Experts from the RAF Museum guide us through the history of the UK’s aerial force
2018 marks the centenary of the Royal Air Force. To coincide, the award-winning RAF Museum formally reopened on Saturday June 30th, welcoming visitors into a newly transformed north London site.
The Museum’s ambitious multi-million-pound redevelopment features new immersive galleries, freshly landscaped green spaces, a children’s playground and themed restaurants, making it the only place in London where visitors can test their flying skills, explore RAF stories, sit inside an iconic cockpit and enjoy a picnic in a single afternoon.
In light of this, the RAF Museum has provided a range of posters spanning periods in its 100-year history, highlighting the different aspects of the RAF and how it has tried to appeal to the British public over time.
1. Join the Royal Air Force and Make a Direct Hit, Lithograph, John Shuley and Company, Printers (1918)
In 1918, the year of the RAF’s founding, Britain was still close to starvation due to the German submarine campaign, making posters such as this all the more powerful. That the RAF was a new service is evident in the poster. The person drawing it likely didn’t have a good idea of aerial warfare as this scenario was very unlikely to happen, however like other posters in this series, portraying the excitement of the service is more important than accuracy. Notably, the poster makes a considerable effort to attract volunteers to the RAF over other armed service, including the guarantee that you can’t be transferred to other services, something which may well have enticed war-weary Britons to sign-up.
2. Women! The Royal Air Force needs your help! Lithograph, Dangerfield Printing Company (1918)
This poster highlights the importance of the changing role of women throughout WW1 as they took on more and more roles due to the shortage of able-bodied men. The call to “Serve your country” serves as a rallying cry for women to serve their country in meaningful ways. Similar to other posters, the woman in the poster is shown as confident, and importantly front and centre on her own, not merely as an aide to men. By August 1918, there were over 15,000 women in the WRAF.
3. Join the Royal Air Force, Ernest Oker, Lithograph (1920)
In the aftermath of WW1 few were enthralled by the prospect of joining the Armed Services, and as such the RAF had to try hard to recruit. In a typically ‘Orientalist’ style, this poster appeals to the sense of adventure and travel that the RAF wanted to represent. Bear in mind that in the 1920s, Armed Services such as the RAF would be the only way for a working-class person to travel the world, a point unsubtly stressed in posters such as these. Interestingly, the planes, small and in the background, are almost incidental to this poster, with the overarching focus on the ‘exotic’ location.
4. Join an Air Crew in the RAF, Lithograph, Jonathan Foss (circa 1942)
This WW2-era poster shows the crew positions in a Handley Page Halifax Bomber. One of the few ways the Allies could hit back at Axis forces, bombers took on a primary role early in the war. The poster highlights that working in the RAF meant being part of a team, and that you don’t have to be a pilot to fly, which was no doubt influenced by the RAF’s tradition of meritocracy and inclusivity. Jonathan Foss designed some 60 posters for the RAF and drew inspiration from the French graphic artist and typeface designer, Cassandre.
5. On reflection… Join the WAAF, Lithograph, Jonathan Foss (circa 1942)
Standing confidently on her own, this poster not only encourages women to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, but looking back, exemplifies the huge, but sadly often overlooked, contribution of women to the war effort. By July 1943, over 181,000 women were serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in over 100 trades. Over the course of the war, 191 airwomen were killed, 420 wounded and 11 were decorated for gallantry.
6. They Rely on Me in the RAF, Lithograph, Robin Day (1948)
Designed by Robin Day, one of the most distinguished British designers of the 20th century, this post-WW2 poster again appeals to the teamwork ethos of the RAF. ‘They rely on me’ emphasises that joining the RAF isn’t just about being a pilot, but about being a vital part of a wider team.
7. For Opportunity, Adventure, Excitement, Join the RAF Regiment, Lithograph, Frank Wootton, (1950s)
Frank Wootton, the designer of the poster, was one of the most important aviation artists of the 20th century and he provided an unparalleled artistic record of the RAF during WW2. With the almost futuristic DeHavilland Venom fighter bombers in the background, and focus on ground forces, this poster is a distinct break from WW2-era and before posters. However, the common themes of excitement, travel and fun shine through in this 1950s poster. The RAF Regiment only formed in 1942 and provided vital defence of RAF airfields.
8. There’s a Place for You in the RAF as an Apprentice, Lithograph (1950s)
Training, apprenticeships and meritocracy have been at the heart of the RAF since its founding by Sir Hugh Trenchard. This poster embodies those values, with RAF apprenticeships amongst the most competitive schemes in the country offering the chance of a high-ranking career. Those who were selected became known as Halton ‘Brats’, due to their training at RAF Halton airbase. Notably, Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle rose from an apprentice to Air Rank (a junior General position). Again, the emphasis here is not on the fast aircraft, but on the people behind the RAF that enable it to get off the ground.
9. A Career in the Royal Air Force. Make flying your life, Lithograph (1960s)
Although a 1960s poster, it is likely that the photo was taken in the 1950s. Unlike most of the previous posters, this has an explicit focus on the peak of technological innovation at the time, the Vulcan Bomber. With no people visible, this poster aims to appeal to those who want to fly a projection of British power that carried the nuclear deterrent. It serves as a startling contrast to the apprentice poster.
10. Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service… At Home and Overseas (1960s)
The nursing branch of the RAF, Princess Mary’s Nursing Service was founded in 1923 and has been a vital part of the RAF Nursing Service since. As discussed in previous posters, the poster shows a proud, confident woman on her own and the poster makes a point of mentioning the possibility of overseas travel. The white uniform is the overseas uniform they would have worn.