Volume 56, Number 4, April 2018
Reach for the skies APRIL 1, 2018 marks the centenary of the formation of the Royal Air Force with the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (the Army’s aerial force) and the Royal Naval Air Service (the Naval equivalent)—making the RAF the oldest independent air force in the world. The formation of the RAF came a mere 15 years after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, nine years after the first flight across the Channel and long before Lindburgh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic, but it can be safely said that the introduction of aircraft into combat changed the face of warfare forever. Originally ’planes were intended to be used on the battlefield in much the same way as the balloon squadrons were used in the Boer War—for high-level reconnaissance, giving observers a far better view of enemy positions than had ever been possible before. This was especially important in the time of trench warfare when an enemy position was underground and heavily fortified and thus almost impossible to view in any way other than from above. Planes were also used to bomb the same positions with the crew physically releasing bombs over the cockpit side as they passed overhead—it was too good an opportunity to miss! They were not, however, originally intended to be used as combat machines in their own right. The first “combat air to air kill” actually belonged to a Frenchman: when pilot Joseph Frantz and observer Louis Quénault were returning from a bombing mission in October 1914 and spotted a German reconnaissance plane. The French plane had been fitted with a Hotchkiss machine gun and Quénault used it to great effect in downing the enemy aircraft. Within two years dogfights were a relatively common sight above the battlefields of France and Belgium and within four years an entire new armed service had been created. The impact that the RAF, and aerial combat in general, had on the way wars were fought cannot be understated and there is little doubt that had we not gained mastery of the skies in the Battle of Britain then the United Kingdom as we know it today would simply not exist, indeed the entire world would be a very different place altogether. Our hobby would be very different too, as whilst you cannot deny that the stories of heroism that relate to Army and Navy awards are truly inspiring, there has always been something special about RAF awards; and no matter what your area of collecting interest it is difficult not to be moved by the stories of Spitfire pilots engaged in one on one dogfights over the white cliffs of Dover or Lancaster crews on impossible missions to destroy dams with bombs that bounced across the water. There is something unnatural about being “up in the air” and the fear of flying is a common phobia even today—the fact that these men (mere boys in many cases) were not only flying but doing so in the most dangerous of conditions and with an attrition rate far higher than their land or water based counterparts, stirs us all. Many of us will have medals to flyers, air crew and ground crew in our collections and I am sure that those who do will know of the important part they played in keeping this island safe across the years, but still more of you will have never really thought about the RAF and its medals, perhaps because you concentrate on another branch of the services or maybe because your interest lies in a time when flying was just for the birds. I am not, of course, expecting anyone to change theme (and I am fairly sure RAF medal collectors wouldn’t thank me for encouraging you to do so) but I would suggest that if you haven’t ever really given much thought to air force medals and have never really bothered to look into the stories of the recipients in any great depth, then maybe this month is a good time to start; if only to remember, in some small way, the sacrifices of those who took to the skies and never came down again. They deserve to be remembered, they deserve our thanks.
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