Waugh and the RAF

Foreign Policy magazine is publishing excerpts from a new book by Thomas Ricks entitled Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. The latest installment discusses the RAF pilots who prevented a German invasion in the Battle of Britain and who were predominantly from lower middle class social origins. According to Ricks, both Orwell and Churchill commented on this middle-class make-up of the RAF. He also notes that Evelyn Waugh joined in this observation in his war trilogy:

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. Thus gaff 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 night mare for everyone.”

The quote is from chapter 1 of Officers and Gentlemen but needs a bit more context to make sense. The discussion occurs when Guy and Ian Kilbannock arrive at Bellamy’s (a fashionable men’s club) during an air raid. Ian mentions that the officer, Air Marshall Beech, managed to achieve membership to Bellamy’s because his name came up during “what the papers call ‘the Battle of Britain.'” Guy’s response is omitted: “Well, it’s worse for you than for me” (meaning that it was Ian who put the air marshall’s name forward and must accept a large part of the blame) to which Ian replies as in the quote. In the previous volume (Men at Arms) it was explained that the air marshall had secured Ian a cushy billet in the RAF in return for Ian’s agreement to get him into the club. Ian was willing to agree to put his name up with the belief that there was no chance such an “awful shit” would avoid a black ball. Back at Bellamy’s, there follows a scene when the air marshall crawls out from under a billiard table where he was sheltering during the raid and tells Guy to call his car from headquarters. Guy merely passes this “order” on to the club servants, to the evident annoyance of the air marshall. It is understood that, if he had been a gentleman, the air marshall would not have ordered another gentleman and fellow club member, Guy, to call his car–so Guy is now sharing in the “nightmare” of the air marshall’s membership.

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