Researching WW1 UK Air Services

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed in 1918 by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) which was formed in 1912 and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) which was established in 1918.[1] What is not widely known is that the WRAF was founded in 1918 and had over 25 000 servicewomen by the armistice.[2] Disbanded in 1920 they were brought back in 1939 for WWII.

The titles and ranks of air force personnel are different to that of other armed forces. Since 1914 the air services have been organised into squadrons, which were grouped into wings. By late 1918 the RAF had 188 squadrons with over 22 000 aircraft, 27 000 officers and 264 000 other ranks.[3] These statistics highlight the fact that although your ancestor may have been serving in the air force, they were more likely to be involved in ground work such as engineering rather than being pilots themselves.

RFC and RNAS Officers

Before the formation of the RAF in 1918, RFC and RNAS officers were included in the army and navy lists. The names of officers serving in the RFC are given in the monthly Army List, which is held by the Royal Air Force Museum, TNA and the Imperial War Museum.[4] RNAS officers appear in the Navy List (held at TNA), and RAF officers are in the Air Force List, which is held by the Royal Air Force Museum, TNA and the Imperial War Museum.[5] The service medal rolls at TNA can be used to confirm the rank and dates of service of a member of the RFC or RNAS.

NCOs and airmen in RFC and RNAS

RFC (discharged or died before 1 April 1918): Many of these records were destroyed during the Second World War. The surviving records are available at TNA in the WO 364 class.[6]

RNAS: Records of all ratings who served in the RNAS at any point are at TNA in class ADM 188.

Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificates

Early RFC and RNAS pilots who learned to fly at civilian schools obtained an Aviator’s Certificate from the Royal Aero Club.   These are available on Ancestry. The index cards consist of a front and back of a 3×5 card. There is one card per pilot. On the front side of the card is listed information about the pilot, including:

  • Name
  • Birth date
  • Birthplace
  • Nationality
  • Rank, regiment, or profession
  • Date and place of certificate
  • Certificate number

On the back side of the index card, if anything, is usually a photograph of the pilot. The Royal Air Force Museum also can provide copies of the Certificate Record Cards, which give the pilot’s rank or profession, and frequently also a photograph.

Brief biographies of the over 1,400 NCOs and other ranks who joined the RFC before the outbreak of war, some of whom later became pilots, are given in: I McInnes & J V Webb, A Contemptible Little Flying Corps (London Stamp Exchange, 1991).

RAF Officers

Service records of officers who served in the RAF during the First World War are in the series AIR 76 at The National Archives and consist of the records of over 99,000 men.[7] The records were created from the inception of the RAF in April 1918. However, they also include retrospective details of earlier service in the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service, where appropriate. The records can be downloaded (for a fee) from the TNA website.

The records usually provide the following information:

  • full name
  • date and place of birth
  • next of kin
  • occupation
  • date of commission
  • subsequent promotion(s)
  • the units the officer served in (including the dates he joined and left the units)
  • the date the officer relinquished his commission, his date of death or his retirement date

The records may also contain the following information:

  • details of specialist courses attended
  • information about the type of aircraft flown
  • details of any honours and awards and the dates they were announced in the London Gazette
  • next of kin (although the relationship may not always be specified)

The Fleet Air Arm Museum also holds copies of records similar to AIR 76 and ADM 273.

Other RAF servicemen

Service records for other airmen of the RAF who served during the First World War are available in AIR 79 which is available through Findmypast. However some of the records in this collection are not available as the individual was either commissioned as an officer, in which case his service record will probably not survive (look for him in the records of officers AIR 76), or because the record is still kept by the Ministry of Defence.

The amount of information listed varies, but the records can include:

  • First name(s)
  • Last name
  • Attestation year
  • Attestation date
  • Attestation age
  • Birth year
  • Birth date
  • Birth parish
  • Birth town
  • Birth county
  • Occupation
  • Spouse’s first name
  • Marriage year
  • Marriage date
  • Children’s name(s)
  • Children’s birth year(s)
  • Children’s birth date(s)
  • Age
  • Religious denomination
  • Next of kin details
  • Physical description
  • Trade classification
  • Special qualifications
  • Awards or decorations
  • Details of former service
  • Will particulars
  • Military training
  • Details of promotions, reductions, and casualties
  • Details of injuries attained during service
  • Results of medical examinations

 

WRAF records 1918-1920

AIR 80 at TNA are the service records of around 30,000 airwomen who served with the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) between 1918 and 1920 [8] and can be downloaded for a fee. These records include volunteers from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, Women’s Legion drivers and the Women’s Civilian Subordinates.

The women were based in Britain at first, performing roles such as drivers, mechanics, cooks or office clerks. Later around 500 women served in France and Germany.[9]

Information on the service record can include the following:

  • age
  • address
  • religion
  • marital status
  • dependants
  • details of next of kin
  • statement of services and promotions
  • transfers
  • trade or profession
  • physical description
  • discharge details

A service record can contain one or more of the following:

  • an enrolment form
  • a certificate of discharge on demobilisation
  • a casualty form for active service

You might also find a statement for the services form.

Royal Air Force Museum

The collection of the Royal Air Force Museum comprises several hundred thousand objects ranging in size from aircraft to lapel badges. The Museum’s library and archives collections include items such as First World War Casualty Cards, Aircrew Logbooks, fine art, medals and uniforms, film and sound, memoirs, RAF Historical Society Journals Personal papers, casualty cards and aircraft records.

Researchers wishing to view material held in the Royal Air Force Museum’s library and archives should make an appointment by telephone, fax or e-mail with the Department of Research and Information Services well in advance of their proposed visit. Enquiries should be made in writing (enclosing an SAE) and should contain as much detail as is already known, in particular the individual’s name, service number, rank and approximate dates of service, also mentioning any sources which have already been consulted.

Department of Research & Information Services, Royal Air Force Museum, Grahame Park Way, Hendon, London NW9 5LL. Tel: 020 8205 2266 Fax: 020 8200 1751

website: http://www.rafmuseum.org

 

First World War Casualty Cards

The RAF Museum holds an extensive set of record cards relating to deaths, injuries and illness suffered by Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force personnel (and ex-Royal Naval Air Service after 1 April 1918). The collection can be searched online at http://www.rafmuseumstoryvault.org.uk/.[10]

The records start at about 1915 (although earlier losses were recorded retrospectively) and run up to approximately 1928. They cover all theatres of operations for that period.

The records are not complete but a variable amount of information can be gleaned from them. Some cards record the movements of prisoners of war or give summaries of Courts of Inquiry for accidents occurring in the United Kingdom. Details recorded for other ranks are usually much briefer than those for officers. Serial numbers and types of aircraft are sometimes given.[11]

Other sources of casualty information include the weekly Rolls of Honour in the London Gazette (held by TNA, the Guildhall Library and the British Library) and the magazines Flight and The Aeroplane (both held by the Royal Air Force Museum). [12]The Imperial War Museum holds copies of the Rolls of Honour of many schools, businesses and other organisations.

Information on place of burial or commemoration can be obtained from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. They can also supply some military and personal details.

 

Further Reading:

Imperial War Museum website

Austerberry, B. (1999) Gazetted Awards to NCOs and other ranks of the aerial forces, 1914-1924. Jade Publishing.

Hobson, C M. (1995) Airmen Died in the Great War. J B Hayward & Son:

McInnes, I. & Webb, J.V. (1991) A Contemptible Little Flying Corps: Being a Definitive and Previously Non-Existent Roll of Those Warrant Officers, N.C.O.s and Airmen Who Served in the Royal Flying Corps Prior to the Outbreak of the First World War. London Stamp Exchange.

Spencer, William. (2008) Air Force Records for Family Historians. The National Archives.

Tomaselli, Phil. (2007) Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors.

Williamson, H.J. (1992) The Roll of Honour: Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force for the Great War 1914-1918. Naval & Military Press.

 

[1] Herber, Mark. (2004) Ancestral trails. P. 432. Sutton Publishing.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Royal Airforce Museum. (2008) Information Sheet No.1: Personnel Records, First World War, RFC, RNAS, RAF, WRAF.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The National Archives. Royal Air Force officers’ service records 1918-1919. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/raf-officers-service-records-1918-1919/

[8] The National Archives. Women’s Royal Air Force Service Records 1918-1920. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/womens-royal-air-force-service-records-1918-1920/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Royal Airforce Museum. (2008) Information Sheet No.1: Personnel Records, First World War, RFC, RNAS, RAF, WRAF.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Royal Airforce Museum. (2008) Information Sheet No.1: Personnel Records, First World War, RFC, RNAS, RAF, WRAF.

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