Today (April 1) in London History – the Royal Air Force

April 1 is the birthday of the Royal Air Force. It’s very much a London creation, a London story, the RAF, so it’s the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.


Today in London.

Achingly obvious, this one.

Take wing. Soar on up to Edgware. To the Royal Air Force Museum. 

It’s good fun. You can sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire. And fly with the Red Arrows in the Museum’s 4D Theatre. And take off in their state-of-the-art Typhoon simulator.

What’s not to like.

Ok, Today in London History.

Well, first of all, let’s wish the Royal Air Force a Happy Birthday.

Yup, April 1, 1918 was the day.

And look, we’ve got a couple of special guests at the birthday party.

First off, the great Imperial statesman, Field Marshal Smuts. 

A South African. That should set bells ringing. Because it’s so par for the course. This city of ours is a city of immigrants. That’s always been the case. London was founded by immigrants. General Smuts in effect was an immigrant.

He’d fought against us – fought against Winston Churchill – in the Boer War. Today, they’re eternally together, two of the most striking statues in Parliament Square. Near neighbours there. Separated only by another remarkable statue. That of David Lloyd George. And how appropriate that David Lloyd George should be there rubbing elbows with the other two. Because it was David Lloyd George – he was Prime Minister David Lloyd George – who in 1917 appointed General Smuts to make an examination of all matters pertaining to the air.

General Smuts was the right man for the job. Just the year before he’d had personal experience of the great value of the air arm.

It was during the 1916 invasion of German East Africa. General Smuts was put in charge of the effort to take Germany’s last overseas colony. No. 26 Squadron of the R.F.C. – the Royal Flying Corps – was attached to General Smuts’ main force advancing along the Pangani River. The reconnaissance work the air arm did was instrumental in getting that mission accomplished. 

In his report, General Smuts wrote, “Air supremacy may in the long run become as important a factor in the defence of the Empire as Sea supremacy…unlike artillery, an air fleet can conduct extensive operations far from and independently of both Army and Navy. As far as can at present be foreseen, there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations may become the principal operations of war.” It was a prophecy that has been borne out by events in the 105 years since General Smuts peered into those seeds of time.

His report recommended the amalgamation of the R.F.C. – the Royal Flying Corp. – and the R.N.A.S. – the Royal Naval Air Service – into one service – and the formation of an Air Ministry adequately empowered to control it.

All of that came to fruition on April 1, 1918 – the birthday of the Royal Air Force.

And our other special birthday party guest is Londoner Henry William Allingham. He was the last surviving airman of the First World War. He lived to be 112. He’d joined the RNAS so when the amalgamation came – well, he was with the RAF from Day One. 

One special Londoner, one special RAF man was Henry William Allingham. 

On his 110th birthday, his telegram from the Queen was delivered in person by the Defence Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His 111th birthday was celebrated aboard HMS Victory. His 112th was hosted by the RAF and marked by a fly-past. In the last year of his life he was Britain’s oldest living man and in due course the oldest living man on the planet. He lived that long, he said, thanks to cigarettes, whisky, and wild, wild women.

Ok, make a wish everybody. Time to blow out the 104 candles on the RAF’s birthday cake.

And that’s that. 

Or is it?

Not quite. Here’s an addendum. A flyer as it were. This podcast is just an hors d’oeuvre. You want more there’s a 13-course History of the RAF full meal to be feasted on in the shape of a spiffing London Walk. Where’s it go? Well, it’s chocks away at Parliament Square and then along the runway: Whitehall. And there we’re well and truly airborne.  There are getting on for half a dozen point outs just on Whitehall alone – and then you’ve got the view through Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace and the flypasts above the Mall. And then there’s the wonderful portrait of General Smuts in the Reading Room at South Africa House. Then along the Strand there’s the RAF memorial plaque at the former Hotel Cecil where the Royal Air Force had its first headquarters. And then St Clement Danes, the central church of the Royal Air Force. Very beautiful and very moving, it’s a perpetual shrine of remembrance to all who have died in the service. And not forgetting those two sentinels out front – statues of  Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, Head of Bomber Command and of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of Fighter Command. 

And that’s it from London on April 1st, the birthday of the RAF. 

See ya tomorrow. 

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