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The Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Air Force (RAF)

In 1914, air power and aircraft were very much in their infancy. The Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912 and the Royal Naval Air Service just before the outbreak of war. Between them they had less than 200 planes. Aircraft were very basic, made from stretched canvas, wood and wires. Their initial role was for reconnaissance, which was essential once the trench lines of the Western Front became static. Pilots flew over enemy lines and beyond to report on what they had seen. The first cameras used on planes were heavy and difficult to operate, and it took some time for specially created cameras and radios to be designed and installed. 

Being a pilot could be extremely dangerous and, in 1915, the life expectancy of an Allied pilot was approximately 17.5 hours of flying time or just 11 days. This was due to a combination of factors: fragile aircraft, low flying, enemy attack and unpredictable weather conditions.  Although pilots on both sides experienced similar problems, the German planes were more advanced, which resulted in fewer losses.

As the war progressed, the planes were improved, and their uses became more sophisticated. They were flown not only for reconnaissance but also to communicate what was happening during a battle, initially through dropping pre agreed colour coded streamers, eventually, by radio. Guns were fixed onto the planes so that they could become armed instruments of war, leading to some dramatic dogfights and aerial displays. In the latter stages of the war, the aircraft were used for dropping propaganda and small bombs.

The expanding role and importance of air power in the conflict led to many recognising the importance of a co-ordinated air fleet and, on 29 November 1917, an Act of Parliament created the new Royal Air Force (RAF), which formally came into being on the 1st April 1918. The new RAF was an amalgamation of the RFC and the RNAS and it was the first, separate air force in the world. It was also the first British military service to have a women’s wing from the very start – the WRAF was formed from some of those serving with the WAAC and the WRNS. 

When the war ended in 1918, the RAF had over 300,000 service personnel and 22,000 aircraft. 

According to the British Jewry Book of Honour, approximately 260 Jewish men served in the RAF as officers and approximately 2,073 Jewish men were listed as NCO’s and other ranks. Some of the officers received the ‘Distinguished Flying Cross’ award. It was also observed that a number of Jewish tailors were recruited to work on the fabric used to cover the aircraft and make them safe and secure.

Click here to access to the British Jewry book of honour, Royal Flying Corps section.

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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