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The FlyerBritish Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939–1945$

Martin Francis

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780199277483

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199277483.001.0001

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(p.201) Conclusion
The Flyer

Martin Francis

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents some concluding thoughts from the author. It argues that the flyer continues to be held in high esteem because his courage and sacrifice coincided with the last hurrah of the romance of flight. However, while he had attained rarefied status through his ability to ride above the clouds, in a world still inaccessible and unfamiliar to his contemporaries, the flyer was also grounded in the sensibilities, values, and social fabric of the society from which he came, albeit one that was being violently refashioned by the requirements of wartime mobilisation.

Keywords:   sacrifice, romance, social fabric, wartime mobilisation

If this author's recent visit to a provincial branch of a popular British bookstore chain is a reliable indicator, the men of the wartime RAF seem no less ubiquitous in 2007 than they did when Lord David Cecil went in search of them sixty-six years ago. A perusal of the military-history section produced a host of titles dedicated to the exploits and aircraft of the wartime flyboys. Shelved under biography was Geoffrey Wellum's best-selling memoir of his career as a Spitfire pilot in 1940, while the fiction section included not merely a reprint of H. E. Bates's Flying Officer X short stories, but three contemporary novels featuring wartime fighter pilots.1 From the shelves dedicated to romance novels it was possible to retrieve two recently published potboilers, which portrayed on their covers a boyish flyer and a misty-eyed WAAF.2 Among the bookstore's stock of DVDs one could find copies of Dark Blue World, a feature film about Czech flyers in the Battle of Britain, and Piece of Cake, a television drama serial about a fictional Spitfire squadron stationed in France in the first nine months of the war.3 Judging from the range of genres represented in this single outlet, the allure of the fighter boys and bomber boys continues to capture the imagination of a broad swathe of the British public.

At times it is difficult not to feel a little wary towards this ongoing enchantment with the men in air-force blue. It might seem tainted by an unedifying national parochialism, a failure to recognize the more substantial military victories achieved, or the extent of sacrifices borne, by other peoples and nations whose lives were overshadowed by the terror of Nazism. The cult of the flyer may appear to be yet another example of the nation's neurotic, almost pathological, obsession with the Second World War, in which, unable to face (let alone mourn) its post-war decline, Britain, even at the opening of the twenty-first century, has taken refuge in comforting myths of a wartime ‘finest hour’.4 It is also possible that a celebration of the wartime flyboys betrays a desire to return to an ideal of masculinity defined in terms of the stoic and unreflective warrior, as opposed to more contemporary configurations of male identity, most notably the ‘new man’, enfeebled by his capitulation to the forces of second-wave feminism.

However, a sustained examination of the lives of the men of the RAF, and of the representations of them which existed in wartime, suggests that such reactionary fantasies are ultimately untenable. Those who have failed to come to terms with post-war multiculturalism will have to account for the contribution of (p.202) non-white flying personnel to the war in the air. Acknowledging the presence of Irish or Indian flyers in the skies over Kent in the summer of 1940 should make it impossible for the Battle of Britain to any longer serve the mono-racial fantasies of little-Englanders. Likewise, those who look to the war years as a model of robust and undomesticated masculinity will need to disregard ‘Sailor’ Malan's heartfelt declarations of uxoriousness, or overlook the fact that Guy Gibson, on the eve of the legendary Dambusters raid, had been eager to snatch a few hours of comfort with a woman with whom he had fallen in love, but who, frustrated at his unavailability, had married someone else. The fact that the flyer may, on occasion in the post-war period, have been pressed into the service of those wedded to the politics of cultural intransigence and national consolation has been unfortunate, not least because it belies the airman's complicated relationship to the social, national, racial, and gender identities of his own age. Such complexity was inevitable, given that the flyer belonged to a military culture that was simultaneously distinct from, and yet an intrinsic part of, a wider society that recent historical research has revealed to be markedly heterogeneous.

A more congenial explanation for the continued esteem in which the flyer has been held is that his courage and sacrifice coincided with the last hurrah of the romance of flight. The arrival, at the close of the Second World War, of the jet engine, ballistic missile, and atomic bomb marked the closing of the heroic era of military aviation. The men who flew in the Second World War were the products of an inter-war culture that had passionately celebrated the aeroplane as the purest product of the machine age. In the early 1940s flying still possessed a magical and aesthetic quality which it was unable to sustain in a post-war era characterized by the depersonalization of military aviation and the demotion of civil aviation to a banal and routine means of mass transportation. The flyer was one of the last representatives of that passion for wings that had captivated the western imagination in the opening decades of the twentieth century. This, combined with his bravery in combat, ensured a star appeal which not merely made him a popular subject in the fictional narratives of novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers, but guaranteed a warm welcome for the real-life flyer in places as diverse as the Hollywood studio and the floor of the House of Commons.

However, while he had attained rarefied status through his ability to ride above the clouds, in a world still inaccessible and unfamiliar to his contemporaries, the flyer was also grounded in the sensibilities, values, and social fabric of the society from which he came, albeit one that was being violently refashioned by the requirements of wartime mobilization. The flyer reflected the conflict between increased egalitarianism and continued middle-class hegemony which characterized Britain throughout the 1940s. He disclosed the racial and national tensions which arose from Britain's tortured efforts to replace traditional imperial authority by a less hierarchical Commonwealth. The flyer who fell in love with the cookhouse WAAF exemplified a wartime culture which presented heterosexual (p.203) romance as one of the rewards of citizenship available to men and women who had borne the obligations and sacrifices of national duty. For all his genuine attachment to the fraternity of flyers, the wartime airman also displayed that lionization of domesticity which had become the touchstone of masculinity in Britain by the mid-twentieth century. Their understandings of fear and courage were closely attuned to the emotional codes and standards of a wider society which was increasingly beholden to the authority of psychoanalytical expertise. Those flyers who were disfigured or dismembered in combat found that public responses were different only in degree from those faced by disabled civilians. More generally, the airman encapsulated Britain's fraught encounter with modernity, his ambivalent persona symbolizing a society that was capable of developing the extraordinarily advanced technology which made the air war possible, but which remained fixated on the values of a fantasized pre-industrial past.5 For all his particular allure, uncommon courage, and singular achievements, the flyer's story is therefore also very much Britain's story, in the century of total war. (p.204)


(1.) Wellum, First Light; H. E. Bates, How Sleep the Brave: The Complete Stories of Flying Officer X (London: Vintage, 2002); Andrew Greig, That Summer (London: Faber, 2000); James Holland, The Burning Blue (London: Arrow Books, 2004); Frank Barnard, Blue Man Falling (London: Headline, 2006).

(2.) Margaret Dickson, Wish Me Luck (London: Pan Books, 2007); Lilian Harry, A Song at Twilight (London: Orion Books, 2006).

(3.) Dark Blue World, dir. Jan Sverák (2001); Piece of Cake, dir. Ian Toynton (1988), made for London Weekend Television.

(4.) For a powerful polemic on this theme, see Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 87–95, 116.

(5.) David Edgerton, Englandand the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991).