The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air arm of the British Army before and during the First World War, until it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force.
During the early part of the war, the RFC supported the British Army with artillery co-operation and photographic reconnaissance work. This gradually led RFC pilots into combat with German pilots strafing of enemy infantry and emplacements and the bombing of German military airfields.
At the start of World War I the RFC, commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, consisted of five squadrons – one observation balloon squadron (RFC No 1 Squadron) and four plane squadrons. These were first used for aerial spotting in September 1914 but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication.
By 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet and were interpreted by over 3,000 personnel. At thgis time parachutes were not available to pilots of heavier than air craft in the RFC – nor were they used by the RAF during the First World War. By this time parachutes had been used by balloonists for three years.
On 17 August 1917, South African General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the ‘devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale’, he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy.
The formation of the new service would also make the under-used men and machines of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) available for action on the Western Front and end the inter-service rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF), under the control of the new Air Ministry. After starting in 1914 with some 2,073 personnel, by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel in some 150 squadrons.
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