The Royal Air Force turns 100: A century of guarding Britain’s skies

Senior figures and veterans from the RAF will attend the Founders’ Day Service at the Church of St Clement Danes on The Strand in London.

The Queen has sent a message of congratulations and a 100-day baton relay will be started on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice.

:: Opinion: How Britain’s air force has changed

The relay will visit every Royal Air Force station and every region of the UK, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and beyond. Today’s events mark the start of a six-month celebration.

The RAF was formed on 1 April 1918, towards the end of World War One.

Air power had changed the nature of warfare, so King George V authorised the creation of a new branch of the British military, merging the aviation branches of the Royal Navy and British Army into a single service – the RAF.

The RAF’s finest moment came 22 years later: 1940, in the Battle of Britain.

The iconic Spitfire flew alongside the deadly Hurricane outnumbered by the German Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England.

Defeat would almost certainly have meant a German invasion, but the RAF won and the battle went down in history.

Craig Murray, curator of the Imperial War Museum Duxford, said: “What it does, it really saves the country, and you could extend that further – it saves the West.

“I mean the Russians haven’t yet been attacked, the Americans aren’t yet in this.

“And it leaves Britain open to German attack if they don’t win so what was done in the Battle of Britain would really be the RAF’s defining moment.

“You do get that image of the RAF, you get it on propaganda posters, you see it with Churchill and his ‘so much owed for so many to so few’, which really gives this image of the heroic output, what these men are doing.

“The tension every day, the stress and just having to win every day.

“They shoot down more Germans every day apart from maybe five days of the Battle of Britain.

“I think that is when you really get that image of these guys.”

The RAF’s 100 years also spanned the Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons.

For years the Vulcan bomber carrier the UK’s nuclear deterrent, on 24-hour standby to respond to a nuclear attack.

The famous Tornado fast jet was designed during the Cold War to fly low and fast behind the Iron Curtain – it is still operating today, bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Tornado will retire next year to be replaced by the F35, the world’s first fifth generation fighter.

Recent years have seen huge advances in unmanned aircraft – drones.

They now play an increasingly important role in warfare, both for surveillance and strike missions.

The current Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Stephen Hillier, believes the future of the RAF will almost certainly evolve around unmanned aircraft to some degree.

“Over the next two to three decades, what we will really see in increasing focus is not just those platforms but how you join them together.

“How you integrate it, exchange data and information to really exploit things like artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and unmanned will be a key part of that.”

RAF Typhoon squadrons still sit on emergency standby ready to scramble and intercept suspicious planes nearing British airspace.

In 100 years, the RAF has evolved but its core mission has remained the same – protecting the skies of Britain.

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