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RAF Squadrons

By the end of the Second World War over 500 squadrons had been formed by the RAF, usually falling into one of five main categories: bomber, fighter, reconnaissance, army cooperation, and transport. These squadrons served around the globe and were comprised of men from not only the United Kingdom itself, but virtually every corner of the British Commonwealth as well as most of the nations overrun by Axis forces.

These hundreds of squadrons constantly re-based and re-equipped in response to the evolving technologies and demands of war. Several books chart the movement, machines, and missions of the RAF squadrons. This is a comparative survey of some of those books.

Jefford, Wing Commander C. G. R.A.F. Squadrons. Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1988 (reprinted 1993).

271 pages
ISBN 1-85310-053-6

"...a record of the movements of, and aircrafts types flown by, all the squadrons of the Royal Air Force..." Jefford's compilation is the most comprehensive of the works, with all RAF squadrons included from 1912 through the 1980s.

Much of the material in this volume is tabular in nature, with relatively little actual text. At the heart of the book are tables of chronology, one for each squadron from No. 1 through No. 1435 (although not every number was used!). Each line in a table provides a month and year (and sometimes day) for an important event: squadron formation, movement to a new base, re-equipment (including the new aircraft model), renumbering of the squadron, etc. No other information is presented in this section of the book, and nowhere does Jefford include the kind of squadron narratives (albeit abridged) which appear in Lewis, Moyes, and Rawlings.

However, almost two-thirds of the volume is taken up by appendices which provide a massive amount of supplemental data.

The reorganization of mid-1918
Unit numbers allocated to RAF squadrons
Graphs of RAF expansion and contraction
Post-WWII "linked" and "shadow" squadrons
Named squadrons
List of aircraft models and the squadrons they equipped
List of aircraft models and their manufacturers
Massive list of airfields and the squadrons which were based at each
Airfield development with sample photos and diagrams
Maps showing locations of all RAF airfields around the world

Of the four titles reviewed, this is the best single volume on RAF squadrons if for no other reason than it covers them all. Jefford's book remains available from new book dealers.

Lewis, Peter. Squadron Histories: R.F.C., R.N.A.S., and R.A.F. since 1912. London: Putnam, 1959 (second edition 1968)

224 pages

"...a total of some 541 squadrons...have been brought together for reference in a single book." Lewis takes quite the opposite approach of Jefford's tabular material, preferring to abridge the history, stationing, and equipment of each squadron into a paragraph of text.

Just over half the book comprises these thumbnail histories. Each squadron's entry includes dates of formation, re-designation, disbandment, etc; commander (this is the only volume with that information); bases; aircraft model; principal activities; and assorted notes. Depending on the squadron, these thumbnails can run anywhere from two lines to nearly a full page. Ultimately, the thumbnails provide far less narrative text than Moyes and Rawlings; the data on basing and equipment is less complete than Jefford, Moyes, or Rawlings; and overall the layout is not as successful at presenting information as the other three books.

Likewise, Lewis packs useful data into his appendices (which make up just under half the book), but suffers somewhat in comparison to the other three books.

List of RAF aircraft models and squadrons which used each
Aircraft specifications
Titles of squadrons
Chronology of RAF-related events from 1878 (!) through 1968
RAF strengths in personnel, squadrons, and aircraft at various dates
Squadron code lettering
RAF squadron nationalities and numbers
Air Chiefs of Staff and Secretaries of State for Air
Airmen awarded the Victoria Cross

All this is not to say that Lewis' volume is without value. Out of print and rarely offered, it continues to provide a great deal of useful material but does not quite measure up to the high standards set by the other three books in this review.

Moyes, Philip J. R. Bomber Squadrons of the R.A.F. and Their Aircraft. London: Macdonald, 1964.

384 pages

"...a factual basic record...of every Royal Air Force bomber squadron formed since the First World War...." Information is presented only for that part of a unit's existence during which it was organized in the bomber role, so that while hundreds of squadrons are covered, in some cases no information is provided for the World War II era.

The material generally includes for each squadron a description of the unit badge, its motto, several paragraphs of squadron history (more detailed than Lewis), and photos of its aircraft and aircrew. A table details the complete record of the unit's location with name of airbase, country or county, dates, and notes about detachments. An additional table lays out by date the aircraft with which the squadron was equipped, going so far as to list some of the aircraft serial numbers. Finally, key dates are provided for each squadron for "First Operational Mission in WWII", "First Bombing Attack in WWII", "Last Operational Mission in WWII", etc.

Almost a quarter of the book is devoted to appendices. Among them:

Named Bomber Squadrons
RAF Bomber orders of battle from 1918 through 1955, with over a dozen from WWII
An outline history of Bomber Command and its commanders
Statistical Summary of Bomber Command in WWII
Brief Group histories
Biographies of airmen awarded the Victoria Cross
Table of aircraft and missions for which VC awarded to airmen
Table of bomber aircraft which flew over 100 sorties
Specifications for RAF bomber aircraft from 1918 to 1964
Chronology of important events
Index of squadron base locations

Apparently out of print, this title can be very difficult to find and very expensive. Like the Rawlings book, Moyes offers more data than Jefford and Lewis, but the coverage is intentionally limited to far fewer squadrons.

Rawlings, John D. R. Fighter Squadrons of the R.A.F. and Their Aircraft. London: Macdonald, 1968.

590 pages
ISDN (for Crecy Books revised edition) 0-947554-24-6

"...the histories of the R.A.F.'s fighter squadrons...." The author excludes certain fighter-bomber units more properly embraced by Bomber Command and Coastal Command, but still records more than 200 squadrons.

Rawlings' book is laid out very much like Moyes' companion Bomber volume. Each squadron's badge and motto are included along with a substantial synopsis of its history (more detailed than Lewis) and a variety of photos of aircraft and aircrew. The first table displays the location of the squadron's base (but without the clarifying country or county) and dates there stationed. The second table lists the main equipment of the squadron by date with model numbers and sample serial numbers. There are no "key date" entries, but information is provided for insignia and code letters.

About 80 pages of appendices cover a variety of subjects:

History of Fighter Command
RAF Fighter orders of battle from 1916 to 1960, with seven from WWII
Squadron identity codes
RAF fighter aircraft specifications
Glossary of terms, code names, and abbreviations
Index of squadron base locations

The original Macdonald edition is hard to find. The "revised and expanded" Crecy Books edition of 1993 (which includes addenda for post-1968 data) remains available. Like the Moyes book, Rawlings offers more data than Jefford and Lewis, but the coverage is intentionally limited to fewer squadrons.

Reviewed 19 April 1996


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