12 things we learned about the RAF on its 100th anniversary

The Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918. Here are some things we’ve discovered from a rash of books published to celebrate its anniversary…

1. RAF pilots flying over hostile parts of the North West Territories (now part of Pakistan) at the end of World War I were sometimes captured by local militia who would castrate the pilot and then (literally) mail his testicles to the RAF headquarters in London, demanding a ransom payment in return for (wounded and emasculated) body. As a result, RAF pilots flying over hostile territory were issued with “goolie chits” – tickets which downed pilots could present to kidnappers, so that they might get a ransom payment, but keep their manhood intact.

2. German-speaking servicemen were highly sought after by the RAF during World War II. Some German-born British Jews who spoke fluent German were taken on bombing raids to Germany, tasked with tapping into enemy radio signals and announcing, in perfect, officer-class German, “return to base now!”

3. An RAF base in Hampshire, RAF Odiham, was opened in October 1937. In an act of ecumenical goodwill which now seems utterly insane, the guest of honour who opened the base was the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, Erhard Milch.

4. The Royal Air Force was initially a union of the airborne sectors of the British Army and the Royal Navy. Before its formation in April 1918, trained pilots from the army and navy would continue to wear their own regimental uniform while flying planes, be they infantry, cavalry, sappers, artillery, or even Highlanders in kilts. Soldiers from the cavalry regiments had to be forbidden from wearing their spurs, as these would frequently rip the linen canvas which formed the body of most early planes.

5. When the Royal Air Force received their first uniforms – using a Wedgewood-blue cloth designed by A.W. Hainsworth of Yorkshire – many servicemen were horrified, regarding its “baby-blue” shade as rather effeminate and emasculating. “No one was ever going to wear that musical comedy outfit,” said one pilot. “Designed by a woman, and it looks it!” The new blue was grudgingly accepted over time.

6. In July 1940, near the start of the Battle of Britain, BBC radio correspondent Charles Gardner excitedly reported live on a dogfight between RAF Hurricanes and more than 40 Luftwaffe aircraft over the English Channel. Gardner triumphantly reported that a German Messerschmidt had been shot down and a German pilot had been spotted bailing out and landing in the sea. It was actually an RAF loss, and the man bailing out was RAF officer Michael Mudie, who died of his injuries the following day. Gardner was later criticised by the BBC and War Office for the tone of his broadcast, which sounded more like a football commentary.