I was particularly touched four weeks ago when I read the address given by Air Marshal Sir Dusty Miller, president of the Cheltenham Branch of the RAF Association, at the Battle of Britain Commemoration Service that was held on Saturday the 18th in that beautiful city. I have had the pleasure of knowing ‘Dusty’ Miller for many years now and his remarks in respect of the commemoration were as poignant.
“Eighty-one years ago, our Nation faced its darkest hour. Our pilots confronted a numerically superior and more experienced force, determined to destroy the RAF as a prelude to invasion. Even though much of Europe had already fallen, our pilots were courageously helped by those from 15 other countries who came to England; they were supported by the RAF ground crews; their efforts were directed by the people in the Sector Operations and Filter rooms; as well as the countless civilians who lived and toiled directly under the bombsights of the enemy, yet steadfastly refused to yield. Our freedom today is owed directly to their sacrifice. We will remember them.”
This evening I am honoured once again be a guest at the RAF Association (RAFA) Lords and Commons Branch annual dinner – an event which in normal circumstances, is held each year in the House of Lords. Two years ago when the dinner was last held, the Royal Air Force Association used the occasion as a preliminary launch of ‘The Greatest Appeal’ – one that over the following four years planned to raise £40 million in order to not only provide the continuing practical support and friendship, something that RAFA has been doing constantly since it was founded to support members of the Royal Air Force community. A true ‘force for good’ supporting both serving and non-serving members of the RAF and their families, as they absolutely deserve and always thinking forward and planning as it recognises the ever increasing and changed needs of the RAF community.
United by the bond of friendship, adapting to changing and increased needs of the RAF Community, the Royal Air Force Association which was originally known as ‘Comrades of the Royal Air Force Association, was founded in 1930. Having then gained Air Ministry support in 1933, following official recognition by the Air Council, the first appointed president of the organisation was Viscount Trenchard, a man who all who have served in the RAF have enormous respect and who had of course been instrumental in establishing the Royal Air Force in 1918. Suffice to say that the RAF Association has been doing very valuable work for the RAF Community ever since.
RAFA is a registered charity whose primary purpose is to promote, through comradeship engendered by its members, the welfare by charitable means of all serving and former members of Air Forces, their spouses and dependents together with the widows, widowers and dependents of those who died whilst serving or subsequently.
All through my professional life I have had enormous respect for the three main RAF charities – The Royal Air Force Association, the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust. To these I would also add the RAF Museum of which I am an ambassador. Each of these brilliant organisations provide a range of crucial support to those who are either still serving, retired or indeed, in encouraging next generations of would-be members of the RAF community.
In his address at the last RAFA Lords and Commons dinner two years ago Air Marshal Sir Baz North put it equally well when he reminded that “over the past one hundred years members of the RAF and their families have stood shoulder to shoulder, working selflessly in order to protect the rights, freedoms and privileges that the people of our nation hold dear. Collectively. It is” he said “our duty to ensure that we will always be there for them in their hour of need, as they have been for us. This is a duty the RAF Association intends to honour”.
Air Marshal North went on to say that last year  the Association “had helped over 85,000 individuals, in many cases help that transformed their lives.” He reminded how RAFA aims to empower people by giving them the expert advice and practical support that allows them to stay strong. Working across all age groups he also mentioned that as a result of being asked by the RAF to help in one particular critical welfare need – providing access to affordable childcare – three new children nurseries have been set up at RAF College Cranwell, RAF Odiham and RAF Digby. He talked of other initiatives including progress and success in relation to RAFA now providing bespoke mental wellbeing training courses under the title ‘Finding it Tough’ and which are available free of charge to all RAF Veterans and their families, those of serving RAF personnel and also to civilians who work closely with the RAF Community.
Marking the preliminary launch on that evening of the ‘Great Appeal’, Squadron Leader John Peters, a former RAF Panavia Tornado GR1 pilot and who, along with his navigator Flt Lt John Nichol, had been shot down by Iraqi ground forces during Gulf War One (Desert Storm – the allied operation to liberate Kuwait in 1991 following the invasion of that country by Iraq) reminded of the crucial importance of ‘support’ so often required by members of the military who have suffered injury, trauma or mental illness. I know John well and have enormous respect for him. At the dinner he told us of how, following capture, they were held, beaten and tortured over several weeks before then being released. This was a vivid reminder of for him and for those of us in the audience of what it was really like during that dreadful period in his life including the detail of torture and sleep deprivation suffered. They were forced to talk and be pictured on TV by his captors, and he talked of the shame that he felt before release and, following his recovery, he was able to re-join his Royal Air Force squadron.
I say poignant because this was a timely reminder of why organisations such as the RAF Association are out there supporting all members of the RAF family through the many problems that they face including mental stress of situations such as the one outlined so vividly and eloquently by John Peters and who is today an Ambassador of the RAF Association.
There are approximately 1.3 million RAF community members who RAFA currently believe are urgently in need of practical support and friendship. Resilience, Empowerment, Community and Friendship are watchwords and translate to maintaining strong relationships at home and at work, providing physical and mental well-being and professional effectiveness support, helping to maintain freedom and dignity allowing those it supports to remain independent as long as possible and in helping valued members of the community to thrive. Put simply, RAFA aims always to offer help that reduces isolation, build friendships and offer rest, respite and recuperation.
Putting the launch of the ‘Great Appeal into context that evening would be to remind that as a charitable organisation RAFA had received a massive 250% increase in requests for support over the past year alone.
One of many issues faced by organisations such as RAFA has been the increasing need to support those with dementia and to that end the organisation has formed a multi-layered strategic partnership with CGI, a company that is today one of the largest IT and business consulting businesses in the world, with the aim of creating innovative online resources and other projects designed for instance, to support RAF personnel and their families who are caring for someone with dementia.
Charitable organisations such as RAFA that do such vital work support serving and retired members of the RAF and their families are deserving of all the support and more that we can give. As we move closer to the annual commemoration of those who gave their lives for us so that we could be free in two world wars and other subsequent wars, let us not forget the need to support those to whom we also owe a debt of gratitude – those that are still living and their families and who still suffer the trauma and mental stress of their past experience in service.
Further History of RAF Association
Throughout the early thirties the Association made rapid progress, establishing benevolent schemes and distributing Christmas hampers to unemployed members. In 1936, King George VI gave his patronage and the Association has been honoured with having Royal Patronage ever since.
Following the outbreak of the Second World-War in 1939, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force reformed, and the Women’s Royal Air Force Old Comrades Association which had been created in 1919 opened its membership to all ranks of the new female air service. In 1941, the two Old Comrades organisations for airmen and airwomen merged, resulting in a combined membership of nearly 20,000.
By 1943, with more than a million serving in the RAF, the organisation’s name was changed to the Royal Air Forces Association. A National Council, under the chairmanship of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Steel was formed to replace the Central committee of CRAFA.
The foundations of the charity’s present structure were laid during the remaining wartime years, and the Association was fully prepared for the consequences of demobilisation, which began in 1945. Welfare officers, employment officials and legal advisers were appointed at National Headquarters and at local branch levels. At the Air Ministry’s invitation officials attended Release Centres to inform demobilised Air Personnel how the Association could help them. In 1947 membership reached a peak with around 200,000 members and some 565 branches throughout the UK and in some overseas territories.
During this time, membership enrolment reached as many as 10,000 a month and, with the danger that the organisation might have become oversubscribed, the decision was made to distribute most of the administrative work over nine separate areas, each with its own HQ.
The Association has continued to maintain its Royal links and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is the current Patron. The late Duke of Edinburgh was President between 1954 and 1967 and the Prince of Wales in 1986.
At the start of the 21st Century it was clear that the Association needed to adapt to an ever-changing society and its welfare needs. The RAF Association underwent a complete reorganisation and Central Headquarters relocated to the heart of the country in Leicester, and in the process, amalgamated the Association’s Areas into five. In recent times the Association has continued to be at the forefront of providing support to the RAF family. As well as continuing to help those who served in WW2 and has provided assistance to vast numbers of service personnel including veterans of the conflicts in Korea, The Falklands, The Middle East, and Afghanistan.
Today, the RAF Association carries on its vital and is needed even more than ever. The Association continues to operate a wide network of over 350 branches and has a membership of over 74,000. Our welfare officers continue to seek out those in welfare need and provide a range of services to help ease their suffering. Over eighty years later and we’re still making a huge difference to the lives of former servicemen and their families.
The Royal Air Force Association along with the other principle RAF Charities, The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, The Royal Air Force Charitable Trust and the RAF Museum were all extremely active during the RAF 100 Commemorations in 2018.
CHW (London – 12th October 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785