The Royal Air Force, formed in early 1918, is the first air force in the world that was not under Army or Navy rule. In simpler terms, it was the first 'independent' air force.
At the time of its formation, the R,A.F was the largest force of its kind, operating over 20,000 airplanes.
World War II
With the German Army dominating nearly all of Western Europe, the R.A.F's first major action was during the Dunkirk Evacuation in May of 1940. German air attacks slowed down efforts to evacuate troops, and R.A.F fighters were deployed to counter this threat, however they sustained heavy losses and soon France was occupied by the Germans.
A month after the Dunkirk Evacuation, the R.A.F had a new and much serious battle to face. Nazi Germany was planning to invade Britain, but could not without gaining control of British skies. In July of 1940, the air battle famously known as the Battle of Britain between the R.A.F and Luftwaffe (German Air Force) began, and in four months the R.A.F would suffer nearly 1,000 casualties and lose more than two thirds of its available warplanes. However they were still in control of British airspace at the end of the battle, and Britain was safe from invasion.
After the Battle, the majority of R.A.F operations were focused on the aerial bombing of Germany. However early daylight bombing raids on strategic targets such as factories were disastrous, so they decided to change their operations from strategic daylight bombings to bombing German cities at night in an effort to destroy German morale. These controversial bombing raids took the lives of thousands of German civilians, but did not sever their morale as the R.A.F had hoped.
The R.A.F also escorted USAAF bombers on their bombing raids during 1942-43, albeit briefly. Much of the R.A.F fighters were relegated to air-to-ground attacks prior to the Normandy Invasion or short-range air-to-air combat with German fighters off the coast of France. Several fighters were also tasked with dealing with German V1 Flying Bombs, where they proved to be very effective.
The R.A.F saw moderate combat during 1944-1945, as the Luftwaffe were losing their air control as more and more Allied warplanes flew over German airspace.
At the end of the War, the British were now getting hold of German technology, mainly rockets and jet engines, and they were about to go from propeller powered warplanes to jet power that could take them past the sound barrier.
As the so called 'Jet Age' started, the R.A.F began replacing it's old WWII aircraft with faster and heavily armed jets such as the de Havilland Vampire. Although the first jet versus jet battles took place during the Korean War, the R.A.F saw limited action during the conflict as they were focused on defending Britain (And much of Western Europe) from a possible Soviet nuclear strike.
The last major action the R.A.F saw during the Cold War was the Falklands, where Harrier jump jets and Vulcan bombers fought against Argentinian air and ground forces. Harrier jump jets destroyed five Argentinian aircraft while the Vulcans focused on bombing airbases and radar sites and the Falklands War ultimately resulted in a British victory.
Desert Storm to Present
In Operation Desert Storm during 1991, the Royal Air Force played a major role alongside Coalition Forces, eliminating Iraqi ground and aerial forces and paving the way for the Coalition troops. The R.A.F were also involved in the Kosovo War, assisting in the bombing of Yugoslavian military forces.
The British Military has been heavily involved in the War in Afghanistan as well as the War in Iraq (Although British air operations in Iraq ended in 2009). R.A.F fighter-bombers continue to operate close air support missions against Taliban fighters, taking off from airbases in Kandahar, Afghanistan and more recently the Royal Air Force has been a part of the NATO bombings in the Libyan Civil War.
Strength and Organization
The Royal Air Force has over 40,000 active personnel and over 30,000 in reserve, and has little over 1,000 available aircraft. The R.A.F HQ is located at the Ministry of Defense's main building at Whitehall, London.