One of the questions which interested me when I originally embarked on my PhD was the extent of the relationship between British aviation and the far right. As it turned out, my research took me elsewhere. But that doesn't mean I can't blog about it.
In the chart above I've attempted to show some of the links between extreme right-wing groups such as the British Union of Fascists and prominent figures and groups involved with aviation in the 1930s. From the latter group I've excluded purely political groups (such as the BUF's flying club) and anyone whose contribution to flying consisted mostly of their war service. That means no Sir Oswald Mosley, in particular, who was in the RFC for a time. While he did draw upon the image of the airman from time to time he wasn't actively involved in the aviation community as far as I can tell. Having said that, those who did serve (or, in one case, lead) in the air services (RFC, RNAS, RAF) have been marked in blue. The links indicate some concrete degree of support, such as membership, financial contributions or public approval, as opposed to mere sympathy.
The red boxes are all organisations involved in aviation advocacy, and were theoretically non-political. Two of them still exist: the Air League of the British Empire (now simply the Air League) and the Royal Aeronautical Society. (The current magazine called Aeroplane is not related to the one I'm talking about. The National League of Airmen was a pressure group which existed for only a few years from 1935.) I am certainly not suggesting that they are in way fascist now! I'll also note that I'm depending largely on the research of others. When it comes to the involvement of mainstream figures in right-wing politics, the evidence is often (and unsurprisingly) rather murky, so false designations are possible. Caveat lector.
The right-wing groups (the grey boxes) were all reasonably respectable (as distinct from shadowy cabals). That doesn't mean they weren't dodgy. The January Club was a front for the BUF; it often served as a half-way house for those who felt unable to come right out and join the Fascists, such as certain Conservative MPs. (On the other hand, Liddell Hart was a member too, and he's generally considered to have been a liberal.) The Anglo-German Fellowship was founded in 1935 to promote friendship between the two countries; many members were businessmen keen to trade with Germany, but it also had a pro-Nazi flavour. The Link was similar in purpose, but less interested in camouflaging its anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism. Founded in 1937 by C. E. Carroll, formerly of the RFC, it was led by Admiral Sir Barry Domvile KBE CB CMG, a convinced and active fascist (he was also on the council of the Anglo-German Fellowship) who was a 18B internee between 1940 and 1943. Finally, the Right Book Club was a much less successful mirror image of Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club. Arthur Bryant was one of the founders, and the selection committee was stuffed with fascist fellow travellers.1
Now, on to the people. One of the key figures, it emerges, is Lord Sempill (before 1934, the Master of Sempill). He was a pioneer aviator (among other feats, he flew from London to Berlin in a very light aircraft). At different times, chairman and president of the RAeS. He was on the council of the Air League and the Link; in 1939 he joined the British People's Party which had been founded by John Beckett, a former BUF stalwart. Sempill was friends with von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to Britain in 1936-8, as well as Geoffrey Dorman, who was an editor for The Aeroplane and the BUF newspaper Action (he also wrote the aviation column for the latter, under the pseudonym 'Blackbird'). Dorman's boss at The Aeroplane was, of course, C. G. Grey, who was not averse to airing his anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevist and pro-fascist opinions in his editorials. He was not a joiner, however; the closest he came to signing up for a fascist group was when he became a regular attendee of Domvile's clandestine meetings of non-Mosleyite, pro-peace fascists after the coming of war in 1939. Perhaps significantly, this was just after Grey's retirement from the editorship of The Aeroplane. Whether he jumped or was pushed, I'm not sure.
Now, Sempill was one of the organisers of the 1933 Everest flight, which needs to be understood not just as an impressive feat of flying, but also as an assertion of Britain's continuing right to rule India. The leader of the expedition was Lord Clydesdale, who himself later joined the Anglo-German Fellowship (and to whom Hess fled in 1941). Its main backer was Lady Houston, the wealthy owner of the Saturday Review as well as the Patriot, a small die hard publication which supported the first British fascists, i.e. the British Fascists, and the Boswell Press, which published many far right authors, such as Domvile and the notorious anti-Semite Nesta Webster. Houston didn't support the BUF, although she did consider writing a big fat cheque for Mosley (but decided against it after being insulted in the pages of Action). But she did help Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, pay for the Bristol Type 143, the prototype for the Blenheim light bomber which, as it happened, was called 'Britain First', the BUF slogan. As is well-known, Rothermere enthusiastically backed the BUF with both money and press coverage (until the violence at the Olympia meeting put him off). He also founded the NLA, a group to which many airminded people pledged their support. One of these was Admiral Sir Murray Sueter, Conservative MP, wartime head of the RNAS and antagonist of Neon. Sueter was right-wing, even for a Tory, and was a member of the Anglo-German Fellowship and a guest of Ribbentrop at the 1936 Nuremberg Rally.
You see how this works by now. Let's start again, this time with Norman Thwaites, a wartime Army intelligence officer. He was on the book selection committee of the Right Book Club, part of the pro-fascist English Review circle and a member of the January Club. And he was also secretary of the Air League and at one time editor of its semi-popular journal, Air. Air Commodore J. A. Chamier, the long-serving secretary-general of the Air League (still honoured today for his role in founding the Air Cadets) was in the January Club too. According to Labour Party research in 1934, Chamier was a generous financial supporter of the BUF. According to the same source, A. V. Roe (founder of Avro) and Vincent Vickers (former governor of the Bank of England, twenty-two years a member of the Vickers-Armstrong board) were too.
Nearly finished, I promise! Let's just clean up. Lord Mottistone, having swung to the right from his earlier liberalism (he is perhaps better known as Colonel J. E. B. Seely, Secretary of State for War in Asquith's government and Under-Secretary of State for Air in Lloyd George's) was chairman of the Air League, a member of the Anglo-German Fellowship and another friend of Ribbentrop's. Lord Londonderry, Secretary of State for Air in Baldwin's last government was a member of the January Club and on speaking terms with Hitler. J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon was a pioneer aviator -- and president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1935-6 -- and a longtime friend of Mosley. He nearly defected from the Conservatives to join Mosley's New Party in 1931. Later, being a sitting Conservative MP didn't stop him from speaking up for the BUF and Mosley, even in the House of Commons. (That in turn didn't prevent him from succeeding Beaverbrook as Minister for Aircraft Production during the war.) Last of all, there's Sir Malcolm Campbell, speedster, airman, probable BUF-pennant carrier and January Club member.
What does all this mean? Is (or was) aviation inherently fascist? I don't think so. There were left-wing aviators, such as L. E. O. Charlton, and left-wing supporters of aviation, such as Lord Thomson. But there's no way I could come up with a similarly complex chart which traced the interconnections between aviation advocates and communist front groups. The left's response to aviation was, in general, not to embrace it but to protect against it. So instead such a chart would look at pro-disarmament and pro-civil defence groups. A liberal chart might instead include pro-collective security and pro-international air force groups. They probably wouldn't be as interesting, though.
Sources: Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-9 (London: Oxford Paperbacks, 1983); G. C. Webber, The Ideology of the British Right 1918-1939 (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986); David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1991); Colin Cook, 'A fascist memory: Oswald Mosley and the myth of the airman', European Review of History 4 (1997): 147-61; Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front (London and New York: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1998); Martin Pugh, `Hurrah for the Blackshirts!' Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005); Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (London: Viking, 2006); Patrick Glenn Zander, 'Right Modern: Technology, Nation, and Britain's Extreme Right in the Interwar Period (1919-1940)', PhD thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology (2009).
I own a book published by the Right Book Club, Count von Pückler's How Strong Is Britain? (1939). When I bought it, it still had a brochure and membership form for the club. I will never forgive myself for losing the brochure on a train! ↩
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.