By Liam Barnsdale
As a means of acknowledging its increasingly diverse composition, the Royal Air Force (RAF) introduced shoulder patches to its uniforms during the Second World War. These small pieces of cloth, varying widely in construction, not only identified the wearer’s nationality to the viewer, but highlighted the contributions of non-British personnel to the service, and thereby the international scale of the broader conflict. Although Commonwealth aviators had made significant contributions to the RAF’s numbers since its foundation, the service’s diversity was further compounded during the Second World War by an influx of exiled aviators from continental Europe and volunteers from neutral countries such as Ireland and the United States. While many occupied nations’ air arms retained their administrative independence from the RAF, all, save for the Free French, adopted the RAF’s uniform as their own.
Many adapted their uniforms to reflect their original services by altering insignia, such as replacing the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevet with their own air forces’ brevets, or dying their uniforms a darker shade of blue, as Australian aviators did. Despite their differences, however, all adopted the RAF’s shoulder patches as a part of their varying insignia, sewing them just below the shoulder seams of their Service Dress uniform jackets, in a similar fashion to the British Army’s regimental insignia. Their introduction was often at the request of the RAF. Produced for all major nationality groups serving in the RAF, the patches presented the wearer’s original service, such as the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), or home country either in full, or in acronym, stitched in light blue or white thread on dark blue or black cloth. Introduced at intermittent stages across the conflict’s duration, the patches came in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from single-line titles to the comparatively ostentatious insignia worn by American Eagle Squadron pilots. Regardless of their format, however, all patches made the wearer’s nationality abundantly clear.
Even in the case of the Eagle Squadron patch, omitting written reference to the United States, it nonetheless clearly communicated national identity through a large embroidered replication of the country’s national symbol. Despite their innocuous size, RAF personnel attached great sentimental value to their shoulder patches. Wing Commander ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, the British commander of Canadian No. 144 Wing from 1943 to 1945, was presented a pair by Leslie ‘Syd’ Ford, one of the Wing’s Squadron Leaders, after his first operation with the unit. Johnson recalled Ford stating that ‘the boys would like you to wear these. After all, we’re a Canadian wing and we’ve got to convert you.’ This action’s ‘deep significance’ to Johnson reflects the shoulder patches’ extended symbolism beyond that of personal identity, for Johnson was not Canadian, to one of inclusivity and group identity.
Thanks to the Ministry of Information’s (MoI) interest in promoting international support for Britain, particularly before the United States’ entry into the conflict, RAF shoulder patches were frequently included in British domestic propaganda. Among the various media to feature them were newspaper articles, with international airmen serving in the RAF frequently promoted through photographs of specific individuals and their insignia. Exemplifying this is a small pictorial Times article on Squadron Leader William Taylor, ‘the fighting commanding officer of the new R.A.F. Fighter squadron with all American pilots’, in which Taylor is posed side-on to the camera, compelling the audience to notice and recognise his prominent Eagle Squadron patch. Shoulder patches also appear in numerous MoI posters, one example being ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’ from the ministry’s ‘For Freedom’ series, in which a New Zealand pilot, identifiable by his camera-facing shoulder patch, appears in the centre of the poster’s illustration. In many cases, propagandised aviators appeared as anonymous members of a group, appearing only in close-up shots of their shoulder patches. The November 1943 British Movietone News newsreel story ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ exemplifies this phenomena, dedicating eight seconds of its length to a succession of shots showing the shoulders of a Canadian Air Bomber, an Australian Air Gunner, a New Zealand Navigator, and a Rhodesian Sergeant, each shot excluding the subjects’ faces.
Other stories utilising aviators’ shoulder patches include those covering the influx of immigrant RAF personnel from Empire Air Training Scheme, often before their allocation to nationally-specific units. The October 1941 British Movietone newsreel story ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ exemplifies this theme. As its title suggests, the story, also covered by Pathé Gazette under the title ‘Their Majesties and Airmen from Overseas’, shows King George VI and Queen Elizabeth inspecting foreign RAF personnel newly-arrived in Britain. Most of the segment’s one-minute length is dedicated to a sequence of shots focusing on selected personnel’s shoulder patches. Aviators from Canada, Singapore, South Africa, the USA, New Zealand and Rhodesia receive the camera’s attention in turn, with their identifying shoulder patches appearing in each shot’s centre, often, as in ‘Battle of Berlin’, at the expense of their owners’ faces.
Originally intended as a political concession to overseas governments’ requests for increased autonomy within the RAF, the shoulder patch’s frequent centre-stage appearances reveal that its symbolic value extended beyond its simple cloth constitution. By focusing solely on the unnamed aviators’ shoulder patches, both ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ and ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ eschew all of their subjects’ characteristics save for their nationalities, depicting them as simply their nations’ de facto ambassadors. Commonwealth military historians such as Jeffrey Grey have criticised their nations’ ‘disastrous’ ‘surrender’ of aviators to the RAF under the Empire Air Training Scheme and the subsequent reduction of Commonwealth air arms to ‘training organisation[s] for the RAF’. Similar disdain was voiced by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who opined that:
[a]n ordinary mixed British crew from all parts of the British Isles […] is much better disciplined and certainly better educated than the average colonial and dominion crew.
However, the frequent appearances of the commonwealth and overseas aviators and their national insignia in British domestic propaganda indicate that their value extended beyond strategy and aided significantly in the MoI’s emphasising of the international support for Britain’s war effort.
Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.
Header Image: Airmen from all parts of the world who took part in the Dieppe Raid in front of the Hurricane ‘Urundi’ of No. 43 Squadron at RAF Tangmere, 20 August 1942. From left to right – Pilot Officer Andrzej Malarowski of No. 317 Polish Fighter Squadron, pilots from Australia, Gold Coast, Canada, USA and New Zealand. (Source: © IWM (HU 128191))
 Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 19.
 Leslie Ford in J.E. Johnson, Wing Leader (London: The Reprint Society, 1958), p. 163.
 Johnson, Wing Leader.
 ‘Squadron-Leader W.E.G. Taylor’ in ‘The Prime Minister’s Son Enters Parliament,’ The Times, 9 October 1940, p. 6.
 Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref. No. 2017/131.7, ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’, 1942-1945.
 Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, Third Edition (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 150-151.
 Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (London: Collins, 1947), p. 64.