Size of the Royal Air Force at the Armistice 1918

I recently worked on an enquiry regarding the role of flying observers during WW1 and the topic widened to the growth of the RFC/RAF and its size at the end of WW1. I’ve often wondered at the overly large number of aircraft and men cited on various internet sites (even the RAF) when they simply don’t "pass the pub test". I may be missing something obvious but here is my reasoning.


The oft-quoted ‘official’ figures are 291,000 men, 22,647 aircraft and 400 squadrons (equating presumably to 200 operational and 200 training). If I use a complement of 250 men per squadron (the largest number of men I’ve found serving on any operational squadron during the war – and a two-seater squadron to boot) and use that figure for each of the 400 squadrons, that equates to 100,000, leaving almost 200,000 men unaccounted for who presumably worked in administrative roles within the RAF by the end of WW1. A bit of an overkill methinks if the 291,000 figure is correct.


Now for the 22,647 aircraft. At the time of the Armistice, many operational squadrons had been cut back severely from the norm of 18 aircraft on charge. But let’s be generous and assume that every squadron (operational and training) had 18 aircraft. Multiplying that number by 400 yields a total of 7,200 aircraft, leaving an unaccounted figure of 15,447 aircraft that were presumably standing idle in aircraft depots or straight off the production line waiting to be delivered (though the latter number would not be great as orders were being cancelled right, left and centre towards the end of 1918). Totalling the military serial numbers for all aircraft produced during hostilities (as per the ‘British Military Aircraft Serials’ by Bruce Roberston), approximately 73,000 aircraft came off the many production lines. Comparing this figure with the 22,647 aircraft remaining at the end of the war, does this mean that 31% of all aircraft built between 1914 and 1918 survived the war. I think not.


I have shown my findings to Trevor Henshaw, author of the well-respected ‘The Sky Their Battlefield’ and he provided the following comment which adds weight to the hypothesis that the official figures are over-optimistic:


The only DEFINITE figure I can give you is that at the Armistice the RAF/IF were mustering 1874 aircraft amongst their squadrons on the Western Front. The idea that there were 200 Operational Squadrons by, I presume, War's end, is so totally wrong. I would make it about 145 Squadrons and Flights - not including Training Units - but several of these 145 or so were barely operational by War's end.


Can anyone reading this post tell me where I have gone wrong in my calculations?