The Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed on the 1 April 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service merged to form the world’s first independent air force.
This took place during some of the most bitter fighting of the Great War (First World War). Soviet Russian forces had signed a peace treaty with the central powers at Brest-Litovsk, on 3 March 1918, ending Russia’s participation in the war.
This allowed the German army to transfer large numbers of men and their equipment from the eastern to the western front. On 21 March 1918, with 50 extra divisions at his disposal, the Kaiser launched the Ludendorff offensive. This attack enjoyed initial success, forcing the allied forces to retreat.
Eleven days after the start of this offensive, and while involved in exhausting and costly action to stem the German advance, the RAF was formed. Inevitably, given the merging of Army and Royal Naval personnel and units, there were some initial teething problems. These were soon resolved, not least because of the urgent need to defeat the German attack.
The war continued for another seven and a half months following the formation of the RAF — and the RAF ended the war at a size and with capabilities beyond the imaginations of the men who had formed the RFC six years earlier. The force had grown from 146 RFC officers in 1914 to over 27,000 by the end of the war. A fleet of 100 aircraft had become a mighty horde of more than 22,000.
Among the men and women of the British army, gospel ministry was provided by a range of organisations, including the chaplaincy, the YMCA and the Army Scripture Readers and Soldiers’ Friend Society. This last organisation had roots going back to 1838.
In March 1918, out of a total of 60 Scripture Readers, 22 were active among the soldiers in France. Additionally, there were branches of the Soldiers’ Christian Association (SCA) encouraging members to live for the Lord Jesus Christ in all the horrors and challenges of war.
In Ready September 1918 — a journal produced by the SCA — H. G. Barnett of the RAF, records the following: ‘I have much pleasure in enclosing postal orders towards the Lord’s work with the boys in France. He has greatly blessed our branch here at ERS, RAF, during the past twelve months.
‘As we look back and see how he has brought us through, we can say as David of old, “The Lord hath been mindful of us” (Psalm 115:12). I believe the results accomplished are the outcome of the earnest prayers of those at home and elsewhere. Brethren, pray for us.’
A series of mergers and name-changes mean that the work initially undertaken by these various organisations is now delivered by the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA), which continues the work of proclaiming Jesus Christ to the men and women of the British army and the RAF today, 180 years after the work first began.
From 8 August to 11 November 2018, SASRA is holding a national prayer relay called ‘100days’, to seek the Lord’s blessing on the work of our Scripture Readers.
If you would like to join us and pray for the Association on a day of your choosing during this period, please email [email protected] or telephone 03000 30 1918 (line open 10.00am-2.00pm, Monday-Friday).
Sqn. Ldr. Rev. Dr Andrew Hill is Executive Director of SASRA
Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association
SASRA has only one full-time RAF Scripture Reader and we are asking the Lord to send us new workers. If you have served in the RAF and have a heart for seeing the gospel proclaimed among our serving airmen and airwomen, please get in touch.
If you are interested in reading about the work of Scripture Readers in the First World War, we have two publications (both available from www.sasra.org.uk): Rough Journal — the account of Army Scripture Reader H. Wisbey with the expeditionary force in Belgium and France 1914; SASRA at the Somme — war diaries of Army Scripture Reader W. Ransley, July-November 1916.
If you would like a SASRA representative to speak to your group or church fellowship about our gospel work, please contact us at: The Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association, Havelock House, Barrack Road, Aldershot, GU11 3NP (0300 301302 or [email protected]).