Braddock!

In a previous post I described my adolescent fascination with military aircraft. Among the many books and magazines I owned was a 1950s hardback picked up for 10p at a jumble sale. I Flew With Braddock was – to my naive mind – the biographical tale of a maverick RAF Bomber Command pilot called Matt Braddock, as told by his friend (and navigator) George Bourne.

It was years before I discovered (though I’d long suspected) that Braddock was an entirely fictional creation – the hero of stories and comic strips in boys weeklies until the 1970s – and “George Bourne” a pseudonym whose true identity has never been formally revealed by publishers DC Thomson¹. Now, courtesy of the long-running Commando magazine, Braddock is back, and I was keen to read this reboot of his adventures.

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I’ve never (until now) owned a copy of Commando (though I have a friend who has hundreds in his attic) and find its continued existence a mystery. As a child born in the 70s I surely belong to the final generation that grew up playing war-games in which “the Germans” were the enemy: we had living ancestors who’d fought in the Second World War so there was a link, however tenuous the justification. Every Christmas would see a copy of the latest Victor or Hotspur annual: little had changed in their world since Orwell wrote “Boys’ Weeklies” in 1940. Who, in 2019, is Commando aimed at? Surely not today’s kids. The target demographic – and I hope I’m not wrong – is probably white males over the age of 35.

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Matt Braddock is a sergeant pilot (a genuine rank at the time, long-since phased out) of RAF bombers, graduating through the course of the War (the comic and book both start in 1940; the book thereafter swiftly moves to 1942) from piloting Blenheims to the mighty Avro Lancaster. Although his conflict with Germany is conducted from several thousand feet, almost as much of his time is spent battling petty bureaucracy (had the phrase “little Hitler” been coined then?). He has the Victoria Cross, which somehow remains attached to his uniform by a few threads. I don’t know what appals the stuffed shirts of the RAF more: the condition of the ribbon, or the fact that someone like him has a VC at all. Bourne describes him thus:

“Many people disliked him, and some even hated him for the ruthless way in which he swept aside anything he regarded as red tape or useless discipline, but even his bitterest critics had to admit that, in the air, Braddock had no equal.”

His refusal to accept promotion to officer class (calculated to form a greater bond with the stories’ readership) is viewed as either a sign of integrity, or of moral failing. James Chapman describes him as “an abrasive and insubordinate character”, exactly the type of hero to appeal to the child’s worldview. Although almost always gruff and grim, and a hard taskmaster (“my discipline is in the right place”) he values honesty and fair treatment, and isn’t above playing a practical joke by way of teaching someone a lesson.

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Characters have names with internal rhymes or alliterative initials (see image above), and the more hair a character sports, the less trustworthy they are: hipster moustaches signify uptight bureaucrats, while anything longer than short-back-and-sides on the scalp means they’re a braggart.

The book is clearly a digest of the serialised stories and zips along at an incredible rate. The prose is as crisp as a military uniform, with neither frills nor poetry. Whatever the danger, Braddock will pull something out of the bag. It offers action, adventure and getting one over on stuck-up officialdom.

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How does Braddock fare in the comic reboot? I’ve never seen any of the old Braddock comics other than what’s on the web, so can’t really compare it to those. My only reference point is I Flew With Braddock, and the few prose stories to be found online (some of which helpfully flesh out the book).

The first Braddock Commando (#5259) is perfectly enjoyable in its own right, and takes us back to his origins as a steeplejack (dealt with in 3 panels), desperate to fly but stymied by the RAF’s elitism:

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His would-be fellow pilots are “all posh”, or “toffee-nosed snobs”. Squadron leader Suddaby is this series’s bete noire, joining the likes of I Flew With Braddock‘s Captain Mandeville (nominative determinism alert!) in being an embodiment of stifling bureaucracy. These middle-ranking officers seem to be equated, at least in the book, with the middle class. The highest-ranking officers are usually “decent chaps”, reflecting the dubious view that despite their wealth the upper class were actually OK, while the chattering classes were the real enemy. Braddock may be aimed at the working class (see below), but it’s not with the aim of overthrowing the status quo.

As for his flying companions, unlike the book where we have pen portraits of his crew, whose personalities are all fleshed-out (by the navigator-as-narrator, George Bourne), the first comic gives us the one-dimensional “Pete” and “Johnny” who merely act as a foil for Braddock’s maverick tactics. They’re shocked when he tries something daring, and apologetic when he’s (once again) proved right.

What’s lacking is the logic that Braddock uses in the book, where time and again he explains to George (Watson to his Holmes) the reasoning for the seemingly senseless, yet always justified, acts of unorthodoxy. By dropping this, Commando is implicitly portraying Braddock as essentially heroic and, consequently, beyond the aspirations of young readers.

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As a kid I read I Flew With Braddock countless times², alternating it with The Bumper Book of Biggles. I swallowed uncritically W.E. Johns’s xenophobia, believing him when he claimed the Japanese had never invented anything, and had stolen everything (language, alphabet, etc) from China. Biggles, as has been documented elsewhere, is full of such poisonous nonsense³. I Flew With Braddock treads a little more carefully, but we do still get this:

“The Italians have a fine navy…we look on them as ice-cream vendors and spaghetti eaters, but they are great shipbuilders and their battleships and cruisers are among the finest in the world.”

There’s (unsurprisingly) no explicit political content and no reference to Germany’s existence outwith the context of war. Germany exists, rather starkly, only as a location to be bombed. Of course, in recent years we look less favourably on Bomber Command because of the massive number of civilian deaths they caused. Their actions in Braddock are justified by a “he started it” line of reasoning:

“The Germans had invented blitzes. They had inflicted blitz raids on Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Plymouth, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool. Now we were hitting back”

Unlike Biggles, who was a pilot during World War I and seems not to have aged by World War II, Matthew Ernest Braddock’s age is given by DC Thomson as 30, and his birthplace as Walsall. This is fitting: it’s near enough the geographical centre of England rather than the wealthy south-east and in an area (the Black Country) identifiable as a region of the country, i.e not the centre. Small details, but significant in a country as paralysed by class as Britain. He’s someone working class children could relate to.

braddock2.jpgWe see, therefore, that from the outset Braddock has the potential to be a more radical character than Biggles, as much as is possible in the context of wartime. In the comic, he actually describes himself as “working class” and his aspirations are to help with the war effort – a communal aim – rather than for personal advancement (he refuses to accept promotion to officer class) or glory (he disdains medals). As a character, he’s much more grounded and realistic than Biggles, and it’s much easier to imagine Braddock in everyday life.

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In Braddock’s second comic adventure – Demons (#5267) – as the name suggests, things get darker. Braddock is angry and increasingly stressed. We even see him drinking (a thing he abhors in the book because it affects the eyesight). But at least the expanding crew gain surnames. However, they also gain – reader, I cringed – a Scottish gunner called Jimmy Crawford who speaks like no Scot ever spoke (“Whit was all that aboot, Matt? Gary seems a’richt tae me”).

Now, Braddock is working class and from Walsall, and so could reasonably be expected to have a Midlands accent. But he doesn’t: by writing his speech in standard English, his accent is therefore portrayed as neutral. Only Germans and Scots, it seems, have “accents”. We really haven’t learned from Orwell.

Everybody has an accent, and if you’re going to phonetically portray one then you should do it for all, or not do it at all.

I said above that I didn’t think Commando was aimed at kids: in fact I hope not. I don’t have a problem with shouting abuse at Nazis – quite the opposite – but there’s an uncharacteristic cry of “Take that, Fritz!” which makes me uncomfortable. There’s a disclaimer in small print which warns us that

“Some pages may contain references which are of their time, but would not be considered suitable today”

Yes, I know, historical accuracy and all that, but should insults like this still be used, especially at a time when a significant part of the population seems to actually view continental Europe as somehow hostile?

It seems increasingly that in Britain we forget that what we did from 1939-1945 was to stop the spread of fascism. That was the true victory. Now we only remember that “we won” the Second World War, and the attendant triumphalism is divorced from political reality. Maybe I’m over-thinking this: surely it’s only a comic, a bit of gung-ho fun? Maybe. But maybe not.

 

 

Notes

¹ Though Braddock’s Wikipedia entry suspects Gilbert Lawford Dalton.

² I didn’t know then that as well as the comic strips, there was a further novel – Braddock and the Flying Tigers – set in the Pacific. I haven’t read this, as the ebay prices are prohibitive.

³ There’s a well-researched webpage which documents the differences between these two fictional pilots (though the background colour hurts my eyes).

Sources

“Bourne, George” – I Flew With Braddock (DC Thomson, 195X)

Chapman, James – British Comics: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books, 2011)

Handley, Ferg (Morhain and Defeo, ill.) – Commando #5259 – “Braddock” (DC Thomson, 2019)

Handley, Ferg (Morhain and Defeo, ill.) – Commando #5267 – “Braddock: Demons” (DC Thomson, 2019)

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