In 1966 the Queen visited the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London to open an extension that Noble “Bunny” Frankland, its director, had persuaded the Treasury to fund. Minutes after she and her entourage had passed, a deluge of oil fell on to the red carpet. It came from a reconnaissance aircraft that had, at Frankland’s behest, been hoisted aloft and suspended from the ceiling, without anyone first checking that its engine had been drained. Lesser men would have sunk to the ground, clutching at their heart, but Frankland, a veteran of Bomber Command, was made of stronger stuff. He merely counted his blessings.

His appointment as director arose from fortuitous circumstances. In May 1960, as a 38-year-old deputy director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, he had left his Oxford home one morning without the papers he had intended to read on the train. Consequently, he read The Times more thoroughly than usual and saw an advertisement inviting applications for the post. Conscious that his work at Chatham House was reaching its peak, he applied and got the job, against some brawny competition.

At the time the museum offered a rather dispiriting display of wartime memorabilia confined to one building. Frankland knew that as director he would face a formidable struggle to achieve modernisation and to secure the additional government finance that would be needed for an extension of the buildings.

In April 1967 Frankland visited Portsmouth to investigate the acquisition of the six-inch gun turrets of HMS Gambia, a Second World War cruiser. She was a rust bucket waiting to be towed away for scrap, but beyond her, in good condition, lay another cruiser, HMS Belfast, then in use for accommodation, but destined for the same fate.

His initial idea was a joint venture with the National Maritime Museum (NMM) to keep Belfast as a stand-alone museum piece. Sceptics, including the Duke of Edinburgh, pronounced her a rusted hull, but after the NMM pulled out, and after many manoeuvrings through the Whitehall labyrinth, Frankland secured her for the IWM. Just after first light on October 15, 1971 he stood on Belfast’s bridge as she was towed to her prominent place in the Pool of London, where she lies today.

He also turned his attention to finding space for aircraft. Christopher Roads, keeper of the department of records at the museum, discovered Duxford airfield in Cambridgeshire, where the Home Office had plans to build a prison. Frankland’s request to park a few historic aircraft in one of the empty hangars led to the establishment in the mid-1970s of Imperial War Museum Duxford, which is now home to almost 200 Allied and enemy aircraft, together with tanks, vehicles and small naval vessels.

At the IWM itself, Frankland went on to transform a moribund and dusty collection of relics from two world wars into a vibrant institution devoted to learning and scholarship. Researchers who have sought material from its archives, students who have sought inspiration and schoolchildren who have gasped in delight at the aircraft suspended from the atrium roof owe their thanks to him.

Frankland’s wish to present the museum and its collections more positively was met by the introduction of special exhibitions. They came about after WP Mayes, keeper of the art department, drew his attention to a closed gallery containing exhibits from the Zeebrugge raid of St George’s Day 1918. The operation to block the German-occupied Belgian port used by U-boats to attack Allied shipping in the Channel had only limited success, but the heroism displayed on that day provided a morale boost after the Ludendorff offensive of March 1918. Frankland made certain that the exhibition featuring the raid was widely covered in the press.

Frankland in 1981 with General Perky, the museum’s mouser
Frankland in 1981 with General Perky, the museum’s mouser

Other exhibitions on his watch included the Foundation of the Royal Flying Corps and Women at War. Exhibitions on Colditz, the Real Dad’s Army and the War Exhibition, opened by the Prince of Wales in 1980, were among the best attended.

At a stroke he had found a way to project the museum on to the national canvas. He also recognised the potential of the IWM film and photographic archives as a means of enlightening the public on how the two world wars had been fought and won. The epic, 26-episode TV documentary The World at War, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, was a notable example of this.

When Frankland retired from the IWM in 1982 its staff had increased from 70 to 342. The one surprise was that he had resisted an approach by the government to include the Whitehall Cabinet War Rooms in the IWM, questioning their commercial viability. However, not long after his retirement they became part of the museum’s portfolio and were opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

For all his vision on how history could be given popular appeal and its display made commercially viable, Frankland was a rigorous and uncompromising historian, as impatient of ill-informed opinion as he was of those who, as he would put it, did not detain themselves to use precise terminology.

Although charming with a courtesy of the Edwardian era, he was not easy to work under. A casual remark or unsupported opinion would bring a rebuke all the more stinging for the precise but still courteous language in which it was delivered. He used understatement, spoken or written, to powerful effect, memorably describing the tongue-tied Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, whose biography he wrote, as “no conversationalist”.

Anthony Noble Frankland was born in 1922, the son of Edward Frankland of Westmorland. He was educated at Sedbergh and Trinity College, Oxford, where after the war he took an MA in history. He had completed 84 bombing missions as a navigator with RAF Bomber Command in 1943-44 and was awarded the DFC. Later Frankland and Sir Charles Webster wrote the official history of those years, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945. It was published in 1961 and became something of a cause célèbre.

The argument was whether the human and material costs justified the impact that the campaign had on the defeat of Nazi Germany. Bomber Command lost 47,293 air crew killed or missing in the campaign. German civilian casualties were far greater than those inflicted by the Luftwaffe in Britain but, although seriously damaged, the German war industry struggled on.

Frankland during renovations of the IWM reading room in 1969, after it was damaged in an arson attack
Frankland during renovations of the IWM reading room in 1969, after it was damaged in an arson attack

Frankland had written a dissertation on the effectiveness of the bombing campaign while working in the air historical branch of the Air Ministry. Yet his RAF experience had provided objectivity rather than bias. One night over Munich in 1944 one of the Lancaster air-gunners suggested that he draw his blackout curtain to see what was happening outside. The sky was illuminated by searchlights, flares and anti-aircraft fire over the blazing city below. Appalled, he drew the curtains and concentrated on his charts.

The book’s most prominent critic was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the former air officer commanding-in-chief Bomber Command, who before reading it condemned Webster as a “communist” and Frankland as “a disgruntled navigator”. Webster died around the time the book was published, leaving Frankland alone to face a barrage of criticism, including from distinguished historians who, as he put it, “did not allow their judgment to be impeded by reading the work”. After reading the four-volume history, Harris conceded that it was thoroughly researched, “although it exaggerates our errors and decries our victories”.

In 1944 Frankland had married Diana Tavernor, a German translator at Bletchley Park. Subsequently she became his research assistant. They had a son, Roger, a retired probation officer in Lancaster, and a daughter, Linda, who is a former chief executive of the Faculty of Public Health UK. Diana died in 1981, a year before he left the museum. Despite the loss he kept busy, making plans for new galleries at Lambeth and delivering the Lees Knowles lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1982 he retired to his handsome house and garden on the bank of the Isis near Eynsham, Oxfordshire. That year he married Sarah (Sally) Davies, whom he had known since his time at Chatham House, where she was an archivist. She died in 2015 and he is survived by the children of his first marriage and three stepchildren: William Mackesy, a lawyer and artist, Cathy Fleming, a company secretary, and Serena Mackesy, better known as the author Alex Marwood.

Frankland continued to write by working in the royal archives at Windsor on a biography of the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s son, published in 1993. He was also the author of two novels: The Unseen War (2007) and Belling’s War (2009) and was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2016 for his involvement in the liberation of France in 1944.

His memorial will be the thriving Imperial War Museum, which he saw as being dedicated not only to the art of war, but also to the evolution of human society.

Noble Frankland, CB, CBE, DFC, director of the Imperial War Museum, was born on July 4, 1922. He died on October 31, 2019, aged 97.