Reach for the skies

Tom Pears explores the historical relationship between pubs and the Royal Air Force


Air shows have always been a real guilty pleasure of mine and, a few months back, I attended my first in over a decade. On entering Duxford Air Museum, I was immediately transported back to my childhood, jaw gaping, eyes on stilts. Even as jets screamed past, it was the older aircraft that I fell for. To this day, the purr of Rolls Royce Merlin engines, the sleek lines of Spitfires as they soar effortlessly and the unmistakable perfume that is engine oil still gets me. It’s all too easy to forget that these were designed to be deadly instruments of war. Reading books as a child, fighter pilots were always portrayed as chivalrous knights, with their moustaches, cravats and their own code of conduct in the sky. The reality tended to be more pragmatic and cold.

Last year, the RAF celebrated its centenary; on TV and throughout the British Media there was a wave of nostalgia, flypasts and salutes to heroism and sacrifice. One aspect has always fascinated me however: what pilots did in their downtime. The drinking stories of the RAF are legendary and pilots’ fondness of beer was unrivalled during the Second World War, but in 2019, is there still a bond between pubs and the RAF?

The bond shared between flight crews and their squadrons was a unique one, a level of tribalism not dissimilar to playing for a football team. Given the nature of their role, time spent together was precious and savoured. This was especially true of bomber crews, who suffered huge losses on perilous missions over occupied Europe and whose crews were largely young men in their late teens and early twenties. One of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s first tasks when he took over Bomber Command was to improve morale, as crews often felt overlooked compared to the glamour and glory of the fighter pilots.

Local village pubs, given their proximity to rural airfields, soon became the haven of choice for airmen. Quiet community pubs like The Swan in Lavenham, Suffolk, which had the fortune (or misfortune) of having four US bomber airbases pop up within a six-mile radius. During the war, at the bar you would have heard accents from all over the globe, such was the diversity in the ranks. Not only British and American accents, but also those from occupied Europe. The skill and bravery of Czech and Polish fighter pilots is well documented and honoured by the RAF today. Amusingly, British pilots would often fake Polish accents to impress girls, such was their reputation for valour and bravery.

There was also a small but significant contingent of French, Dutch and Norwegian pilots, who managed to escape the clutches of the advancing German armies, while young men from Australia, Canada and the Caribbean made up a large portion of bomber crews. While RAF bomber crews were predominantly based in rural Northern counties such as East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire (nicknamed Bomber County for its concentration of airfields), American bomber groups were based in East England, requiring longer runways and lots of space for their B-17 flying fortresses. This led to US servicemen swamping the villages and towns of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk and putting a substantial dent in pubs’ cellars. Fighter Command was scattered all over the South East, in counties such as Essex, Kent and Sussex. Intercepting the Luftwaffe away from civilisation and strategic targets was imperative.

And so it was that the humble pub came to play an integral role in maintaining and boosting morale. For the fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain, who rarely had a moment to switch off and relax, it provided vital respite. A chance to toast lost friends, enjoy a game of darts or an opportunity to share experiences with the usual dose of wry gallows humour.

Jack Strachan, an RAF armourer, sums up the general feeling during this period of daily aerial battle with the Luftwaffe in 1940: “ We had some good sessions in the local pubs; the attitude was to live for today; tomorrow will provide for itself, and eat, drink and be merry”.

Bomber crews envied their Fighter Command colleagues who, given their closer proximity to London, could pop up on leave days and visit the cinema or get loose in dance halls. The sparse wilderness that is East Yorkshire didn’t afford such luxuries. Nonetheless, it was the duty of the commanding officer to bolster morale (especially when the death rate among RAF Bomber crews was over 40%). On this matter, Guy Gibson, leader of the famous Dambusters raid wrote, “the one and only plan is to go out with the boys, drink with them, and lead them to thinking they are the best; that they cannot die”.

Such was the need for good spirits that it was common for RAF stations to strike up arrangements with local pubs, whether in the form of discounts on beer or free fresh breakfasts for bomber crews. The White Hart near RAF Benson, now sadly gone, was a favourite among Airmen because of the landlady’s hospitality; it was said that Mrs Clements, affectionately known as ‘Clemmie’ always had a special welcome for her ‘RAF boys’ when they returned from a sortie.  

Airmen were notoriously mischievous, and one way in which they indelibly left their mark was through their own unique brand of graffiti

Airmen were notoriously mischievous, and one way in which they indelibly left their mark was through their own unique brand of graffiti. The Eagle pub in Cambridge is as famous for its vandalised ceiling as it is for being the site where Crick and Watson discovered DNA. Glancing up, at first the ceiling looks like a patchwork of numbers and random etchings. Airmen would perch precariously atop chairs and each other’s shoulders, meticulously or clumsily (number of jugs of ale depending) burning their squadrons number or motto into the ceiling with the flames of their lighters, candles or even lipstick.

Among the numerous squadron numbers, there are also numerous phrases: ‘Merry Xmas’, ‘Get Some In’, ‘Sad Sack’, and also the rather more cryptic ‘Wild Hare’. ‘Wild Hare’ was one of dozens of American B-17s stationed nearby in Bassingbourn, whose aim was to destroy strategic targets all over occupied Europe. But in November 1944, Wild Hare never returned, shot down over Germany, killing six of its crew. Its name serves as a stark jolt of reality amongst the merriment on the ceiling, and probably not an isolated one. The Australian writer Clive James, who once lodged in the Eagle, called this particular part of the pub, a “trophy room for heroes”. The ceiling and the stories it represents are now immortalised, a memorial to the airmen who didn’t come back.

It’s not only pubs that share this history with the RAF and the Second World War. The two most famous British aircraft have lent their names to two well-known British breweries' flagship beers. Shepherd Neame's ‘Spitfire’ was originally brewed in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Proudly Kentish, from its hops down to its water, the beer is a homage to the pilots who flew Spitfires from airfields in Kent.

But it would be criminal to overlook another Kentish brewer, Westerham which, after D-Day in 1944, under its original Black Eagle brewery guise, donated barrels of bitter and mild which were flown over the channel to troops in auxiliary fuel tanks on the underwings of Spitfires. Today the brewery brews ‘the Spirit of Kent’ 9 hopped ale to celebrate this ingenious and cheeky feat. It’s not just the Spitfire that gets all the glory from brewers. Thwaites ‘Lancaster Bomber’ is a Bitter brewed in honour of the crews of Bomber Command, many of whom lost their lives after taking off from Northern airfields. Regional brewers drawing upon their local history have consistently brewed beer inspired by or in honour of the sacrifice aircrews made during the Second World War.

Beer is a great leveller and, just like today, rank or prejudice had no place in the pub, nor was it tolerated

Of course, the Second World War was a unique moment in history, hopefully one never repeated, but researching this article I was struck at just how important the pub was, especially for those young bomber crews far from home in rural England. Beer is a great leveller and, just like today, rank or prejudice had no place in the pub, nor was it tolerated. Naturally, given pub and airbase closures, and a more professional ethos that has developed across the Armed Forces, the ties between the RAF and pubs aren’t as tight as they once were. But thankfully, the stories and memories (and copious amounts of graffiti) will forever live on.

Share this article