By Liam Barnsdale

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has used various ‘wings’ brevets as identifying symbols for aircrew since its formation, with hotly-contested political debates within the service over their symbolic value dating back to the time of their introduction by the Royal Flying Corps.[1] However, it was during the Second World War that – thanks to the RAF’s actions and resulting fame – the recognition of the insignia was catapulted beyond military circles into the wider public. Much of this recognition is either evidenced in the products, or due to the efforts, of Britain’s propagandists, who frequently included the ‘wings’ brevets in their material. Although an intrinsic component of RAF aviators’ uniforms, ‘wings’ brevets were frequently depicted independently from their associated clothing sets. Indeed, their recognition often transcended the uniforms to which they were irrevocably attached in reality — virtually every piece of uniform, insignia, and flying equipment featured in aviators’ propaganda representations. However, the ‘wings’ brevets were foremost among these symbols, coming to represent not just individual aviators, but the service as a whole.

INS 7330
An example of a pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet as used during the Second World War. (Source: © IWM (INS 7330))

Following the traditions of the RFC, the RAF recognised individual aircrew roles through brevet patches worn on the service dress and war service dress jackets’ left breast. These took the form of either two outstretched bird’s wings for a pilot or a single wing denoting non-pilot roles in multi-person aircraft. Both forms of brevet were embroidered in white silk for the wings, and bronze silk for the laurels from which they emanated. Contained within these laurels were white letters indicating the wearer’s service in the case of pilots or their role in acronym form for non-pilots. Named for their shape, ‘wings’ brevets received a modicum of public recognition before the Second World War, evidenced by their appearances in popular culture, including Thomas Somerfield likening them to RAF officers’ moustaches in Punch, August 1918. Depicting two aviators, one with a full handlebar moustache and the other with similar facial hair on only the left half of his top lip, Somerfield quipped that:

The growth of decorations, badges and honorific chevrons makes it advisable that fresh space should be found for them. Mr. Punch recommends the above method of distinguishing between an observer and a pilot.[2]

Although this reference to the brevet’s form indicated public knowledge of the insignia, it was during the Second World War that the brevet became truly famous within the British public consciousness.

INS 7331
The Air Gunner ‘wings’ that were introduced in December 1939. (Source: © IWM (INS 4909))

During the Second World War, a wider variety of ‘wings’ brevets specific to aircrew roles were produced, and their symbolic value increased exponentially, thanks in part to their promotion by the Air Ministry. With the increasing size of bombers, the typical aircrew was no longer simply a pilot and his observer. The new heavy four-engined bombers required a large and diverse range of crewmembers, each with their specially trained skillset and therefore deserving of recognition through their unique brevet. The new ‘wings’, modelled on the earlier observer’s brevet, were individually introduced throughout the war, beginning with the Air Gunner’s in December 1939 and ending with Meteorological Officer, signified by an ‘M’, in April 1945.[3] In many cases, their introduction was announced to the public in newspaper articles, with The Times publishing an article on the Air Gunner brevet’s introduction, complete with information on the wearers’ qualifications, the brevet’s construction, and accompanying photograph.[4]

The ‘wings’ brevets’ promotion was highly effective, leading to them gaining widespread public recognition. Roald Dahl, at this time an RAF fighter pilot, recalled two incidents in his memoir Going Solo in which the ‘wings’ on his jacket acted as ‘a great passport’ in London during 1941, both occurring during the same night.[5] The first instance was impressing a hotel owner into using her telephone; the second was deterring a group of ‘drunken soldiers […] searching for an officer to beat up.’[6] Dahl attributed this recognition to the publicising of fighter and bomber pilots’ activities, and the brevity of his short explanation implies that the brevet’s significance was indeed common knowledge in wartime Britain.[7] By contrast, Flying Officer James Storrar, a Hawker Hurricane pilot during the Battle of Britain, wrote to his mother about the amusement he felt at the reactions he received from non-RAF personnel while on leave in London. Upon his appearance at the Euston Hotel, Storrar wrote that ‘Army Captains look upon my dirty tunic & hat […] with disgust and two waiters titter about something in my dress.’[8] However, it was ‘honestly amusing to meet people and be introduced as a fighter pilot, the different reactions are amazing.’[9] Accordingly, the appearance of RAF aviators’ uniforms and the visibility of their ‘wings’ brevet significantly influenced their reception by the British public. While smartly dressed pilots with visible ‘wings’ brevets, such as Dahl, received positive reactions from the public, those whose dress was too untidy for identification as pilots received derision and scorn.

PST 4095
While appearing chauvanistic by modern standard, this poster was typical of those used during the Second World War. It was created in 1941 by Harold Forster, an artist noted for his illustrations on pre-war Black Magic chocolate boxes. The pilot ‘wing’s are a noticeable feature of this work. (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4095))

Popular recognition of the pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet is reflected in a variety of propaganda media. These include one of the Air Ministry’s ‘Fly with the RAF’ advertisements published in February 1941, in which it is claimed that ‘you [the reader] know’ RAF pilots ‘by “The Wings” on their tunics.’[10] Further evidence can be found in two posters from the Ministry of Information’s series ‘Keep Mum, She’s Not so dumb!’ In one, an RAF Sergeant is plied for information by his female companion, with the ‘AG’ on his half-brevet delicately legible despite the rough brushstrokes used throughout the remainder of the artwork.[11] In the second poster, officers of the three services crowd around an elegant woman, the only feature distinguishing the RAF officer from his compatriots being his uniform’s colour and ‘wings’.[12] In both of these instances, great care was taken by the artists to ensure that the ‘wings’ brevets were included in their work, clearly indicating the insignia’s symbolic value, both to Britain’s propagandists and within popular culture.

The ‘wings’ brevet also appeared frequently in commercial advertisements. Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee included the brevet in their poster featuring a smiling RAF pilot wearing service dress with visible ‘wings’ brevet.[13] By associating the brand with the heroic defenders of the realm, whose ambassador is identified only by his insignia, the audience is assured of the product’s quality. A similar use of the brevet for ‘authenticating’ a product can be found in newspaper advertisements for Fighter Pilot, Paul Richey’s anonymous Battle of France memoir.[14] First editions of Richey’s book also sported the fêted insignia on its otherwise-image-deprived cover.[15] Other book covers utilising the brevet include Leslie Kark’s novels The Fire Was Bright and Red Rain, both of which used the ‘wings’ as a method of clearly identifying their topics to potential readers.[16] Similarly, the Ministry of Information’s internationally-distributed children’s picture book Britain’s Royal Air Force began beneath a large colour illustration of a pilot’s brevet.[17]

Cinema, however, presented the most prominent recognition of the ‘wings’ brevet’s symbolic power. Although aviation films produced in the war’s formative years merely included the brevet as a part of their actors’ costumes, later films came to place great emphasis on the brevet as a symbol of the characters’ occupation.[18] Exemplifying this is Jack Watling’s character Buster, the RAF fighter pilot briefly included in Carol Reed’s 1944 film The Way Ahead as a token emblem of his service.[19] In every shot depicting the character, his ‘wings’ are clearly visible, continually reminding the audience of his coveted role within his already-glorified service. This careful inclusion is echoed in a brief shot from the Sergeant’s Mess scene in Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 Oscar-nominated One of Our Aircraft is Missing wherein the ‘wings’ of the Sergeant pilot leaning against the radio is clearly, but unnecessarily, visible at the bottom of the image.[20] Joseph Lee also utilised this careful framing in his cartoon ‘Smiling Through: Point of View’, published in the Evening News in July 1942. Although the central character’s left arm is raised casually, it is angled just low enough for the artist to include his ‘wings’ in the image.[21] In each of these examples, the characters’ ‘wings’ brevets need not have been included, and their presence; therefore, merely proves their symbolic value to both creators and audience.

The Way Ahead
“Well, shot up a bit…” Buster in The Way Ahead (1944).

A similar reverence is placed upon the ‘wings’ brevet in Anthony Asquith’s 1945 work The Way to the Stars, with the film’s characters wordlessly acknowledging their symbolic value. When encountering John Mills’ character, RAF bomber pilot-turned-controller Peter Penrose, American bomber crewmember Joe Friselli, played by Bonar Colleano, initially took him for a non-flying officer. This assumption is based on Penrose not wearing his War Service Dress jacket and his introducing himself as a controller and “not a flier.”[22] Friselli proceeded to loudly elucidate on his untested expertise in bombing and the qualities of his aircraft. Penrose, meanwhile, took his coat down from the hook on which it was hanging, and Friselli stopped short as he noticed the ‘wings’ brevet just visible to the audience on the jacket’s left breast. Friselli’s tone changed immediately to one of apologetic respect, and humble, yet faintly-dumbfoundedly enquired into Penrose’s experience as a pilot.[23] The brief interaction between Friselli and Penrose was aimed to bring a form of Schadenfreude to the British public, playing on their widespread irritation with the ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ American servicemen based in their country. However, the scene also proves the brevet’s power as a symbol independent of the RAF’s uniform, for unlike Buster’s The Way Ahead, Penrose’s ‘wings’ remain either out-of-focus or partially obscured throughout the scene. Regardless, instant audience recognition is expected of Friselli’s wordless indication to the brevet’s location, just as the brevet’s significance goes unexplained yet remains pivotal to the dialogue.

While incidental inclusions such as these in both film and print were common, the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit went one step further. Under the direction of John Boulting, the Unit’s 1945 film Journey Together dug into the perceived elitism of pilots and dedicated the entire film to promoting the value of non-pilot aircrew, with particular emphasis on the role of navigator. The film tells the story of two fictional RAF trainees, David Wilton and John Ayneswoth played by Richard Attenborough and Jack Watling respectively, both hoping to become pilots. Wilton failed in his endeavour and instead became a navigator, while Ayneswoth achieved his goal, much to the envy of Wilton, until both came to cooperate and accept the equal importance of navigator and pilot. Wilton’s initial envy is communicated most effectively in a mostly non-verbal scene in a Canadian hotel bar, where Aynesorth took off his greatcoat to expose the new ‘wings’ on his service dress. After a moment of tense silence, Wilton showed his support for Aynesworth’s achievement by offering to brush his wings to reduce their dazzle.[24] Throughout this brief but tense scene, the brevet dominated as the object of conversation, both spoken and unspoken, with great emphasis placed on its coveted status and symbolism.

From their repeated use in multiple media formats to identify and promote aviators, the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevets held significant symbolic value within British Second World War society. Be it through intimation of their elite status in cinema, or their inclusion as a service-identifying emblem in printed material, brevets were repeatedly used without accompanying explanation of their meaning, with audiences expected to both recognise them and appreciate the qualifications and accompanying heroic traits they represented. There is limited evidence to support any claim that the insignia was indeed widely-recognised by the British public, and any claim that recognition of ‘wings’ brevets was universal would be almost impossible to prove. However, the material examined in this article indicates that the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information believed public recognition of ‘wings’ brevets to be sufficient to make explanation unnecessary. If their assumptions were correct, which could be argued based on these agencies’ access to public opinion polling, this would indicate that the brevets’ fame was deeply embedded in the British public consciousness, well beyond its earlier and later boundaries within the service. This fame, founded in the propagandised efforts of the RAF, merely exacerbated the ministries’ ability to use them as a propaganda tool to further promote the service. Therefore, RAF ‘wings’ brevets exemplified not only the power of the symbols in wartime propaganda but the reciprocal interaction between propaganda and public opinion, each of which influences the other. Public knowledge of the brevets was due to its use in propaganda, and its use in propaganda was based on expected public knowledge. Regardless of the origins of their fame, the innumerable representations of RAF ‘wings’ brevets in British Second World War propaganda indicated their popularity among the contemporary British public.

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: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, OC No. 617 Squadron, with members of his crew. Left to right: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar; Pilot Officer P.M. Spafford, bomb aimer; Flight Lieutenant R.E.G. Hutchinson, wireless operator; Pilot Officer G.A. Deering and Flying Officer H.T. Taerum, gunners. Prominent in this picture are the various ‘wings’ worn by the members of the crew. (Source: © IWM (TR 1127))

[1] For further discussion of this historical debate, see C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew Roles in the RFC, RNAS and RAF, Revised Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), pp. 61, 81, 257.

[2] Thomas Somerfield, ‘The Growth of Decorations…’, Punch, 21 August 1918, p. 124.

[3] Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 7.

[4] ‘New Badge for Air Gunners,’ The Times, 1940, p. 8.

[5] Roald Dahl, Going Solo (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 207.

[6] Ibid., pp. 207, 209.

[7] Ibid., p. 207.

[8] Royal Air Force Museum, London, X005-4835/002, Letter from Flying Officer James to his Mother, c. 1940, p. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Air Ministry Information Bureau, ‘Fly with the RAF,’ The Times, 18 February 1941, p. 7.

[11] Imperial War Museum (IWM), Art.IWM PST 13908, ‘Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb! – Careless Talk Costs Lives’, 1939-1945.

[12] IWM, Art.IWM PST 4095, ‘Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb! – Careless Talk Costs Lives.’

[13] Museum of Brands, Two Cardinals Coffee, ‘Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee is Delicious’, 1939-1945.

[14] ‘Fighter Pilot,’ The Times, 30 August 1941, p. 2

[15] Paul Richie, Fighter Pilot, Fourth Edition (London: B.T. Batsford, 1941), cover.

[16] Leslie Kark, The Fire was Bright (London: Macmillan, 1943), cover; Leslie Kark, Red Rain (London: Macmillan, 1945), cover.

[17] Anonymous, Britain’s Royal Air Force (London: Ministry of Information, 1943), p. 1.

[18] See Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst & Adrian Brunel, The Lion Has Wings (London Films, 1939) as an example of early-war aviation propaganda, in which little to no emphasis is placed upon the pilot’s ‘wings’ on the two lead actors’ uniforms.

[19] Carol Reed, The Way Ahead (Two Cities Films, 1944).

[20] Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (The Archers, 1942).

[21] Joseph Lee, ‘Smiling Through: Point of View,’ Evening News, 14 July 1942.

[22] Anthony Asquith, The Way to the Stars (Two Cities Films, 1945).

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Boulting, Journey Together (Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1945).

3 thoughts on “Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda

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