Perusing periodicals in the RAF Museum Library
Few people visiting the RAF Museum London realise that it holds a large Archive and Library. Hidden away on the top floor of the main building, the Archive and Library are available by appointment for anyone wishing to do research. They are also essential to the Museum itself when conducting research for new exhibitions as well as the maintenance of vehicles and aircraft on display.
The Library holds tens of thousands of printed works with our earliest volume dating from 1783 and new material being added almost daily. The collection ranges from memoirs and historical studies to the more technical aspects of aviation even including a copy of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ issued to British Prisoners of War in the First World War and a section of the Bible on microfilm which has orbited the Moon!
When people think of a library they imagine racks upon racks of books, and the Museum’s Library is no exception. However, in addition to this the Library also holds a considerable collection of periodicals. These range from commercially published magazines from the early twentieth century (such as Flight and The Aeroplane) to RAF stations and unit magazines, which provide a fascinating insight into service life. This blog post will have a look at some of those periodicals.
There are thousands of periodicals, precisely catalogued and neatly arranged on the shelves of the Library. Some of them form an extensive series, dating back more than a century taking up many shelves. Some magazines had a limited print with the surviving copies being quite rare, and without the proper context, quite obscure. Most of the periodicals fall under these four categories:
– Official RAF
– Station / Unit
The commercial aviation enthusiast type magazines
Although the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered heavier-than-air aircraft took place on 17 December 1903, the quest for man to take to the skies predates this heavily. The industrial revolution was a turning point in turning this dream into reality and at last gave man the possibility of powered flight with much being written on the subject. The idea of powered flight was considered by many at the time to be nothing more than a fever dream and it is hard to imagine the excitement and ingenuity of the people involved at the very start. This is rather clear when perusing old newspaper articles as well as the first weekly aviation magazines – such as Flight and The Aeroplane – which were published in Britain. The former claims to be the first aeronautical weekly in the world. It first appeared on 2 January 1909 as the official journal of the Aero Club of the United Kingdom. The Aeroplane launched in June 1911 and as Aeroplane Monthly is still being produced today, as is Flight.
Reading these early magazines and their editorials are extremely interesting. They reveal an exciting world of constant developments and new inventions. Revolutionary for the time, some of the developments now seem just historical anachronisms, or would we still be amazed by the very first aircraft with a Morse radio or the first mail delivered by aeroplane?
Self-proclaimed experts – always men as women were still a curiosity in the world of aviation – wrote hefty editorials in which they envisaged the future of aviation. Editorials were full of speculation about the future of aviation and what that might mean for the world and humanity. Some correctly predicted developments in which continents would be united, whereas others incorrectly saw a world in which owning an aircraft would be as common as an automobile. These and many other magazines continue to be popular today, reporting on ongoing developments in the broad area of aviation, although many are now supplemented or even replaced by electronic versions.
Another popular aspect reflected in the collection are those magazines dealing with the world of model aircraft. For the uninitiated, the lengths that some modellers go to, to produce a historically accurate model are extraordinary. Hobbyists conduct extensive research into the correct camouflage colours and ancillary details of aircraft. These magazines provide a world of information, not only technical, but also a historical background information of the aircraft and squadrons.
Small scale specialised magazines
These periodicals tend to have a particular focus and can be commercially available, often to paying members, or with a limited circulation. For instance, ‘The Growler’ is the magazine for the Shackleton Association. The Avro Shackleton was a maritime reconnaissance aircraft which served in the RAF from 1951 to 1991. Although this long service period naturally meant many RAF personnel have a connection with this aircraft, the subject is specialist and only available to association members. Such periodicals form a great resource as it provides an in-depth picture of a specified research topic, in this case the service history of the Avro Shackleton and its personnel.
Other examples are periodicals of the many research institutes and museums, which deal with aviation history and anything related. For example, the Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society is a high quality and richly illustrated periodical which is also available in a digital form. Although not directly focusing on the RAF itself, it provides information on the period until 1945 when the RAF and Canadian military aviation were closely aligned.
Officially sanctioned RAF periodicals
A very broad category is that of periodicals sanctioned by the RAF. These range from official publications, such as the monthly Air Force Lists (which lists all the officers in service with the RAF), Air Ministry Orders, Aircrew Training Bulletins, to the many station and unit magazines for RAF personnel, such as Rafters.
Air Ministry Orders (from 1918 to 1964) were printed routine directives given to units for information, guidance and actions. Originally, they were issued weekly and split into four series: A (Administrative or Standing Orders); N (Temporary Orders); E (Equipment Orders) and B (complementing the Air Ministry Confidential Orders, but discontinued in 1943). The bureaucratic range of the Orders is quite bewildering: from a revised colour pattern on RAF personnel vehicles to the renaming of an exercise book. Nevertheless, they are a most valuable primary source for researchers. With the creation of the Ministry of Defence in 1964, the Orders were replaced by Defence Council Instructions (RAF).
Some journals are more academic in nature. One was the Air Power Review, but now literally reaching for the stars as it has been given the upgraded name the Air and Space Power Review. They feature contributions by experts and researchers about all topics varying from air power theory, artificial intelligence to researching events in the past, such as air control during the Battle of Britain.
Some of the more popular magazines for RAF personnel combine educational purposes with a lighter entertainment. The best-known example of the latter is Tee Emm (Short for Technical Memorandum) illustrated with the hapless Pilot ‘Officer Prune’. The inclusion of his amusing antics made light of several serious subjects helped make air crews aware of important messages which has been regarded as a clever decision by the Air Ministry. Anyone in the RAF during the Second World War would instantly have recognised Prune.
Locally produced station magazines
The final category are the Station magazines. Unlike the top-down RAF publications, these were locally written and often produced magazines from and for the personnel of a specific RAF station or squadron. Many stations had such magazines which offered a combination of practical information with funny stories, which probably made more sense to those from the station than to outsiders. Probably the oldest station magazine predates the RAF was The Quirk. This magazine was the magazine of the Royal Naval Air Service (the air service of the Royal Navy which later merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the RAF) at the Royal Naval College Greenwich. Most RAF stations still publish periodicals today, such as RAF Valley, an important fast-jet training station on the island of Anglesey in Wales. These publications are professionally made and have a slicker and corporate feel to them compared to the cruder yet more entertaining publications in the past.
During the Second World War, the further away from the UK, the more numerous are the periodicals that have survived, for example ‘Oasis’ pocket magazines which was begun by members of No. 136 ‘The Woodpecker’ Squadron, based in India, fighting the Japanese in Burma. Proving to be popular, they were also distributed to other RAF personnel in this rather forgotten theatre of war, far away from Britain. It featured varied content from entertaining personal stories, ‘tasteful’ nudes, film reviews – often going so far as to reveal the plot – and images of peaceful British countryside scenes. I suppose these photographs were to reduce any homesickness, but in my opinion, it would probably have only exacerbated the feeling. Peculiar are the funny cartoons although the humour is, 75 years later, often lost on today’s reader. They are also obviously written for a male audience with a tone which would be inappropriate for our modern emancipated world. Nevertheless, it does show a revealing insight into the world of the RAF serviceman in this period.
A final example I would like to share is in a way also a station magazine, but quite different, is the Barb Magazine. At first sight, it looks like an ordinary station magazine with eloquent editorials and images of RAF theatre shows, until one realises this was made in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1918. All too surprising as the quality of the content and images as well as the refined style would suggest otherwise. The existence of such a high-quality periodical sheds a different light on the concept of prisoner-of-war camps. The magazine does clarify that certain subjects were taboo and that there were many difficulties of producing a publication in the English language in Germany. However, the content shows a side of prisoner life which seems careless, no doubt to keep morale up in a situation which was, undoubtedly, troublesome.
This blog post is a quick overview of the periodicals collection in the Museum Library. It is astounding that so much information is available in these volumes, yet much remains hidden. The reason for this is the rather inaccessible nature of many magazines, especially the older ones. As most were not written as reference documents, unlike monographs or modern publications they do not contain indices or tables of contents. The sheer volume of periodicals collection would require a huge amount of time and effort to extract the historical information they hold in abundance. Any volunteers?