The Origins of Boy Service in the RFC and RAF
One of the main difficulties facing the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from its foundation in 1912 was a shortage of air mechanics. Nevertheless, by combing through the ranks for skilled artificers among those already in uniform and identifying likely candidates among the many volunteers who were joining the colours, most of the shortfalls during the first two years of WW I were overcome. In January 1917, following the impressive part played by the RFC in the great battles in the previous year, the Army Council authorised its expansion to a total of 106 squadrons (86 to be in France) and in July this was almost doubled to 200. The limiting factor to this huge expansion turned out to be not a shortage of aircrew, nor of aircraft manufacturing capacity, but rather a lack of skilled groundcrew of which more than a dozen were needed to maintain each front-line aircraft.
As the rudimentary methods of training RFC tradesmen hitherto were unlikely to meet the massive new manpower requirement, it soon became clear that the RFC would have to train its own air mechanics. In order to find the thousands of skilled men demanded by the rapidly growing Service, the RFC expanded its training programmes, basing these new units wherever suitable sites could be found, an unavoidable but random process that scattered the schools across the country. For example, a new training school was set up at Netheravon with 200 men, another was formed at Reading with 1,000, and one in a converted jam factory at nearby Coley with another 2,000, and there were many others, large and small. Under the continuing pressure on manpower another very important decision for the future of the RFC was taken; it was decided to recruit boys.1
This kind of improvisation could not provide all of the men the RFC needed and rationalisation of the training machine became an urgent requirement. In June 1917 Maj Gen Sefton Brancker, Deputy Director-General of Military Aeronautics, submitted proposals to centralise the technical training of men, women and boys in a new large school to be located at Halton.2 This new school was under the direct control of the War Office and commanded by Lt-Col Ian Bonham Carter.3
The first 400 RFC boy mechanics enlisted at Farnborough in May 1917, shortly followed by further intakes at Blandford.4 These boys moved to Halton in the late summer of 1917 where, by the end of the year, 2,000 boys were under training as air mechanics living in Spartan conditions in dilapidated wooden huts previously occupied by infantry troops.5 Although many boys were later transferred to Cranwell, where permanent accommodation was available, several thousand remained at Halton undergoing in equal measure, drill, physical training, fatigues and technical training for which only basic facilities were available.6 However, the latter improved with the opening of large workshops in early 1918 which had been rapidly constructed with the help of thousands of German POWs.7
The arrival of the first RAF Commandant, Air Cdre F R Scarlett CB DSO, in December 1919 heralded many improvements to all aspects of boy training, in particular the tightening of disciplinary standards which had been allowed to drift downwards after the armistice. The brass ‘wheel’ badge, worn by all RAF boy recruits for some 75 years, to distinguish them from men, had been introduced in April 1919. Now with some 4,000 boys on strength Scarlett wanted an additional distinguishing feature on their uniforms to facilitate immediate recognition of the sections (later wings) to which they belonged. His reason for this was to ensure that boys committing offences both on and off the station could be dealt with expeditiously by the appropriate authority. His recommendation to the Air Ministry of distinctive coloured hatbands was approved in 1920 and this too became a permanent feature of an apprentice’s uniform.
In March 1920 No 1 School of Technical Training was established at Halton, the future home of aircraft apprentice training.8 Scarlett remained in post until 1924 and oversaw the transformation of a temporary wartime military camp into the beginnings of a permanent RAF station. He had laid firm ground on which Trenchard was able to build his aircraft apprentice scheme.