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1940: Middle-class pilots saved England, and what that meant for British politics

1940: Middle-class pilots saved England, and what that meant for British politics

Tom note: This is an excerpt from my new book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. This section discusses the meaning for England of the pilots of the Royal Air Force, overwhelmingly from middle class backgrounds, staving off a German invasion in 1940.

It was not the gentlemanly army, nor the powerful navy, but the Royal Air Force that played the most significant role in 1940. The air force was a distinctly middle-class organization, carrying with it a whiff of gasoline and engine lubricants.

Both George Orwell and Winston Churchill noticed and commented on the middle-class nature of the RAF. Orwell observed that it was “hardly at all … within the ruling-class orbit.” Indeed, one historian has noted that there were jibes at the time that its members were “motor mechanics in uniforms,” not unlike the nameless men who chauffeured the rich.

Evelyn Waugh, always alert to class differences, has a character in one of his novels set during World War II bemoan the fact that a senior Royal Air Force officer has been allowed to join an elite dining club. This gaffe occurred, the character explains, because it came during the Battle of Britain, “when the Air Force was for a moment almost respectable. … My dear fellow, it’s a nightmare for everyone.”

In fact, some aspects of the class system did manage to persist in the RAF. Members of some “auxiliary” units formed by the wealthy and titled of London amused themselves, recalled one pilot, Hugh Dundas, by referring to the regular RAF as “the coloured troops.” Class differences also reached into the cockpit — RAF officers generally enjoyed the helpful privilege of flying the same aircraft every day, while sergeant pilots were assigned whatever machine was available.

Nonetheless, Orwell was struck by the class implications of the RAF’s role in staving off a German invasion. “Because of, among other things, the need to raise a huge air force a serious breach has been made in the class system,” he wrote. With the Battle of Britain just ended, he wrote in the conclusion of The Lion and the Unicorn that “the heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden and at present they still are kept under by a generation of ghosts.”

Looking at the same question from a different perspective, Churchill came to a similar conclusion. He noted to subordinates with some concern that the aristocracy had played a small role in the Battle of Britain. There had been, he observed, an “almost entire failure” of Eton, Harrow, and Winchester, where the nation’s elite schooled its sons, to contribute pilots to the Royal Air Force. Of the three thousand pilots who flew fighters in the Battle of Britain, only about two hundred had attended Eton, Harrow, or other elite schools. That was a tiny figure compared with World War I, when Eton alone had contributed 5,768 men to the military, of whom 1,160 were killed and 1,467 were wounded.

Churchill concluded, “They left it to the lower middle class” — that is, the offspring of hardworking teachers, bank clerks, Methodist shopkeepers, and low-ranking bureaucrats. Of those “excellent sons” of the lower middle class, Churchill concluded, “They have saved this country; they have the right to rule it.”

In this sense, Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a small-town grocer who had left school at the age of thirteen, clearly appears as Churchill’s rightful political heir. As a rising young politician, she wore a silver lapel pin showing Churchill’s profile. First elected to Parliament in 1959, she overlapped there with the decrepit Churchill for some five years, until he stepped down in 1964.

Excerpted from Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017), by permission of me.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons