The Air League of the British Empire, Empire Air Day and the Creation of ‘Airmindedness’ in the 1930s

The Air League of the British Empire, Empire Air Day and the Creation of ‘Airmindedness’ in the 1930s

Rowan Thompson (Northumbria University) examines how a four nations approach to Empire Air Day can shed fresh light on the spread of ‘Airmindedness’ beyond the Home Counties

On Saturday 20 May 1939, the promise of a dazzling aerial spectacle drew over one million people across Britain to 78 civil and military aerodromes. The occasion was the celebration of the sixth Empire Air Day – an event through which the Air League sought to project power, modernity, martial values and claims of aerial supremacy to domestic and foreign audiences.[i] Following Empire Air Day in 1939, the Air Review – the journal of the Air League – enthusiastically proclaimed that ‘we have become an air-minded nation’.[ii] As these comments suggests, the organisers believed that they were on track to meet their intentions.

Founded in 1909, the Air League of the British Empire aimed ‘to disseminate knowledge and spread information showing the vital importance to the British Empire of aerial supremacy, upon which its commerce, communications, defence and its very existence must largely depend’.[iii] To do so, the League embarked on a resolute programme of public education and political lobbying. It also made extensive use of public ritual. Empire Air Day, which the League held annually from 1934 to 1939, was one of its key ventures in this area.

A poster advertising Empire Air Day in 1936

The Air League first proposed Empire Air Day in October 1933, suggesting that the display could ‘get the public inside aviation’ and provide an ‘insight into the everyday life of the Royal Air Force’.[iv] Programmes varied, though many of the aerodromes featured events such as: dive bombing; aerobatics; formation flying; blind flying; artillery observation; defence tactics; air combats between bombers and fighters; attacks on towed targets and machine-gun attacks on ground targets.[v] Empire Air Day was quickly described as ‘the greatest aerial entertainment ever staged’ and ‘a national institution among all classes and all ages’.[vi] Following the first Empire Air Day in 1934, the Daily Mail declared that ‘all Britain must be air-minded . . . the first Empire Air Day marks a new epoch in the development of British flying’.[vii]

In his study, England and the Aeroplane, David Edgerton notes that ‘aeroplanes were associated with England, rather than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland’ and that ‘the heart of the association [with aeroplanes] lay in the Home Counties, with the sort of ‘Englishness’ that foreigners usually understand’.[viii] While aeroplanes may be associated with England, especially after 1940, one cannot speak solely of an English, or certainly not a homogenised, response to the aeroplane prior to the Second World War. Empire Air Day, aerial spectacle and ‘airmindedness’ were situated at the intersection between local, national and imperial settings.[ix] Attendance figures at aerodromes outside of London were often high, and the day was widely reported in local, as well as national, newspapers.[x] Mass flights would often occur across the country in the days leading up to Empire Air Day in an attempt to publicise the event.

A ‘four nations’ approach is certainly fruitful for studying Empire Air Day. Although the event was particularly prominent in England, it was also celebrated throughout Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, from 1935, Empire Air Day was extended to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, with the idea ‘taking root in Canada’ by 1937.[xi] Empire Air Day provides an important illustration between the often conflicting, contested and overlapping relationship between civil and military spheres of society in interwar Britain. The extent to which the Air League was able to successfully create an ‘airmindedness’ beyond England and the Home Counties remains to be seen. At the very least, however, the Air League did achieve the desire of its president for Empire Air Day to become ‘an annual institution’ which would ‘spread beyond the borders of this country to the Empire beyond the seas’.[xii]

[i] For aerial theatre in general, see Brett Holman’s blog: https://airminded.org/2014/03/01/the-aerial-theatre/

[ii] ‘The Air League to its Members’, Air Review, July 1939, p. 8.

[iii] National Aerospace Library (Royal Aeronautical Society), ENV16A, Aerial League of the British Empire, ‘The Objects of the Aerial League’, 1909, p. 3. 

[iv] The National Archives, AIR 2/4421, Proposals for an Air Day by the Air League of the British Empire, Letter from Secretary-General of the Air League Air Commodore J.A. Chamier to Air Chief Marshal Sir Edward L. Ellington, 25 October 1933, p. 1.

[v] ‘Empire Air Day’, The Times, 11 April 1934, p. 11.

[vi] ‘R. A. F. “On Show” To-Day’, Daily Mail, 23 May 1936, p. 13; ‘Empire Air Day’, The Aeroplane, 29 May 1935, p. 616.

[vii] ‘Make Britain Air-Minded’, Daily Mail, 24 May 1934, p. 9.

[viii] David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines (London: Penguin, 2013 ed), p. xxxvii.

[ix] Just as naval spectacle did prior to the First World War. See Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 14.

[x] For example, in 1939, attendance at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland was 10,000; in Cardiff, Wales it was 15,000 while Turnhouse, Abbotsinch and Leuchars (Scotland) all had attendance figures of at least 15,000.

[xi] Air League Minute Book, Annual General Meeting (AGM), 10 July 1935, p. 2; Air League Minute Book, AGM, 14 July 1937, p. 2.

[xii] Air League Minute Book, AGM, 10 July 1934, p. 2.

Rowan Thompson is a PhD Candidate in history at Northumbria University. He is currently working on a thesis entitled: ‘The Peculiarities of British Militarism: The Air and Navy Leagues in Interwar Britain’. He would be happy to be contacted to discuss any of the issues raised in the blog at rowan.thompson@northumbria.ac.uk. You can also follow him on twitter @rgethompson91

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