Force History – 1935 to 1939


From 1935 onwards it was at last understood how significant the threat from Germany might be as a result of her air rearmament. On August 30, 1936, to allow for considerable expansion for war, the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was formed, with the objective of providing ab initio flying training for the increased number of pilots who might be required. Recruiting started in 1937. As a consequence of German rearmament, the Spanish Civil War and the Munich crisis of 1938, the RAF began an expansion programme (see The Expanding Years, November 1984—April 1985 Aeroplane ) which resulted in a further eight AAF squadrons being formed, and the five SR cadre squadrons were transferred to the AAF in 1937. Number 503 (City of Lincoln) Sqn was disbanded, to re-form at Doncaster on November 1, 1938, as 616 (South Yorkshire) Fighter Squadron. Of the new AAF squadrons, three formed in February 1936, as day bomber units; 609 (West Riding) Sqn formed at Yeadon, 610 (County of Chester) formed at Hooton and 611 (West Lancashire) formed at Hendon and moved to Speke on May 6, 1936. Four more formed as Army co-operation units; 612 (County of Aberdeen) at Dyce, 614 (County of Glamorgan) at Cardiff and 615 (County of Surrey) at Kenley, all in 1937, and 613 (City of Manchester) at Ringway in 1939.

During 1938-39, 14 AAF squadrons were reassigned as fighter squadrons, while five became part of Coastal Command or Army Co-operation Command. The fighter units, in particular, were to have a significant impact during the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. In the closing days of the Phoney War of 1939 to early 1940, just before the Battle of France, the AOC-in-C Fighter Command, ACM Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding, wrote in a memorandum the following: “I calculate that by January 1940 I shall have 25 Regular squadrons equipped with modern types, plus 14 Auxiliary squadrons in various stages of efficiency. Of these 14, six will be nearly as efficient as Regulars, five will be semi-efficient and the remainder of little value.” In the event, Dowding’s fears were groundless (and were probably based on the professional regular airman’s innate suspicion of part-timers).


In mid-1936 the Committee of Imperial Defence approved a suggestion for a barrage of 450 balloons for the defence of London as the initiation of an eventual National Balloon Defence Organisation, This was to be achieved under the aegis of the AAF, and, on March 17, 1937, No. 30 Balloon Barrage Group was formed under the control of Fighter Command.

Further expansion led to the separate inauguration of RAF Balloon Command on November 1, 1938, under Air-Vice Marshal O.T. Boyd, based at HQ Fighter Command, RAF Stanmore. Recruiting for the squadrons began in January 1939, with the aim of obtaining 5,000 Auxiliaries, many of an age rendering them unsuitable for other forms of active service. The new Command remained within Fighter Command’s operational control and, by early 1939, a total of 47 Balloon Squadrons were in existence. They were embodied on August 24, 1939.


In April 1938, the War Office proposed the formation of a Reserve of Women for the RAF as well as for the Army. However, the Air Ministry wanted the segregation, in special companies, of women enrolled with the RAF. Hence, when the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) came into being in September 1938, it had separate RAF companies. After the Munich crisis it became apparent that the RAF companies of the ATS should be brought more closely under RAF control and, that December, it was decided to move them to locations where they could be affiliated to an AAF unit.

Experience proved, however, that a separate Women’s Service was needed for the RAF, and on June 28, 1939, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was constituted by Royal Warrant. It has been estimated that 150,000 men were released for front-line service owing to the WAAF being able to replace them on stations and headquarters.


In August 1939 the AAF and the WAAF, together with their colleagues in the RAFVR, were embodied into the RAF. From September 3, 1939, the Auxiliaries could muster 20 flying squadrons, 47 balloon squadrons and 1,734 WAAFs. On embodiment, recruiting into both the Auxiliaries and RAF ceased. New recruits were part of the RAFVR for the duration of hostilities. However, WAAF recruiting continued in earnest.

The foresight shown by Trenchard in 1919 in planning a reserve air force, territorially based, brought incalculable benefits when the RAF needed to be expanded rapidly to meet the demands of war. Its flying and balloon squadrons were absorbed into the RAF, and made an invaluable contribution throughout the war.

The RAF went to war with just under 200,000 personnel, of whom 20,000 were RAFVR. Of the 12,600 officers, 3,000 were from the AAF.