Strength in numbers

In July I'll be at this year's Australian Historical Association conference, which is being hosted in Ballarat by Federation University Australia. I'm pushing my aerial theatre project along with a talk entitled 'The RAF versus the Wottnotts: Hendon's imaginary wars, 1920-1937':

The Royal Air Force (RAF) Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which large formations of military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying. These pageants were hugely popular among all classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands directly and millions more indirectly through newsreels and the press. Each pageant climaxed with an elaborate set piece in which a battle scenario with an imaginary enemy was acted out, for the entertainment and edification of the spectators. The enemies varied according to international context and the RAF's institutional interests: thinly-disguised Germans and Soviets, Arab tribes, modern-day pirates, and more abstract and industrialised targets. Paying close attention to these scenarios therefore reveals something of the RAF's conception of its own role in a environment constantly changing due to technology and politics. It reveals even more about what its leaders wanted the British public, and the world more generally, to understand about its role at a time when the lessons of the last war were being applied to the preparations for the next one.

But wait -- there's more! I'm speaking as part of a panel on the theme of 'Airmindedness: cultures of aviation'. Also on the panel are: Steve Campbell-Wright, speaking on 'The Role of Place in Remembering: Point Cook’s part in the Nation’s Identity'; Leigh Edmonds, on 'Gleaming modernity comes to Australia'; and Peter Hobbins, on 'Safer in the air? Australian apprehensions of aviation disasters'. I've never been part of a conference panel before; it's a great opportunity to make the case to the Australian historical community that aviation history is both interesting and important. Ad astra!

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6 thoughts on “Strength in numbers

  1. It is a community I need to join! Is your Hendon piece based on the work you did over here last time? Would like to have a read at some point.

  2. Post author

    Ross:
    No, it will be basically be about the media view, I guess. I've yet to do any serious archival research on Hendon (but I still have the printout of the RAFM's holdings you got for me, thanks!)

    Heath:
    Thanks! I was tempted to refer to a colleague's paper as 'the Scottish article' the other day, but thought better of it...

  3. Neil Datson

    Good stuff, Brett.

    Will the papers be freely available after the event? If not, any chance of forwarding your talk - I can't see myself getting to Ballarat somehow! I'm especially interested in information behind the last sentence in your abstract:

    It reveals even more about what its leaders wanted the British public, and the world more generally, to understand about its role at a time when the lessons of the last war were being applied to the preparations for the next one.

    According to George K Williams, Biplanes and Bombsights, section AI6B of the Air Ministry was initiated as early as March 1918 specifically in order to promote the RAF and airmindedness generally, with a somewhat chilling hint that the historical record should be 'corrected' so that the right lessons would be drawn from it. To what extent was the publicity operation run continuously from the Armistice through to the late 1930s?

  4. Post author

    Neil:
    Don't get too excited by the promises I make in conference abstracts -- they're half advertising (to get people to come), half aspirational (to get me to do the work). There may or may not be any written paper; I'm trying to get back into the habit of giving more formal presentations, but as my last effort shows, with limited success. But I am planning to write some sort of article on Hendon later in the year.

    I don't think much is known about the Air Ministry's publicity before 1939 (a fair bit has been written on wartime film production, bits and pieces on Bomber Command and the press, and there's Garry Campion's work on the image/memory of the Battle of Britain). The major exception that I know of is in relation to the RAF Display: David Omissi wrote a chapter on it in John M. McKenzie, ed., Popular Imperialism and the Military, 1850-1950 (1992). (Which rather leads to the question of what I hope to achieve!) I don't have it to hand but as I recall the organisational effort for Hendon was quite impressive; for example there was a permanent office devoted to it which ran the whole year round, only closing for a few weeks over summer after the Display had been put on. So that suggests that there was some kind of continuous propaganda plan; but I'm not sure if that was organised alongside Hendon or whether it was more ad hoc than that. Something to look out for!

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