An Air Force Records Society?

The indefatigable Ross Mahoney, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham's Centre for War Studies, has written a briefing paper proposing the creation of an Air Force Records Society (AFRS), which he has circulated among some of the senior academics studying the history of British airpower, and has also posted on his blog. Briefly, the idea is that the AFRS would exist solely to publish one volume annually of significant but hard-to-find primary sources relating to the history of the RAF and its predecessors: perhaps unpublished memoirs written by key figures, or selections from their papers, or themed collections of documents from various sources. The models are the Navy Records Society and the Army Records Society, which are both well-established by now; indeed the Navy Records Society predates the formation of the RAF by a quarter of a century. Obviously I think this is a great idea, but it's easy to say that; the question is how to get it done, and good on Ross for asking that question. There's not much I can do directly to help from where I am, but what I can do is help drum up support for an AFRS.

I have a few comments. One, which I've already passed on to Ross, is that the brief for the AFRS be expanded. In the current proposal it covers the RAF, the RFC and the RNAS. But organised airpower started before then, with the brief existence of the Air Battalion (1911-2) and the less ephemeral Balloon Factory/School of Ballooning (1878-1912). These seem like logical subjects for an AFRS. But because they were part of the Royal Engineers and hence the Army, there is a potential for stepping on the toes of the Army Records Society. But this jurisdictional problem exists anyway; indeed the Navy Records Society has already published at least one volume on the topic of the RNAS. And I think there's plenty of history to go around. Another possible area to expand into might be the Royal Aircraft Factory/Royal Aircraft Establishment, which was separate from the RFC/RNAS/RAF but had a principally military character.

Another question is whether the volumes published should be actual physical books, or whether the AFRS should be 'born digital' and just publish ebooks or perhaps just online. I don't know much about the financing of the existing societies, but I expect most of the membership fees go to the publisher. If the costs of physical distribution could be eliminated that would lower the fees and hopefully broaden the membership base. Of course, digital does not always equal cheap; and I must admit I prefer real books -- to this day I have never bought an ebook!

Finally, it's fun to think of possible archives to plunder. From my own experience, I think P. R. C. Groves's papers (at KCL and the IWM) have some potential, covering topics such as early air control operations in the Sudan in 1916, the RAF's operations in the first year of its existence, air policy at the Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations, and, after his RAF service, his airpower advocacy (and I would argue that he was the most influential of all the British airpower writers between the wars), including his time heading the Air League of the British Empire; there's also an unpublished book manuscript he finished just before the Second World War, 'This air business'. But that's just me, I don't expect anyone else to share in my obsessions… and there are plenty of more obvious places to start.

Any thoughts?

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17 thoughts on “An Air Force Records Society?

  1. Brett,

    First, thank for publishing this. Second, I don't think I have ever been called indefatigable!

    Just picking up on the issue of finance. It is an important one that has to be thought about, and one I am now trying to consider. I am not sure how the other Records Societies are funded, or how they received start up funds. I have a few contacts with them and this is an important question that needs to be asked. Did they have a start up fund? Was money given to them by a benefactor? There is of course a time lag issue linked to this with regards to the society's output. Someone has to be prepared to produce a first volume and this may not be published, be it on-line or in hardback, in the first year of membership. So what do members get for their money? It is a hard one to consider. Do we consider a sustainable membership model where people can pay more than the standard subscription in order to further its aims and priduction of volumes. Are people willing to pay money and then wait a period of time for the goods.

    As to your other points, you know my thoughts on that. They have been added to the paper.

  2. Archives of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Flight, The Aeroplane, etc? If for no other reason than to establish just who the anonymous authors were.

  3. Erik,

    As long as it related to the main focus of the society I do not see why such a volume should not be produced.

  4. Urban Garlic

    I don't have a dog in the subject-matter race, but as to the format, I think having a digital version would help a lot with searchability. I think pretty much all academia should be doing this, because machine-assisted, search-driven investigations with cross-disciplinary themes are likely to be an important future mode of academic research.

    Of course, this does not imply that it be exclusively digital, but in my opinion, limited resources are better spent doing some good tagging and digital cataloging work than they are on printing and shipping.

  5. Post author


    All good questions, and the sorts of questions which need to be asked and answered. I suspect there would need to be some injection of funds beyond what the initial pool of subscribers could provide, just to get it off the ground. Hopefully the existing societies can provide some advice -- though I'm not sure whether knowing how the Navy Records Society was set up will help now, nearly 120 years later! IIRC, its founding is discussed in W. Mark Hamilton, The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889-1914 (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1986), as a sort of inspiration for the Navy League.


    Do such archives exist, though? According to NRA, RAeS does have archives (as you'd expect) but there's nothing listed for Flight or Aeroplane.


    Fair points, and particularly since by their nature AFRS publications would be reference material rather than page turners, it makes sense to produce them with an eye to searchability and compatibility.

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  7. Brett,

    That is one way of doing it. I have been talking to the other societies and have found out that the biggest cost is obviously the annual volume, which take up much of the annual income.

  8. Post author

    I guess the other thing is to try and estimate what the likely membership base would be. Do you know how big the existing societies are?

  9. I'm not sure about the NRS but the ARS is 400+ strong. Basically there annual subscription roughly covers the production of a volume.

  10. TF Smith

    What about the Army Air Corps, Glider Pilot Regiment, and FAA/RN/RM aviation?


  11. TF,

    In the briefing paper I have written on this the current stated aim for the society would include the RNAS/FAA.

    'The object of an Air Force Records Society would be to edit and publish manuscripts relating to the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm, and their antecedents’, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, and to reprint works of military interest.'

    Brett has quite rightly pointed out that organisation such as the RE's Air Battalion. I don't see why it should not include the AAC. The only issue with this expansion in scope relates to any relationship with the NRS and ARS. The NRS especially has several air power related volumes upcoming. It is not an insurmountable problem though.

  12. TF Smith

    Ross - Thanks for the thoughftul response.

    Thinking about the RAF from an organizational point of view, I wonder how unusual the RAF's formation from both military (RFC) and naval (RNAS) air arms, and in the middle of hostilities is...seems pretty unique.

    The USAF, of course, was "all Army" and was not organized as such until peacetime...the AdA's ancestry was similar, I think; the Aeronavale remained independent after the Armistice. I don't know enough about the other European air arms that survived WW I to say.

    The comparison at the other end was how long, even after air force "independence," the US Army and British Army took to create their own air arms. US Army Aviation remained in existence efven when the USAF was created (albeit, not anywhere near the strength it grew to in the 1960s and thereafter); when was the AAC formed?


  13. Ross: I've not had much chance to think about this until now, but I might as well add my 2p worth below...

    An RAFRS should definitely add the Air Ministry and associated institutions such as the RAE to their remit, as the subject is terribly under-researched; I think the last history of the AM (such as it is) was Grey's 1940 book. (And of course I'd always argue for more research on the RAE!)

    As for what kind of publications it should put out, I'd go for personal papers that might be tricker to get hold of than the AIR/AVIA files in the PRO. Peter Dye pointed out that in the selection of material one might want to be careful not to tread on the RAF Historical Society's toes, but I don't think that should be an issue.

    My major reservation would be with the actual editing process. Editing papers can be a lot of work (I've done some in the past,) and my impression is that there's not necessarily a lot of scholarly kudos attached to a project unless it's a big-name subject or a large-scale project. In professional terms, is it REF-able?

    That Eeyore-like pessimism out of the way, I think a RAFRS would be an excellent idea, and could provide a valuable service. I'd vote for 'born digital' documents - after all, print on demand is relatively cheap these days.

  14. Post author

    Ross, TF:

    This discussion about demarcation itself recalls the interwar tussles over whether the RAF, having the 'air view', should be in control of all airpower assets or whether the Army and Navy needed their own air arms to support their own specialised requirements! Hopefully it won't cause as many arguments. Of course, neither an AFRS nor the NRS would in any sense 'own' FAA records, for example, there's no real reason why they couldn't both publish them. It would just be a matter of consultation and coordination to make sure overlap is limited -- after all, the goal of all the societies would in the end be the same, to make these sources more widely available for all historians to use.


    I think an edited work like this would be REFable, judging from para 107 and appendix C (note the footnote). I'd imagine it isn't exactly fun to do, especially if deciphering handwriting is involved, so some credit would be nice!

    Good points about the RAE and Air Ministry. Grey's book is better than it has any right to be, but in any event it wasn't based on archival research and (obviously) only goes up to 1940. Even just a study of the Air Council would be useful.

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