The far right and the air

The right and aviation

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).


  1. 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! 

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21 thoughts on “The far right and the air

  1. Erik Lund

    I could have sworn that Chamier was the air member of the BUFF’s “war cabinet” thingie along with Fuller. Which makes his prompt rehabilitation at the beginning of the war slightly suspicious.
    Certainly the Chamier who wrote articles in early issues of _Army Quarterly_ sounds a great deal more like someone who would be informing on the BUFF by 1939 than a party-line member. Which, even if this string of half-remembered factoids and inferences had anything going for it, hardly takes him out of the right wing camp.

  2. Could this be one case where the right’s generally greater interest in military affairs, planning and rhetoric has a concrete effect? Hardly anyone was arguing that air power was going to bring peace, except in that ‘death blow’ apocalyptic fashion that didn’t stop anyone from arming, and nobody, I don’t think, was arguing that air power was going to bring social change, particularly. So there’s less natural interest on the left, it seems to me.

  3. All very interesting, but a correction: the current magazine Aeroplane (for which I write) formerly Aeroplane Monthly, took the name and (originally) reused some of the now-historic material of The Aeroplane, but was not and is not a continuation of it. The Aeroplane was a weekly news comment magazine on current aviation, like Flight Global, which was formerly Flight. The modern Aeroplane is a monthly magazine on aviation history. The current magazine was founded in 1972 many years after the demise of the previous magazine, with a different purpose.

    There is one genuine connection though, which is that the current editor, Mick Oakey, often writes at C.G.Grey’s original desk, which he did not get when turning up at the office, but came to him by a more circuitous route!

    To add to Brett’s speculation, If I recall correctly, Grey was ‘pushed’ but I’ll try to check. There was a feature on C.G.Grey in the modern magazine a few years back.

    On topic, The Spectacle of Flight (Robert Whol, MUP) clearly outlines the way the Italian Regia Aeronautica was adopted and driven as the Fascist arm and favoured military child in 30s Fascist Italy. One could argue that aviation being new (add all those adjectives so beloved of fascists like ‘thrusting’ ) was easier to manipulate and more attractive to fascists everywhere than the generally less totalitarian or less right wing but (fusty) Conservative army and navy areas?

  4. Post author

    Erik:

    I’ve never read that Chamier was an actual member of the BUF. And I’d put his rehabilitation (or recall) down to his being head of the Air Defence Cadet Corps, which dated to 1938 (though he was pushing for it earlier). So I hope you can jog your memory!

    Jonathan:

    Yes, probably — I do argue in my thesis that conservatives favoured aggressive responses to the knock-out blow (especially responding in kind) whereas the left wanted to adapt or negotiate. But then again … there’s always the American exception, where people did freely speculate about quite far-reaching social transformation through aviation. It didn’t have much of an echo in Britain, but the ideas were there to draw upon if anyone wished. Some Marxists, like Tom Wintringham (who had been a fitter in the RFC) argued that workers had little to fear from aeroplanes because, after all, they were the ones who kept them airworthy. And there was the ‘brotherhood of the air’ type stuff, about aviation erasing international borders and so on, but again it’s very rare in Britain. Conversely, you can argue that fascists did very much want to bring about social change (if of a different kind to socialists), and airmen were represented as an ideal type of ‘fascist man’ (as JDK notes). So there’s something particular about the modernity of flight (the Futurists loved it for that reason) that made it attractive to fascists.

    JDK:

    Shows how much I know! Sorry about that. I admit I was fooled by the extracts from from the old Aeroplane and the similarity of the masthead. According to this it ended up being absorbed by Flight International in 1968.

    I do have the feeling that Grey was pushed but I couldn’t find anything to confirm that, so I left it open.

  5. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Aviation was regarded as new and upcoming and fascism itself was seen in a similar light. It is no coincidence that the new dynamic fascist parties and their supporters should be linked to the new dynamic field of aviation. We tend to forget that at the time fascism was seen as an inovatory solution to the problems the world faced.

  6. Post author

    It certainly makes sense that fascists would want to co-opt aviation, but then they wanted to co-opt lots of things. The question really is the converse: were aviators especially attracted to fascism? And if so, why? Youth, modernity, militarism, nationalism, power, all those thrusting things played a part.

  7. Nicholas Waller

    Wasn’t HG Wells a socialist of sorts who favoured the air, at least for a while, both in terms of real world utility in the Great War and as a forerunner of the scientific world state.

    “And now for the World of the Airmen and a new start for mankind” it says in the treatment for Things to Come. Doing a bit of cursory googling, I see one article from 2000 (http://www.jstor.org/pss/261059 , behind a pay wall, apart from the first page) that mentions that when the film came out, the BUF apparently wondered if Wells was a “secret fascist”.

    There’s a report in the New York Times from 24 June 1915 that has CG Grey commenting favourably on Wells’ call for a 10,000 strong air fleet to be produced in 12 months (though Grey reckons 10,000 would be smashed up in training so 20,000 are needed).

  8. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    I am not thinking in terms of co-opting but of natural bedfellows. Fascism and early aviation were really made for each other – if you’ve read Borghese ‘Sea Devils’ you’ll see the link between boldness in both areas.

  9. As I understand it, Aeroplane was bought out by IPC and merged with Flight (an existing IPC title); when they decided to launch a historical title they decided to resurrected the name as Aeroplane Monthly. So I suppose there is *some* institutional continuity, but content-wise it is rather different.

    Regarding Grey, the story I’ve heard from people at the RAeS is that he jumped before he could be pushed; I think the threat of 18B internment was involved, veiled or otherwise.

  10. democit

    Interesting. But the facists’interest in aviation was not very productive. Aviation was the shield of United Kingdom during the war, was not it?

  11. Some would say Lady Houston could not have better contributed to the German cause than by inflicting the Bristol Blenheim on the RAF.

  12. Might be worth noting that Moore Brabazon was involved in a minor scandal in September 1941 when it emerged that he’d told a private dinner that Britain should essentially withdraw from the war and let Germany and the USSR get on with it. Interesting the problems that Barbarossa posed to both the British Right and Left.

  13. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace …”

  14. Neil Datson

    For those with the time / opportunity / interest there’s a good BBC Radio 4 programme available on the website called ‘Dancing with the Devil’. It’s about the social links between the British aristocracy and Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

    Unfortunately, it’ll be taken down in less than 24 hours. (Sorry about the brief warning, but I’ve only just caught up with it.)

  15. Post author

    Nicholas:

    Yes, Wells did think of aviation leading to his ideal technocratic world state, though he dithered over whether the current world structure would need to be destroyed by airpower first or whether the threat of it would stimulate world federalism. And as always Wells is a bit of an outlier in terms of what everyone else was thinking.

    Incidentally, the author of the paper you link to, Philip Coupland, is working on a book on the links between British fascism, aviation and motoring. And the paper gave its title to the celebrated recent book by Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism.

    Christopher:

    Fair enough, but are you suggesting a psychological affinity or a political affinity? I go round in circles on this. I don’t think it’s simply that fascists and flyers were natural bedfellows. Most of the people in my chart were well past the first bloom of youth, past the time in life when the thrill of action (in the air, against socialists) could be a major motivation. They were instead mature men (mostly), with responsibilities, business interests, families, etc. And many of them weren’t even pilots. So I think it has to be ideology too. But then socialists had an interest in being associated with modernity too (socialism being the future and scientific and all), aviation could be used for agitprop as the Soviets showed. I think it goes back to Jonathan’s earlier comment that there was less affinity between the ends of socialism and the means of aviation.

    Jakob:

    According to the Time article I link in the post, Grey announced his resignation in mid-July 1939, which is a bit early to be worried about internment. I haven’t read those issues of the Aeroplane but the quote from Grey pretty much says he was pushed: ‘Only the directors of Temple Press Ltd. [his publishers], not even C. G. Grey, know why I’m resigning.’

    Alex:

    I think that’s a little unfair. The Blenheim was pretty impressive when it first flew in 1935, being faster than any fighters the RAF had in service. (Not faster than the Spitfire which also first flew that year, obviously.) By 1940 it was not so impressive, but as it evolved into the Beaufort and the Beaufighter it can’t be said it was a failure (like the Battle, for example).

  16. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Brett

    What I am thinking of is a psychological link between innovatory ‘technologies’. One thinks of aviation and the newness of it all but also fascism which seemed to be a new political solution to the problems of the 1930s. This is what made them natural bedfellows. There was also a dynamacism in both fields which was complementary. We think now of fascism as a backward looking philosophy but that wasn’t what it was perceived of at the time – it was new, it was exciting for a lot of people. Age though shouldn’t be considered a factor – with the cost of aviation at the time it was only the mature people who could really aford to induldge in it.

  17. Neil Datson

    Given what we know now, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the attitudes to Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism that were prevalent in the 1930s.

    Many intelligent people thought that the Great War and the Depression were evidence that liberal democracy and political pluralism had failed, and needed to be superseded. Wells’s attitude seems to me to sum up the dilemma of a thinking man who had no faith in the established political institutions. His idea seemed to be some sort of benevolent world government, in which a body of wise elders would order things happily ever after, while men and women got on with their lives in peace and harmony under them. Of course it was twaddle. As soon as you pronounce that you’re founding a eutopia, you have to deal with those wrong-headed individuals who don’t agree with you. So you repress them. In a manner of speaking, Hitler was aiming to establish a eutopia. The important difference is that his eutopia, unlike Wells’s, didn’t even pretend to promote everybody’s best interests.

    Well, that’s all rather a long ramble. I suppose what I’m getting to is that no, I don’t think there is any inherent connection between Fascism and the air, except in the sense that both seemed at the time to embrace modernity. The iconography of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism all have an element of power worship about them, combined with a conscious rejection of beauty for its own sake. The aircraft, like the steam locomotive, the gun or even the banner are well suited to power worshipping cults.

    Coming at it from the other way around, why were so many British air enthusiasts Fascist sympathizers? Hell, I don’t know. Just possibly the kind of person who was attracted to aircraft in the 1930s was also the kind of person who was attracted to Fascist iconography. It’s an emotional rather than an intellectual connection. (After all, few people think deeply about anything, and only a small proportion of them think deeply about politics. But that doesn’t make them politically neutral.) If that is true, to even begin to understand it we have to ditch the spectacles of hindsight. So I return to my starting point. Being pro-German or even pro-Nazi in 1935 did not necessarily make a man a traitor. After all, there were an awful lot of Britons who were pro-German in 1914 but who were more than willing to fight against Imperial Germany.

  18. Some interesting points, particularly, I think re- hindsight on fascism’s now unacceptable face.

    One other point may be that aviation was – and to a degree is – a technology that requires decisive and clear cut action, rather than a pluralistic approach to problem solving. Similar in some ways to totalitarianism approaches in the 1930s – perhaps stretching a point.

    My experience of aircrew current and historic does seem to show a strong bias towards political forthrightness, usually on the right or the uncompromising!

  19. Post author

    I like Neil’s formulation. With the caveat that we can overestimate the modernity of fascism — think of Himmler and his obsession with Aryan origin myths, Darré and the blood and soil movement. In Britain, this strand would be represented by the English Mistery and English Array — J. F. C. Fuller was a member of the latter (as well as of the BUF). Even here there are contradictions: Collin Brooks was both a member of the Mistery and the secretary of the National League of Airmen. Although he got the latter gig through being Rothermere’s right-hand man than any prior aviation association.

  20. Post author

    I’ve just noticed that Sempill and Murray Sueter were both patrons of the Right Book Club (along with with about 40 or 50 other right-minded people), so if I were to update that figure I’d add some lines connecting those. (Though the patrons as a whole seem to be less far-right than the selection committee: sure, there’s Francis Yeats-Brown but there’s also Duncan Sandys; pro-appeasers as well as para-fascists. Interestingly Halifax was a patron too.)

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