Given by Group Captain RTW Mighall OBE MSc BA RAF/RAuxAF
For many years, I enjoyed excellent eyesight. That was, until recently, when I found that newspaper print was getting smaller and smaller. I reluctantly conceded that my vision was no longer what it used to be, and that I now needed spectacles. Sadly, my once 20/20 vision had proved to have been no more than a transitory experience. And it may be, that even amongst others here, there are some whose once excellent vision is now a thing of the past.
But there is another sort of vision which is not transitory, and it is experienced, not through our eyes but through our minds. It is the vision of foresight, and it is fundamental to all progress and achievement. At its finest level, it is the vision which foresees the need for changes which will improve a community’s well-being or efficiency.
Lord Trenchard possessed such foresight. Lord Trenchard was a man of great vision. During the First World War, he recognised that, mastery of the air was as important to successful military operations as was control of the sea or the land. He argued that the application of air power should no longer be exercised through the Admiralty or the War Office. Despite considerable opposition, his tenacious pursuit of his vision witnessed the birth in 1918 of the Royal Air Force – the world’s first independent air arm.
It was with the same prescience that Trenchard pressed for the creation of a further air force – but this one to be comprised of part-time volunteers. He foresaw these yeoman of the air as providing a reinforcement for the Royal Air Force in times of crisis. His vision was realised in Oct 1924 when the Auxiliary Air Force was established by Act of Parliament. The first Squadrons formed a year later, and by the outbreak of war, there were 20 Flying Squadrons and 47 Balloon Squadrons. The camaraderie and boundless enthusiasm of the aircrews and groundcrews of all ranks on the Squadrons, coupled with the civilian skills brought from their workplaces, and the flying and ground skills acquired during their weekend training, ensured that the Auxiliaries were ready and able to play their part at the outbreak of the 2nd World War.
From the outset, the Auxiliaries served in every theatre of operations. In the Battle of Britain, they provided 14 of the 62 fighter Squadrons which accounted for approximately 30% of enemy kills. Indeed, the top scoring Squadron was Auxiliary, and the two top-scoring aces were Auxiliaries. The Balloon Squadrons also played their part downing, and deterring many enemy aircraft, and they were accredited with the destruction of no less than 279 VI flying bombs.
The Auxiliaries recorded many other notable successes: the first German aircraft destroyed over British territorial waters – and the first to be brought down on the mainland; the first U-boat to be destroyed with the aid of airborne radar; the first kill of a VI flying bomb by an aircraft; the highest score of any British night-fighter squadron, and the introduction of the first allied jet fighter into service, the Meteors of No 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron.
Altogether, the Auxiliaries, operating alongside their regular mentors and colleagues, unquestionably made a vital contribution to the successful defence of our nation and the subsequent allied victory.
Disbanded in 1945, the Auxiliary Air Force reformed in 1946 – and, in 1947, King George VI, in, recognition of its distinguished war service, awarded the Auxiliary Air Force the prefix “Royal.”
In the immediate post-War years, the Force expanded to its peak strength of twenty jet fighter squadrons, a transport squadron, twenty-eight Fighter Control units, two Radar Reporting units, four Air Observation Post squadrons, an Air Intelligence unit, twelve Regiment squadrons, and three Maritime Headquarters Units. A substantial and enviably sized force indeed.
However, by 1961, as a result of successive defence cuts, only the 3 Maritime Headquarters Units survived. These Units alone kept the Auxiliary Flag flying until 1979 when the Force’s renaissance began with the formation of Regiment Squadrons, a Movements Squadron, and an Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron; later, Defence Force Flights and Role-Support-Squadrons were formed, as was an Air Transportable Surgical Squadron, a Hercules Reservist Aircrew Flight, and, most recently, a Provost Unit. Also, four new Squadrons were created from the war-appointable elements of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Some of these Squadrons and Flights have been disbanded and others re-roled – and today’s Force comprises 20 units with some 2000 personnel.
In recent years, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has supported the Royal Air Force around the world, not only in exercises and routine day-to-day activities, but also, and with great distinction, in active operations including the two Gulf wars, and the conflicts in Kosova, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sierra Leone. The Force has also provided reinforcements to regular UK and overseas units including those in Germany, Cyprus and the Falklands Islands.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, who commanded No 11 Group during the Battle of Britain, wrote “Without the Auxiliaries we would not have defeated the Luftwaffe”. His words, albeit in a different context, are as relevant to the performance of today’s Auxiliaries as they were when written in 1940.
For 80 years, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has served the nation well and has earned its place in history. It is to pay tribute to the men and women who carved this history that we are gathered here today at this beautiful location of the National Memorial Arboretum.
The Arboretum is the inspiration of another visionary. I hesitate to embarrass Commander David Childs, our officiating Minister, but the Arboretum is his brain-child. Some years ago, during conversations with Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, David was alerted to the Group Captain’s concern that the debt owed to those who had died in the wars of the 20th Century might be forgotten. Reflecting on the issue, David conceived the idea of planting a living tribute in the form of an Arboretum dedicated to their memory.
In 1994, he initiated an Appeal, launched by the then Prime Minister John Major. Financial support came initially from the armed services and veterans associations, and 82 acres of land was gifted right here by Redland Aggregates. The National Forest provided the funding for the first trees – of which some 40,000 have now been planted. Already, over 100 dedicated memorial plots have been created representing many diverse military and civilian organisations. And the list is constantly growing. It is a tremendous tribute to the vision of Commander David Childs.
Our own memorial at the Arboretum is located to the right of the memorials of the Royal Air Force, and is surrounded by 8 weeping birches. That we have the memorial, is thanks to the support received from many quarters.
Invaluable advice and practical assistance has been provided by the staff at the Arboretum, the offices of Kensington Palace, Headquarters Strike Command, and Royal Air Force Stafford. And, on a personal note, I must praise the tireless efforts of my fellow trustees. Financial support, upon which the project has been so dependent, has come from many, often unexpected, quarters. Contributions have been received from former auxiliaries, their families and their friends – as well as from Squadron Associations, Guilds and Companies. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force itself has contributed significantly, including the funding by the former VR Squadrons of 4 wooden benches surrounding the memorial, and the organisation by Squadron Leader Charlie Anderson of a sponsored cycle ride from St Mawgan to Lossiemouth which involved personnel from every Squadron in the Force and which realised over £4,000. A further £4000 has been received from the National Lottery. We are not in the black yet, but hopefully we will get there soon.
Concerning today’s ceremony and its organisation, our thanks are due to David Childs for officiating at the Service, to the Lord Lieutenant and his Office, to the Trustees and staffs at the Arboretum, to the Staffordshire Police Force, to the Royal Air Force College Band, and to The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
We are also extremely grateful to you, your Royal Highness, for agreeing to dedicate our Memorial. That your mother, Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, is an Air Chief Marshal and has served as the Air Chief Commandant of the Womens’ Royal Air Force, that your father was Honorary Air Commodore of No 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron and that you should now be the Squadron’s present Honorary Air Commodore make your presence particularly welcome and apposite.
Also, it is with great pride and pleasure that we have on parade before us today the Sovereign’s Colour which Her Majesty the Queen presented to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force on the occasion of its 65th Anniversary in 1989. How fitting that, fifteen years later, on this the Force’s 80th Anniversary, the Colour, which symbolises our history, ethos, traditions and worthiness, should be with us as we remember the former generations of men and women of all ranks who have served in the Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. We owe them a great debt. They were committed to their cause, and many died or were severely disabled as result. Today, we dedicate a living memorial to their names, their sacrifices and their illustrious achievements – and, in doing so, we provide a source of inspiration to the Auxiliaries of today and tomorrow.