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Airminded, 7 July 2005

It's 10 years to the day since I put up Airminded's first post, imaginatively entitled 'First post!' That is a long time ago, a very long time in internet years. Still, Airminded wasn't one of the first history blogs. In fact, Ralph Luker (of Cliopatria fame, alas long since retired from blogging) made a start on writing the history of history blogging two entire months before Airminded even began. Ralph identified Kevin Murphy as the first bona fide historian blogger: Kevin's Ghost in the Machine began in 1999 (in the last millennium!) and is still going strong, though it's not so much about history these days. King of the geek/historians Rob McDougall started on 1 January 2001. Rebecca Goetz started in July 2002 (as she recounts in her own recollections, conveniently published just last month); Tim Burke started in November. Mark Grimsley started the precursor to War Historian (for a long time the military history blog) sometime in 2003. Cliopatria itself, which in many ways became the centre of the history blogging community, or at least its central clearinghouse, started in December 2003. All these history blogs and bloggers were well-established by the time I came along, or indeed before I was really aware of blogging at all. So by starting a history blog in 2005, I was merely joining a swelling crowd.

The only sense in which Airminded might have stood out from that crowd in any sense (apart from being non-American) was in being resolutely, well, airminded. Most of the history blogs I was aware of when I was thinking of starting my own were much more personal or political than I wanted to get -- they were written by historians trying to make sense of academia, or trying to make sense of the world outside academia. I wanted my blog to be much more about trying to make sense of history, the history I was researching. In other words, Airminded was to be a history research blog. (About airpower and British society. Mostly.) But again, I wasn't the first to think along these lines -- Miriam Burstein's Victorian literature blog, The Little Professor, was definitely an inspiration for me; Esther MacCallum-Stewart's (much-missed!) Break of Day in the Trenches was at least three years old; Alun Salt was already around, somewhere (and still is, I'm very glad to say); Sharon Howard's Early Modern Notes was also well-established; a few months after Airminded, Kevin Levin's research blog, Civil War Memory, independently came out of a strong American Civil War blogging community, but soon set the standards for everyone to emulate (or try to).

I didn't always keep to my original vision -- I quickly pulled back from putting everything I was doing or thinking out there (and blogged about that, of course; I never did do anything with the idea I was so concerned to protect, something about interwar robotic warfare, I think) and I did comment on academia, memory, and sometimes even politics. In any case, history blogging as a whole has changed: as Becky notes, much of its conversation and spontaneity (and procrastination) has moved elsewhere, especially Twitter, for good or ill. And, naturally, Airminded has evolved along with my career; teaching is not conducive to serious blogging, at least not if you're me. But I think my blogging has created a profile for myself which I would not otherwise have had as a junior scholar in a remote part of the academic world. I've even worked out how to turn research blogging into research publications (at least sometimes). On the whole, Airminded has remained largely about my research, one way or another, and I'm pretty pleased with the way it has turned out.

Airminded has always been a big part of my scholarly identity. I started it a month before I started my PhD; ten years, 1426 posts, 873000 words (not to mention 6850 comments -- thank you! Most of you, anyway...) -- and one thesis, five peer-reviewed articles, and one scholarly monograph -- later, I'm coming towards the end of my first academic position, and Airminded will still be with me, whatever happens after that. (Take that as a promise or a threat, as you like!)

To celebrate Airminded's tenth birthday -- not having done much for its first or its fifth -- I'm going to take a leaf out of Sharon's blog and repost some of my favourite Airminded posts over the next little while. And for anyone who makes it through all of that, there might even be a surprise.

Image source: via Wayback Machine.

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These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, http://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...

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Alan Allport. Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War, 1939-1945. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Alan's –– since he's a longtime friend of this blog I feel justified in the slight informality -- last book looked at what happened to the British soldier when he went home after the Second World War ended. This is much more ambitious in that it's about everything that happened to the British soldier before Demobbed. Hopefully Alan will write a social history of the RAF next. (Well, I can dream, can't I?) In any case, he will no doubt be pleased to learn that it's on sale in Australian bookshops, since that's where I found it; and that I showed both Browned Off and Demobbed to a colleague who promptly decided to buy his own copies for his current research. That's outreach and impact, right there.

Anne Witchard. England's Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War. Melbourne: Penguin, 2014. A very cute little (less than a hundred pages) book and a useful parallel to the Germanophibia with which I am better acquainted. Witchard argues that the casualties of the First World War led to fears of racial decline and hence the identification of the Chinese as a racial enemy. I know what you're thinking -- didn't M. P. Shiel, Jack London, and for that matter Sax Rohmer himself all write about the Yellow Peril before 1914? Well, yes. That's a good point. Hopefully Witchard will address it.

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.


  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54. 

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David Clarke. How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth. London: Aurum Press, 2015. Clarke is a journalist and academic who has also worked with the National Archives on the declassification of Britain's official UFO files. Here he takes a wider view, providing a social history of ufology (a subject he has already tackled, with Andy Roberts) framed through his own personal journey from believer to sceptic. Given that, I'm a bit disappointed that there seems to be little about phantom airships, a topic which he pioneered. Still, there's plenty of interest here.

Robin Prior. When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Or, to be slightly more precise, when Britain saved the West by saving itself - Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz (and Churchill rather than Chamberlain or indeed Halifax). Knowing Prior's previous work (mostly on battles of the First World War), this will be thoroughly researched and logically argued. At first glance, it's not clear that he is challenging much of the historiographical consensus on 1940, however: for example he allows that Fighter Command had the Battle of Britain well under control, while making the point that this wasn't obvious to contemporaries. Which is to say that Prior is sensible. As Prior says there aren't many military histories of 1940 as a whole, so a fresh, integrated and scholarly account is welcome.

Nigel Watson. UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena. Stroud: History Press, 2015. With Clarke, a sometime-collaborator, Watson is the other major pioneer of the history of phantom airships (and who also is more interested in their cultural significance than the remote possibility of physical reality). The collection which he edited, The Scareship Mystery (2000), has long been my standard reference on the subject for both peacetime and wartime mystery aircraft scares -- not that there are many competitors, mind. This is something of an update, a bit less in-depth but also broader. In fact, apart from the more usual mystery aircraft wave of the period, there is a chapter on the Australian mystery aeroplane panic in 1918 drawing upon my own research, which is very gratifying. There is also some information on Norwegian mystery aircraft scares, in 1908 and during the First World War, which I don't know much about. A chapter on wartime spy scares and other rumours bears on my own research in this area.

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The Australasian Association for European History is, by widespread acclaim, the best conference series ever, and so I'm pleased to report that I will be speaking at the next one, to be held in July at the University of Newcastle. The title of my talk is 'Zeppelinitis: constructing the German aerial threat to Britain, 1912-16', and the abstract is:

I will show how the German aerial threat to Britain was constructed in the public sphere during the First World War, with the Zeppelin menace eclipsing older anxieties such as invasion and espionage. This was partly an objective assessment: Zeppelin raids did actually occur. But it was also partly a subjective and greatly exaggerated one, due to prewar speculation about aerial warfare, wartime propaganda about German atrocities, and the pervasive nature of the atmosphere, which for the first time exposed everywhere and everyone in Britain to attack. In this way, the Zeppelin menace helped construct the home front, too.

Now to work out what I actually meant by all of that. Something to do with this, I think.

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Blaine R. Pardoe. Never Wars: The US Plans to Invade the World. Fonthill: 2014. NB: 'Plans' is a noun, not a verb! This is a summary and analysis of various war plans made by the United States between the 1900s and the 1940s, from the Azores to Mexico. Two versions of War Plan Red, war with the British Empire, are presented, one from 1905 and one from 1935 (including the use of poison gas against Canada). Perhaps the most intriguing is War Plan Black from 1914 (not the better-known 1916 version): the German invasion of the United States following the defeat of the Allies in the war in Europe. It's not quite The War in the Air: the projected German forces include only a detachment of aircraft, and Pardoe suggests that German airpower may been decisive, given the American lack of it (which seems unlikely, given the actual capabilities of aviation in 1914). Sadly, the US Navy's 1908-9 plans for the invasion of Australia and New Zealand don't rate a chapter.

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At 10:45am on 25 April 2015, a RAAF Hornet (possibly a Super Hornet) flew 500 feet over my house. Ordinarily my response to something like this would be: COOL. But this day was a bit different, because it was, of course, Anzac Day; and not just any Anzac Day, but the long-anticipated centenary of the Australian and New Zealand invasion of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Anzac Day is now the most important day in the national calendar, eclipsing Australia Day, 26 January, the anniversary of white settlement and the official national day, as well as Remembrance Day, 11 November, the anniversary of the end of the Great War and the other major day in the Australian calendar which commemorates war. Why? The Australian War Memorial (AWM) puts it like this:

Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.

But the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland probably gets closer to its real significance for Australians:

one day in the year has involved the whole of Australia in solemn ceremonies of remembrance, gratitude and national pride for all our men and women who have fought and died in all wars. That day is ANZAC Day -- 25 April.

Every nation must, sooner or later, come for the first time to a supreme test of quality; and the result of that test will hearten or dishearten those who come afterwards. For the fledgling nation of Australia that first supreme test was at Gallipoli.

This is what Anzac Day is really about: 'The Gallipoli landing was in an important sense the birth of our nation. Certainly it was the coming of age', as prime minister Tony Abbott said, not entirely consistently, a few weeks ago. A century ago, many would have shared his sentiments, too. But a generation later, the patriotism and militarism embodied in that viewpoint had begun to seem old-fashioned, even dangerous, after another world war and a new cold war; and after another generation, with the original Anzacs fading away, it seemed like Anzac Day would too. (I barely remember Anzac Day from when I was a kid, which seems bizarre to me now given its present prominence and my own war obsession.) That has changed utterly: an incredible 128,000 people turned up to the dawn service in Canberra, about a third of the population (though no doubt many were from out of town: the AWM is the central site for Australia's memory of its wars).
...continue reading

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IWM Q48951

For my twelfth (and last?) contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I spoke about what was undoubtedly the most important battle to take place in late April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres in Flanders. The reason why this was so important is because it opened with the first successful, large-scale poison gas attack in the history of warfare (the first unsuccessful attack had been at the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front at the end of January). I looked how the particular gas used by the Germans, chlorine, worked in chemical, biological and military terms, the role played by Fritz Haber in developing it, the shattering effect it had on the French lines, and the unreadiness of the German army to do much to exploit its success. I also noted briefly the prewar laws against the use of poison gas and its subsequent career in the war and after, including in the present Syrian civil war.

Image source: Imperial War Museum.

Malaya XV

David Payne sent me this great photograph of Malaya XV Cheon Teong, Ngoh Bee, a B.E.2c which was donated to the British war effort as part of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla I blogged about last year. David's grandfather, Arthur Chapman, is in the cockpit; he was an engineer at Shorts on the Isle of Sheppey, though not necessarily at the time of this photo. David provides the following information:

Arthur Chapman (1877-1937) worked as Shorts "head man" from '09 but I don't know how long for. He taught himself to fly and helped teach the first four naval volunteers to fly. Also he was in the passenger seat when Commander Samson flew the first hydroplane off the Hibernia at the review of the fleet in 1912. At what date he left Shorts I don't know although he joined the RFC in 1917.

Otherwise the details of this photo was taken are unknown, including the identity of the two men standing in front of the B.E.2c. It would likely have been taken in 1916, which is when the Over-Seas Club's book recording the growth of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla was published; Malaya XV was the 15th of 17 aeroplanes in the Malayan squadron.

I notice that while the names of this aircraft's donors are given as Cheon Teong and Ngoh Bee, in the Over-Seas Club's book the first name is given as Cheow Teng.1 This seems to be an error; at least the name is given as Cheon Teong in a contemporary Singaporean newspaper.2 Either way, I hope he was pleased with his aeroplane.


  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 28. 

  2. Straits Times, 3 March 1916, 8