Page last updated 16th November 2015

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RAF Officer Uniform Buyer's Guide
 

Many RAF re-enactors are of more mature years, and yet most proudly sport pilot's wings. Whilst some 'experts' will undoubtedly decry this on the basis of the re-enactor's apparent age, it should be borne in mind that many RAF staff and administrative officers had already served in 'the first lot' and had earned their wings some twenty-odd years earlier. The wearing of pilot's wings didn't automatically indicate that the wearer was an operational pilot, simply that they had qualified as one at some stage of their RFC/RAF career. However, any re-enactor fitting into this age category should consider that they would also undoubtedly have been wearing WW1 medal ribbons. The only plausible explanation for not wearing the appropriate ribbons would be in the case of a man who enlisted in the RAF and passed-out as a pilot in the immediate post-WW1 period. Given that the typical age for a trainee RAF pilot in 1919 was about 21-26 years, he would still only be in his forties in 1940. However, a 26-year-old serving army officer may have volunteered for the RFC in 1914, subsequently qualified as a pilot, served throughout the Great War and then continued his service in the newly-formed RAF during the inter-war period. This would make his approximate age in 1940 around 52 years. An officer with this kind of service history would definitely have worn two, if not all three, of the standard trilogy of Great War medal ribbons during WW2.

 

  Service Dress  
 





There is a common misconception that the RAF officer's uniform has remained unchanged since the service's formation in 1918. This is not entirely the case. The first 'true' RAF uniform as we know it came into existence in 1919. This is readily identified in the case of officer's service dress by the large external lower 'bellows' pockets on the skirt of the tunic (see left) and the four brass-button fastening, features that were carried over from the earlier army uniform days. Later changes to the style of the tunic in the post-WW2 period resulted in less full pockets and loss of the fourth and lowest brass button which was replaced with a flat black plastic one that sat under the cloth belt. It was the 1919-pattern uniform that was in service throughout WW2, usually made of barathea wool and in a shade of blue-grey.

Service dress trousers were originally of a high-waisted pattern with swallow-tailed back and peaked front, as was the general fashion of the day to accommodate braces, but by the 1940s fashion had dictated a move towards a more modern waist fitting. Given that RAF officers were responsible for having their own uniforms privately tailored, personal preferences dictated variations in styling and cut.

The other major changes that affected the RAF uniform were those of colour. There are four main colour differences that  indicate the period during which any particular RAF uniform was likely to have been produced. The image at upper left gives a good comparison of these colour variations. The main difference between pre-war and post-war uniforms and those manufactured in the 1940s is that the war-period items are a greyer shade of blue. However, any officer or airman who had been issued their uniform prior to the war would still have been wearing it during the war years until it perhaps required replacement. So the fact is that variations did exist between the uniforms of pre-war regular and conscripted wartime RAF service personnel. Moreover, as officers had their uniforms privately tailored, variations in their colour and cut were quite common. At left is a close-up of a war-period officer's uniform made from a darker pattern of material which is a clear example of this.

Some uniformity of colour was achieved when the RAF first adopted army-style battledress (known by the RAF as War Service Dress) in 1940 for aircrew, and later in 1943 for all ranks and trades. That said, by the end of the war colour variations existed even with War Service Dress. At lower left is a photo of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham and AVM Harry Broadhurst of 2nd Tactical Air Force in Holland in early 1945. The difference in their uniform colours is quite apparent, also as compared with the other RAF officers walking behind them.

The problems in obtaining original 1940s-period service dress (SD) or battledress uniforms are three-fold: condition (items are often moth-eaten), size (1940s-era men tended to be slimmer-built than modern day re-enactors) and price (blame it on ebay!). Post-war RAF uniforms are plentiful, relatively inexpensive and sizing is more suited to the modern shape, but there are colour and styling issues here. Rather than go into detail about this I thoroughly recommend reading Graham Corner's excellent article, A Beginner's Guide to RAF Uniform (see link on this website's home page), where he covers these points.

The other route to take is that of modern reproductions of original period uniforms. There are several specialist manufacturers and retailers, including Warhorse and Reproductions of History and What Price Glory, who carry a variety of reproduction RAF clothing.

There is another UK supplier, The History Bunker, that advertises a tailor-made RAF officer's SD uniform package, complete with SD cap, at a fairly reasonable price. However, I must issue a caution about this. From personal experience I can tell you that, although these uniforms are very well-made, they are really an upmarket fancy-dress costume rather than an authentic re-enactor's uniform. The colour and material are not quite right, and some of the styling details are just plain wrong. The waist-belt is held in place by belt hooks rather than being sewn to the back of the tunic, and the buttons supplied are just plain brass rather than RAF King's Crown pattern. The pilot's wings are of poor quality and not at all authentic. The one acceptable item is their SD cap which is really well-made and complete with a nice bullion King's Crown cap-badge, although its peak is incorrect (see below for an explanation). It's also unfortunately unlikely that the colour would match an SD uniform from another supplier. This is all a great shame because the suppliers are really nice people to deal with, and they gave me a refund without question. If they addressed the problems that I have described, this uniform package would definitely be worth considering.

More recently, Soldier Of Fortune have begun stocking a whole range of uniform packages, including one for an RAF officer which includes the SD tunic and trousers. The uniform is of a reasonably authentic shade of blue-grey barathea and the styling is quite accurate. The tunic has the correct 'bellows' lower pockets, a sewn-on waist belt, and RAF King's Crown pattern brass buttons secured with split-rings. The trousers are high-waisted and have button flies. Thankfully the pilot's wings are of a nice authentic pattern. However, on the particular uniform that I purchased, there were a few problems. The waist belt had been sewn-on wrongly so that its brass buckle was badly off-centre, the belt was much too long and its buckle holes were literally six inches out from where they should have been! Curiously, the tunic was completely unlined. The trousers had a pair of very strange short straps with buttons sewn to the waistband at the back, apparently for attaching braces, and the front braces buttons were way too far apart. In short, the uniform showed all the classic signs of having been manufactured in India or Pakistan. Despite all the above comments, this is quite a good replica uniform and at a very reasonable price. The faults I have described are all quite easily rectified by a competent seamstress or tailor. In the absence of anything better, I can happily recommend this uniform package. I strongly suggest that the optional matching SD cap (see below) be added to your order.

 

  Service Cap  
 

 


The officer's SD cap really did not change much over time, except for the same variations of colour mentioned above, and that earlier examples from the WW2 era had a somewhat squarer peak shape (sometimes called a 'shovel-bill' or 'duck bill'). It's worth noting that the caps of officers below the rank of Group Captain had cloth-covered peaks (see left), whereas Group Captains and above wore caps with patent leather peaks that were decorated with gold braid.

The only supplier of which I am currently aware that stocks the 'shovel-bill'-style of SD cap is Soldier Of Fortune. It's a reasonably well-made item of the correct shade of blue-grey barathea and comes complete with a nice bullion King's Crown cap-badge. What Price Glory also stock an RAF officer's SD cap but it's impossible to tell from the photo on their website whether it has the right shape of peak. What is plainly evident from the photo is that this cap suffers from the same problem I have encountered with other WPG caps, that the stiffened band around the circumference of the hat is too tall which results in the cap taking on an exaggerated appearance. Personally, unless and until I find a better alternative, I recommend the service cap from Soldier of Fortune. The colour and material are also a perfect match with their own RAF officer's SD uniform (see above).

The popular alternative to the SD cap was the side-cap. Soldier Of Fortune stock a well-made example in the correct shade of blue-grey barrathea nicely lined with velvet.
 

  Shirt

 

 


The officer's shirt was a pale blue button-fronted, collar-attached style without breast pockets or epaulettes. The shirt material is known as 'fil--fil',  or 'end-on-end', which means that the fabric is woven with threads of two different colours, in this case blue and white, giving it a distinctive irregular effect (see left). Original examples are almost impossible to find, even on ebay. This colour and type of fabric was commonly used for the old-style police and fire brigade shirts during the Sixties and Seventies, and this is a potential source for obtaining the correct pattern. Alternatively, there are a number of menswear manufacturers that continue to produce shirts in this colour and type for the civilian market. One such firm is Joseph Turner of Thirsk, Yorkshire, who offer a superbly-made pure cotton shirt of  exactly the right colour and fabric at a very reasonable price. I can thoroughly recommend them. Another shirt brand I can recommend is Ben Green which is easy to find on Amazon. Their version is not as good as the Joseph Turner but it's only half the price - however, you get what you pay for, as the saying goes.
 

  Tie  
 


The officer's tie was a plain black woollen pattern. As with the shirt, original examples are extremely few and far between (in fact, I've never seen one). However, Amazon abounds with perfectly acceptable modern alternatives at sensible prices. Please do get a proper woollen tie and not one of the shiny modern ones of some man-made fibre or other - apart from the fact that they look awful, they also tend to loosen their knot very quickly.


 

  Braces  
 


The standard braces issued to all British servicemen during WW2 were an off-white colour and were made entirely from cotton with leather button attachments, not elasticated in any way. I can assure you that these are extremely uncomfortable to wear! Because these braces have absolutely no give, they not only make the shoulders ache after wearing them for a short while but also feel as though they are going to pull your trouser buttons off whenever you bend or move! Luckily, Soldier Of Fortune have come up with the perfect solution with their White Elastic Braces. These have the exact appearance of the authentic WW2 issue but with the give of modern elastic braces.

 

  Shoes  
 


RAF officer's shoes were a plain black Oxford pattern with toe-cap. A good source for these are the various online military surplus outlets that often advertise service shoes. Unfortunately though, they never seem to stock my particular size so I have had to look elsewhere. One of the best alternative sources I have found is Samuel Windsor who stock a model BV65 which is very close to the original officer's pattern and at a reasonable price. Socks can be of any suitable plain black or dark blue pattern.

 

  Insignia  
 
 






The most obvious choice of insignia for the would-be RAF re-enactor is pilot's wings. There are a couple of things to bear in mind with these. Availability of pilot's wings on ebay and other specialised military badge websites is generally very good. Be aware that original WW2-issue wings will command a very high price and, due to condition, may only be suitable for display purposes rather than being worn on a re-enactor's uniform. However, there are some excellent reproductions which are almost indistinguishable from the real thing and which are available at very reasonable prices. The reproductions generally come either padded or unpadded. The padded variety are best as they more accurately replicate the original wings. Also remember that the wings must have the King's Crown to be authentic. I only have personal experience of one particular dealer, Badge Collectors Corner, but their RAF pilot's wings are quite acceptable.

The RAF had very few lapel branch insignias but the commonest seen during WW2 were the 'A' of the RAF Auxiliary Air Force' and the VR' of the RAF Volunteer Reserve. The Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) was formed in 1924 in an effort to prevent the decline of the fledgling RAF which was immediately reduced from 295,000 to 29,000 personnel after the Great War. The AAF was created on a local county basis as a volunteer Home Defence force that would be available to supplement the RAF in time of national crisis. The age limit for officer recruitment was 32 - 50. By September 1939 there were 20 AAF squadrons in existence. The Volunteer Reserve (VR) was founded in 1936 to supplement and be more integrated with the regular RAF. AAF officers serving as part of the RAF during WW2 tended to be somewhat older than their RAFVR counterparts. The 'A' Auxiliary Air Force lapel badges are available from E.C.Snaith. The 'VR' Volunteer Reserve lapel badges are a bit harder to source but originals and reproductions do turn up on ebay from time to time. Do not be tempted to buy the more common 'VR over T' insignia as these were only worn post-war by RAFVR officers employed as instructors to the Air Training Corps, the 'T' standing for 'Training'.

 

  Medal Ribbons  
 


During WW2 RAF personnel, particularly aircrew, were encouraged to wear medal ribbons as soon as they qualified for the awards. These ribbons were all hand-stitched in place on uniform tunics. In the case of multiple ribbons, these were assembled on to a bar which in turn was sewn on to the tunic. Luckily there is at least one UK medal specialist, Hills Military Medals, which is able to assemble ribbons onto sew-on bars. This looks a bit more authentic than the US clutch-back ribbon bars.

 

  Rank Braid  
 

 

 

 

 



 


Working on the general principle that age equals rank and seniority, it's likely that your acquired SD uniform will need its rank braid upgrading. Most uniform packages I have seen come with Pilot Officer's or Flight Lieutenant's rank braid as standard, which you might want to upgrade to Squadron Leader or higher. However, be aware that modern RAF rank braid differs markedly from that used in WW2. Modern braid is composite, different braids being used for every separate officer rank. During the WW2 period, ranks were indicated by combinations of just two ribbons, " wide and " wide (see image at left). For instance, a Flight Lieutenant's rank was indicated by two " rings of braid, and that of a Squadron Leader by two " rings separated by a " ring. It's important to note that there was approximately a " gap of sleeve material visible between each ring of braid. For those attaching their own rank braid, measure 3" inches up from the edge of the cuff and this point will be the centre of the rank braid group. For a Pilot Officer or Flying Officer this takes the measurement to the centre of the single ring of braid. For a Flight Lieutenant the measurement goes to the centre of the " gap between the two rings of braid. For a Squadron Leader the measurement goes to the centre of the middle " ring of braid.

There are a number of online sources for RAF rank braid, including ebay, but one excellent retailer is Monty's Locker which specialises in authentic reproduction British Forces badges and insignia of the WW2 period

 

  Accessories  
 

 

 





During the early war years it was compulsory for RAF ground personnel, including officers, to carry their respirator (gas mask) and steel helmet with them at all times whilst on duty. So, certainly if re-enacting the Battle of Britain period, a respirator and helmet are essential accessories when wearing service dress. Genuine WW2 Mk.5 service respirators are relatively easy to find on ebay at reasonable prices. Alternatively, just buy a respirator haversack (Soldier Of Fortune stock both new-old-stock originals as well as new replicas) and fill it with something suitable, such as bubble-wrap, to pad it out (but beware of inquisitive members of the public asking to see your gas mask!).

RAF blue-grey steel helmets are not quite so easy to find (I had to source mine from a dealer in Holland!) but standard Army-issue green helmets are fairly common and much cheaper. Soldier Of Fortune stock reconditioned Army helmets with new liners and chinstraps at a not-unreasonable price - simply discard the camouflage net and re-spray the helmet shell in RAF blue-grey. Alternatively, acquire a cheap helmet shell and recondition and re-spray it as per Graham Corner's excellent DIY article, RAF Steel Helmet Restoration, available on this website's homepage.

The steel helmet was carried on the outside of the respirator haversack, held in place by the helmet's chinstrap. The combination was carried on the left hip, with the haversack strap either across the chest on the right shoulder or casually slung over the left shoulder.

The devil is in the detail, as they say! Why not add this detail, in the form of replica ID cards and other ephemera, to your carefully recreated period ensemble? Soldier Of Fortune carry a small range of such paraphernalia.