The Middle-class RAF, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2053-64:

Moreover, 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 Orwell and 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.” 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.

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