Earlier this week saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Royal Flying Corps, so as a tip of the hat to the pioneers of British military aviation, I thought I would write a few words on how to uncover your aviation heroes.
But first a history of the RFC in about 3 paragraphs: In fact, genesis (in military aviation terms) was not actually the Royal Flying Corps, it was in fact the Corps of Royal Engineers Air Battalion, which was formed in 1911. In 1912 (April 13th) the RFC was formed and initially divided into a military wing and naval wing as both organisations began to recognise the potential for aircraft as observation tools. In July 1914 the naval wing became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), and although they shared the same flying school the RNAS was run independently from the RFC.
By the outbreak of WW1 the RFC had just over 100 aircraft ready for action. During the war the RFC underwent expansion of epic proportions and by 1918 they were chucking out planes by the thousands from the productions lines. As well as planes and kit, there was a huge requirement for me; pilots, mechanics and such like. Most me were recruited from traditional infantry regiments and corps rather than joining up to the RFC directly – something to be aware of when embarking on a research project.
On 1st April 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined together to form the Royal Air Force. By November 1918 the RAF had over 390,000 officers and men and over 20,000 planes. After the war the RAF was reduced considerably in strength. Even though the Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) was formed in 1924 it wasn’t until the mid thirties that the RAF started to flex its muscles once more and expand, 1936 saw the formation of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR).
By mid 1944 the RAF was at it’s peak with almost 1.2 million personnel. Including 170,000 in the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
From a research point of view there are a number of different things that can be looked into; service records, medal records, casualty records, and flight logs…so lets go through these and see what is what…
WW1 Campaign Medal Records
First World War Campaign Medals – almost every active member of the RFC/RAF who served overseas during WW1 would have been entitled to at least one campaign medal. The WW1 campaign medal card index which is available either online at the National Archives website for £2 per download, or via subscription sites such as Ancesty.co.uk is an ideal place to start your search as it holds the most complete list of serving personnel for this war.
WW1 Gallantry Medal Records
The fighting personnel of the RFC/RAF during WW1 were entitled to a number of gallantry awards including the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross, in 1918 the RAF instituted a few specific medals for Air gallantry: the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Flying Medal, the Airforce Cross and Airforce Medal. The best place to start a search is the London Gazette. There is a free online version of the London Gazette which you can search for your ancestor, however the search function is not very good and it could be a frustrating search, especially if you don’t know which year his award was published and if he has a common name!
WW2 Campaign Medals
As a general rule, most Second World War Service personnel were not issued with medals before they were de-mobilised at the end of the war and consequently they had to claim them after they had left the Services. This differed from the arrangements at the end of the First World War when the majority of medals were sent out automatically. This was not considered to be practical after the Second World War, as most people had returned to civilian life before the medals were instituted in 1948 . At the time they were encouraged to visit their local Post Office, pick up a buff card and enter onto it their number rank and name, and send it to the Minister for War to request their medals. To be honest, many had much more pressing things to worry about, like where were they going to live as a result of their house being demolished by bombing, or where were they going to find a job. As a result, almost 70 years later, there are hundreds of requests per week going into the MoD for medals that have not yet been claimed, either from the veterans themselves, or their families. You can start your claim here
In general, service records for those who served in the RFC or RAF unto 1920 are available at the National Archives at Kew. Officers of the Royal Flying Corps can be located in WO339 (with an index in WO338 and WO374). Officers of the Royal Naval Air Service can be found in ADM273. (Fleet Air Arm Museum also holds these papers). Records for officers of the RAF who ceased service between 1st April 1918 and the end of 1920 are also located at Kew and can be found in AIR76 (AIR 76 is also available online from the National Archives Documents Online service). This Online service also houses the service records of Women who joined the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) up until 1919. As well as service records, it is also useful to search through the Air Force Lists – monthly published books that enable you to trace an officers promotions. For RNAS officers, the Navy List is the volume of choice. All are kept in Kew.
The records for other ranks are also held by the National Archives and are split in a similar way, by branch of service. RNAS ratings’s records can be found in ADM188, and as with the officers of this service, the Fleet Air Arm Museum also has a copy of these files. Unfortunately records of many of the men who served with the RFC were destroyed during the Blitz, but it is still worth trying WO363 and WO364. Both sets of records are digitised and available from ancestry.co.uk. For RAF records look in AIR79 (there is an index in AIR78) – these records are in service number order, upto number 329,000 and does not include anyone who signed up after 1919. Any airman with a service number higher than 329000 or who enlisted after 1919 will still have their records with the MoD/RAF.
Service records for Officers and Airmen that served after these dates are retained by the Royal Air Force and are not in the public domain, they do however accept requests for access from family members, although proof of kinship is required. You can start your request here.
Flight Logs / Combat Reports
In a similar way to the until diaries from the infantry, RFC & RAF squadrons kept detailed diaries (or logs) of their war activities. The Squadron Operational Records held in AIR27 at the National Archives consist of record books that provide a daily record of events in each squadron including some photographs. Although technically these files start in 1912, realistically there is not much detail of activity before the 1930′s. For WW2 combat reports, AIR50 is the place to look, these records mainly consist of either a printed Personal Combat Report or a Fighter Command Combat Report. There might also be correspondence and/or notes included with a report. A Pilot or gunner returning from an operational flight where they had encountered enemy aircraft had to complete RAF Form “F” giving a narrative of what happened. Both these sets of records are available at the National Archives in Kew and also their Documents Online system.
If your ancestor died in active service then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a great place to find out more information. They have just updated their website and have some very intuitive search functions to help find your ancestor quickly and easily. Typical information includes date of death, where buried or commemorated, their age at death and sometimes confirmation of gallantry medal awards.
Hopefully, this gives you a good overview as to what is available and what isn’t… Good luck with your research!