History of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force

Up to 1935 – The Beginning

The history of the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces dates back to 1907, when the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act was passed. In 1917 Gen Jan Christian Smuts was appointed by Lloyd George to examine the organisation of the air services. He recommended the establishment of an Air Ministry and the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service to create the Royal Air Force (RAF) on April 1, 1918.

In November 1917, the Air Force (Constitution) Act was passed, which made provision for the creation of an Auxiliary Air Force (AAF).The formation of such a force was first suggested by Hugh “Boom” Trenchard (later Chief of the Air Staff and Marshal of the RAF, Lord Trenchard) in a memorandum dated November 27, 1919, at the instigation of Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for Air.
On December 11, 1919, Churchill presented to Parliament a White Paper prepared by Trenchard on the permanent organisation of the RAF. Churchill and Major- General Sir Frederick Sykes, who had succeeded Trenchard as Chief of the Air Staff in April 1918, opposed the concept of part-time service. Trenchard became Chief of the Air Staff again on November 1, 1919, and was therefore able to see through his proposal for an AAF. Trenchard realised that a fighting service must have a non-regular branch with its roots firmly set in the civilian life of the country. Churchill, perhaps galled by his own failure to learn to fly in his spare time, exclaimed to Trenchard: “Weekend flyers, Boom? Never!”

By 1922 Trenchard had laid down his proposals for the formation of reserve squadrons in the form of a draft Bill. Subsequently, in 1923, the Salisbury Committee, a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, recommended that the Home Defence Air Force should consist of 52 squadrons and be organised in part on a regular and in part on a territorial or reserve basis. This would have the effect of increasing the strength of the RAF by 34 squadrons.

An Act of Parliament followed, dated July 14, 1924, which extended to the AAF the provisions of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act of 1907 and allowed for the organisation and conditions of service of the AAF. The Act also provided for the formation of County Joint Associations and AAF Associations.


Sir Samuel Hoare (later Viscount Templewood) was the Air Minister responsible for authorising the first squadrons. Referring to the first experiment with non-regular units in military aviation, he said in the House of Commons on February 26, 1925: “We are in the ensuing year starting the experiment of introducing into our programme two types of non-regular unit.

During the next 12 months we hope to see formed a number of Special Reserve squadrons. Then there are four Auxiliary Air Force squadrons also to be formed this year. The Special Reserve squadrons are formed on a militia basis, that is, on a cadre basis, with the greater part of a squadron liable to embodiment in time of emergency. One of the two Special Reserve squadrons will probably be formed in the neighborhood of London, and the other in the neighbourhood of Belfast. The Auxiliary Air Force squadrons will be formed more nearly upon a territorial basis. They will have a nucleus of regular officers and men, but, apart from that, will be recruited speaking generally upon a territorial basis. I have already decided to locate two of these squadrons in the neighbourhood of London, one in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh and the fourth in the neighbourhood of Glasgow.”

Later, in his autobiographical book Empire of the Air: The Advent of the Air Age 1922- 1929, Templewood wrote: “The first step was to interest the local authorities in the centres where we planned to form the first units, and particularly to gain the support of the Territorial Associations, with which the squadrons were to be affiliated. The complete plan was for 20 squadrons, but we wisely decided to proceed by cautious stages, and to begin with five. The City and County of London were to have one each, Warwickshire one in the industrial Midlands, and two in Scotland based on Edinburgh and Glasgow. In addition, there were to be one or two Special Reserve squadrons, composed half of regular and half of non-regular personnel, the first of which was to be stationed at Waddington, near Lincoln.”

Under the provisions of the AAF and Air Force Reserves Act 1924, there were to be seven Special Reserve squadrons (allocated 500-series numbers) and six Auxiliary squadrons (allocated 600-series numbers), with 20 Auxiliary squadrons as the target.

The primary difference between Reserve and Auxiliary squadrons was in the composition of squadron personnel and the way in which the units were administered. Special Reserve squadrons comprised a nucleus of one-third of their strength who were regulars, including officers, airmen and the Officer Commanding, and were administered directly by the RAF. In contrast, the Auxiliary squadrons had a very much higher proportion of locally-raised volunteers, including the OC, who were administered by the County Territorial Associations.

Both the Special Reserve and Auxiliary squadrons were raised around centres of population with a suitable RAF airfield in the vicinity. A town headquarters in the city centre provided the focus for recruiting, training and social activity, while operational training was carried out at the airfield, which would become their war station in time of national emergency.

On May 15, 1925, No 502 (Ulster) Squadron made history when it began forming at Aldergrove as the first Special Reserve Squadron. This was followed on September 15,1925, by the formation of the first Auxiliary squadron, 602 (City of Glasgow). On October 14 that year a further three Auxiliary squadrons were formed: 600 (City of London) at Northolt, 601 (County of London) at Northolt and 603 (City of Edinburgh) at Turnhouse, all as light bomber squadrons.


To be eligible to join a squadron an early Auxiliary pilot had to hold a Private Pilot’s Licence and, in addition, be prepared to make time from his employment and private life to attend courses and flying training to RAF standards to gain his wings. Most of the original Auxiliary pilots had already qualified on D.H. Moths, Avro Avians or Blackburn Bluebirds at local civilian flying clubs. To assist their conversion and instruct raw recruits, a nucleus of RAF flying instructors was posted to each squadron. Avro 504Ns, and then Avro Tutors, were the basic trainers from which the pilots progressed to the more powerful D.H. 9 As, Westland Wapitis and Wallaces and, eventually, Hawker Harts and Hinds.

On enlistment, other rank recruits were assured that they would never be called upon to serve further than five miles from their home airfield (an assurance that must have sounded somewhat hollow in later years, when the Auxiliaries found themselves serving in all theatres of war from Europe to the Far East). Volunteers and Auxiliaries were expected to reach and maintain a high standard of efficiency by regular attendance at evening and weekend training sessions and exercises. To provide a period of more intensive training and assess operational standards, an annual summer camp was held at an RAF station away from each squadron’s normal locale.

Both officers and airmen were engaged for a minimum of four years, and had to attend a minimum number of parades and lectures at their town headquarters or airfield. Provided an Auxiliary had fulfilled the required number of attendances and training, he qualified for an annual tax free bounty of no less than £3, rising to £5 in later years. In due course, and grudgingly, travelling expenses were also granted to Auxiliaries and volunteers. (Similar conditions apply to today’s RAuxAF.) Then, as now, most Auxiliaries regarded any financial return as a bonus. Being a member of the AAF and being in support of the RAF was reward enough.


Aviation was the craze of the 1920s and 1930s, and the AAF did not find itself short of volunteers. Right from the inception of the Auxiliaries, home defence was very much their raison d’etre. This meant flying, and the weekend flyers loved it! On April 3,1933, Sqn Ldr the Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale and Flt Lt D. F. McIntyre, the Officer Commanding and flight commander respectively of 602 (City of Glasgow) Sqn, undertook the first flight over Mount Everest at 31,000ft in modified Westland Wallace G-ACBR and Westland PV.3 G-ACAZ as part of the Houston Expedition. Each was subsequently awarded the Air Force Cross. The Auxiliary squadrons caught the public eye and delighted the crowds in the RAP Displays at Hendon in the late 1920s and 1930s and the Empire Air Day displays of the 1930s with their airmanship and skill and their colourful squadron markings. They were also conspicuous participants in the 1935 Silver Jubilee Review at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk.

The first significant expansion of the Special Reserve (SR) and AAF squadrons took place in 1926-35. Four more SR bomber units were formed: 503 (County of Lincoln) at Waddington in 1926, 504 (County of Nottingham) at Hucknall in 1928, 501 (County of Gloucester) at Filton in 1929, and 500 (County of Kent) at Manston in 1931. AAF squadrons formed as day-bomber units were 605 (County of Warwick), at Castle Bromwich in 1926, and 604 (County of Middlesex) at Hendon, 607, (County of Durham) at Usworth and 608 (NorthRiding) at Thomaby, all in 1930. In 1933 the AAF had 1,335 personnel.

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. It’s 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.


“I have to tell you this country is at war with Germany” (Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a broadcast to the nation on the morning of September 3, 1939).

From that date, 502 (Ulster), 608 (North Riding) and612 (County of Aberdeen) Sqns, equipped with Avro Ansons, undertook convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols, protecting merchantmen and the Royal Navy in the North Sea.

Auxiliary history was made on October 16, 1939, when Spitfires of 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 602 (City of Glasgow) fighter squadrons, based at Tumhouse and Drem respectively, engaged nine Ju 88s of Kampfgeschwader (KG) 30, based at Westerlandt on the island of Sylt, which were attacking naval shipping in the Firth of Forth. It was the first time that Spitfires had engaged the enemy.

Two of the German bombers were shot down, the first credited by Fighter Command to Flt Lt Pat Gifford of Red Section, 603 Sqn. The second was credited to Flt Lt G.C. Pinkerton of 602 Sqn. Following this action, congratulatory signals were received from Fighter Command, stating “First blood to the Auxiliaries”.
On October 28 the Spitfires of 603 and 602 Sqns shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111H of KG26, which was brought down close to the village of Humbie near Dalkeith, Midlothian. This was the first German aircraft to crash on British soil, as both of those shot down on October 16 had fallen in the sea off Port Seaton. Flight Lieutenants Pinkerton and Gifford were awarded DFCs for these actions. Gifford was promoted squadron leader and went on to command a Regular unit, 3 Sqn, equipped with Hurricanes. He was killed in the Battle of France, on May 16, 1940.

Within two months of Chamberlain’s historic announcement, two AAF squadrons, 607 and 615, equipped with Gloster Gladiators, found themselves in France. They were supporting the light bombers of the Advanced Air Striking Force in a show of solidarity and support for the French, who faced a threat from the German ground and air forces massing on their border. History has recorded this period as the Phoney War.

On November 27,1939, six Blenheim’s of 601 Sqn flew from Biggin Hill to Bircham Newton in Norfolk to join with 25 Sqn in a daylight raid on the seaplane base at Borkum in Germany. Within months of the war being declared, the “pre-war long-haired amateurs”, to quote Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, were making their presence felt. Famous AAF personalities who took part in the Borkum raid included Sir Archibald Hope, Max Aitken and Willie Rhodes- Moorhouse (son of the first Air VC).

The Phoney War ended abruptly on May 10, 1940, when the German Blitzkrieg offensive began in the west.


Following the German invasion of France, additional Auxiliary squadrons augmented 607 and 615 in what was to be known as the Battle of France. Numbers 501, 504, 600, 601, 604, 605 and 610 fighter squadrons now saw action in France, acquitting themselves well with their Hurricanes and Spitfires, aces such as Sgt Ginger Lacey scoring their first victories.

In addition, 613 (City of Manchester) Sqn, which had been formed only months before war was declared, flew over Calais in their Lysanders and Hectors, dropping bombs, while the Lysander’s of 614 (County of Glamorgan) Sqn were acting as airborne spotters for the British Army at Amiens. From the forward airfields in Kent, at Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston, 605 (County of Warwick), 610 (County of Chester) and 611 (West Lancashire) fighter squadrons were covering Dunkirk and the British evacuation.


The exploits of the Auxiliary squadrons that took part in the Battle of Britain are well documented. Suffice it to say that Dowding needed the 14 AAF squadrons and their experienced pilots and ground crews, who had gained valuable experience in the Battle of France. Readers may recall an article by John Alcorn (Battle of Britain Top Guns, September 1996) which gave the results of detailed research showing that the AAF had provided the two top scoring squadrons in the Battle of Britain. Moreover, five AAF units were in the top ten squadrons, and 12 were in the top 20 overall.

However, these squadron scores should be seen in context. Many of the original AAF pilots who went to war in 1939 had been killed in the Battle of France, promoted and posted to command AAF or Regular squadrons, or had become fighter controllers. Once they had been embodied in 1939, therefore, the squadrons were composed in the main of RAFVR officers, RAF NCOs and pilots from the Dominions, as well as Czechs, Poles and Americans.

From this analysis, 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn, based at Hornchurch, Essex, under the command of Sqn Ldr George Denholm, was acclaimed the top-scoring squadron, with 58 kills. During this period Pit Off Richard Hillary, author of The Last Enemy (MacMillan, 1942) served with the unit. He was shot down in flames by Hpt Bode of II/ JG2 6 during a combat off Margate on September 3, 1940, while flying Spitfire X4277/XT-M. Hillary bailed out but was grievously burned. He was rescued by the Margate lifeboat and eventually became one of Archie Mclndoe’s famous “Guinea Pigs”. He was killed on January 8, 1943.

The honour of being the first Spitfire squadron in October 1940 to claim 100 enemy aircraft destroyed fell to 609 Sqn. The CO of 611 Sqn, Sqn Ldr Charles, shot down the 1,000th German aircraft while flying from Biggin Hill, and 610 and 616 Sqns, as part of Bader’s Tangmere Wing, pioneered modern fighter tactics. Post-war analysis indicates that AAF squadrons accounted for a third of all kills during the Battle of Britain.

There were six AAF squadrons in No 11 Group during the Battle of Britain. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Group’s AOC, wrote: “Without the Auxiliaries we would not have defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940″.

The most important point concerning the AAF in the Battle of Britain is that this conflict could not have been won without the contribution of the AAF squadrons, who carried the day. In particular, the contribution made by both AAF and RAFVR pilots was significant, and eliminated any doubts about the formation of the AAF in 1925 and the RAFVR in 1936. The combined achievements of these reserves tipped the balance, 423 pilots being credited with 359 victories and 144 shared victories. The highest number of credited victories in the Battle was shared by a pre-war Auxiliary officer, Fit Lt A.A. McKellar of 605 Sqn, and a sergeant pilot in the RAFVR, Sgt J. H. “Ginger” Lacey of 501 Sqn, both of whom claimed 19. Also, a major part of the reserve air forces’ contribution in the Battle of Britain fell to the 132 SNCO pilots of the RAFVR.


Auxiliary squadrons equipped with Armstrong Whitworth. Whitley Vs, Handley Page Halifax’s, Vickers Wellingtons and Consolidated B-24 Liberators played a part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Flying the Coastal Command version of the Halifax, 502 (Ulster) Sqn achieved a total of four U-boats destroyed, while 612 (County of Aberdeen) Sqn, flying Wellingtons equipped with the Leigh light (a searchlight installed in the nose to illuminate surfaced U-boats) prevented the U-boat wolfpacks from attacking convoys. To 502 Sqn goes the credit of being the first squadron to use ASV radar to locate a U-boat and subsequently destroy it.


John “Cats-eyes” Cunningham and his navigator, C. F. Rawnsley, of 604 (County of Middlesex) Sqn were one of the war’s highest-scoring night-fighter crews, and did much to evolve nightfighter tactics. In particular they developed the successful application of airborne interception radars. Cunningham became a very successful post-war test pilot.

Also notable in the night intruder role were 605 (County of Warwick) and 614 (County of Glamorgan) Sqns, the latter being involved in the first 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne.


Wing Commander R.P. Beamont, who test-flew the English Electric Canberra and Lightning after the war, evolved tactical ground-attack operations in the Hawker Typhoon as Commander of 609 (West Riding) Sqn.

Flying off the American carrier Wasp in the summer of 1942, 603 and 601 Sqns helped relieve the siege of Malta. Number 611 (West Lancashire) Sqn was the first British squadron over the Normandy beaches in 1944. A year later its Mustangs became the first RAF aircraft to meet the Russians over Berlin. Famous as Pathfinders, 608 (North Riding) Sqn took part in the last bomber raid, on the night of May 2-3, 1945. Another Pathfinder unit in Southern Europe, 614 (County of Glamorgan) Sqn, were involved in attacks on the Ploesti oilfields in Romania.
The Mosquitoes of 613 (City of Manchester) Sqn executed two daring daylight raids, the first against Gestapo headquarters in the Hague and the second against SS barracks in France. Meteor fighters flown by 616 (South Yorkshire) Sqn were the first jets operated by a British squadron.
Many pre-war Auxiliary/RAFVR pilots finished the war as highly-decorated senior officers with high scores of aircraft shot down. The Auxiliaries on the ground also acquitted themselves well, serving in headquarters and airfields in every theatre of operations.

However, the accolade must go to the Balloon Squadrons, manned by 16,400 Auxiliaries who flew 1,450 balloons from fixed and mobile sites. By August 31, 1940, Balloon Command consisted of five Groups: No 30, London; No 31, Birmingham; No 32, Romsey; No 33, Sheffield; No 34, Edinburgh. Each group controlled several Balloon Centres, and these in turn controlled the Balloon Squadrons. The squadrons claimed 278 VI flying bombs, 233 of which were later confirmed, and accounted for at least 20 enemy aircraft confirmed destroyed. Two members of the balloon squadrons received the George Cross.

Additional squadrons formed during the war provided barrages not only in the UK but also in the Middle East, India and Burma. They protected major towns, industrial sites, dock areas and other vulnerable points, and provided a passive defence against dive-bombing attacks. Balloons were also used during the Normandy D-Day landings and as a protection against flying bombs. There was a disadvantage to the balloon barrage, however, as it proved almost as great a danger to Allied aircraft as it did to the enemy. It was therefore deactivated in September 1944, Balloon Command finally being disbanded on June 15, 1945.

Not to be forgotten is the role played by the WAAFs, who initially were used in support tasks. By the time of the Battle of Britain they were employed in operations rooms and headquarters, and a number of trades. As they grew in numbers and efficiency, so their field of employment enlarged. They became cryptanalysts at Station X (Bletchley Park), photographic interpreters, and intelligence staff in operational rooms and headquarters in every Command. They also served with the Special Operations Executive as agents and radio operators, and many served in Balloon Command. By mid-1943, at their peak, there were 182,000 WAAFs. serving in 22 officer branches and 75 trades. Three were awarded the George Cross (two posthumously) and six were awarded the Military Medal. Thousands were mentioned in Despatches.

Most of the great names of the RAF were at some time connected with the Auxiliaries. The best tribute was paid by Lord Templewood: “The twenty Auxiliary units that were in existence in 1939 proved indispensable in every important phase. Their help was invaluable during the Dunkirk evacuation, in the Battle of Britain they claimed one out of every three aircraft destroyed. Whether it was on the African, the Indian, the Russian, or the Home Front, or on D-Day, the story was the same. They took their place with the best regular squadrons, they flew the latest types of machines, they carried out the most difficult and dangerous missions, and by their achievements they gave the answer to the charge that they would never be able to fly the most modern types of machine. Facts such as these need to be respected and the lessons of the past remembered, when old criticisms are dug up from the distant past in order to assign an inferior status to this yeomanry of the air.”
The Auxiliary squadrons were disbanded between July and August 1945, following the end of hostilities.

1945 TO 1979



The AAF was reconstituted on 10 May 1946 within Reserve Command, and the 20 AAF flying squadrons re-formed some2 months later. Officers who had reached senior rank during the war applied to rejoin the Auxiliaries at any lower rank, and aircrew were prepared to re-enlist in ground trades. The squadrons returned to their pre-war ancestral homes, where they were issued with Spitfire Mk XVIs and F.22s and Mosquitoes, followed by Vampires and Meteor F.8s. In addition, each AAF squadron had either two Airspeed Oxfords or two North American Harvard IIBs for use as trainers. A new transport squadron, No 622 with Vickers Valettas, was formed at Blackbushe in November 1950. It had only a brief existence, being disbanded in September 1953.

Air Observation Posts

At the same time, 5 Air Observation Post squadrons were formed, as were 12 Field and Light AA squadrons of the RAuxAF Regiment, followed by a total of 29 Fighter Control Units and two Radar Reporting Units.

By this time, recruiting to Auxiliary squadrons was open to women. However, when the WAAF became the WRAF in 1947, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was formed within the RAuxAF.

Significantly, trades which embraced a new technology and which were highly manpower intensive, such as radar reporting and plotting, could not be manned by the regular Service and had to rely on volunteer reserves to sustain them.

Change of Title

In December 1947, in recognition of the AAF’s wartime achievements, the prefix Royal was bestowed by HM King George VI and it became the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF).


Thirty of these units, originally known as air defence units (ADUs), were formed. Their personnel were trained to plot the movements of enemy aircraft and direct interceptions by defending fighters. Many of the units were affiliated with RAuxAF flying squadrons, and the unit number plate prefixed by a 3. A large proportion of the Fighter Control Unit (FCU) establishment comprised WAAFs, many with valuable wartime experience.


Twelve squadrons were formed, of approximately 20 originally planned. The primary role of a regiment squadron was airfield defence using light anti-aircraft guns against attack by low-flying aircraft. Their secondary role was local ground defence. The squadrons were affiliated with RAuxAF fighter squadrons and the unit number plate prefixed by a 2.

When the wartime 40mm L60 Bofors gun was to be replaced by the more complex 40mm L70 version, it was decided that the new weapon posed too great a training task for the undermanned Auxiliary squadrons. As a result, the RAuxAF Regiment squadrons were converted to the field role in 1955, and this proved to be a more attractive option for recruiting than the LAA role had been.


The Air Observation Post squadrons were re-formed Army Air Corps squadrons, and were equipped in the main with the Auster AOP.6, although de Havilland Tiger Moths and Chipmunks were also on the strength of some squadrons. These squadrons were manned mainly by Territorial Army pilots, but had RAuxAF engineering and administrative personnel. Classified as Type A (Air Observation) and Type B (Air Observation and Photographic), they were composed of several Flights in the 1900 series of numbers (1951 to 1970). Their role was artillery spotting and air observation in direct support of the Army. Unlike the RAuxAF squadrons, they did not have county or town affiliations.

Korean War

During the Korean War of 1951-53 some 2,300 personnel of the RAuxAF fighter squadrons were called up for a three- month period of extended training.


This unit was formed in the RAuxAF in November 1955, taking over the role of No 1 Air Intelligence Unit, RAFVR, which had formed in 1950. The unit operated in the London area until its disbandment in 1957.


In 1957 the decision was taken to disband the flying squadrons of the RAuxAF, including the AOP squadrons. Many reasons have been given for this decision, which came when a Defence White Paper predicted the replacement of the manned bomber by the guided missile, there consequently being a reduced need for fighter aircraft. Furthermore, training and remaining current on the more sophisticated fighter aircraft coming into service was becoming increasingly complex, the numbers of wartime-trained pilots serving in the Auxiliary squadrons was decreasing, and regular units took priority.

The date of disbandment was March 10, 1957, and at Buckingham Palace on March 16 Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh received Commanding Officers and other senior Auxiliary officers of the squadrons being disbanded. Each officer, on leaving, was given a signed copy of a message of farewell from The Queen, which read in part:

“The association of the force with my family has always been close. I was proud to become Honorary Air Commodore of Nos 603,2603 and 3603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadrons in 1951 and to succeed my father as Honorary Air Commodore-in- Chief of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in 1952. Members of my family have always treasured their association with Auxiliary squadrons as honorary air commodores.

“I wish as Air Commodore-in-Chief to thank officers, airmen and airwomen of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force for all that they have given to the service of the country by their enthusiasm, their spirit and their devotion in peace and war. It is a sad day when it is necessary to tell so many that it is no longer possible to use their services, on the duties they have assumed so willingly. I wish them to know that they can look back with pride and satisfaction to service well done.”

By 1961 it had also been decided to disband the FCUs and RRUs. Again, the impact of modern technology had rendered the Air Defence reporting system less manpower intensive. By this time the Regiment Light AA squadrons had already been disbanded.


For nearly forty years the three Maritime Headquarters Units (MHUs) of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force provided support to Coastal Command and its successors in a variety of roles. From 1959, these three units constituted the entire RAuxAF until Regiment squadrons began to be formed some twenty years later. This paper summarises the history of the MHUs, considers the various tasks which they undertook and reviews the ways in which their personnel were trained.

The Maritime Headquarters Units

Following the disbandment of the auxiliary flying squadrons and the various fighter control and ground defence units, the strength of the RAuxAF had been reduced to fewer than 300 personnel. This state of affairs was to last until 1979, during which period a generation of regular RAF personnel had virtually ceased to be aware of the existence of the auxiliaries. The force was kept in being, however, through the foresight of Air Mshl Sir Edward Chilton, then AOCinC Coastal Command, and his Senior Air Staff Officer, AVM Wilf Oulton, who recognised the value of retaining auxiliaries as trained augmentees to supplement the regular staffs at operational HQs. To satisfy this requirement three Maritime Headquarters Units were established to support HQ Coastal Command (subsequently HQs 18 Gp, 11/18 Gp, and currently 3 Gp) at Northwood, and the former Northern and Southern Maritime Air Regions, based at Pitreavie Castle, Fife and at Mount Wise, near Plymouth, respectively.

These three units provided reinforcement and support in the Operations Rooms, Intelligence Sections and Communications Centres of their related HQs, all of which had major NATO, as well as national, responsibilities. A fourth unit, the Ulster Maritime Support Unit, undertook similar duties at Aldergrove between 1960 and 1965 when it was disbanded.

No 1 (County of Hertford) Maritime Headquarters Unit

No 1 MHU was formed in January 1960 under the command of Wg Cdr A R Poole. It was initially manned by officers and airmen of the former No 604 (County of Middlesex) Sqn, No 3604 (County of Middlesex) Fighter Control Unit and No 3700 (County of London) Radar Reporting Unit. The unit also recruited from Nos 600 (City of London) and 601 (County of London) Sqns and the Reserve Flights of the RAFVR, including No 7301 Flt at Northwood. No 1 MHU’s original task was to provide personnel to man the NATO Maritime Headquarters at Northwood (CINCEASTLANT) but it subsequently took on the additional responsibility for supporting the Maritime Headquarters (MHQ) and airfield at Gibraltar as well. For many years the unit was located at Valency House, an Edwardian country house, within sight of Northwood but in 1991 it moved to new purpose-built accommodation at Northolt.

No 1 MHU fostered close links with both the City of London and the Worshipful Company of Butchers. Its badge, with the motto Swift to Respond, was approved by HM Queen Elizabeth II in July 1965. The badge was dedicated at St Clement Danes Church in 1970. On 12 June 1989 No 1 MHU was proud to field Fg Off John Easton when the Sovereign’s Colour for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force was presented at a parade held at RAF Benson. The RAuxAF was, incidentally, the first reserve formation to be so honoured.

No 2 (City of Edinburgh) Maritime Headquarters Unit

No 2 MHU was formed under the command of Flt Lt R B Worthington on 1 November 1959, its original staff being furnished by officers and airmen drawn from the former No 3603 (City of Edinburgh) Fighter Control Unit, which had disbanded the previous day. The unit’s Town Headquarters, formerly that of No 603 Sqn and No 3603 Fighter Control Unit, had been used by the auxiliaries since 1925, and it still is.

The role of the unit on its formation was to provide operations, intelligence and communications personnel to support the joint RN/RAF MHQ at Pitreavie Castle, particularly during NATO exercises. In 1986, the unit’s role expanded to include mission support for aircrew operating from Kinloss, Lossiemouth, Machrihanish and Turnhouse. It would eventually take on even more responsibility including the provision of operational, intelligence, medical, regiment, air traffic control and MT personnel to support the operations of the Nimrod force at Kinloss, the maritime attack Tornados at Lossiemouth and the air defence operations of the Tornado F.3 squadrons at Leuchars. In addition, the unit provided intelligence support for the NATO/National Joint Intelligence Centre at the Faslane Naval Base.

To train for these various roles, the unit supported the Joint Maritime Operations Training Staff (JMOTS) during Joint Maritime Courses and also provided support to overseas deployments.
No 2 MHU’s Badge, with the motto Watch Weil, was approved by HM The Queen in July 1963.

No 3 (County of Devon) Maritime Headquarters Unit

No 3 MHU was formed at Mount Batten in January 1960, its initial members being drawn from No 3512 (County of Devon – Exeter) Fighter Control Unit and No 3513 (County of Devon – Plymouth) Fighter Control Unit under the command of Wg Cdr R E G Van der Kiste. The MHU provided personnel to support HQ 19 Gp at the Joint Maritime Headquarters at Mount Wise. Its commitments were later expanded to embrace Chivenor, Gibraltar and St Mawgan. On the closure of Mount Batten in 1992, the unit moved to St Mawgan whence it continued to support Gibraltar and, to a lesser extent, Mount Wise.  Featuring Drake’s drum with the motto Muster, No 3 MHU’s badge was approved in February 1963


RAuxAF personnel from the MHUs were established to augment the regular operations, intelligence and communications staffs at HQ Coastal Command during Transition to War (TTW) and during major NATO exercises. Working with their colleagues in the Royal Naval Reserve, the MHU personnel were initially expected to provide the third watch ‘down the hole’ in the various MHQ bunkers.

MHU personnel also provided expertise in the same fields at Northwood, Gibraltar, Kinloss, Lossiemouth, Machrihanish and St Mawgan. Specific duties included the tasking of maritime patrol, reconnaissance and strike/attack aircraft and the briefing and debriefing of aircrews. The MHUs worked closely together and personnel were often interchanged for their annual training or exercises, particularly in support of the JMOTS at Turnhouse (and later at Northwood), during the three annual Joint Maritime Courses (JMCs) to which the MHUs were committed from 1986 onwards, this activity involving personnel working in a variety of capacities at Pitreavie Castle, Machrihanish and Kinloss.

At much the same time as No 3 MHU moved to St Mawgan in 1992, the locally based Nimrods moved to Kinloss, so the MHU’s primary task thereafter became the support of St Mawgan in its new role as a Forward Operating Base. In addition, it continued to support exercises, with unit personnel augmenting the station’s own operations and intelligence staff. The unit also supported the Maritime Cell in the Joint Operations Centre at Gibraltar with taskers, controllers, intelligence officers and clerks, and provided the entire operational support staff at the airfield. In short, Gibraltar was totally dependent upon the officers of No 3 MHU for operations and intelligence support during exercises and they could also be called upon to assist in emergencies, as they did, for instance, in the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster.

In addition to their primary specialisations, the MHUs were also expected to furnish some ancillary assistance during TTW, the provision of MT drivers and medical support for instance. Although all MHU personnel had specific war roles, the aim was to train them so that they would be capable of filling both headquarters and station posts, thus giving them the flexibility required for both peacetime exercises and war.

As an example of the latter, MHU personnel provided support at Northwood, Kinloss, St Mawgan, Lossiemouth and Pitreavie Castle during Operation GRANBY, the Gulf War of 1990-91. More recently still, they have supported the RAF effort during operations conducted in Bosnia and Kosovo (Operations ALLIED FORCE, ENGADINE and AGRICOLA).

Personnel and Training

The three MHUs reflected the traditions of the old RAuxAF fighter squadrons, in that each was an independent unit with its own administrative and training structure. The establishment ranged from seventy to one hundred auxiliary personnel, commanded by a wing commander. The rank structure within each MHU was determined by the war appointments of its personnel, eg the CO was expected to fill a Duty Wing Commander Operations slot. Day-to-day running of the unit and training support was handled by a nucleus of regulars headed by an adjutant.

As is customary in the reserve forces, auxiliaries came from many walks of life: teachers; accountants; scientists; engineers; students; public servants; secretaries; train drivers and even members of the Defence Intelligence Staff were but a few of the occupations represented. Some officers and airmen were ex-regulars, among them former aircrew, engineers, nurses, educators, fighter controllers, Regiment gunners and communicators.

The three MHUs followed a similar annual training programme, although training was varied to suit local requirements. A typical training cycle consisted of one training weekend per month, followed by two Sundays and one evening per week (amounting to a minimum attendance of 96 non-continuous hours which is equivalent to twelve days). In order to achieve and maintain the standards set by their regular counterparts, MHU personnel were each allocated fifty-six man-training days, with any individual authorised up to ninety-nine days. All auxiliaries carried out fifteen day’s Annual Continuous Training at their war appointments or on courses or detachments.

Additional Voluntary Training could be undertaken if suitable opportunities presented themselves. Finally, all three MHUs participated in an annual 18 Gp-sponsored exercise, Exercise PENNY BLACK, which was designed to test operational procedures and to demonstrate the inter-operability of the MHUs at their TTW locations.

The MHUs adhered to regular RAF training methods and standards. They co-ordinated their efforts to review and restructure their training syllabi, particularly in relation to operations and intelligence, as well as General Service Training, including Common Core Skills (ie first aid, skill at arms, nuclear, biological and chemical procedures and post-attack recovery training). Auxiliary personnel were eligible for rates of pay and expenses similar to those drawn by their regular counterparts and a tax-free Annual Bounty was paid each year on successful completion of training.

Operations and Intelligence Tasks

Most auxiliary MHU officers were commissioned into the General Duties (Ground) Branch (later the Ops Support Branch) in either flight operations or intelligence specialities. At MHQs Operations Officers were primarily concerned with the tasking and control of maritime patrol aircraft. At station level, they briefed and debriefed aircrews.
Members of a joint RAuxAF/RNR/TA Ops/Int watch team at Faslane discuss one of the points arising during JMC 99/2.

Similarly, there were two types of intelligence posts. One was at MHQs, during major NATO exercises, for instance, or in support of JMCs. At this level RAuxAF personnel represented a substantial proportion of the intelligence community, working alongside regulars and reservists from other Services, including those of NATO nations. Information on ‘enemy’ forces reported by ships and aircraft was processed to create the Recognised Maritime Picture (RMP) and used to produce Air and Flag Staff briefings, periodic maritime intelligence summaries and ad hoc intelligence reports.   The station intelligence task involved working closely with maritime aircrew. Operations/Intelligence Officers briefed the crew on the potential threat before their mission and debriefed them on their return. The post-mission report was signalled to the MHQ where it was assessed and integrated into the RMP which was, in turn, relayed to the stations, thus completing a continuous cycle.

Operations/Intelligence Training

MHU Operations and Intelligence personnel frequently attended RN/RAF courses related to maritime operations, alongside their regular counterparts in order to be fully conversant with current levels of risk, operational techniques and tactics. These included courses at the Maritime Tactics School at HMS Dryad, Mission Support System courses at RAF Kinloss and intelligence-related courses at the Defence Intelligence and Security School at Ashford and later at RAF Chicksands.

Interlude 1996 – 2000

Although they had been formed to support Coastal Command during the Cold War, the three MHUs continued to provide Strike Command’s HQ 18 Gp with a similar service in the dangerous and uncertain situation that took the place of the relative stability of the east-west confrontation which had ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The optimism sparked by the demise of the Warsaw Pact meant that it was almost inevitable that there would be cut backs in defence spending and ‘Options for Change’ and the subsequent Strategic Defence Review led to some early reductions in RAuxAF manpower followed, in 1996, by the announcement that Pitreavie Castle, Turnhouse, Mount Wise and Mount Batten were all to be closed.

While No 1 MHU continued to support the NATO HQ at Northwood, the closure of the MHQs at Pitreavie Castle and Mount Wise had deprived Nos 2 and 3 MHUs of their main functions. Largely operating on their own initiative, the personnel of the two notionally redundant units exploited other avenues and found continuing employment in support of the periodic JMCs, sundry maritime exercises and the air defence operations of the two fighter squadrons at Leuchars.

The upshot of this was that the MHUs gradually evolved into what amounted to ‘Maritime Support Squadrons’, each still having much the same establishment as before. While continuing to provide operational support staff for maritime HQs and squadrons, their commitments broadened to embrace mission support for the Sentry and for Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR).

Among other innovations, the new Reserve Forces Act of 1996 had made provision for reservists to work full-time and to be employed on peace-keeping and humanitarian operations. It was this new flexibility that permitted MHU personnel to be deployed to Italy and Germany in support of Operation ALLIED FORCE, to Kosovo for Operation AGRICOLA and to Saudi Arabia for Operation JURAL.

Re-roling and Re-formation

During 1999, the Air Force Board granted a request, made by Lord Monro in his capacity as Honorary Inspector General, that new squadrons of the expanding RAuxAF should be allocated the identities of some of the auxiliary squadrons that had been disbanded in 1957, thus reinstating their number plates and badges.

On 1 October 1999, the Queen approved the re-formation of No 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn from the personnel of No 2 MHU and of No 600 (City of London) Sqn from the personnel of Nos 1 and 3 MHUs.

No 600 Sqn’s role was to provide trained augmentation personnel for any HQ handling RAF or joint operations anywhere, but specifically including the national Permanent Joint Headquarters and within CINCEASTLANT’s NATO HQ, both of which are at Northwood, and on the staff of the Joint Force Air Component Commander at High Wycombe. The squadron could offer specialists in the fields of intelligence, flight operations, communications, logistics support, motor transport and administration.

The new No 603 Sqn has a specialist Survive to Operate role. Alongside logistics and air operations, the squadron’s primary role is now a vital element in the operational capacity of the RAF. Survive to Operate and Force Protection are now integral elements of current NATO(Air) and RAF doctrine, which embrace the defence and protection of assets involved in expeditionary operations. In addition, the squadron continues to provide mission support for maritime and other RAF and NATO(Air) formations or units, wherever and whenever this may be required in peace or war.


For twenty years the personnel of the MHUs were the sole representatives of the RAuxAF and, as such, they provided the foundations upon which the present force was built, starting in 1979 with the formation of some auxiliary Regiment squadrons in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, it is arguable that, without the example of the MHUs on which to build, there might not be a Royal Auxiliary Air Force today.

1979 TO 2000


In 1979, in response to heightened tension following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, it was decided to form three RAuxAF Regiment Field Squadrons on a trial basis, to provide local defence to key front-line airfields in the UK. The trial proved successful, and two more squadrons followed in 1982 and a sixth in 1983. Meanwhile, studies had shown that both the movements and the aeromedical evacuation trades would need reinforcing in the event of any major conflict. This was highlighted by the experience of the Falklands conflict in 1982.

Consequently, a specialised Movements Squadron and an Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron were formed in 1982 and 1983 respectively and, following the conclusion of operations in the South Atlantic, a Light AA Squadron was formed, using radar-controlled weapons captured from the Argentinians. During the mid-1980s four Airfield Defence Flights were formed at selected airfields and HQs, together with a second Light AA Squadron to provide point defence and guard key installations.

In April 1985 a seventh Auxiliary squadron was raised at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, to man radar-controlled 35mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns captured from the Fuerza Aerea Argentina. In 1989 a second air defence squadron was formed at the same station with the aim of introducing Rapier ground-to-air missiles into the RAuxAF Regiment on a cadre basis.

The Gulf War in 1990 saw both the Movements and the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadrons mobilised, but in the aftermath of that conflict, with the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War, one of the RAuxAF Regiment Field Squadrons and both Light AA Squadrons were disbanded, as were all of the Airfield Defence Flights in 1993.

In 1994 the WRAF was disbanded, as was the WRAuxAF. Female officers and other ranks became members of the RAF and RAuxAF respectively.

On April 1,1997, the RAuxAF was privileged to embrace into its organisation four new squadrons formed from the war-appointable elements of the RAFVR under the provisions of the new Reserve Forces Legislation. The amalgamation was marked by a ceremony at the RAF College, Cranwell, which resulted in the formation of a single volunteer reserve force for the RAF. Thus the prestigious histories of these two reserve forces were brought together.


The expansion plans for the volunteer reserves include the formation of Role Support Squadrons (RSSs), the first of which was formed at RAF Benson in October 1996, to augment the Support Helicopter force.

The three MHUs formed in the immediate aftermath of the disbandments of 1957-61 continued to provide operational support to the RAF Maritime Force at RAF Northolt (No.1 MHU), in Edinburgh (No 2.MHU) and RAF St Mawgan (No.3 MHU). The MHUs were the forerunners of the RSS concept.

During 1998 four additional RSSs were formed; the Offensive Support Squadron (OSRSS) at Cottesmore, the Strike Attack Support Squadron (SASS) 2620 (County of Norfolk) Squadron at Marham, the Air Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling Support Squadron (ATARSS) 2624 (County of Oxford) Squadron at Brize Norton/ Lyneham and the Air Defence Support Squadron (ADSS) at Leeming.

On October 1, 1998, a RAuxAF Ground Base Air Defence (GBAD) squadron was established by re-forming 2623 (East Anglia) Sqn at RAF Honington. It will augment the Rapier FSC force. In addition, two Training and Standardisation Squadrons were formed at RAF Halton and RAF Shawbury.


In 1994, after 37 years, the RAF reintroduced reserve aircrew on a trial basis. All of these aircrew were ex-regulars with recent experience, and comprised both pilots and other aircrew categories. Following a successful trial at RAF Lyneham in 1996 it was decided to establish nine Lockheed C-130 Hercules Reserve Crews as members of the RAuxAF. The crews were to be selected from previous members of the Hercules Force who had retired from the RAF. In 1997 there was a major expansion in the numbers of RAuxAF aircrew flying in the helicopter, maritime, air transport and air defence roles.

During 1997 reserve aircrew were also flying the Puma helicopter at RAF Odiham and the Tornado F3 at Leeming, and serving as rear-end crew in the Nimrod Mk 3 at RAF Kinloss. Most of the pilots were employed by civilian airlines.


Many thanks to the Royal Air Force Historical Society  and Squadron Leader Bruce Blanche for allowing use of their material.

2 thoughts on “History of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force”

  1. Very interesting article, although very little has been said about the FCU’s and about their demise.
    Can anyone please tell me where No. 3604 County of Middlesex was based?

  2. I served in a FCU based in London 3604 I believe near holborn as I recall then moved around 1961 to North wood but cannot find any information on this unit

    Ian Caddie @[email protected] now living in Orlando Florida

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