The Imperial Gift was the donation of aircraft from post-First World War British surplus stocks to the dominions; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. On 29 May 1919, the British government decided to give 100 aircraft to each of these countries plus replacements for aircraft donated by these countries to Britain during the war. These aircraft formed the core of newly established air forces in the respective countries.
Following the First World War, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had large stocks of surplus aircraft, estimated at over 20,000 aircraft, many still in production at the end of the war. Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, argued for the establishment of air forces in the Dominions. Trenchard further argued that a coordinated uniform approach to organising and equipping these air forces was essential to facilitate the air component of the defence of the empire. This proposal was taken up by the Secretary of State for Air, John Edward Bernard Seely, who described it as being "an opportunity of giving assistance to Dominions which will be valued by them and which should be of great use in the general interest of the defence of the Empire by Air." British Cabinet approved the proposal on 29 May 1919, though it chose to widen it by offering aircraft to the colonial governments as well as those of the dominions. These governments were notified of the offer on 4 June.
While 22,812 Canadian military personnel had served in the British air forces (RFC, RNAS and RAF), the Canadian air services did not operate as an independent military force until nearly the end of the war. With two squadrons of the Canadian Air Force established in Britain during August 1918, and the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service, established for home defence in September 1918, Canadian units had only reached operational status by the end of hostilities, but never saw combat.
In 1919, when the Canadian Air board director of Flying Operations, LCol Robert Leckie studied the types that were being offered, he specified aircraft that would be suitable for civil operations as the peacetime force had undertaken a number of roles that involved surveillance, fire-fighting and mapping. Although combat aircraft were offered from the large stock of surplus aircraft, Canada's share of the Imperial Gift mainly consisted of the following 114 "multi-purpose" aircraft, although a small number of fighters were also included in the mix:
- 62 x Avro 504
- 23 x Airco/de Havilland DH-4 and Airco/de Havilland DH-9A
- 12 x Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a
- 8 x Felixstowe F.3 (flying boat)
- 2 x Curtiss H.16 (flying boat)
- 2 x Bristol F.2b Fighter
- 2 x Sopwith Snipe
- 1 x Fairey IIIc (seaplane)
The final deliveries included some additional aircraft, including two Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2C, and single examples of Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2D and Vickers F.B.9, along with some replacement airframes, bringing the final total to 120 aircraft.
In addition to the aircraft, a large number of spares including engines, and ancillary equipment such as cameras and seaplane beaching gear, along with 300 support vehicles consisting of motor transports, trailers and motorcycles, were part of the allotment.
The Imperial Gift aircraft formed the basis of the postwar Canadian Air Force (CAF) and later reconstituted Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1920, the Canadian Air Board sponsored a project to conduct the first Trans-Canada flight to determine the feasibility of such flights for future air mail and passenger service. Using the CAF's DH-9As to start the flight, the leg from Rivière du Loup to Winnipeg was flown by LCol Leckie and Major Hobbs in a Felixstowe F.3. All aircraft were part of the Imperial Gift. Although not considered suitable for the harsh Canadian weather, the Imperial Gift aircraft soldiered on into the 1930s, gradually being replaced by newer types. The last aircraft in service was an Avro 504K that was retired in 1934.
The Imperial Gift to Australia originally consisted of 100 aircraft, spare engines, tools, motor transport and 13 transportable hangars shipped in over 19,000 packing cases. An additional 28 aircraft were provided at the same time to replace aircraft donated by the people of Australia to Great Britain during the First World War. Australia's aircraft allotment consisted of:
- 35 x Avro 504K
- 35 x Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a
- 30 x Airco/de Haviland DH-9a
- 28 x Airco/de Haviland DH-9
On 30 June 1919, the Australian Army Service Corps recommended the creation of a temporary "Australian Air Corps" (AAC) formed into two wings (one wing to meet the needs of the Navy and the other for the Army). The Imperial Gift enabled the formation of the Royal Australian Air Force in 1921. An Air Board, answering to the Minister for Defence, would administer the new service.
Imperial Gift aircraft were shipped to Australia in 1919, assembled upon delivery in 1920 and served for up to 10 years. The Airco/de Haviland DH-9a (A1-17/F2779) was the longest serving Imperial Gift aircraft, written off on 4 February 1930. The only original surviving Imperial Gift aircraft in Australia are an Avro 504K (A3-4), on display at the Treloar Technology Centre (Canberra) and a S.E.5a (A2-4), in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, exhibited in the ANZAC Hall of the main Australian War Memorial displays.
At first New Zealand refused the offer, but later accepted 34 aircraft and 42 aero engines:
- 21 x Avro 504K
- 9 x Airco/de Haviland DH-9
- 2 x Bristol F.2b Fighter
- 2 x Airco/de Haviland DH-4
The F.2bs, DH-4s and one Avro 504K were retained for government use, the balance were issued on loan as transports and training aircraft to civil aviation companies, 1920–1924. By the mid-1920s, all of the private firms involved had collapsed, and surviving aircraft were taken back by the government to constitute the New Zealand Permanent Air Force.
All of the Imperial Gift aircraft in military service either crashed, or were later scrapped or burnt. No significant remnants of these aircraft exist today.
- 48 x Airco/de Haviland DH-9
- 30 x Avro 504
- 22 x Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a
- 10 x Airco/de Haviland DH-4
The 10 DH-4s were war loss replacements sponsored by the Over-Seas Club of London. An additional DH-9 was donated by the city of Birmingham. Two Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s left over from Allister Miller's wartime recruitment campaign and handed over to the Union Defence Force in October 1919, completed the SAAF's initial fleet. There is, however, no record of the B.E.2s ever being used after 1919.
The ancillary equipment and materials included in the donation was: 20 steel hangars, 30 portable wood and canvas Bessonneau hangars, radio and photographic equipment, complete engine and airframe workshops with tools, trucks, tenders, trailers, 50,000 gallons of engine oils and 20,000 gallons of paints, varnishes and dope. The total value of the donation was estimated at £2,000,000.
An offer of four Type Zero airships was turned down due to doubts about their usability above 6,000 feet and the expense of replacing the envelopes, which were estimated to have a useful life of only three months due to rapid deterioration in the harsh South African sunshine.
The first batch of aircraft arrived in South Africa in September 1919 at the Artillery Depot at Roberts Heights, Pretoria where an Air Depot was established on 1 January 1920. The combined facility was then known as the Aircraft and Artillery Depot.
A 23.5 morgen (20.1 hectare) piece of land two miles east of Roberts heights was acquired for an aerodrome and named Zwartkop after a nearby hill. No. 1 Flight was formed at Zwartkop Air Force Station on 26 April 1920, equipped with DH-9s. After the formation of a second flight, 1 Squadron was established in early 1922.
India's share of the Imperial Gift was:
- 60 x Airco/de Haviland DH-9
- 40 x Avro 504
Unlike other recipients, the Imperial Gift to India did not contribute to the establishment of a national air force. The RAF in India received 20 Avro 504 airframes for military use. The rest went to various colonial government departments and entities, or were sold to commercial and private operators.
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