This April will mark 100 years since the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were combined to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), the youngest of the three British armed services.
In new book The RAF in 100 Objects, military historian Peter Jacobs considers items – from aircraft, buildings and vehicles to weapons, uniforms and equipment – to tell the story of the force and the people who served.
Though the Second World War lives on for many as the RAF’s finest hour, the items selected take readers beyond wartime and through the development of high-speed flight during the interwar years and the dawn of the jet age.
“I did not want a disproportionate number of personal items from the Second World War at the expense of other significant periods of the RAF’s history,” explains Jacobs, “such as the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the newly formed RAF had to fight for its survival.” Also included are objects from the Britain’s ‘Jet Age’ and the Cold War.
Here are just a few of the 100 items included in the book…
A Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F1 Camel
The aircraft was first introduced with the RFC and RNAS in 1917 and was the highest scoring British fighter aircraft of the First World War. “The Camel was so named because of the metal fairing ‘hump’ over the breeches of its twin machine guns,” explains Jacobs.
A cap and badge of the Women’s Royal Air Force
The Women’s Royal Air Force, the female branch of the RAF, formed as a wartime force during the First World War and was disbanded in 1920, by which time some 32,000 women had served in the WRAF. “The original intention was that the WRAF would provide female mechanics so that men could be released for combat service, but such was the response to enrolment that women volunteered for many positions,” says Jacobs.
The Schneider Trophy
To encourage early technical advances in civil aviation, Jacques Schneider, a French financier and aircraft enthusiast, came up with the idea of a trophy and financial prize to be awarded annually to the winner of a race for seaplanes and flying boats. Pictured above is the Supermarine S.6B that won the Schneider Trophy for Britain in 1931. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Douglas Bader’s Wings
‘Wings’ are symbol of qualification and worn by trained pilots and The RAF in 100 Objects includes the wings which belonged to Douglas Bader (above), probably the RAF’s most famous fighter pilot of all time. Born in London in 1910, Bader joined the RAF as an officer cadet at the RAF College Cranwell. After losing his legs in a flying accident, he left the service. However, when the Second World War broke out he returned to flying, remarkably going on to destroy 22 enemy aircraft.
The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine
“The Rolls-Royce Merlin was one of the most important aircraft engines ever built,” says Jacobs, “the new design known as the PV-12 first flying in a Hawker Hart biplane in 1935.” The main production version, the Merlin II, which produced 1,030hp at 3,000rpm at 5,500ft (1,676m), powered the RAF’s new fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire. It continued to be built in large numbers throughout the Second World War and its series of rapid developments made the Merlin one of the most successful engines of the conflict. Above is an image of a Merlin-powered Spitfire of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight performing a ‘hot start’.
Whittle W.1 Jet Engine
With the Second World War over, the RAF entered the jet age. The Whittle W.1 engine which powered Britain’s first jet aircraft was designed by Frank Whittle, who patented the design in 1930. The engine later made its first flight in May 1941, heralding the beginning of the Jet Age. The Gloster Meteor – which first flew in 1943 and entered operational service the following year – was the Allies’ only operational jet aircraft of the Second World War.
Introduced into service in 1969, the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft was at the forefront of the UK’s defences during the Cold War years. Nimrod MR1 was designed and developed by Hawker Siddeley to replace the ageing Avro Shackleton as the RAF’s first jet-powered aircraft for the anti-submarine warfare role. The Nimrod’s range and endurance enabled the aircraft to stay airborne for around ten hours, enabling it to comfortably operate to the north of Iceland or out into the Atlantic.
The RAF in 100 Objects by Peter Jacobs is published by The History Press with a foreword by Air Vice-Marshal Nigel Baldwin CB CBE and is out now. Click here for more.
Meanwhile, in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now, you can read military historian Patrick Bishop’s feature which argues that of all the three services, it was Britain’s air force that contributed the most to victory over the Axis. Click here for more.