National Archives puts early RAF service records online

By Culture24 Staff | 10 November 2009
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A black and white picture of fighters in an aircraft

(Above) 24 Squadron, RFC and RAF 1916. © The National Archives

Lethal British flying ace Edward Mannock and the man who inspired the creation of James Bond are among a fearless cast of 99,000 RAF officers whose service records are about to be made searchable online for the first time.

The National Archives has announced the creation of the fee-charging database to mark the 91st anniversary of Armistice, allowing members of the public to find pilots by first and last names and date of birth. The service had previously only been available by visiting the Archive's office at Kew in Surrey.

A black and white picture of an RAF plane

Torpedo carrying Sopwith Cuckoo 1918. © The National Archives

The list includes "Aces" – pilots who gunned down more than five enemy aircraft – such as Cecil Lewis, whose war diaries resulted in the 1976 film Aces High.

Lewis was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, only a year after he had allegedly lied about his age to join the Royal Flying Corps. In addition to his aviation prowess, he was a pioneer of early broadcasting and one of the original management team which set up the BBC.

Mannock was the deadliest pilot of all time, reacting to initial accusations of being “overly cautious” to shoot down an enemy balloon and record 74 kills before being reported as missing after crashing behind German lines in July 1918. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

A black and white picture of a fighter pilot in a field

Edward Mannock recorded a record 74 kills during his stint with the forces

Secret Service agent Sidney Reilly is widely believed to have been given the task of killing iconic Soviet Union Head of State Vladimir Lenin, and his mysterious adventures as a spy have been repeatedly dramatised since he met a grisly end at the hands of Bolshevik executioners in a Moscow forest in 1925.

A 1983 television series documenting his escapades, Ace of Spies, won a BAFTA award, and books on James Bond creator Ian Fleming have named Reilly as the archetype for the spy superhero.

A black and white picture of a spy in a suit

Sidney Reilly was the original James Bond. Courtesy

His close friend, the diplomat and journalist Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, was an acquaintance of Fleming who regaled the writer with tales of Reilly's rampages, and the mythical status afforded to him by the national media kept him in the public eye.

His reputation as a multi-lingual womaniser and gambler with an appreciation for the finer things in life are also unerringly similar to his blockbuster doppelganger.

A black and white picture of a forces plane in a field

RNAS Handley Page O-100 with a Bristol Scout circa 1918. © The National Archives

"The digitisation finally makes the officers' records of service in the fledgling Royal Air Forces available worldwide," said William Spencer, Principal Military Records Specialist at The National Archives.

"This collection contains the biographical records of some of the earliest architects and practitioners of aerial warfare, many of whom died perfecting their art."

The records began in 1918, but many of them have been updated retrospectively. They contain details including career progress, aircraft flown and death dates.

They can be viewed on The National Archives' website on a pay-per-download basis for £3.50 each.

Visit the database for more details.

The National Archives has also launched a series of free podcasts, Voices of the Armistice, presenting the individual experiences of First World War servicemen.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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