It is for a love of a song that I am currently blogging outside of my happy place of all things Medieval. For music month I want to discuss the historical meaning behind one of Iron Maiden’s most well-known songs ‘Aces High’. Here is the link to the music video to play before, after or during reading:
Written by their bassist Steve Harris in 1984, this songs tells of the exploits of British RAF fighters against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. As one of their most popular songs from the album Powerslave it has been extensively covered and remains a staple of the Heavy Metal genre today. The Battle of Britain (BOB) occurred one year into the Second World War where Germany attempted to gain access to the skies over England, and maintain excessive bombings across the British Isles. Instead of defining one battle on a single day like most Medieval and Early Modern skirmishes, the BOB lasted for several months over late summer and early autumn of 1940.
To begin with the Germans focused on sea ports and trade ships across the Southern bays of England such as Portsmouth. After a few months the tactics shifted to cover RAF bases in the hope to prevent there being retaliations from the British Air Force. This further went to include aeroplane factories and centres of political activity. This entire battle was fought airborne, although a later amphibious and sky attack was cancelled by the Germans, originally meaning to be double attack on British ports. The battle consisted of four types of planes in the fighter section and several other bombers. The Luftwaffe used Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110C against the British Hurricane Mk I and Spitfire Mk I. A spitfire pilot is the main protagonist for the Aces High song as those planes remain the best remembered to history. Only one is known to be in good condition, and flew in the 2014 Royal International Air Tattoo this year over London to commemorate it. The planes responsible for bombing the English territories are the German Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17, and Junkers Ju 88, not including the Junkers Ju 87 for diving techniques.
Aces High begins with a riveting beginning giving you the sense of the adrenaline a pilot would feel when creating the battle formation against the Germans. The title comes from the fact a pilot becomes known as a ‘flying ace’ and their prestige and governmental policies differed across the world. It is known that a German or Japanese ace had to keep going into the cockpit for all battles until they died in the air, as the early planes were very temperamental. However the Allied forces during the Second World War sent their aces back to training to educate new RAF cadets.
The lyrics detail the action such as:
Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines
Remove all the wheelblocks there’s no time to waste
Gathering speed as we head down the runway
Gotta get airborne before it’s too late.
The rush and speed of the song lasting 5 minutes signifies only a quarter of the average life expectancy of a new RAF pilot during the two world wars. Most new aces experienced minor training and would have a technical difficulty or would be shot out the sky with 20 minutes of a new air raid.
The chorus runs:
Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving, going in again.
Running, scrambling, flying
Rolling, turning, diving.
Run, live to fly, fly to live, do or die
Run, live to fly, fly to live. Aces high
The average flight would be frantic and fraught with tension possibly showing the panic an inexperienced flyer would be. A bomber would have to fly to its target and then remove itself from the vicinity as shown as possible before flying again. After dropping a bomb a pilot has to escape the upsurge of heat and force that escapes a bomb that’s hit its target, otherwise, it will cause the plane to malfunction and send you completely off course and crash hence “fly to live”.
The image of the cover sheet of the album is of a skeletal pilot showing determination in battle. It is unclear if the pilot is of the Allied or Axis force, but it could be assumed to be Allied considering the song is thought to fighting against the Luftwaffe. Although the symbolism could be that a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain was unlikely to live, skeletons were typical of Iron Maiden vinyl covers.
Around the plane it shows planes ascending and those crashing, assuming they are ones the featured pilot has just bombed or shot. As the first battle to have been fought completely airborne its remembrance in history is a strong one as it is the forerunner of modern remote warfare. Iron Maiden cover a few historical events in their song, yet since the World Wars still leave scars on modern society today, the pull in even stronger in the emotion and discussion of the pilots during the entire battle. Most of them lost their lives due to unsafe technology, bombings or just plain inexperience.
This is one of my favourite songs and I highly advise a listen and this concludes my foray into modern history for now. Aces High.