University of Sussex

File(s) under permanent embargo

Art, propaganda and the experience of aerial warfare in Britain during the Second World War

posted on 2023-06-07, 15:50 authored by Rebecca K Searle
This thesis examines how artists working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) represented aerial warfare. In contrast to the scholarly attention lavished on wartime films and posters, official war art remains a much neglected aspect of the propaganda war. The few studies that do exist, most notably by Brian Foss, survey the collection as a whole and consider it from an art history perspective. By focusing on the single theme of aviation, a central and defining experience of the Second World War, I embed the WAAC within the economic, social, military and cultural histories of the period and locate it within a longer time frame. Through bringing these usually disparate fields of study into dialogue, I am able to use the art to enrich broader understandings of the period, in particular, the ways in which aerial warfare was represented, how this image evolved during the war and how these cultural products related to economic, military and social factors. This thesis highlights the different roles the WAAC was expected to fulfil. Housed within the Ministry of Information, the WAAC was expected to perform a propagandist function. The committee distanced itself from propaganda and insisted that its primary function was to record for posterity the experience of living through the war. I assess exactly what kind of record the WAAC bequeathed by looking thematically at the key aspects of aerial warfare: aircraft production; the Battle of Britain; the Blitz and the bombing of Germany. I argue that whilst there was broad correlation between war art and propaganda, these images registered aspects of experience that were incongruent with and therefore absent from wartime propaganda, such as the fear of aerial bombardment and the true nature of the bombing of Germany. Moreover, propagandist constructions were not entirely separate to lived experience, rather they both reflected experience and shaped the way that individuals understood and made sense of the world around them. Therefore, in producing images that accorded with propagandist portrayals, the WAAC artists were recording a fundamental part of the experience of living through the war.


File Version

  • Published version



Department affiliated with

  • History Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • dphil


  • eng


University of Sussex

Full text available

  • No

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Theses)


    No categories selected