News Article

Westminster Green plaque marks RAF's first HQ

A History and Honour news article

31 Mar 08

The formation of the Royal Air Force 90 years ago has been marked by a plaque laid at the site of its first headquarters in Central London. Report by Steve Willmot.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy Long description

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, unveils the Westminster City Council Green Plaque
[Picture: Sgt Graham Spark]

In 1918 the First World War was in its final year, yet such had been the contribution to the war effort by the flying arms of the Royal Navy and Army that even before it was over the Government had decided to combine the two and create a single independent Air Force. The Royal Air Force came into being on 1 April 1918 and its first headquarters was in a requisitioned hotel in the Strand.

Yesterday, Sunday 30 March 2008, to mark the occasion a Westminster City Council Green Plaque was unveiled by the RAF's senior officer, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Councillor Carolyn Keen.

After the unveiling Sir Glenn and Cllr Keen attended a special Service of Commemoration marking the 90th at the Central Church of the RAF, St Clement Danes, near the Royal Courts of Justice, also in the Strand.

The RAF's first HQ in the last few months of World War I was the Hotel Cecil at 80 Strand, once London's largest hotel and requisitioned for the war effort in 1917. However the RAF's occupation of its first home was short lived, for senior staff moved to Kingsway in 1919 and ultimately to its current home in Whitehall in the early 1950's.

With the exception of the decorative aspect overlooking The Strand where the plaque has been laid, the Hotel Cecil was demolished in the 1930's to make way for today's building, formerly known as Shell Mex House, famous for its huge clock face overlooking the Thames.

The Green Plaque Long description

The Westminster City Council Green Plaque
[Picture: Sgt Graham Spark]

Westminster's Green Plaque scheme to mark heritage sites within the City has been in existence since 1991 and the RAF plaque is the 75th under the scheme. Rosemarie MacQueen, Westminster City Council's Director of Planning and City Development, said:

"The RAF's history will forever be entwined with that of Westminster's, so it is important to mark its creation. The plaque is a fitting tribute to a proud Service, and adds another point of interest in the city."

Project coordinator David Forsyth, an MOD civilian who works in the RAF's Directorate of Air Staff within the defence headquarters building beside Victoria Embankment, said:

"Amazing progress has been made in just 90 years since we were "born" - those early servicemen and women would be astounded by today's modern technology - jets, rockets, GPS guided missiles and unmanned aircraft. But it all began less than a century ago with string, wood, canvas, a primitive engine and an idea that air power was not just for dreamers."

"I cannot think of a more fitting start to our 90th celebrations than by laying a plaque here on the building where our story began in the last year of the First World War."

Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, Chief of the Air Staff

The RAF was founded a mere few years after powered flight began in Britain. Although using flying machines over the battlefield in World War One was largely experimental, with many ground commanders resistant to its advantages, the concept of air power was born. King George wrote to its first Minister, Lord Rothermere:

"Today the Royal Air Force comes into existence as a third arm of the Defences of the Empire. As General-in-Chief I congratulate you on its birth and I trust it may enjoy a vigorous and successful life."

Being able to see the battlefield, and in particular the enemy's troop positions and movements from a greater height than with static balloons or from hillsides, and be able to then drop bombs and deny the air to enemy aircraft led to the realisation that most if not all future conflicts would involve air elements.

Added impetus to creating a dedicated air force came when German aircraft appeared over London in daylight. The Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps were merged into the Royal Air Force and Lord Rothermere became its first Secretary of State and President of the Air Council. The RAF was the world's first independent military air arm and by the end of the War had become the largest, with more than a quarter of a million men in uniform.

Councillor Carolyn Keen Long description

The Lord Mayor of Westminster, Councillor Carolyn Keen, (centre) speaking at the plaque unveiling
[Picture: Sgt Graham Spark]

In 1919 the Service left for larger premises and the Hotel Cecil, with the exception of the northern block overlooking the Strand, was demolished and redeveloped by Shell as an art deco office block. It is on a fa├žade on the remaining block that the plaque now lies.

Air Chief Marshal Torpy added:

"On this, our 90th anniversary, the Royal Air Force is entering an exciting and challenging phase in our history. RAF personnel continue to display the very highest standards of professionalism, commitment and bravery, both at home and on operations that will ensure the Service continues to make a vital, unique and decisive contribution to UK defence.

"I cannot think of a more fitting start to our 90th celebrations than by laying a plaque here on the building where our story began in the last year of the First World War," he added.

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