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Flying High

History Professor Martin Francis studies British culture and the Royal Air Force in his new book published by Oxford University Press.

Date: 5/5/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Courtesy of Martin Francis
Martin Francis, Henry R. Winkler Associate Professor of History, has researched intently the history of modern Britain, previously publishing “Ideas and Policies under Labour: 1945-51” and “The Conservatives and British Society, 1880-1990.” His most recent work, “The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945,” was just published by Oxford University Press.

You recently published a book called “The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945.” Tell us a little about the book and what you’ve found.

Martin Francis.
Martin Francis, Henry R. Winkler Associate Professor of History.

My book provides the first scholarly study of the place of 'the flyer' in British culture during the Second World War. I examine the lives of RAF personnel, and their popular representation in literary and cinematic texts, to illuminate broader issues of gender, social class, national and racial identities, emotional life, and the creation of a national myth in twentieth-century Britain.

What got you interested in the subject?

My book aligns my adult scholarly interests in the histories of war, gender and modern Britain with my boyhood passion for the history of military aviation. I grew up in the East Anglia region of England, where the countryside is littered with the derelict airfields from which both British and American airmen had flown missions during the Second World War.

What were some surprising facts or findings that resonated with you while researching for the book?

I was really struck by the extraordinary contrasts of the daily lives of RAF aircrew. They might be dicing with death in the sky one moment, but a few hours later be sitting down to lunch with wives and children, or chatting up a woman in the local pub.

What’s the significance of the flyer in British culture? Why is it important to study?

I argue that the flyer's relationship to love, fear, aggression, dismemberment and death reveal broader ambiguities surrounding the dominant understandings of masculinity in the middle decades of the twentieth century. By paying particular attention to the romances between wartime aircrew and female auxiliaries, I reveal that male and female experiences during the war were not polarized and antithetical, but were complementary and interrelated, a finding which has implications for the history of gender in modern Britain that reach well beyond either the specialized military culture of the wartime RAF or the chronological parameters of the Second World War.

What connection does this piece of history have with today?

Actually, I feel my book reminds us of the gulf between present and past. Today air travel is routine and military aviation requires computer proficiency rather than flying skills. The 1940s marked the last days of a romance of the air that had begun with the Wright Brothers. During the Second World War, very few people had flown in an aeroplane, which explains the star appeal accorded to those young men who flirted with destruction high above the clouds.  

What are you working on next?

I’m staying with the Second World War, but coming back down to earth to look at the cultural dimension to Britain’s war effort in North Africa. My first case study will be of how race and gender played out in narratives of German spies, Arab nationalists, Jewish freedom fighters and belly dancers in wartime Cairo.

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