Since the first introduction of the roundel on Royal Flying Corps aircraft it has undergone various changes and modifications depending on the time period and type of aircraft being used and what its role was. Whilst appearing in various guises during the First and Second World War after this period there have been less modifications to the roundel. This article tells the history of the RAF roundel from 1914 to present day.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 a number of incidents involving friendly fire occurred so the need for pilots and ground forces to be able to identify friendly or enemy aircraft quickly and more efficiently become necessary. The first solution implemented by the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the Royal Air Force, was to paint the Union Jack on the underside of the lower wing. Whilst at low level this was adequate in enabling identification of the aircraft by ground forces at higher altitude less of the flag was visible leading to misidentification.
The solution to this problem that the Royal Flying Corps chose was to copy a system used by the French Air Service which was a round circle consisting of a red outer ring then white with a blue circle in the middle. The RFC version of this saw the colours simply reversed and this was used as the base for the standard roundel on all their aircraft ever since.
Detailed below are the various roundels used by the Royal Flying Corps, later the Royal Air Force, since they were introduced during 1914.
World War 1
Union Jack (1914)
The first means of identifying Royal Flying Corps aircraft was using the Union Jack, however this was ceased due to misidentification at high altitude with the German Maltese Cross.
Royal Flying Corps (1914 - 18)
Copying the idea used by the French Air Service of a national cockade in the form of a roundel on aircraft but reversing the colours used by the French on their aircraft. These colours were officially introduced for RFC and RNAS aircraft on the 12th November 1914.
Royal Naval Air Service (1914 – 15)
Used by the RNAS on their aircraft but use of this roundel stopped when it was decided to use the same colours as the Royal Flying Corps.
Modified Royal Naval Air Service (1915)
A blue circle was added to the middle as a short term measure until the RFC roundel could be added to all aircraft.
Royal Flying Corps (1916 – 18)
Same colours as the RFC (1914 -18) roundel but using brighter versions.
Royal Flying Corps (1916 – 18) with White
After camouflage had been painted onto the aircraft around the outside of the roundel a white line was added.
Night Flying (1916 – 18)
As aircraft began to operate at night a white ring was added to help with identifying other aircraft in the dark, although in the end this roundel was hardly used.
Inter War Years
Night Bomber (1918 - 38)
As aircraft camouflage changed to help aircraft blend into their surroundings the white and blue night flying roundel used above was changed to remove the white and make blue the prevalent colour with a red circle in the middle.
Royal Air Force (1920 – 39)
The standard inter war years roundel which was the same as the one used by the Royal Flying Corps between 1916 – 18.
Upper-Wing (1937 – 45)
The same design as the night bomber (1918 – 38) roundel but appearing on top of the wings only.
World War 2
Early War Modified (1939 – 41)
The standard inter-war (1920 – 39) roundel with a yellow ring added to make identification of friendly aircraft easier.
Night Flying (1939 – 42)
Painted on both bombers that operated at night and night fighters on the fuselage.
Fuselage (1942 – 47)
Also appeared on the top of the wing, if it was a dark colour, of selected aircraft such as photo-reconnaissance Supermarine Spitfires.
Underwing (1942 – 47)
Used on aircraft which had light surfaces on the bottom of the wing.
South East Asia Command (1942)
The standard fuselage roundel but with the red inside removed, to avoid confusion with Japanese aircraft, but soon superseded by the next roundel.
South East Asia Command (1942 – 45)
With Japanese aircraft having red on their aircraft this two-toned blue roundel was introduced for planes being used in the Far East to make distinguishing between friendly and enemy aircraft easier.
Royal Australian Air Force (1942 - 45)
With a number of Royal Air Force aircraft involved in helping the RAAF defend Australia they also had the same roundel to aid in identification.
Royal Aircraft Establishment (1945)
This was originally selected to be the standard post war roundel but in 1947 the Vice Chief of the Air Staff rejected it.
Royal Air Force (1947 onwards)
The current standard RAF roundel.
V-Force (1955 – 64)
Used on the 3 aircraft that made up the RAF's V-Force the Vulcan, Victor and Valiant when they were painted in anti-flash white.
Low Visibility (1970s onwards)
Used since the 1970s for aircraft painted in traditional camouflage design.
Modern (1990 onwards)
With modern aircraft normally painted in a grey colour this low visibility roundel was introduced.
Similar to the Royal Flying Corps (1916 – 18) roundel with a white outline.
To be used by the Royal Air Force squadrons operating the F-35B Lightning II. This will differ more from previous roundels as it will be built into rather than painted onto the aircraft.