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This content is taken from the Royal Holloway, University of London & RAF Museum's online course, From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, thank you for sticking with us throughout the first week of the course. And in conclusion, let’s just sum up where we are in the early years of the Cold War, and the RAF. Now I’m standing in front of a MiG-15 in Polish livery. And in some respects, this sums up what the RAF was up against. Here we have an aircraft with its engine derived from a Rolls-Royce Nene. Its general design is developed from Nazi tests. This is effectively looking like what the next generation of German fighters would’ve looked like in 1946-1947, if the war had gone on that long. And it’s no longer the Germans that are perceived as the principal threat.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds We now have the Soviets very clearly, by 1953, being seen as the next potential enemy in any coming war. One of things you’ve got to bear in mind is– when we look at the Berlin airlift, and the relief operation there– many of the pilots that were flying the relief missions had actually been bomber pilots for the RAF and the United States Army Air Force during the Second World War. Those who had been concerned about raining terror on the city during the 1939-1945 conflict were, in 1948-1949, very concerned about ensuring that the Allied-controlled sectors could be properly serviced. To ensure that there was relief, and they would not be overrun by the Communist threat.

Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds So there’s a very rapid change in the perspectives. Hope there would be something of a quote, “early peace dividend”, unquote, in 1945. And then suddenly, through the reintroduction of conscription as national service– and the development of not only nuclear weapons in the longer run, but also a bomber force to deliver them– we have, by 1953, the beginnings of the Cold War in earnest. And therefore, the Royal Air Force’s role had changed from an active combat force to one that had the potential to strike back, through conventional– and eventually atomic– weapons, to a new perceived threat. Thankfully, by 1953 things had not escalated to that degree, but that was the context that we see in the early Cold War period.

Skip to 2 minutes and 51 seconds And within about eight years, the Royal Air Force is having to re-equip with very sophisticated aircraft compared to what they were putting into the air 10 years before. So we have the technological change, and the change of geopolitics, which is reshaping the role and the mission of the RAF during this period. Thank you very much for going through this part of the course. You’ll find there’s a couple more steps to finish of this particular week’s work. But we look forward to seeing you again next week, when we’re going to consider the Royal Air Force in a more global role.

Week 1 conclusion

Emmett gives some pointers on what to take from this week of study.

Thank you very much for sticking with us through this first week of material. Here we have tried to introduce the context for the course as a whole, the evolving Cold War between the Western Allies and what became NATO and the USSR and the socialist and communist states which supported them.

The RAF faced a difficult period, and challenges which came up in rapid transition. The need to support their sector of Germany under occupation meant that their operational role remained very active. The Berlin Air Lift of 1948/49 showed how the RAF could help mitigate a point of international conflict. However, with the nation heavily indebted by the Second World War and demobilization a priority, there were a number of factors pulling the RAF in different directions during the early Cold War period. The need to add new jet aircraft to their inventory was essential to keep the RAF relevant to the change in the world, including technological advances. By the end of the 1940s they were preparing for a war that thankfully was never fought, but heavy preparations were made for the following four decades.

Although the Korean War was the exemplar of the tensions between East and West in the early Cold War period, the RAF was not heavily involved in this conflict. This is in part because of their 12 years of operations in Malaya, starting in 1948: the RAF was working against communist insurgence elsewhere. This brings us to our discussions for Week 2, which we hope you will join us for.

Next week

The Empire and its dissolution meant that the RAF helped support a number of new nations in their transition towards statehood. With respect to the Cold War at the periphery, this was also an attempt to prevent armed and militant communists from taking over, from a western perspective, democratic governments. Therefore, we see the RAF involved in a number of ‘small wars’ around the world. Arguably the RAF became an instrument of imperialism in 1956, and the Suez Crisis, to counterpoint these activities. In contrast, during the Falklands War, they provided the British Task Force with critical support, including the longest bombing run in the world at that time. The RAF’s involvement was not all ‘kinetic’ (explicit warfare), and there were a number of instances where the RAF provided important support worldwide in the wake of natural disasters.

All of these will be considered in week two, and we look forward to having you back to discuss them

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London