Art, Activism and Aerial Assault

In a pastoral Welsh landscape where poets once gathered, the Royal Air Force now trains pilots in warfare

Hawk T2 advanced jet trainer test flight by Royal Saudi Air Force, Snowdonia, 2015 

On 8 September 1936, three writers – a diarist, a dramatist and a short-story author – set fire to the Royal Air Force base at Penrhos on the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales. They then handed themselves in at the local Pwllheli police station and, as legend has it, spent the night in jail reciting verse and prose with the duty sergeant. Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams confessed to committing their crime in defiance of the then British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s decision to build a bombing school on the site of Penyberth farmhouse, a medieval resting place for pilgrims on their journey to Bardsey Island, and a spiritual home to generations of Welsh poets.

Aerial bombardment was still a relatively novel method of warfare, eliciting the condemnation of Europeans the following year with the obliteration of the Basque town of Guernica, and its subsequent immortalization in Pablo Picasso’s eponymous painting. Yet, for decades, bombs had rained down on civilians in Africa and the Middle East with impunity – a policy that Winston Churchill dubbed ‘aerial policing’ for recalcitrant colonial subjects. In 1923, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, inventor of the night terror raid, recounted the repercussions of this brutal tactic following the ruthless quelling of the 1920 Iraqi revolt against the British: ‘Within 45 minutes, a full-size village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors and no effective means of escape.’

In this context, the Conservative prime minister’s decision to demolish Penyberth farmhouse – described by Lewis as one of the ‘essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom and literature’ – and to replace it with a military base, on the 400th anniversary of the annexation of Wales, was seen as an especially egregious and barbaric example of British imperialist aggression. After a jury in Caernarfon failed to reach a verdict, the trial was transferred to London, where the defendants were convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison. ‘Fire in Llŷn’ was a blazing response to an incendiary provocation, whose iconoclastic reverberations helped galvanize Plaid Cymru and the Welsh language movement. Upon their return to Gwynedd, the ‘Penyberth Three’ were welcomed home as heroes by a crowd of 15,000 compatriots, and their singular act has been mythologized by subsequent generations.

Less legendary, but equally brave, was a similar act of civil disobedience undertaken by three women six decades later. In the early hours of 29 January 1996, Lotta Kronlid, Andrea Needham and Joanna Wilson cut a hole in the perimeter fence of a British Aerospace munitions factory and began hammering at the nose, wings and fuselage of a Hawk fighter jet being sold to the Indonesian Air Force. The activists were members of the Ploughshare Movement, a pacifist organization inspired by the biblical Book of Isaiah: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’

At the time, Indonesia was engaged in a war of genocide against the people of East Timor, resulting in the imprisonment, torture and death of up to a third of the population. Echoing Harris’s chilling account of the effects of aerial bombardment, the exiled East Timorese leader and Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta decried: ‘Entire villages have been wiped out. Entire tribes of indigenous peoples have been obliterated.’ This relentless campaign of land theft, resource exploitation, shootings and bombings was facilitated by a lucrative trade in armaments by the British government – from the supply of paramilitary training to the sale of weapons systems such as the Hawk.

After pounding away at the jet’s cockpit and airframe, the women hung photographs of massacred Timorese children from the wingtips, and sprinkled flowers and vegetable seeds around its wheels. They then telephoned the press and notified security, who had ignored an alarm triggered by the factory’s motion sensors, thinking the women were wild rabbits. The three trespassers and their fellow organizer, Angie Zelter, were charged with causing an estimated GB£1.5 million worth of criminal damage and remanded without bail for the duration of their six-month trial. In their defence, they cited Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act, which warrants the use of necessary force ‘as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime’.

They also referenced a precedent set at the Nuremberg Trials, in which the manufacturers of Zyklon B, the cyanide poison used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, were convicted of war crimes under international law. Much to the humiliation of British Aerospace and Her Majesty’s Government, the jury acquitted the defendants on all charges, and jubilant crowds greeted the not-guilty verdicts. The women’s victory was also celebrated by groups of Timorese activists 13,000 kilometres away, with whom they had entered into a correspondence of solidarity and support during their time in prison.

Today, the UK trains the Royal Saudi Air Force in an upgraded variant of those same Hawk aircraft at an air base on the island of Anglesey, about an hour away from the site of the demolished Penyberth farmhouse. On any given day in this pastoral Welsh landscape, the sound of sheep bleating may be punctured by the screech of jets streaking across the sky. The valleys and mountains of Snowdonia offer pilots from client nations an opportunity to train in terrain that can mimic so many military ventures. More like a Greek chimera than a Celtic dragon, this mythic enclave has been exploited by the movie industry to similarly surreal effect: in 1968, the colonial farce Carry On Up the Khyber was filmed on the south slope of Snowdon due to its perceived resemblance to Afghanistan’s Khyber Pass; a decade previously, the same slopes served as a backdrop to Ingrid Bergman’s performance in the 1958 intrepid love story The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, set in rural China.

The weaponry and wherewithal that Britain sells to Saudi Arabia has been routinely deployed against civilian populations in Yemen since 2015, contributing to a conflict that has claimed the lives of almost 100,000 people, while generating an estimated GB£4.7 billion in revenue for the UK. In 2019, the defence industry gathered at London’s ExCel exhibition centre for its biennial DSEI arms fair, promising contractors and governments from around the world ‘valuable opportunities for networking [and] live action demonstrations’ at a kind of Venice Biennale-meets-Frieze Art Fair for deadly military hardware. As one missile manufacturer put it in a slogan emblazoned above their stall: ‘Strike with Creativity’.

The UK government’s total disregard for how its weapons are deployed was perhaps best summed up in an exchange between the journalist John Pilger and the Conservative MP Alan Clark, who served as Minister for Defence Procurement under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In his film Death of a Nation (1994), which documents the destruction of East Timor, Pilger asks the Tory minister whether it bothered him that British military hardware was ‘causing such mayhem and human suffering’. Clark responds: ‘No, not in the slightest.’ Pilger notes his interviewee’s lifelong vegetarian principles, questioning whether his concern for how animals are killed doesn’t also extend to humans, ‘albeit foreigners’. He replies: ‘Curiously, not.’

This moral myopia finds its corollary in the cultural sphere. As director of London’s National Gallery from 1934 to 1945, Clark’s father, the esteemed art historian Kenneth Clark, was responsible for overseeing the wartime evacuation of some 2,000 paintings from the museum’s collection – including works by Jan van Eyck, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci – to a slate mine in Blaenau Ffestiniog, where they were hidden in case of a Nazi invasion. Yet, while treasures from the Western canon were being buried beneath Wales for safety, the Welsh heritage above had been razed to the ground. And in those hills where pilgrims and poets once gathered, the Royal Air Force now trains pilots in the art of aerial assault. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘Aerial Assault’.

David Birkin is an artist based in New York, US. He is a visiting fellow at University of the Arts London, UK, where he co-founded the transdisciplinary research platform Visible Justice. His skywriting project Severe Clear, a collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union, has been shown at The Mosaic Rooms, London; Casino, Luxembourg; Benaki Museum, Athens; and Whitney Museum ISP, New York. He will be exhibiting in ‘Hidden States’ at BALTIC, Gateshead, in 2020.

Issue 209

First published in Issue 209

March 2020

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