“Man’s Greatest and Most Glorious Triumph”: A Visit to the Royal Air Force Museum London

July 28 to the July 30 was the one free weekend of William and Mary’s Summer Study Abroad Program at Cambridge. The timing was perfect, as the Royal Air Force Museum Reading Room is only open Monday through Friday. So while everyone else was boarding trains and planes to go to their weekend destinations on Friday, I boarded a 7:15 am train to London to head to the Royal Air Force Museum. Although my reading room appointment was not until 1 in the afternoon, I got to the Museum right after it opened so I could give myself plenty of time to look around at all the exhibits.

The Royal Air Force Museum is absolutely amazing. There are three major sections currently open to the public: the Visitor Center and main building, which includes The Bomber Hall, Historic Hangars, and the Battle of Britain Hall; the Milestone of Flight Hangar, and The Grahame-White Factory. The Battle of Britain Hall was recently configured to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the start of the conflict on July 10. Many of the newer museum buildings are not complete yet, as construction is still ongoing as a part of the RAF Centenary Programme. According to the RAF Museum, the programme’s goal is “To mark the centenary of the RAF in 2018 the Museum’s London site will be transformed through investment in new exhibitions, improved education and volunteering opportunities, and landscaping that will emphasise the site’s importance as a heritage airfield.” As a result, much of the museum will not be complete until 2018.

The Grahame-White Factory building was my favorite part of the museum, not just because it was the main First World War exhibit, but because of its atmosphere and presentation. The museum itself is located on the former Hendon Aerodrome, but the First World War exhibit is extremely special, as it is located in an original Grahame-White aircraft factory hangar. The building is named after the Grahame-White Aviation Company, formed in 1911, which covered aerodromes and aircraft design, development, and construction.

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When I made my reading room appointment, I knew I was a bit ambitious with the amount of items I requested to view. Basically, the RAF Museum’s reading room is open on Friday from 1 to 5 pm, and as this was the only day the entirety of my time in England that I would be able to visit, I had a very limited amount of time to see a lot of things. In my opinion, I would rather have a surplus of sources and not get to them all than find myself wasting precious time by scrambling to find more sources during my visit. Although my main goal was to reproduce materials where possible (as paper from this time period was cheaply produced, so it doesn’t withstand time as well), I also wanted to read through them in order to get a basic sense of whether my early thoughts are on the right track. Many of these documents could not be reproduced due to paper fragility, but I was able to photograph them with my phone; I apologize for the photo quality in some of them, as it was difficult to photograph due to the room’s lighting. The materials I requested ranged from 56 Squadron’s record book to personal correspondence and poetry written by individual pilots. During my appointment, I was able to get through a majority of the personal correspondence, most of which belonged to James McCudden, and Rhys Davids’ poetry. Although I was not able to get through the squadron’s records, I am not particularly worried, as Alex Revell’s High in the Empty Blue, a history of 56 Squadron’s First World War career, contains copies and transcripts of many of these. Below, I have included photos and brief descriptions of some of the particularly interesting materials I viewed. I intend to do future posts in more detail on some of these sources, especially McCudden’s manuscript.

B310, B311, B312, B313: Snippets from James McCudden’s Manuscript Volumes for Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps

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McCudden’s autobiography Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps was published posthumously in 1918, with a bulk of it written during his time training pilots at  No. 1 School of Aerial Fighting in Scotland.  The manuscript was composed of four volumes, all written in Army exercise books; at that time, it was against Army doctrine to keep a diary, but McCudden’s writings included in the manuscript go back to early 1915. Written in his extremely neat handwriting, the manuscript interestingly includes a guide to R.A.F. engines, appendices matching mechanics to equipment and duties, and sums in the margins McCudden used to keep track of the word count.

AC 72/4/1: McCudden’s French Grammar and Exercise Book


Although McCudden left school at age 14 before joining the Royal Engineers and never received formal instruction in French, he dedicated himself to learning French once the war began. Veterans would remember that McCudden was adamant about French villages being spelled correctly on all maps and reports in a way of giving respect to their allies.

AC 72/4/14: Letter Postscript from James McCudden to his sister, Kitty


This letter is particularly interesting, as it was written in January 1918. Unlike the Germans, the British military did not publicize the exploits of fighter pilots for a majority of the war. Eventually, seeing the positive effect the Germans’ technique had on their public morale, High Command allowed for the Daily Mail to publish an article identifying “air heroes” with stories and photographs. Presumably, McCudden’s negative response is directed towards the Daily Mail’s January 3 article entitled “Our Unknown Air Heroes” and January 7’s “Our Wonderful Airmen-Their Names at Last”. McCudden continued to reject “hero worship” as more newspaper articles were published until his death in July 1918.

X002-5698: Arthur Rhys Davids (MIXED DOCUMENTS GROUP)

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Although not directly related to his military service, this small collection of poetry and limited correspondence gives a small glimpse into Rhys Davids’ mind and reaction to the world around him. Most of the poetry, save for the one entitled “France”, was written during his time at Eton College, the famous British public school. The poem “Longing for Friendship” is especially interesting, as it suggests a sense of loneliness in his surroundings. With a comparison to his letters of both his academic days and his service with 56 Squadron, it will be interesting to see if they reflect the same idea of social class distinctions and a clash with tradition.




  1. Lizzy Flood says:

    Nice pictures, and I’m glad everything went well for your reading room appointment. It’s cool that you got to see the more personal side of Davids’ life and compare it to what the more professional/ military-related letters were like.