Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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Development of the RAF Command Structure 1918 -1925

Unit Development in the RFC/RNAS

The Air Force (Constitution) Act of 1917 brought into being two bodies, the Air Ministry, which embodied the Air Staff, and the Royal Air Force.  However, to appreciate the starting position of the RAF in terms of its organisational structure, we need to examine the legacy of its predecessors.  The Balloon Section and the Air Battalion had been purely Army units and therefore traditional Army unit titles were adopted, Section, Company and Battalion.   The formation of the Royal Flying Corps brought fresh problems in that it was intended to be a ‘joint service’ unit but the British services have a long tradition of rivalry and attempts to establish a unit able to work within a common organisational framework was not going to be easy, particularly with regard to unit titles and designations.

The obvious solution lay in adopting titles already in use by both services and new titles with no previous connection to either service but reflecting the medium in which the new branch would operate, the air.  As a result the RFC was to be divided into two WINGS, a new title, one military and one naval, whilst the basic formations within each Wing would be the SQUADRON, a title used by both the Royal Navy and the Army.  The sub-division of the squadron would be given another new title, the FLIGHT.

However, as we saw in Chapter 1, the Naval Wing eventually gained its independence from the RFC, which now effectively became a Corps in the Army.  When in 1915, the need arose to expand the organisational structure of the RFC, it was logical to group squadrons into larger units and to re-use the term WING.  When yet another level of command was needed to cope with expansion, the RFC reverted to a traditional Army title, BRIGADE.  By 1918, the Brigade remained the highest operational level of subordinate unit, although a Training Division had been set up in Britain.  Originally squadrons in the Military Wing had been designated by numbers, which gave no indication of role or location, the numbers being allocated purely in sequence.  By 1918 there was some duplication of these numbers as a result of the formation of Training Squadrons.  The operational Squadrons in the fields used the numbers whilst the Training Squadrons had the role designation (Training) added. 

The Naval Wing on the other hand had tended to group it aircraft in squadrons named after the location of the unit (e.g. Eastchurch Squadron).  However, by the beginning of World War 1 the basic RNAS operational unit was called the WING.  These Wings were designated by numbers and were often sub-divided into squadrons, usually designated by letters.  Later in the war, the RNAS adopted a system more in line with the RFC in adopting numbered squadrons.  This was achieved by either splitting up the Wings into separate squadrons or redesignating the Wings as squadrons.  However, the RNAS continued to operate independent flights and squadrons named after their locations as were Airship units.

Unit Development in the RAF (Home)

When the RAF came into being on 1 April 1918, some form of rationalisation was needed.  The basic unit was kept as the Squadron, sub-divided into Flights, whilst the next level adopted was the Wing.  As the majority of RAF squadrons were ex-RFC, it was logical to maintain the Army system in France and Wings continued to be grouped into Brigades.  RNAS numbered squadrons were redesignated by the addition of 200 to their existing number; e.g. No 1 Squadron RNAS became No 201 Squadron RAF.  Those RNAS squadrons without numbers were allocated numbers in the 200's whilst independent flights were grouped into squadrons, for administrative purposes, given numbers but left to operate independently.  All ex-RNAS units, operating in France, where placed under the command of a Wing or Brigade for operational control.  However, Airship units were left under the control of the Admiralty and therefore did not come in line with this system, continuing to be identified as previously.

Whilst little seemed to change in France, back in Britain, a completely new organisational structure was established as the Air Council had decided to set up their own support services, such as Medical, Equipment and Administration rather than rely on the existing Army facilities.  As a result RAF units at home where formed into new units, named GROUPS, with a numbers of Group being controlled by an AREA Headquarters.  At this stage an Area was the largest sub-unit and was classified as a COMMAND, a Command being directly responsible to the Air Ministry with no intermediate level of authority. Areas where formed on a Geographic basis, controlling all units in their territory regardless of their role, whilst Groups were given specific roles, such as Training, Operational, Marine Operational, etc.   Two of the Marine Operational Groups, No’s 5 and 29, which controlled ex-RNAS units, were temporarily raised to Command status, during late 1918/early 1919.  The Area system was also adopted in the Middle East, where an Area HQ was established with Groups formed to control the operational units in smaller zones, such as Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Italy. The only other part of the world at that time with a RAF presence was India, where the RFC had sent No 31 Squadron in 1915.  Initially those units based in India were formed into a Group within Middle East Area.

Another point of contention between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry was the operation of aircraft from carriers and of airships.  The Admiralty initially won the concession that airship design, procurement and their operation would remain with them, although the personnel were transferred to the RAF.  However, the areoplanes as well as the personnel were transferred to the RAF, although they continued to operate from Royal Navy ships as before.  These units were eventually named ‘Air Force Contingents’ and although administed by the Air Ministry, their personnel came under naval orders and the Navy (Discipline) Act whilst aboard ship.

With the rundown to the RAF after WW1 the Areas where gradually amalgamated until only two Areas existed, Northern and Southern.  However, ex-RNAS units had usually been controlled by Groups set up for that specific purpose and these Groups would often be responsible for units stationed in geographical locations in another Groups or even Area’s territory.  This problem was solved by the formation of Coastal Area in 1919 to control all units involved in the operation of maritime aircraft and aircraft operating with the Fleet.

Unit Development in the RAF (Overseas)

Having looked at the organisation of the RAF at home during this period, let us now turn our attention to the service overseas. On 1 April 1918, the bulk of the RAF's operational strength was based in Northern France, leaving in Britain those units involved in training, home defence and maritime patrol.  The RAF in the Field continued to run on the same lines as the RFC had previously.  Squadrons were grouped into Wings and Wings into Brigades.  Wings continued to be attached to a specific Army and to operate in all the required roles along the active front of that Army.  However, France was not the only overseas theatre to see RAF units in action.     To look at the post-war organisational developments, let us take each area in turn starting with the mainland of Europe.  With the Armistice in November 1918 came the run-down of the RAF in France, although there was a HQ for France and Flanders until early 1920.  This HQ was mainly concerned with maintenance, disposal  and return of aircraft to Britain.  Those units which accompanied the Army into Germany as occupation forces came under the command of RAF Rhine but by early 1920 the total RAF strength in Germany was down to a single squadron (No 12).  However, with the disbandment of No 12 in July 1922, an RAF presence in Europe came to an end, although RAF Rhine had disbanded in 1920, No 12 then coming under the direct control of the Army of Occupation.

The main overseas command once the war in Europe was over became the Middle East.  The Middle East Brigade (later retitled Middle East Area) controlled both operational and training units in Egypt and Palestine as well as units operating in the Mediterranean and Aegean.  As in Britain the ex-RFC units carried on much as before whilst the ex-RNAS units were either renumbered or grouped into numbered squadrons.  A number of Groups were established within Middle East Area, some being given numbers whilst others were named after the geographic areas they covered.

This page was last updated on 31/12/22© 

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