When I first picked up Martin Francis' The Flyer, with its cover portrait of a handsome young airman by Eric Henri Kennington, I expected yet another collection of tales of derring-do by British aviators in their Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters and Stirlings. It was with some surprise, and initial disappointment, that I found not aeronautical heroics but "an exercise in cultural and social history, using the lives and representations of Royal Air Force personnel to illuminate broader issues of gender, social class, national and racial identities, emotional life, and the creation of national myth in twentieth-century Britain."
It is not that the work is devoid of stories or facts about the air war. Indeed, Francis points out that, tragically, 70,000 RAF airmen died in the Second World War and 50 per cent of the Bomber Command personnel lost their lives. But the stories and facts about the air war over Britain and Europe are not presented here to relate heroism, sacrifices and loss. Instead, Francis uses the facts of the air war as the genesis of his inquiries into various sociological aspects of the impact of the RAF in general and individual airmen in particular (and a few members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force) on British society. His scholarship is impressive: not only has he consulted the literature, but he also brings in cinematic portrayals of the RAF as foundations for his observations about the RAF's influence on its own personnel and British society.
Francis takes an expansive approach. In eight chapters, he discusses the allure of the pilot, the aviator's perceived masculinity, the flyer's love life, home life, fear, injuries and disfigurements, destruction and death inflicted in pursuit of his duties, and returning home. Throughout these delineations, the author effectively raises the complex, competing and often contradictory realities of the Second World War aviator. What type of man can bomb a German city in one part of the day and then be home at dinner with his wife and children that night? Were these modern machine drivers tied to the chivalrous past of knights in armour or were they a new kind of technical warrior who killed remotely, literally aloof, with the push of a button? Francis answers by telling us that masculinity in the RAF was characterised by what he calls "elasticity", which allowed it to encompass a number of seeming opposites - "the bellicose and the pacific, the philistine and the poetic, the traditional and the technocratic - which", he states, "ensured the broad societal appeal of the RAF". Maybe so.
The real question I had in reading this thoughtful, thorough work was "Why this book?" Perhaps because I was already familiar with the multifaceted personal aspects of combat flying in the Second World War through prior readings, or perhaps because of my personal familiarity with the myriad emotions of military flying, I found few fresh insights in the book's analyses. No doubt, Francis has done an admirable job in what he set out to do, but what is the significance of his conclusion that, "For all of his particular allure, uncommon courage and singular achievements, the flyer's story is also very much Britain's story"?
The significance is that Francis has shown us that the warriors of the air ultimately are us, and we are them. He has not only added to the study of society in Britain through the prism of the RAF, but has also done more: his revelations have provided us with the means to see our own paradoxes and contradictions, and enabled us to gain enlightenment and the discovery of our own "elasticity" - if we are bold enough.
The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945
By Martin Francis. Oxford University Press. 288pp, £30.00. ISBN 97801997483. Published November 2008