Playing an ace: the RAF’s wartime publishing success

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All pics: © Ray Hepner

Even before the war started, the RAF’s Public Relations Directorate had run a sophisticated programme of promotion of the country’s youngest service. To put it in context, remember that flying was very much a novelty at the time, with most people never even being in an aeroplane. Within months, what would later became informally known as ‘Writer Command’ would be established, based in the Air Ministry in London. It would eventually recruit well-known authors such as H E Bates, John Putney and R F Delderfield.

Ray Hepner has kindly sent me some pictures of one of the by-products of the work of this department. Air Aces is a book of studio portraits taken by the society photographer Gordon Anthony, published by Home & van Thal in 1944. Gordon Anthony was well known before the war mainly for his portraits of opera and ballet stars. His publisher in this instance was a company set up by Margaret Douglas-Home, daughter of Earl Spencer and sister-in-law of the future Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, and Herbert van Thal, probably most famous after the war for editing umpteen volumes of the Pan Book of Horror Stories

The text was written by John Macadam, then a young poet and art critic, but who later became famous as the chief sports columnist of the Daily Express. He contributed 32 pen portraits to accompany the photographs, all written in the chatty but sophisticated style common at the time. Here is his brief biography of Guy Gibson.

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The text is interesting because it illustrates how the ‘myth’ of the Dam Busters (as they were then called) was being built within a year of the raid. Hastily written, it contains one glaring error: Gibson never shot down a Dornier while ‘chasing it down a valley near Lorient’.

It isn’t clear when in 1944 Air Aces was published, but in September of that year, Gibson was killed, crashing in a Mosquito near Steenbergen in Holland. He left behind the manuscript of his own book, published after the war as Enemy Coast Ahead. Another best seller, and another by-product of the fertile brains of Writer Command.