Nicholas Booth. Lucifer Rising: British Intelligence and the Occult in the Second World War. Stroud: History Press, 2016. The intersection of two potentially very dodgy topics, black magic and black propaganda; but I'm reassured by the author's statement that he doesn't believe in the occult (not sure where he stands on British intelligence...) and fairly extensive use of The National Archives. Everybody from Dennis Wheatley to Rudolf Hess is here; Aleister Crowley is listed in the index under his own name and as 'The Beast'!

William J. Fanning, Jr. Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2015. Does what it says on the tin (as they say): provides a thorough, if not exhaustive, study of deaths rays in (mostly) British, American and Australian (go Trove!) newspapers, novels and films -- including claims of actual death rays. After the mid-1920s and popularisation by Grindell-Mathews and stories of French aircraft mysteriously losing power over Germany, the idea became so widely recognisable that it was used in contexts far removed from speculative literature.

Peter Gray. Air Warfare: History, Theory and Practice. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Relatively short but very well-referenced. Looks like it would be an excellent postgrad-level textbook (which is exactly what it was designed for).

Alistair Horne. Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. Horne's first book was published more than 60 years ago (!) but this is the first I've read. An engaging account of some key battles (Tsushima, Nomonhan, Moscow, Midway, Inchon and Dien Bien Phu), loosely connected by the knock-on effects of one battle on the next, and the theme of hubris.

Robert H. Kargon, Karen Fiss, Morris Low and Arthur P. Molella. World's Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, and Modernity 1937-1942. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. I think I ordered this because of the whole aerial theatre/technology as spectacle thing, but I'm not sure. Takes in Paris, Düsseldorf, New York, Tokyo (cancelled) and Rome (cancelled). Well-illustrated for an academic monograph.

Bernard Lowry. Pillboxes and Tank Traps. Oxford and New York: Shire Publications, 2014. A small book with lots of photos of British fortifications from the Second World War. Nicely produced but obviously just skims the surface.

Glen O'Hara. Britain and the Sea since 1600. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. A synthesis which combines a thematic (trade, migration, war, etc) and chronological approach very well. Made me think about what a Britain and the Air since 1900 might look like...

Francis Spufford. Red Plenty. London: Faber and Faber, 2011. Everybody but me has read this so it's probably time I caught up.

2 Comments

I wrote about the strange, sad story of A. D. Harvey back in 2013. He is an independent PhD historian who has published a number of books and articles across a wide variety of topics, including my own field of airpower history, though his best known work is probably Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945. But as Eric Naiman revealed in a long Times Literary Supplement article, Harvey has also fabricated (falsified, faked) sources in their entirety. In one case (writing as Stephanie Harvey) he made up a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky which he published in a scholarly article supported by citations that led to sources which he had also made up. The two never met in reality, or rather there's no other evidence that they did; which is the point, because Harvey's claim was beginning to work its way into the scholarship on Dickens, in particular. He has admitted to all this and much more (he has published under a variety of pseudonyms, often citing and commenting on his own work) but the invented Dickens-Dostoevsky meeting alone is enough to put Harvey beyond the pale as far as the historical profession goes.

Or at least it should be. The strange thing is that he is still getting published:

The World of the Georgians is a special publication produced by BBC History Magazine, a well-known popular history magazine (I've even written for them). Harvey has an article in it titled '"My brilliant career'". The magazine's copyright date is 2016, long after his exposure. Surely he is not the only person qualified to write a popular article on Pitt the Younger; BBC History Magazine should find a better historian.
...continue reading

Because it's the holidays, I'm reading Bill Fanning's Death Rays and the Popular Media, which proves that there are far more death ray stories out there than I'd ever dreamed, from many countries and by many more hands. Some of these death rays were purely fictional, but many others were supposedly grounded in fact. It's clear that death rays were a thing: the idea recurred so many times in so many places that it suggests that it became part of the zeitgeist, at least from the mid-1920s up until the Second World War.

One particularly interesting death ray claim was attributed to the Minister for Defence Co-ordination Sir Thomas Inskip, infamously but unfairly likened by Cato to Caligula's horse. On this occasion, Inskip is said to have

openly informed the House of Commons in August 1937 that British scientists were at work on a new weapon that would completely protect the island [of Great Britain] and its civilian population from any air attacks. According to Inskip: 'The scientists who are working on the ray are convinced that within a very few years, provided they can work unhindered, they will reach protective perfection' and that this new power will mean that 'no air fleet could invade the country; no ship could land a man; no army could march.'1

This is a bold claim, but the summary is somewhat misleading, it should be said: Inskip did not say what he is quoted as saying here, and in fact he never mentioned a 'ray' in any sense at all.
...continue reading


  1. William J. Fanning, Jr., Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2015), 107-8. 

1 Comment

Richard Griffiths. What Did You Do During the War? The Last Throes of the British Pro-Nazi Right, 1940-45. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017. Billed as a sequel to Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-9 (1983), which is one of my favourite history books. It is indeed pretty much a 'what did they do next?' for many of that book's shady characters. Unfortunately Griffiths doesn't seem to be as interested in the links between aviation/aviators and fascism as he was in Fellow Travellers; there's a chapter on the Master of Sempill, and people like A. V. Roe pop up here and there, but not much else. A chapter on the fascist infiltration of the peace movement doesn't seem to have much to say about the Duke of Bedford's involvement in the Bombing Restriction Committee. Still, looks like lots of fun.

A bit of aerial theatre from Dan Todman's (excellent) Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941:

Newton Abbot, Devon, February 1941. The town is holding its War Weapons Week to promote the National Savings movement. It has been set the aim of increasing savings by £100,000 during seven days. To publicize the event, local organizers arrange a fly-over by RAF bombers from a nearby airbase. They drop 10,000 advertising leaflets, with instructions about how to take part in the savings drive. Each is headlined 'THIS MIGHT HAVE BEEN A BOMB'. Whether this is a plea or a threat, it works: Newton Abbot smashes its target, with £216,000 invested by the time the War Weapons Week ends.1

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a picture of one of these leaflets, or evidence of their use elsewhere in Britain, but the same phrase was used in other leaflets dropped on Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, in the very same month, by a member of the local aero club as publicity for War Savings Certificates:

War Savings Certificates leaflet

The leaflets dropped on Newton Abbot may have been something similar, though the message here is obviously slightly different ('help destroy Hitler's murderous bombers ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC') -- and would be different again when dropped on Reedsburg, Wisconsin, in January 1944 by the Civil Air Patrol ('Join the Womens' Army Corps') and when dropped on Los Angeles in December 1951, again by the Civil Air Patrol ('These could have been REAL BOMBS! EVEN A-BOMBS!') A little bit of aerial theatre travelling a long way.


  1. Daniel Todman, Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 603. The source is given as TNA, NSC 7/78, 'War Weapons Weeks: Items of Special Interest'. 

Peter J. Beck. The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and Beyond. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. A history of the novel, its context and its influence, mixing in biography, literary and film (and radio) criticism as well. Takes in everything from the London Necropolis to The Battle of Dorking to the (supposed) panics caused by various radio adaptations.

3 Comments

The Next War in the Air

2016 has been a terrible year in many respects, but finally there is some good news for everyone! Well, for everyone who wants to buy a copy of my book, anyway; because in January 2017 The Next War in the Air will be republished in a much cheaper (if not quite cheap) paperpack edition.

To backtrack a bit, in July 2015 Ashgate, my publisher, was acquired by Taylor & Francis. This caused a bit of angst at the time, not least because some good publishing people were going to lose their jobs, but also because nobody was sure what was going to happen to the various books and series published by Ashgate, now and in the future.

The dust has cleared a bit since then. Ashgate seems to no longer exist, even as an imprint. Some people did lose their jobs, though, happily, the ones I worked most closely with did not. My book was republished (I suspect just in ebook format) earlier this year by Routledge, the main humanities imprint of Taylor & Francis, which was nice (I've always liked Routledge). On the other hand, the price of the hardcover was put up to a whopping £100. Compare that with Ashgate's original price of £70, which was not exactly cheap either. As Ashgate rarely seemed to do paperback editions for their history monographs, and as The Next War in the Air was hardly a publishing sensation (ha!) I didn't think one was going happen (which was why I put the PhD thesis that formed the basis of the book online for free).

So I was pleasantly surprised when for some reason one day I clicked onto the Routledge page for my book and noticed a forthcoming paperback edition, scheduled for publication on 9 January 2017. Even better, the list price is only £34.99, just over a third the cost of the hardback and almost affordable. If you hunt around the usual sources (Booko is good for this), you might be able to find it for even less.1 Maybe this edition will even make it into real live physical bookshops? A boy can dream...


  1. In fact, as I write Routledge is selling it for only £26.24, though I don't know how long that will last. 

Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer, eds. The Conscription Conflict and the Great War. Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2016. A solid set of essays covering the Australian conscription debate from its political and philosophical origins to the way it has been remembered. The selling point for me was the comparative section, with one chapter by John Connor asking why conscription was a harder sell in some English-speaking countries than in others, and another by Ross McKibbin more closely comparing the issue in Britain and in Australia.

Lloyd Clark. Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality and Hitler's Lightning War - France, 1940. London: Atlantic Books, 2016. Argues that the role of armour and airpower in the Fall of France has been exaggerated and that infantry was key (though it still can't avoid having that diving Stuka on the cover). More of a military history than Julian Jackson's excellent The Fall of France (2004), while similarly suggesting that a German victory was by no means inevitable.

4 Comments

Yesterday there was quite a bit of activity on Twitter in response to the following tweet:

Yes, it's our old friends, the wooden bombs! A number of people linked either to me or to one of my posts on the topic -- the first one trying to pin down the reality of the story in response to a Snopes debunking, the second one reviewing Pierre-Antoine Courouble's book which, for my money, did just about do that, and the third one passing on an appeal from Jean Dewaerheid, Peter Haas and Courouble for further eyewitnesses, which, as far as I know did not eventuate. From time to time these get linked from Reddit or some listicle site, making them probably the most popular posts on Articles, but it's all heat and no light. However, the Twitter discussion did uncover one new source of information which would seem to confirm the origin of the wooden bomb story as a British psychological warfare operation.
...continue reading

Portable airship hangar, Farnborough

Exactly three years ago I was visiting the National Aerospace Library at Farnborough, the historic home of British military aviation going back to 1904 through the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Cody's first flight, and the Army's Balloon Factory. The site now seems to consist largely of a series of business parks -- though the famous air show is still held here, along with the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust and several large ex-wind tunnels. One of other the remaining remnants of Farnborough's aviation heritage can be seen above: the British Army's portable airship hangar (sans canvas), dating originally to 1912.
...continue reading