RAF folklore suggests that the blue material was decided upon because there was a ‘job lot’ of material, spun in British mills, that had been destined for the Russian tsar’s army that was conveniently available while the Air Council was discussing the matter of RAF uniforms. Though there is nothing to support this in the archives of the Air Council meetings, staff at Hainsworth, the textile-makers, have recently stated that they “had a warehouse full of blue-grey material that had been woven for the tsar of Russia for his Cossack trousers” and that they supplied it to the newly formed RAF.

British Royal Navy Type 21 frigate HMS Antelope explodes in San Carlos Water, off East Falkland, after attacks by the Argentine Air Force during the Falklands War, 24 May 1982. (Photo by Martin Cleaver/Pool/Getty Images)

Officers were required to purchase their uniforms and – to prevent excessive financial burdens on them – were permitted to retain their previous uniforms until they needed replacing. Accordingly, the transition to blue was gradual, giving the RAF a somewhat motley appearance during its early years.

Facial hair in the army and navy has waxed and waned with fashion and practicality, and at various stages both services have allowed, tolerated and even ordered the growth of beards and moustaches. Air Council records for 8 August 1918 show a discussion item entitled ‘Growth of facial hair’, in which “there was no objection to hair on the face if kept within moderate limits”, which technically allowed for beards to be grown. However, King’s Regulations for 1918 tightened up on facial hair, ordering that “the chin and underlip will be shaved” in order to ensure uniformity of appearance. Moustaches were therefore the only approved form of facial hair in the RAF.

An RAF pilot c1940. By the Second World War the eccentric handlebar moustache had become strongly associated with the service. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An RAF pilot c1940. By the Second World War the eccentric handlebar moustache had become strongly associated with the Service. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While the moustache was far from universal, by the Second World War some extraordinary interpretations of the regulations by RAF personnel saw eccentric moustache growing become strongly associated with the service. Although RAF moustaches were considered dashing by some, army officer Ronald Sherbrooke-Walker was affronted by the appearance of an RAF officer on a troopship, writing that he was “distinguished by an immense pirate’s moustache, a shock of bobbed hair and a pair of side whiskers. He was an offence to the eye.” Cartoons in Tee Emm, the RAF’s training magazine, showed senior officers with large moustaches. Similarly, modern populist caricatures of RAF personnel often depict flying goggles, a sheepskin jacket and a rather splendid handlebar moustache. In reality, such moustaches are few and far between today – but those RAF personnel who do wear them still look the part.

A group of RAF pilots at Hendon Aerodrome, London, in July 1927.(Photo by L. Blandford/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
A group of RAF pilots at Hendon Aerodrome, London, in July 1927.(Photo by L. Blandford/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

As the new Service developed its distinctive identity on isolated stations around Britain and the empire, the highly technical nature of operations, combined with a deep sense of independence, a strong internal code of conduct and an ever-present threat of danger resulted in the emergence of a rich slang that conveyed professionalism, nonchalance and humour. Words and phrases evolved such as: kite (aeroplane); prang (crash); shooting a line (to exaggerate/boast); bale out (jump by parachute or to leave a situation rapidly); a flat spin (to be in a panic); tally ho (enemy aircraft sighted); pukkah gen (verifiable information, the truth) and browned off (fed up). RAF personnel appeared to delight in the unintelligible nature of their lexicon. Like any sociolect, RAF slang served to unite those in the service and exclude those outside of it; this was amusingly exploited in Monty Python’s 1974 ‘RAF Banter’ sketch and, more recently, BBC’s Armstrong and Miller Show. Today, that slang has evolved as technology and outside culture have changed, but it remains a source of pride and exclusivity for the Service.

The culture of the RAF runs very deep and has united RAF personnel, engendering courage, loyalty, determination and selflessness. RAF personnel have served with distinction in extreme situations such as the Battle of Britain, Burma, the Bomber Command campaign, the Korean War, Aden, the Falklands, Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Syria. Meanwhile, the RAF has provided unstinting 24-hour air defence of the nation for more than 100 years. And that’s the ‘pukkah gen’.

Group Captain Fin Monahan DFC OBE PhD is a serving officer in the Royal Air Force.  He completed a PhD on the origins of the organisational culture of the RAF in 2018, and is a member of the Royal College of Defence Studies.

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This article was first published on History Extra in December 2018