The RAF is celebrating its centenary, but sadly not a word about its illustrious founder seems to have appeared in the South African press.

It was Jan Smuts who was on the British War Cabinet during the First World War who laid the groundwork for the RAF.


Imperial War Conference 1917
Imperial War Conference, 1917. Smuts front row, third from left.

In Britain his role has been recognised.

“The creation of an independent air service, separate from the both the Army and Royal Navy, was recommended in a report by the South African soldier and politician, Jan Christian Smuts, in 1917.

A Sopwith Camel fighter at the RAF Museum, Hendon, in 2014. This ‘King of the Air Fighters’ is now part of the museum’s permanent ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition, which opened for the start of the WW1 Centenary (Photo: Centenary News)

General Smuts, a member of the Imperial War Cabinet, was asked to review Britain’s air services and defences after the first raids on London by Germany’s new Gotha bomber planes. In a daylight attack in June 1917, 18 schoolchildren in the Poplar docklands district were among more than 160 civilians killed.

The six-page ‘Smuts Report’ noted: “The day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principle operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.”

And commenting on the ‘snail’s pace’ of progress on the Western Front, Smuts suggested the decisive battle could take in the skies above the Rhine: “Intense pressure against the chief industrial centres of the enemy as well as on his lines of communication may form the determining factor in bringing about peace.”

The full import of such thinking would not become apparent until the Second World War.

The new Royal Air Force, constituted under an Act of Parliament, came into being on 1 April 1918. Ironically, the RAF  was born just as that ‘snail’s pace’ in France and Flanders was ending. But air power would form a crucial part of the ‘All Arms Battle’ that summer and autumn, working in tandem with artillery and ground troops to deliver victory in the Hundred Days Offensive.”

Churchill recognised the work that Smuts had done. Richard Steyn records his achievement in his excellent book: “Churchill’s Confidant: Jan Smuts – enemy to lifelong friend”.

The task of welding the air arms of the British Army and Navy into one would have daunted most men, but not Smuts. As chairman of the Air Organisation Committee, he had to placate, and sometimes override a bevy of hypersensitive, turf conscious general and admirals in order to create a new fighting entity. Lloyd George was to acknowledge later in his war memoirs, Smuts, more than anyone else, had the right to be called the ‘father of the RAF’ – a claim that might be disputed by admirers of Sir Hugh (later Viscount) Trenchard, the first Marshal of the RAF…The burden of work and mental strain from having to resolve differences between heavily entrenched interests would have taxed any lesser man, but Smuts never wavered or complained. As Churchill was to record later in The Great War…”Never, I suspect, in all the vicissitudes of his career, has General Smuts stood more in need of those qualities of tact and adroitness for which among his many virtues he is renowned.”