The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world. The RAF has taken a significant role in British military history, playing a large part in the Second World War and in more recent conflicts.
The RAF is one of the most capable and technologically sophisticated air forces in the world. As of January 2012 it operated 827 aircraft, making it the largest air force of a European Union country and the second largest in NATO (after the USAF). The majority of the RAF’s aircraft and personnel are based in the UK with many others serving on operations (principally Afghanistan and the Middle East) or at long-established overseas bases (Ascension Island, Canada, Cyprus, Diego Garcia, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Germany).
The RAF’s mission is to support the objectives of the British Ministry of Defense (MoD), which are to “provide the capabilities needed: to ensure the security and defense of the United Kingdom and overseas territories, including against terrorism; to support the Government’s foreign policy objectives particularly in promoting international peace and security.”
In the Battle of Britain, in the late summer of 1940, the RAF (supplemented by 2 Fleet Air Arm Squadrons, Polish, Czechoslovakian and other multinational pilots and ground personnel) defended the skies over Britain against the German Luftwaffe, helping foil Hitler’s plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom, and prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say in the House of Commons on 20 August, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.