A formal approach to military aviation began in 1911 with the formation of an Air Battalion within the Royal Engineers with Headquarters at South Farnborough. Progress by other European Powers in developing their aviation services dictated that still further organisational changes were needed and, on 13th May 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was formed. This absorbed the air role of the Royal Engineers and was initially comprised of five sections – Military and Naval Wings, a Reserve, a Central Flying School at Upavon and the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough.
The Great War:
The new organisation in place, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was ready, albeit with limited resources, for duty overseas when war broke out in August 1914. The success of the RFC proved the value of aeroplanes not only for observation but also for fighter (or scout) and bombing uses. They were to play a vital role on the battlefield and various techniques were evolved in communications, observation and reconnaissance.
The RFC under the direction of the War Office (and the Royal Naval Air Service under the Admiralty as the Naval Wing had become immediately prior to the war) made an immense contribution to the conflict including reconnaissance, artillery direction, photography and many other roles. Although sustaining heavy losses, they served with distinction on all fronts, notably in France, as well as on Home Defence.
The Royal Air Force:
By mid-1917, the advent of German bombers and the threat of Zeppelins, which had raided London and the East coast during that year, meant there was a need for further administrative and organisational change. The Government decided to accept a recommendation that an air arm, separate from War Office and Admiralty control, should be established. The Air Council was formed in January 1918 and the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918, unifying the Military and Naval roles of the RFC and RNAS into an independent service.
RAF Army Co-operation 1919-1939:
The end of the 1914-1918 War led to a massive reduction of personnel and aircraft and to several attempts by the Army and Navy to restore their air services to their own control.
The use of aircraft for reconnaissance, air photography, liaison and other duties in support of the Army was largely concentrated into a few specialist Army Co-operation Squadrons with the School of Army Co-operation at Old Sarum.
Overseas, RAF squadrons, operating mainly with obsolete aeroplanes such as the DH9A and Bristol Fighter adapted from Great War use, continued to support the Army especially in India and the Near and Middle East.
The home-based Army Co-operation Squadrons contained many Army officers trained by the RAF and seconded as pilots and, in some cases, as Flight and even Squadron commanders. It was some of these officers who first recognised the need to use smaller and lighter aircraft for artillery fire control. They began trials which eventually led to the creation of specialist Air Observation Post (Air O.P.) Squadrons in the early part of the Second World War.