Cart

Winged Squadrons: The RAF and the War Photographs of Cecil Beaton

September 5, 2012.

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Photograph from Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton (1942).

“Here is something entirely new and dynamic, and yet still almost as mysterious and inexplicable as death itself. Never before have battles been fought six miles above the surface of the earth at a speed of over three hundred miles an hour… A new mould of men has been cast. The feats of their bravery haunt of, they baffle us, and satisfy completely the spirit of romantic daring inherent in our island race. Perhaps this British aptitude for flying is part of the sailing tradition and the feeling for freedom and adventure that is a heritage from Drake. Maybe there is a natural sequence from sea to air, and the Englishman who enjoyed drifting along with the breezes in his boat at four knots an hour is the father of the boy who now wishes to beat the winds in his Hurricane” – Cecil Beaton, preface to Winged Squadrons (1942).

Before the  Second World War, Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) had been a glamorous society photographer, responsible for some of the most striking portraits of the 1920s and 30s. At the outbreak of hostilities he turned his considerable talent to the service of the Allied cause and became one of the most influential photographers of the war, with his lens largely shaping public perception of the conflict. His portraits of Winston Churchill and the Queen boosted morale at home, and a photo of a child injured during the Blitz “was said to have influenced American feeling concerning the war more than any other picture” (ODNB) when it appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1940. Even more importantly, he traveled around the world photographing and interviewing fighting men and women, and “By his courage and dedicated approach he earned the respect of the three services” (ODNB).

Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton self-portrait.

One of the six books that resulted from Beaton’s war photography was Winged Squadrons, for which he visited two dozen air bases, recording the lives of RAF men in photos and moving prose. We recently acquired a unique item – Beaton’s working maquette for this book:

Maquette for Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Maquette for Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton.

A maquette is a bit like a draft, or model, of a book used during the editing and design process, and can tell us a great deal about the circumstances of a book’s production. This one includes the entire text in draft form, with numerous annotations in ink by Beaton himself:

Corrected tyepscript of Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Beaton’s handwritten corrections to the typescript of Winged Squadrons.

Corrections made during editing reveal Beaton’s thought processes, and how his ideas about the content and structure of the book changed as he worked. Passages that have been deleted in blue and red pencil by the official censor demonstrate just how closely the author worked with the airmen, with details such as the following in brackets being cut, “So that they shall not be located by their radio, the bombers seldom break wireless silence on the outward journey, [but it is important that they should send a message that their mission is completed. It is not always easy to hear clearly, and therefore these concisely-phrased messages are generally twice repeated]”. In another example below, sensitive information about foreign targets is excised:

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Twelve photographs are included with the maquette, and all are stamped and numbered in ink on the verso by Beaton’s studio, along with pencil and ink notes related to their use in the book. All the photographs were also stamped as “approved” by the Press & Censorship Bureau during September 1941 and January 1942. Each appears in the final book, and it is possible to compare the full-sized photos of the maquette with the cropped images in the final version–in one case a photo has been altered to hide pin-ups on the wall of an airman’s bunk. Below, the original photo before cropping:

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

A portion of another photograph has been whited out, possibly for security reasons, a correction just visible in the printed version:

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Below, more of the original photographs included with the maquette:

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Airmen with messenger pigeons used for delivering sensitive information.

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

The maquette is held loosely between two boards, the cover with a handwritten title. This can be seen in the image below, together with a first edition of the final book and the folding case that they are housed in:

Winged Squadrons by Cecil Beaton

For more on Cecil Beaton:

Laura joined Peter Harrington in 2009 after completing a master's degree in book history at the University of London. Her special interests are science and medicine, modern literature, and the book culture of the medieval and early modern eras.

Your Comment