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The Establishment of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Airforce

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Setting the Scene

Much has been written about the aces, not something that the RFC initially wanted to promote however, they later fell into line with the French and German propaganda in promoting their fighter aces.

Captain James Fitz-Morris, Polmont, Falkirk District. RFC Ace.

Aces like Captain James Fitz-Morris, age 21, credited with 14 victories and who lived in Polmont, Falkirk District. He attended Laurieston Public School and left at the age of 14 to work as a clerk at Salvesen’s, Grangemouth office. He passed the Civil Service entrance examination but gained a deferment on joining the army in late 1914, on the understanding that a position would be reserved for him. He served in the Highland Light Infantry as a motor despatch rider, but after only three months he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was trained as an observer. He flew in the Vickers Gunbus with No. 11 Squadron in 1915 as an observer, before retraining as a pilot, being appointed a flying officer at the rank of temporary second lieutenant on 12 July 1916.

Falkirk Herald 1917 - reporting on the award of an M.C. to Captain James Fitz-Morris, RFC.
Falkirk Herald 1917 - reporting on the award of an M.C. to Captain James Fitz-Morris, RFC.

He was injured in a flying accident in August 1916 and after recovering from his injuries he was sent as an instructor to Grantham and was also promoted to Captain. In July 1917, he joined No.25 Squadron flying FE2d’s and then Airco DH4. He had seven victories, claimed along with his gunner Canadian Lieutenant David Burgess, and both received a Military Cross. In early 1918 he was appointed as Flight commander of No.23 Squadron flying the SPAD and he won a bar to his M.C. in June 1918. He added a further seven victories in March 1918 and was slightly wounded on 24 March. His final operational score was one aircraft captured, five set on fire, four destroyed, and four driven down ‘out of control’.

He was sent to the USA as an instructor in the British Aviation Mission under Brigadier-General Charles Frederick Lee. While taking part in a flying demonstration in Cincinnati, Ohio, that was designed to generate support for the war he was killed when his Sopwith Camel crashed shortly after take-off. His body was temporarily laid to rest in the Groesbecks tomb, a prominent Cincinnati family, his funeral was attended by 4,000 mourners and the route of the funeral procession was lined by 250,000 people. In 1919 his body was exhumed and brought back to Polmont and reburied in the cemetery at Polmont Old Church. HIs medals and other artifacts are on display at Callendar House Museum in Falkirk.

Government Investment

The ground-crew were the backbone of the RFC/RAF and received little attention and certainly none of the glory that the feted pilots and their observers received. The air war involved mundane but important tasks such as artillery spotting, photographic reconnaissance flights, bombing, supply dropping, and all arms co-operation with tanks, infantry, and artillery.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) went from being a branch of the army to the first independent air service in the world. The aerial technology employed developed with bewildering speed from flimsy aircraft that were poorly armed, only capable of carrying light men, to within a few years being transformed into well-armed machines capable of high altitude and incredible manoeuvres, and with a bombing capability that was extensive by the end of the war in 1918.

Royal Flying Corps. RFC. Ypres Salient. Flanders
Australian War Memorial AWM H12027

This progression was a result of Government investment, especially true of the British Government, as the private sector did not put a great deal of effort into new aircraft development as they did not have a market for their products. The British Government, who in the early years of flight lagged well behind the other belligerents in the development and use of the flying machines, were totally unprepared for the war in this area of technology. By the end of the war, they had developed machines that came to dominate the air war.

During the war, there was a dispute over who should be in charge of organising aircraft supply. Both the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) competed with each other to obtain the best aircraft and the greatest supply. The Government tried to do something about this ludicrous situation, forming various committees, however, the power of the Admiralty over the committees prevailed to the detriment of the war effort as a whole.

The land battles and engagements in the Ypres Salient have a convenient chronological and geographical sequence, this allows military historians to relate how a particular battle has progressed on a day-by-day basis. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the air war. Aircraft took off from airfields located behind the front line and ranged over the enemy rear areas where engagements took place and the casualties would be buried in cemeteries miles apart. Read more about the men and the various cemeteries here

Air action was a constant partner of the ground war from the opening days of the war on the Western Front. From these early days the airman’s lot was different and this is reflected in the relatively small number of casualties versus those sustained in the ground war. We should not lose sight of the fact that the air services were relatively small, compact, full of highly trained men, for whom losses had an often devasting impact. This sense of loss was directed into greater comradeship and purpose, something that was prevalent on both sides of the conflict and resulted in the men rising above the daily fear of a sudden and painful death to focus on the job in hand.

The Establishment of the Royal Flying Corps

Following increased criticism in the aeronautical press a sub-committee of the Imperial Committee of Defence recommended the creation of a British Aeronautical Service. On April 13, 1912, the King issued a Royal Warrant for a new service and the Air Battalion was replaced with the Royal Flying Corps, the Air Battalion was eventually amalgamated into the RFC in May 1912 and became the Airship and Kite Balloon Squadron RFC however, this was handed over to the Navy and the squadron was reformed and an aeroplane squadron becoming No.3 Squadron RFC. The new Corps had both a military and a naval wing. The military wing organisation envisaged a Wing Headquarters, seven aeroplane squadrons, one airship and kite balloon squadron, and one lines of communications workshops, later renamed aircraft park. A recruitment depot was established at Farnborough

A joint Central Flying School commanded from May 1912 by Captain Godfrey M Paine R.N. was established. The initial idea was that military officers would learn to fly at private flying schools before going onto the Central School were they would be taught to fly as military pilots as opposed to civilian. The title of RFC was not universally popular in the naval wing and from 1 July 1914 they were known as the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

The naval wing was to remain at Eastchurch, with part of this air station rented out as a naval flying station for experiments on seaplanes. The existing Army Aircraft Factory at Farnborough was renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory. In addition to producing aircraft the factory would also train air mechanics and carry out experimental work.

Aerial photograph of the Royal Aircraft Factory 1915
Aerial photograph of the Royal Aircraft Factory 1915

The War Office branch responsible for the new Corps was the Directorate General of Military Aeronautics. It was independent of the four main branches and had a Director General, a Brigadier-General which was later upgraded to Major-General and then eventually to Lieutenant-General, who dealt directly with the Secretary of State. In 1916, he became a member of the Army Council.

Between 1912 and the outbreak of war the RFC undertook considerable research and development work in co-operation with the army, aerial photography, bombing, wireless telegraphy and photography. In the 1912 manoeuvres both sides had RFC squadrons with the defending side, commanded by Grierson, using air reconnaissance to locate the attacking force, commanded by the General Douglas Haig, whilst Haig used cavalry had been unable to locate Grierson’s force in a timely manner.

How to Become an Airman advert Falkirk Herald 15 Sept 1917
How to Become an Airman advert Falkirk Herald 15 Sept 1917

RFC Establishment Strength

In August 1914 the RFC strength numbered 165 officers and 1,264 Other Ranks, actual mobilised strength was 103 officers and 1,097 Other Ranks. The formation of the RFC had not been completed when war was declared and they only managed to equip the HQ RFC by stripping other squadrons and establishments of men and planes to form four squadrons and an Aircraft Park to join the BEF in France. Originally officers were attached from other Regiments or Corps however, during the war civilians and Other Ranks who wanted to become pilots went to cadet wings and after completing their training they were gazetted as probationary Second Lieutenants on the General List. After further joining a training squadron they qualified as pilots and were gazetted as flying officers and then were posted to front line service squadrons. Other Ranks permanently transferred from their Regiments of Corps or were recruited directly into the RFC. Other Rank establishments in squadrons included twenty trades ranging from blacksmiths to wiremen. An officer or an Other Rank could be a pilot however, pilots predominantly came from the officer ranks, although a Victoria Cross was won by Sergeant Pilot T Mottershead killed in action on 12 January 1917 and is buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery and Extension. Despite the title the role of an observer was largely that of an air gunner and was not unusual for an air mechanic to volunteer, he would receive an extra two shillings a day, to occupy that role when a qualified observer was not available. An officer or Other Rank qualifying as an observer saw this as a stepping stone to becoming a pilot.

IWM Q 30437 Air Mechanic of the Royal Flying Corps in marching order
IWM Q 30437 Air Mechanic of the Royal Flying Corps in marching order

Uniform of the new Corps

The military wing adopted a khaki uniform with the officers seconded to the military wing from their regiments. They initially retained their uniforms and only added RFC pilots wings as a means of identification. For NCO and other ranks joining the military wing their service dress was the maternity tunic. The officers adopted the maternity or plastron jacket soon afterwards as well as jodhpurs, breeches or trousers worn with boots. An RFC cap badge and collar badge were developed with shoulder titles for the NCO and other ranks. In April 1918, the new RAF had a specific uniform style in blue that featured the new RAF insignia, the uniform we know today however, for operational use the uniform was khaki throughout the First World War.

Aircraft Parks

These were intended to be mobile units that consisted of a stores and workshops sections. The stores section issued complete aeroplanes in addition to a wide range of spares and stores. The establishment was initially three officers and 167 Other Ranks and as the growth of the RFC began to overwhelm them, they grew to twelve officers and 195 Other Ranks. When the RFC Brigades were formed in 1916 the logistical system was overhauled and reorganised. Each Brigade had a mobile army aircraft park with six officers and 145 Other Ranks and this was capable of carrying out minor repairs and was an issuing centre for all the squadrons in the Brigade. Aircraft parks were commanded by a Major. The aircraft parks drew their aeronautical parts and stores from two, later three, aircraft depots which were created. These were static depots and originally had nine officers and thirty Other Ranks and this eventually expanded to nineteen officers and 555 Other Ranks. The depots maintained a supply of aeronautical stores carried out overhaul work and received the new aeroplanes to issue. Aircraft engines were sent to the Engine Repair Shops which had an establishment of five officers and eighty-one Other Ranks. Three aeroplane supply depots were established and they had ninety-seven officers and 2,256 Other Ranks. Engine Repair Shops were commanded by a Lieutenant-Colonel.

IWM Q 53915 The interior of a Royal Flying Corps telegraphists' school at Farnborough, November 1915
IWM Q 53915 The interior of a Royal Flying Corps telegraphists' school at Farnborough, November 1915


From the end of 1914 the Q wireless unit had been numbered No.9 Squadron with the role of providing aeroplanes equipped with wireless to the RFC squadrons. Overtime, each squadron was equipped with a wireless flight and No.9 Squadron was reformed as an aeroplane squadron. The system originally employed one-way wireless telegraphy and were operated by qualified observers who had to be able to send and receive six words per minute and with a 98% accuracy. Towards the end of the war wireless telephony was introduced. From 1916 communication with the heavy and siege battery, counter-battery group HQ, and each Corps HQ was improved with an RFC wireless station permanently allocated to them. Also, five stations were allocated to each divisional artillery brigade.

RFC Brigades

The RFC Brigades were established in January 1916 with a Brigade formed for each Army. It had a Corps wing of one squadron per Corps and this was for artillery co-operation, photographic work, and tactical reconnaissance. In addition, there was an army wing of two squadrons for fighting, distant reconnaissance, and bombing. As we have seen each Brigade also contained an Aircraft park and a Balloon company. As more armies were formed so further RFC Brigades were added. Initially the Brigade HQ establishment was three officers and fifteen Other Ranks and from September 1917 this rose to six officers and thirty-nine Other Ranks with a Corps wing HQ comprising six officers and thirty-seven Other Ranks. It is also worth mentioning that Brigades with armies were army troops with the remaining RFC squadrons GHQ troops.

The RFC was given orders to bomb Germany from October 1917 and the 41st wing was established for this purpose. From February 1918 the HQ of 41st Wing became HQ VIII Brigade and this had three wings and nine bomber squadrons. From June 1918 the Independent force was created as a strategic air force and this was based in France and commanded by a Major-General.


Commanded by a Major the squadron was the basic operational and administrative unit of the RFC. It was divided into three flights and each had four aeroplanes and was commanded by a Captain. In 1914 the establishment was nineteen officer and 138 Other Ranks and this was increased in 1915 and again in 1916 when the number of aircraft in a squadron increased from eighteen or three flights of six. All squadrons were numbered and the flights lettered. The establishment numbers were fixed at twenty-four officers and 167 Other Ranks. These numbers included the non-flying posts of adjutant, technical officer, an assistant equipment officer, and a recording officer. From December 1916 a small Intelligence Corps section was added to each Corps squadron. The number of aircraft was increased in March 1917 to twenty-four for the Corps squadrons and the fighter squadrons in February 1918. However, these figures were never actually achieved owing to the shortage of both air crews and aircraft and by March 1918 only seven fighter squadrons had been equipped. By November 1918 the squadrons in France and Flanders were:

· One communication

· Twenty Corps reconnaissance equipped with RE8s or with Armstrong Whitworth Bs

· Seven fighter reconnaissance and five flights equipped with Bristol Fighter

· Nineteen-day bomber equipped with DH4s or DH9s

· Six-night bomber with FE2bs or Handley Page 0/400s

· Thirty-eight single seater fighter and one flight with SE5s, Sopwith Camels, Dolphins or Snipes

Read more about the Squadrons Listed are the biographical summaries of the RFC and RAF squadrons in which the British airmen, buried in the Ypres Salient, served.

The Formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF)

With growing public concern about the German daylight and night raids on Britain the Government formed a committee under the South African politician Lieutenant General Jan Smuts. This committee was to examine all aspects of air policy and organisation. The main recommendation was the formation of an independent air service and the amalgamation of the RFC and the RNAS into the Royal Air Force from 1 April 1918. The commander of the RAF reported to the Chief of the Air Staff and direct and not through the Commander-in-Chief of the BEF.

On the formation of the RAF the RFC squadrons and wings kept their numbering with the RNAS squadrons and wings numbered 200, 201, etc and so, No.1 Squadron and No.1 Wing RNAS became 201 Squadron and the 61st Wing RAF respectively. The Order of Battle and the command in both France and Flanders was not affected with the RNAS squadrons on the Belgian coast now numbered No.5 (Operations) Group RAF and continued to operate under the command of the Vice Admiral, Dover. At the end of the war the RAF establishment was 27,333 officers (half being pilots) and 263,837 Other Ranks. The aircraft numbered 22,647 and 103 Airships.

Going to War

With the declaration of war in August 1914 the RFC began to assemble at Dover. No.2 squadron making the epic flight from their base at Montrose, Scotland to Dover. By the evening of the 12 August No's 2,3, and 4 were at Dover with No.5 Squadron arriving on the 14 August and No.6 Squadron had been given the job of preparing the aerodrome at Dover. All the transport and support vehicles had been assembled at Regents Park in London, some of the vehicles having been requisitioned from commercial firms and were still in their previous owner’s livery.

Having crossed the channel, the four squadrons assembled at Maubeuge on 16 August and on the 18 August the first reconnaissance flights were flown by P B Joubert de La Ferte of No.3 Squadron flying a Bleriot and G W Mapplebeck of No.4 Squadron flying a BE2. They both became lost in cloud however; it was an historic event. Later, the RFC spotted von Kluck’s manoeuvre to outflank the BEF. After the Battle of the Marne and the so called ‘Race to the Sea’ the BEF moved to the north and to Flanders. The RFC set up their HQ in St Omer and remained here for the remainder of the war. Following First Ypres and the establishment of static trench lines the RFC undertook reconnaissance flights, trench mapping, ranging for the artillery using wireless photography and bombing operations. In November 1914 the RFC was reorganised with No’s 2 and 3 Squadrons making up Wing 1 and No’s 5 and 6 Wing 2 with each responsible for First and Second Armies respectively.

It was in 1915 that we see the development of air warfare, the RFC adopting an offensive policy that was carried on throughout the war, better aircraft appearing, the use of wireless for better artillery spotting, improvements in military intelligence with the introduction of better aerial photography, the introduction of integrated and co-ordinated ground attack aiding ground operations with the army, and by the end of 1915 British aircraft had been fitted with machine guns. The era of the dog fight, formation flying, air aces had also begun with the fighter aircraft escorting the reconnaissance aircraft and engaging in aerial combat with the enemy. In 1916 the German gained air superiority when they introduced the Fokker monoplane which was fitted with synchronised machine guns that fired through the revolving propeller. It was also capable of out climbing and diving British machines. The British regained control when they introduced their own synchronised machine guns in the late spring of 1916. In support of the ground operations at the Battle of the Somme the RFC undertook raids deep into German held territory seeking out enemy airfields and lines of communication. By the spring of 1917 the Germans had regained aerial control with the introduction of new aircraft types and the flying circus with April 1917 being known as ‘Black April’ by the RFC. However, air superiority was restored to the Allies in late 1917 and they never lost this. From October 1917 the RFC began bombing Germany, this was in retaliation for the German Gotha raids on London. The RFC raided Cologne, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Mainz and Coblenz in both day and night raids and plans were being made in 1918 to raid Berlin when the Armistice was declared.

Airfields in The Poperinge Area

Operational Airfields in the vicinity of Poperinghe could be found on the road from Proven to Couthove listed as Droglandt Airfield which was used by No’s 7 and 9 Squadrons. On the road between Proven and Krombeke was La Lovie Airfield used by No’s 19 and 71 Squadrons. This airfield was built to protect the La Lovie Chateau.

IWM HU 64352 Overhead aerial view of La Lovie aerodrome near Poperinghe, after long-range shelling by the Germans, 1917
IWM HU 64352 Overhead aerial view of La Lovie aerodrome near Poperinghe, after long-range shelling by the Germans, 1917

The St-Omer Memorial

There are two RAF Memorials commemorating those who died in the Frist World War one is located on the Victoria Embankment in London and was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1923, and the other is the Flying Services Memorial to the Missing unveiled by Lord Trenchard in 1932 and is located in Arras. You may think that these two memorials and the others located in the UK and other countries would be sufficient. There was a gap in the market so to speak for a memorial that recorded air operations on the Western Front and surviving buildings. St Omer was the obvious location for this memorial. It was the largest British airfield in France during the First World War, and the spiritual home of the RFC. Sponsored by the Cross & Cockade International, the First World War Aviation Historical Society, who donated a large sum of money and continue to raise money for the regular maintenance, and with early support from the Royal Air Force Historical Society, the Mayor of St-Omer who provided the land, the memorial was established. There are cast-iron bollards that feature the individual badges of the squadrons formed at St-Omer and the words of the dedication are deliberately inclusive of who had served with the British Air Services on the Western Front, irrespective of rank, gender, or nationality.

Sources and Further Reading:

· Airmen Died in the Great War, 1914-1918, A Roll of Honour, Chris Hobson

· The Sky Their Battlefield, Trevor Henshaw

· Above The Lines, A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces of the German Air Service, Naval Aire Service and Flanders Marine Corps, 1914-1918, Norman L.R. Franks, Frank W. Bailey & Russell Guest

· Above The Trenches, A complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of The British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920, Christopher Shores, Norman Franks & Russell Guest

· Britain’s Forgotten Fighters of the First World War, Paul R. Hare

· The Royal Aircraft Factory, Paul R. Hare

· The Jasta Pilots: Detailed Listings and Histories, August 1916 – November 1918, Norman Franks, Frank Bailey, & Rick Duiven

· Pioneers of Aerial Combat, Air Battles of the First World War, Michael Foley

· Airfields & Airmen, Ypres, Mike O’Connor

· Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic, Goderic Hodges

· The Royal Flying Corps and The Royal Air Force, Western Front Association

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