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The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the air arm of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918 the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history ever since, playing a large part in World War II and in more recent conflicts. The RAF operates almost 1,100 aircraft and has a projected trained strength of over 40,000 regular personnel. The majority of the RAF's aircraft and personnel are based in the United Kingdom with many others serving on operations (principally Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East, Balkans, and South Atlantic) or at long-established overseas bases (notably the Falkland Islands, Qatar, Germany, Cyprus, and Gibraltar).

Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg
The RAF's mission is to support the objectives of the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) and to provide "An agile, adaptable and capable Air Force that, person for person, is second to none, and that makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission."
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RAF Bomber Command was the organisation that controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. During World War II, the command destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities, and in the 1960s, was at the peak of its postwar power with the V bombers and a supplemental force of Canberra light bombers. RAF Bomber Command had 19 Victoria Cross winners, and in August 2006, a memorial was unveiled at Lincoln Cathedral.

One of the most controversial aspects of Bomber Command during World War II was the area bombing of cities. Until 1942 navigational technology did not allow for any more precise targeting than at best a district of a town or city by night bombing. All large German cities contained important industrial districts and so were considered legitimate targets by the Allies. Thus the attacks of the British Bomber Command were at times targeting highly populated city centres. The single most destructive raids in terms of absolute casualties were those on Hamburg (45,000 dead) in 1943 and Dresden (25,000–35,000 dead) in 1945. Each caused a firestorm and left tens of thousands dead.

In the postwar period, the RAF slowly declined in strength, and by the mid-1960s, it was clear that the home command structure needed rationalisation. To that end, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were merged in 1968 to form Strike Command.

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A Westland Sea King helicopter in search and rescue livery
Credit: Adrian Pingstone

Westland Sea King HAR.3 search and rescue helicopter (ZH545) of No. 22 Squadron RAF, Ilfracombe, North Devon, England.

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Leonard Cheshire.jpg
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO and Two Bars, DFC (7 September 191731 July 1992) was a highly decorated British RAF pilot during the Second World War. Among the honours he received as a bomber pilot is the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. After the war, he became a charity worker, setting up Leonard Cheshire Disability and other philanthropic organisations.

He was appointed to succeed Wing Commander Guy Gibson as commander of the legendary 617 "Dambusters" Squadron in September 1943 and helped pioneer a new method of marking enemy targets for Bomber Command's 5 Group, flying in at a very low level in the face of strong defences, using first, the versatile Mosquito, then a "borrowed" P-51 Mustang fighter. This development work was the subject of some severe intraservice politics; Cheshire was encouraged by his 5 Group Commander Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane, although the 8 Group Pathfinder AOC Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett saw this work as impinging on the responsibilities of his own command.

Cheshire was nearing the end of his fourth tour of duty in July 1944, having completed a total of 102 missions, when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the only one of the 32 VC airmen to win the medal for an extended period of sustained courage and outstanding effort, rather than a single act of valour. Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest Group Captain in the service and, following his VC, the most decorated. On his 103rd mission, he was the official British observer of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki flying in the support B-29 Big Stink. Cheshire dedicated the rest of his life to supporting disabled people and, in 1948, he founded the charity now styled Leonard Cheshire Disability, which provides support to disabled people throughout the world. It is now in the top 30 of UK charities.

Selected Aircraft

SeaKing HC4 2002.jpeg
The Westland Sea King is a British license-built version of the American Sikorsky S-61 helicopter of the same name, built by Westland Helicopters now AgustaWestland. The aircraft differs considerably from the American version, with British Rolls-Royce (Bristol-Siddeley) Gnome engines, British made anti-submarine warfare systems and a fully computerised control system. The Westland Sea King was also developed for a wider range of missions than the Sikorsky Sea King.

A dedicated Search and Rescue version (Sea King HAR3) was developed for the Royal Air Force, and the first of 15 entered service from September 1977 to replace the Westland Whirlwind HAR10. The Royal Air Force aircraft are in service with 22, 202, 203(R) and formerly with 78 Squadron.

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