Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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RAF Ground Training Development

Since its formation in 1918 ground training system in the RAF has undergone a number of changes, which are briefly outlined below.

1918 - 1939

In his post-war plans for the RAF, Trenchard decided that it would only employ pilots as officers, except for specialists such as Medical and Stores/Accountant officers) but as this would result in a higher percentage of officers to airmen than would be found in the Royal Navy and Army, so he introduced the Short Service Commission (SSC).  This allowed an officer to serve for five years on the active list before transferring to the reserve and gave the service a large pool of trained pilots, whilst not blocking the promotion prospects of those officers on Permanent Commissions (PC).  Officers were appointed in different Branches of the service dependent on their employment such as the Medical Branch, Stores Branch etc, with pilots forming the General Duties Branch (GD) and it would be the GD officers who would fulfil the vast majority of tasks required on squadrons and at HQ.

Officers awarded PCs mainly came through the RAF College at Cranwell, who undertook a two year training course, which included their flying training, whilst Officers selected for SSCs first attended the RAF Depot at Uxbridge before completing their flying training at a Flying Training School (FTS).  As those officers on SSCs were only likely to give four years service (flying training took about a year) they wouldn't be on the active list long enough to complete one or two tours on a flying squadron before transferring to the reserve.  As a result it was an expectation that those officers on PCs would undertake some form of specialist training either just before or on reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant, after which they could then be employed in this capacity as well as on flying duties.  Such specialist course included Navigation, Engineering, Signals, Photography, Armament and Parachutes (once these were introduced).  Most of the training for these officers took place at RAF training units, but sometimes, officers were then sent on more advanced courses at external establishments such as Universities.

Like the Admiralty and War Office, the RAF's political control, the Air Ministry, required officers training in staff work, as did Command and Group HQs and as a result the RAF established its own Staff College at Andover in 1922, where it could train its own Staff Officers.  However, some officers were sent on staff course to the RN and Army Staff Colleges and Naval and Army Officers also attended the RAF Staff College.  Later in their careers could also be selected to attend the Imperial Defence College, which was a joint-service establishment.

In this period there were basically two ways to enter the RAF as a airman, the first being as an Apprentice through No 1 School of Technical Training at Halton or as an adult.  Like officers entering on SSCs, adult personnel entered the service through the RAF Depot at Uxbridge.  All recruits were enlisted as an Aircrafthand (ACH) with a qualification such as U/T Fitter but there those who lacked the academic qualifications or practical abilities to enter as trainee tradesmen and these were enlisted as ACH/GD.  This was a trade group that covered a group of airmen that would be employed on such things as sanitary duties, cook house duties, cleaning but they could undertake education classes which would eventually allow them to apply for training in more advanced trades.  ACH/GDs could also become drill instructors and armoured car crew.  Once an airman, other than ACH/GDs, had completed his recruit training at Uxbridge, he would be posted to the School of Technical Training (Men) at Manston, after which he would then be posted to his first unit

All airmen entered the service as an Aircraftman 2nd Class (AC2), which was a trade classification not a rank.  At the completion of a trade training course the airman would be tested on his level of ability and knowledge and if he attained a high enough mark he could be reclassified as an Aircraftman 1st Class (AC1) but whether he started his career as an AC2 or AC1, he would be expected undertake traded tests which could see him move up to AC1 or Leading Aircraftman (LAC) but none of these classifications gave him any command responsibility.  Whilst an airman could develop his skills 'on the job' it was often necessary for them to return to a training unit to undertake more advanced training.

1939 - 1945

During World War Two the main changes in ground training were due to changes in the trade group structure brought about by the introduction of new trades needed to keep pace with the technological developments taking place and the need to reduce training times to ensure that units were able to function.  This often involved the creation of trade groups requiring reduced skills levels, with these skills levels being brought up to a higher level at a later date once the airman had accumulated more practical experience.  This combined with the vast increase in numbers required led to rapid expansion of the Technical Training system just before and following the start of the war.  New types of equipment such as radar also saw a massive increase in schools need to train both operators and maintenance personnel as well as whole new types of training units.

Another major change took place in 1940.  As mentioned above duties as signals officer, armament officer and engineer had been carried out by GD officers as an addition to or instead of their flying duties but as the service expanded in the late 1930s it became obvious that this was going to result in serious shortage of officers to fulfil these roles and at the same time fill the executive positions in squadrons and other flying units.  The initial attempt at solving this problem had been to commission Warrant Officers and Flight Sergeants from the relevant trade groups, as what were known as Commissioned Engineer, Commissioned Signals or Commissioned Armament Officers but this was unlikely to provide sufficient officers so in 1940 a new branch was created, the Technical Branch.  Many of those GD officers already qualified were transferred into the new branch as were all the Commissioned Engineer/Signals/Armament officers, but more importantly it now permitted the RAF to recruit officers directly into this branch, particularly personnel already holding suitable qualifications or possessing the necessary practical experience.

In the early stages of the war a decision was taken to adopt a scheme originally used in World War One to relieve the work load of the EFTSs, which was the introduction of Initial Training Wings (ITW).  These took over the ground training of aircrew prior to them beginning the flying phase of their courses.  Most were based in seaside resorts or university town, where the availability of hotels and guest house provided accommodation for the large numbers expected to be trained.  The promenades, beaches and parks in these towns also provided suitable locations for conducting PT and drill training, with hotels and theatres providing spaces to act as lecture theatres for subjects such as Principles of Flight, Engines, Airframes, Airmanship, Meteorology, Navigation, Armament and Air Force Law.  By 1941 most of those passing through the ITWs would then travel overseas to complete the flying phase of their courses, up to 'Wings' standard.

Following the success of the German advances in France in 1940, the RAF had been caught off guard.  At that time it was expected that RAF airfields would be defended by the Army but the speed of the German advances meant the Army needed to reinforce its own units, thereby leaving many RAF facilities unprotected, which prompted Winston Churchill to insist that in future the RAF needed to be responsible for its own ground defences.  This initially led to the new trade of 'Ground Gunner', who were trained in infantry tactics and equipped with anti-aircraft guns, eventually being formed into squadrons located at various airfields around the UK.  In February 1942, these units were absorbed into a new branch of the RAF, the RAF Regiment, which led to the formation of a whole new series of schools and practice camps for this branch.

The success of the Battle of Britain in 1940 is usually credited to 'The Few' but without the controllers and plotters in the operations rooms, The Few wouldn't have been able to concentrate in those areas in they were needed when they were needed.  During the war most of the controllers were actually pilots on ground tours but the skills needed were different to those needed in the cockpit so it was necessary to train them for this important role. 

As the RAF continued to expand and the number of bases increased, ensuring that aircraft returning to bases in close proximity to each other did not collide introduced another new trade, that of Flying Control, which grew out of the traditional role of 'Duty Pilot'.  Duty Pilots had been responsible for signing out other pilots, recording the flight details in the logs, advising pilots of local conditions and signing in pilots on their return or arrival, but as the numbers of aircraft increased and traffic patterns became more congested it became obvious that this wasn't a task to assigned to pilots on a part time basis.  This in turn led to the creation of Flying Control Officers and their associated non-commissioned assistants.

Another major development during the war was the need for dedicated air transport resources, which in turn brought with it the need to prepare and organise the loads to be carried, whether they were paratroops, other personnel or freight.   This led to the need for personnel trained in the skills of Air Movement, a task originally undertaken by Equipment personnel but soon became a role in its own right.  Another task undertaken by the RAF was the training of paratroops and air dispatchers.

As can be seen from the above the range of ground based trades grew dramatically during WW2 and with it the number of schools and training establishments, not just in terms of quantity but also in the scope of the trades they were required to provide training for.

1945 - 2016

With the war over, the number of school required could be scaled down to some extent but the introduction of National Service meant that there was still a need for a large number of training units through the late 1940s and into the 1950s.  Many of the changes that took place during the war became established with the 'part-time' operations controllers becoming 'full-time' Fighter Controllers and flying control staff becoming Air Traffic Controllers.  In the technical trades, the introduction of the jet engine and the increasing use of electronics saw changes in training syllabi but the basic training system remained much as before.

One of the major post-war developments were probably the replacement of the WAAF by the Women's' Royal Air Force (WRAF) and then the final abolition of the WRAF with its personnel being absorbed into the RAF.  Another was the abolition of the Flight Cadet scheme at the RAF College, Cranwell which then became the sole point of entry for officers and the ending of the Apprenticeship and Boy Entrant schemes. 

Brief histories of those units involved in aspects of RAF flying training have been grouped as follows: -

Recruit training units (Airmen)

Officer training units

Technical training units

Ground Defence training units

Miscellaneous training units

This page was last updated on 11/09/20

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