Free Admission - We're open daily from 10.00am (parking charges apply)

British Military Aviation in 1939

1 January

On this date, the Royal Air Force consists of 135 squadrons: 74 bomber, 27 fighter, 12 army co-operation, 17 reconnaissance, 4 torpedo-bomber and 1 communications squadron.

Additionally, the Auxiliary Air Force has grown to 19 squadrons: 3 bomber, 11 fighter, 2 army co-operation and 3 reconnaissance squadrons.

17 January

The Auxiliary Air Force Reserve is formed to allow ex-members of the Auxiliary Air Force to serve with Auxiliary flying squadrons in an emergency.

1 February

Reserve Command is formed under the command of Air Marshal C.L. Courtney.

7-9 April

Italy invades and occupies Albania.

20 May

Sixty Royal Air Force Stations and eighteen other airfields take part in the last Empire Air Day, which receives approximately one million visitors.

24 May

The Fleet Air Arm reverts to Admiralty control.

26 June

The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, announces that the Royal Air Force will impress civil aircraft in the event of war.

28 June

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force is formed, with Miss Jane Trefusis Forbes appointed as the first Senior Controller.

11-25 July

Approximately 240 aircraft of Royal Air Force Bomber Command participate in a series of navigational exercises, including training flights over Central and Southern France. These sorties serve as a 'show of strength' and also provide valuable training in long-range overseas operations. At the same time, it is announced that an agreement has been reached with the French to allow such training flights.


The first airborne interception (AI) radar sets are fitted into 30 Royal Air Force Bristol Blenheim aircraft.

8-11 August

The last major British peacetime exercise takes place, with over 1,300 aircraft taking part in south-east of England and at the end of the practice, a civilian 'blackout' is ordered.

16-17 August

A smaller Anglo-French air exercise takes place over England with 200 aircraft taking part.

23 August

Messages are exchanged between Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain warns that the United Kingdom is willing to use force to aid Poland and Hitler states that he will not renounce Germany's claim to Danzig.

24 August

Readiness State 'C' is declared by the Air Ministry and mobilisation commences. Aircraft are placed on 12-hour standby and personnel on special leave are recalled to duty. Auxiliary Air Force and Volunteer Reserve personnel are ordered to report to their mobilisation centres.

24 August

No.1 Group of Royal Air Force Bomber Command, is redesignated the Advanced Air Striking Force.

24 August

Royal Air Force Coastal Command squadrons begin to fly regular North Sea reconnaissance patrols.

26 August

Readiness State 'D' is put into force, aircraft are dispersed on their airfields and all personnel are recalled. 'E'-Class reservists are also ordered to report to their units.

1 September © Imperial War Museum

At 0445hrs, German forces launch Fall Weiss (Operation White), the invasion of Poland.

1 September

The complete mobilisation of British Navy, Army and Air Force is ordered.

1 September

The Air Transport Auxiliary is formed to deliver new and repaired aircraft to Royal Air Force units.

2 September

The Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) is deployed to France. The AASF initiallycomprised twelve squadrons, ten equipped with Fairey Battle light bombers and two equipped with Hawker Hurricane single-seat fighters and is commanded by Air Vice Marshal P.H.L. Playfair.

3 September

At 1100hrs, an ultimatum issued to Germany by the British Government expires and in a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces, "this Country is at war with Germany".

3 September

At 1130hrs, air-raid warning sirens sound in the London area for the first time. However, the warning is a false alarm, triggered by the detection of a French aircraft, en route to the United Kingdom, that had not filed a flight plan.

3 September

Australia, New Zealand and France declare war on Germany.

3 September

A Bristol Blenheim IV (N6215) of No.139 Squadron is the first Royal Air Force aircraft to cross the German frontier after war is declared. Between 1200hrs and 1650hrs the Blenheim, flown by Flying Officer A. McPherson, carries out a photographic and visual reconnaissance of German naval ports. Although the crew, which includes a naval observer, Commander Thompson, sight a number of warships in the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, their radio is unserviceable and they are unable to report until they return to Wyton. Flying Officer McPherson is subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

3 September

RAF Bomber Command conducts the Royal Air Force's first operational sorties of the Second World War, when eighteen Handley Page Hampdens and nine Vickers Wellingtons of RAF Bomber Command undertake a search for German naval shipping. However, they do not locate any targets and all return safely.

3 September

Pilot Officer John Noel Isaac of No.600 Squadron becomes the first Briton to die in the Second World War when his Bristol Blenheim crashes into Heading Street in Hendon at 1250hrs, 1 hour 50 minutes after the British declaration of war.

3-4 September

The first propaganda leaflet raid by Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys of No.51 and No.58 squadrons drops 5.4 million leaflets over targets included Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr.

4 September

A message from King George VI to the Royal Air Force on the outbreak of war:

"The RAF has behind it a tradition no less inspiring than those of the other Services and in campaigns which we have now been compelled to undertake you will have to assume responsibilities for greater than those which your Service had to shoulder in the last War. One of the greatest of them will be the safeguarding of this Island from the menace of the air. I can assure all ranks of the Air Force of my supreme confidence in their skill and courage and their ability to meet whatever calls may be made upon them."

4 September

Sergeant George Booth, an observer with No.107 Squadron becomes the first British Prisoner of War when his Bristol Blenheim is shot down over the German coast.

4 September

Following a second reconnaissance sortie by Flying Officer McPherson, fourteen Vickers Wellingtons of No.9 and No.149 Squadrons and fifteen Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 107, 110 and 139 Squadrons are despatched to attack German warships at Brunsbüttel, Wilhelmshaven and the Schillig Roads. However, five aircraft of each type do not locate their targets. Ten Blenheims from No.107 and No.110 Squadrons attack the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and the cruiser Emden in Wilhemshaven. Three bombs hit the Scheer but fail to explode.

By a peculiar twist of fate a Blenheim piloted by Flying Officer H.L. Emden crashes on the deck of the cruiser of the same name. Two of the Wellingtons fail to find Brunsbüttel and bomb Esjberg in neutral Denmark, 110 miles north of their intended target. The error presaged the navigational difficulties which proved to be a consistent problem for Bomber Command. Flight Lieutenant K.C. Doran of No.110 Squadron is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in this raid.

4 September

The first Royal Air Force attack on an enemy aircraft occurs when a Lockheed Hudson of No.224 Squadron fires on a Dornier Do18 over North Sea.

4 September

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) begins to cross the English Channel to France with Air support provided by the Air Component of the BEF. This comprises four army co-operation squadrons, equipped with Westland Lysanders, four bomber squadrons equipped with Bristol Blenheims and four fighter squadrons equipped with Hawker Hurricanes and Gloster Gladiators.

5 September

An Avro Anson of No.500 Squadron makes the first attack on a German submarine, 10 miles north of Ostend.

6 September

The first German aircraft sorties occur over the United Kingdom.

6 September

South Africa declares war on Germany.

6 September

A technical fault at the Chain Home Radio Direction Finding (radar) station at Canewdon, compounded by a series of mistakes within RAF Fighter Command's fighter control system, leads to friendly aircraft being plotted as an incoming air raid.

No.56 Squadron scramble Hawker Hurricanes to intercept this 'phantom' raid and are plotted also as hostile. Further squadrons are scrambled and, tragically, a section of No.72 Squadron (Supermarine Spitfires) misidentifies two Hurricanes of No.56 Squadron as Messerschmitt Bf109s and shoots both aircraft down. One pilot, Pilot Officer M.L. Hulton-Harrop, is killed. The 'Battle of Barking Creek', as the events of 6 September later became known, led to a wholesale review of RAF Fighter Command's plotting system.

10 September

Canada declares war on Germany.

17 September

Soviet forces invade eastern Poland.

20 September

The first Women's Auxiliary Air Force plotters go on watch in Fighter Command Filter Rooms.

20 September

The first engagement between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe takes place, when three Fairey Battles of No.88 Squadron, Advanced Air Striking Force, are attacked by three Messerschmitt Bf109s of Jagdgruppe 152 west of Saarbrücken. Two Fairey Battles are shot down.

23 September

The Royal Air Force's first dedicated photographic reconnaissance unit, the Heston Flight, forms at Heston within No.11 Group, RAF Fighter Command. The commander of the flight, Wing Commander Sidney Cotton, had conducted a series of clandestine photographic sorties over Germany on behalf of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) as a civilian in the late 1930s. The Heston Flight is renamed No.2 Camouflage Unit on 1 November in an effort to disguise its activities.

26 September

The first Luftwaffe aircraft is shot down during operations against the United Kingdom. A Dornier Do18D flying boat of 2/Küstenfliegergruppe 506 is shot down by a Blackburn Skua of No.803 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, operating from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, north of the Great Fisher Bank. The crew of the Do18 are rescued by the destroyer HMS Somali and the aircraft, which was still afloat, is sunk by gunfire.

27 September

By this date, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has dropped 18,000,000 leaflets over Germany.

28 September

Poland surrenders the Germany.

8 October

A Royal Air Force Lockheed Hudson of No.224 Squadron, operating out of RAF Leuchars, shoots down a German Dornier Do18 flying boat of 2/Küstenfliegergruppe 506 25km. This is the first victory recorded of an American-built aircraft in the Second World War and is the first German aircraft to be destroyed by a Royal Air Force aircraft operating from Britain.

10 October

An Empire air training scheme, operating in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, is announced.

16 October

British warships at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth come under attack from Junkers Ju88 of Kampfgeschwader 30 flying from Westerland. Three of the German raiders are brought down, and are the first aircraft destroyed over British territory in the Second World War. The first German aircraft to be shot down, is intercepted by Supermarine Spitfires and comes down in the Firth of Forth near Crail. The pilot, Hauptmann Helmuth Pohle survives and became a Prisoner of War. The successful pilots of No.602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, are Flight Lieutenant G. Pinkerton and Flying Officer A. McKellar.

17 October

Two Luftwaffe air raids take place on warships at Scapa Flow and the first enemy bombs to explode on British soil land on the Island of Hoy in the Orkneys.

28 October

Supermarine Spitfires of No.602 (County of Glasgow) and No.603 (County of Edinburgh) Squadrons bring down a Heinkel He111 of Stab/Kampfgeschwader 26 near Haddington in Lothian. This is the first enemy aircraft to be brought down on mainland Britain during the Second World War.

30 October

Operational service trials of Very High Frequency Radio Telephone are held at Duxford.

30 October

A Hawker Hurricane, piloted by Pilot Officer P.W. Mould of No.1 Squadron, based at Vassincourt in France, shoots down a Dornier Do17 reconnaissance aircraft of 2 (Fernaufklärungs)/Aufklarungsgruppe 123. This is Royal Air Force's first air combat victory over the Continent during the Second World War.


The Women's Auxiliary Air Force has recruited 8,800 and has raised its upper age limit to 50 years, for women with experience in radar plotting of aircraft.

1 November

The first Chain Home Low radar station becomes operational in Fifeness.

13 November

The first German bombs fall on British soil. The bombs are dropped on the Shetland Islands, with no casualties, except an uninhabited house.

18 November

The first German magnetic anti-ship mines are dropped in British coastal waters.

22 November

The first successful photographic reconnaissance sortie is made by a PR Supermarine Spitfire. Flight Lieutenant M.V. 'Shorty' Longbottom of the Special Survey Flight, a detachment of No.2 Camouflage Unit, flies Spitfire I Type A N3071 on a sortie from Coulommiers to photograph the Eupen - Elsenborn region of northern Luxemburg.

28 November

Six Bristol Blenheim IFs of No.25 Squadron, RAF Fighter Command, and six Blenheim IFs of No.601 Squadron, RAF Fighter Command make a low-level attack on the German seaplane base at Borkum, causing little damage. All the aircraft return safely.

30 November

Soviet Forces invade Finland and fighting continues until an armistice comes into force on 12 March 1940. Despite overwhelming numerical and technical superiority a combination of poor training and tactics sees the Red Air Force lose 280 aircraft in air-to-air combat and 314 to ground defences. Finnish losses total 62 aircraft destroyed in combat and 69 aircraft written off.

3 December

German warships at Heligoland are bombed by 24 Royal Air Force Vickers Wellingtons. A bomb from one of the aircraft hangs up briefly, before dropping on a German AA battery on shore. This is believed to be the first British bomb to strike German soil.

14 December

Six Vickers Wellingtons of No.99 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, are lost from an attacking force of twelve during an attempted raid on the German Navy cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig, which have been damaged in a naval action in the North Sea. The Wellingtons are intercepted by Luftwaffe Bf109 fighters, which shoot five down into the sea and the sixth crash lands near Newmarket.

18 December

A third repeat air attack on German shipping off Wilhelmshaven and the Schillig Roads is badly mauled. 12 out of 24 Wellingtons are shot down and others are badly damaged. This ends the British belief that bombers operating in daylight can successfully defend themselves by close formation flying.

21 December

The first 'Gift' squadron is announced, when Nizam of Hyderabad makes a donation to the Royal Air Force. No.152 Squadron is subsequently renamed No.152 (Hyderabad) Squadron.

26 December

The first Royal Australian Air Force squadron, No.10 Squadron RAAF, arrives in Britain for service alongside the Royal Air Force.

Share your RAF Stories

Collecting stories throughout the world

Find out more
Shobha Earl

Shobha Earl

RAF Stories
Share your RAF Stories
3 Pilots 1 War

Discover the amazing story of three First World War Pilots

Find out more
 Bernard Rice

Bernard Rice

First World War Pilot
3 Pilots 1 War
Historic Hendon Graphic Novel

Bringing the amazing stories of the RAF Museum's historic London site to life

Find out more
Ray Holmes

Ray Holmes

Unassuming Hero
Historic Hendon Graphic Novel
First World War Casualty Cards

You can now read online 300,000+ casualty cards belonging to RFC and RAF personnel

Find out more
Major James Thomas Byford McCudden

Major James Thomas Byford McCudden

First World War Ace
First World War Casualty Cards