Royal Naval Air Service

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Royal Naval Air Service
Flag Royal Naval Air Service.png
Active1 July 1914
Disbanded1 April 1918
AllegianceFlag United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.gif United Kingdom
BranchNaval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
SizeAs of April 1918
55,066 officers and men
2,949 aircraft
103 airships
126 coastal air stations.
Part ofAir Department
In CommandDirector of Air Services
FirstRear-Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee
LastRear-Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee

The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) also known as the Naval Air Service was the air arm of the Royal Navy, under the direction of the Admiralty's Air Department, and existed formally from 1 July 1914 to 1 April 1918, when it was merged with the British Army's Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, the world's first independent air force.


In 1908, the British Government recognised the military potential of aircraft. The Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, approved the formation of an "Advisory Committee for Aeronautics" and an "Aerial Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence". Both committees were composed of politicians, British Army officers and Royal Navy officers. On 21 July 1908 Captain Reginald Bacon, who was a member of the Aerial Navigation sub-committee, submitted to the First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher that a rigid airship based on the Imperial Germany's Zeppelin be designed and constructed by the firm of Vickers. After much discussion on the Committee of Imperial Defence the suggestion was approved on 7 May 1909. The airship, named Mayfly, never flew and broke in half on 24 September 1911. The then First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, recommended that rigid airship construction be abandoned.

On 21 June 1910, Lt. George Cyril Colmore became the first qualified pilot in the Royal Navy. After completing training, which Colmore paid for out of his own pocket, he was issued with Royal Aero Club Certificate Number 15.

In November 1910, the Royal Aero Club, thanks to one of its members, Francis McClean, offered the Royal Navy two aircraft with which to train its first pilots. The club also offered its members as instructors and the use of its airfield at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey. The Admiralty accepted and on 6 December the Commander-in-Chief, The Nore promulgated the scheme to the officers under his jurisdiction and requested that applicants be unmarried and able to pay the membership fees of the Royal Aero Club. The airfield became the Naval Flying School, Eastchurch. Two hundred applications were received, and four were accepted: Lieutenant Charles Rumney Samson, Lieutenant Arthur Longmore, Lieutenant A. Gregory and Captain Eugene Gerrard, Royal Marine Light Infantry.

After prolonged discussion on the Committee of Imperial Defence, the Royal Flying Corps was constituted by Royal Warrant on 13 April 1912. It absorbed the nascent naval air detachment and also the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. It consisted of two wings with the Military Wing making up the Army element and Naval Wing, under Commander C. R. Samson. A Central Flying School staffed by officers and men of both the navy and the army was created at Upavon for the pilot training of both wings, and opened on 19 June 1912 under the command of Captain Godfrey Paine, a naval officer. The Naval Wing, by the terms of its inception was permitted to carry out experimentation at its flying school at Eastchurch. The Royal Flying Corps, although formed of two separate branches, allowed for direct entry to either branch through a joint Special Reserve of Officers, although soon the Navy inducted new entries into the Royal Naval Reserve. In the summer of 1912, in recognition of the air branch's expansion, Captain Murray Fraser Sueter was appointed Director of the newly formed Air Department at the Admiralty. Sueter's remit as outlined in September 1912 stated that he was responsible to the Admiralty for "all matters connected with the Naval Air Service."

In the same month as the Air Department was set up, four naval seaplanes participated in Army Manoeuvres. In 1913 a seaplane base on the Isle of Grain and an airship base at Kingsnorth were approved for construction. The same year provision was made in the naval estimates for eight airfields to be constructed, and for the first time aircraft participated in manoeuvres with the Royal Navy, using the converted cruiser Hermes as a seaplane carrier. On 16 April ten officers of the Navy Service graduated from the Central Flying School. As of 7 June 44 officers and 105 other ranks had been trained at the Central Flying School and at Eastchurch, and 35 officers and men had been trained in airship work. Three non-rigid airships built for the army, the Willows, Astra-Torres airship and the Parseval airships were taken over by the navy. On 1 July 1914, the Admiralty made the Royal Naval Air Service, forming the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, part of the Military Branch of the Royal Navy.[1] Promotions to the rank were first gazetted on 30 June 1914.[2]

By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the RNAS had 93 aircraft, six airships, two balloons and 727 personnel. [3] The Navy maintained twelve airship stations around the coast of Britain from Longside, Aberdeenshire in the northeast to Anglesey in the west. On 1 August 1915 the Royal Naval Air Service officially came under the control of the Royal Navy. In addition to seaplanes, carrier-borne aircraft, and other aircraft with a legitimate "naval" application the RNAS also maintained several crack fighter squadrons on the Western Front, as well as allocating scarce resources to an independent strategic bombing force at a time when such operations were highly speculative. Inter-service rivalry even affected aircraft procurement. Urgently required Sopwith 1½ Strutter two-seaters had to be transferred from the planned RNAS strategic bombing force to RFC squadrons on the Western Front because the Sopwith firm were contracted to supply the RNAS exclusively. This situation continued, although most of Sopwith's post-1915 products were not designed specifically as naval aircraft. Thus RNAS fighter squadrons obtained Sopwith Pup fighters months before the RFC, and then replaced these first with Sopwith Triplanes and then Camels while the hard-pressed RFC squadrons soldiered on with their obsolescent Pups.[4]

On 23 June 1917, after the Second Battle of Gaza, RNAS aircraft attacked Tulkarm in the Judean Hills. On 1 April 1918, the RNAS was merged with the RFC to form the Royal Air Force. At the time of the merger, the Navy's air service had 55,066 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations.

The RNAS squadrons were absorbed into the new structure, individual squadrons receiving new squadron numbers by effectively adding 200 to the number so No. 1 Squadron RNAS (a famous fighter squadron) became No. 201 Squadron RAF.

The Royal Navy regained its own air service in 1937, when the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force (covering carrier borne aircraft, but not the seaplanes and maritime reconnaissance aircraft of RAF Coastal Command) was returned to Admiralty control and renamed the Naval Air Branch. In 1952, the service returned to its pre-1937 name of the Fleet Air Arm.

R.N.A.S. Squadrons

R.N.A.S. Number R.A.F. Number Formed
No. 1 Squadron 201 Squadron 1 September, 1914
No. 2 Squadron 202 Squadron 10 September, 1914
No. 3 Squadron 203 Squadron 1 September, 1914
No. 4 Squadron 204 Squadron 25 March, 1915
No. 5 Squadron 205 Squadron 2 August, 1915
No. 6 Squadron 206 Squadron December, 1916
No. 7 Squadron 207 Squadron 1916
No. 8 Squadron 208 Squadron 1916
No. 9 Squadron 209 Squadron 1 February, 1917
No. 10 Squadron 210 Squadron 12 February, 1917
No. 11 Squadron 211 Squadron 1915
No. 12 Squadron 8 June, 1917
No. 13 Squadron 213 Squadron 15 January, 1918
No. 14 Squadron 214 Squadron 9 December, 1917
No. 15 Squadron 215 Squadron 10 March, 1918
No. 16 Squadron 216 Squadron 8 January, 1918
No. 17 Squadron 217 Squadron 14 January, 1918


  1. Spooner, Stanley, ed. (1914). "Royal Naval Air Service Reorganisation". Flight. VI (287): 686. Retrieved 11 August 2021.
  2. London Gazette, issue 28845, 30 June 1914, page. 5070.
  3. In the biography of his father, Winston Churchill, Randolph S. Churchill gives the following breakdown: "At the outbreak of war ... there were 39 aeroplanes, 52 seaplanes, a few small airships and about 120 pilots" Churchill, Randolph. Winston S. Churchill, Vol. II. p. 697.
  4. *Lee, Arthur Gould (1968). No Parachute. Harrolds.