As long-time (and very patient) readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by the historical evidence for what I term air panics. Most obviously this includes phantom airship and mystery aeroplane panics, but also rearmament panics, Zeppelin base panics, red balloon panics... anything and everything which provides evidence for what the British people thought and felt about the danger of aviation.

Perhaps the best-known example of an air panic is the exodus from London in September 1938 at the peak of the Sudeten crisis. Supposedly some 150,000 middle or upper class people fled west in anticipation of a German air attack.1 Such a large movement of people represents impressive evidence for the reality of a fear of a knock-out blow from the air. But I've never looked into this in any detail, and nor, as far as I know, has anyone else. So we don't know much about what actually happened during the 1938 exodus, or why.

The 1938 exodus was not, of course, unique. (People had trekked out to the countryside to avoid air raids in the First World War.) It wasn't the only one in the British Empire. (There was one in Australia.) In fact, it wasn't even the biggest. As I was surprised to learn from reading Srinath Raghavan's India's War, numerous spontaneous evacuations due to the fear of air raids took place in India in 1941 and 1942.2 Admittedly this was during wartime, but some of these panics took place before Japan entered the war, and others from places that were never even threatened by air attack.
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  1. Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1950), 31. 

  2. Srinath Raghavan, India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945 (Penguin, 2017). 

Peter J. Bowler. A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. An excellent survey of the way that the future was imagined in the public sphere, mostly in Britain and mostly in the first half of the 20th century. The title suggests a focus on science fiction authors, but Bowler also looks at the influence of experts. And there's a whole chapter on aviation and another on war.

Clare Brant. Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2017. A fascinating look at the cultural importance of balloonmania: spectacle, literature, fashion, the sublime and aeronationalism. Needs a sequel!

Fernando Esposito. Fascism, Aviation and Mythical Modernity. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. A much-needed analysis of the relationship between fascism and aviation, in both Italy and Germany (perhaps with an emphasis on the former, which is about right). Add in 'mythical modernity' and I'm sold.

David Hall. Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the 1930s Project that Launched Mass-Observation. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. Worktown was where Mass-Observation started, in fact even before it was Mass-Observation. Weaves together the progress, difficulties and findings of the project itself with a portrait of Bolton and of the observers themselves, including the somewhat difficult Tom Harrisson.

Adam Hochschild. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War.. London: Pan Books, 2012. I know too little about the reaction against the war, or rather what I do know is very piecemeal. Hopefully this will help.

Stephen Morillo with Michael F. Pavkovic. What is Military History?. Cambridge and Medford: Polity, 2018. Third edition. Looking forward to finding out what military history is!

Chris Northcott. MI5 at War, 1909-1918: How MI5 Foiled the Spies of the Kaiser in the First World War. Ticehurst: Tattered Flag Press, 2015. As the title suggests, takes a less sceptical view of the German spy menace than do Thomas Boghardt or Nicholas Hiley (or myself). Nevertheless very useful, not least for tracing the wartime name and function changes of the Secret Service Bureau/MO5/MI5 and its various branches!

John Andreas Olsen (ed.). A History of Air Warfare. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2010. With authors like Freedman, Overy, Mason, Stephens, Corum, and so on, this textbook is solid in more than the physical sense. It's aimed at potential practioners as much as history students: around two-fifths of the text is on the period since 1990.

A snippet from David Hall's Worktown, on the Mass-Observation project in Bolton, a textile town near Manchester:

At 2.40 [pm] the most interesting event of the day took place. Eight aeroplanes flew over -- a rare sight in Worktown, which is nowhere near a military airport and some distance from a civil one. 'Two men in the garden of no. 84 [Davenport St] shout to attract the attention of two women. Young woman points and says, 'Look at them!' Other woman points and says, 'That's war!' and laughs. The butcher at the Co-op shop and the landlord of the Royal pub come out to see.'1

The date is not clear but it's a workday in (probably) 1937, perhaps in spring; the quotation within the quotation is evidently from the much later account of Brian Barefoot, one of the observers, or possibly from a M-O report written up at the time. This particular episode is from the compilation of 'A Day in the Life of a Street', Davenport St, the location of the M-O HQ.

Without any more information it would be difficult to identify the aircraft, though I would say the formation flying suggests they were likely RAF. There is a bit more we can dig out, though. In emotional terms, there's curiosity, with at least six people stopping what they were doing to look upwards (and the M-O judgement that it was 'the most interesting event of the day'!) There's also the assumption that other people will find the sight interesting ('Look at them!')

Beyond that, there is evidence for the response of one woman, older or at least not young. She laughed but not, it would seem, out of joy. Instead it appears to have been either a sardonic or a nervous laugh at her own comment: 'That's war!' Presumably, she didn't think the formation of aircraft literally meant war; but equally clearly she did relate it in some way to war. Whether that's because she knew or guessed that aircraft flying like that were likely to be military, or whether she associated formations of aeroplanes with militarised aerial theatre she'd seen at the cinema or air displays, I can't say. But she certainly didn't associate the spectacle above her with peaceful civilian flying. And this was just one street: similar scenes must have been replicated all over Bolton (population approx. 163,000). Probably hundreds of others witnessed this spontaneous aerial theatre; how they responded can only be guessed. But there must be more nuggets in the Mass Observation Archives.

  1. David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass-Observation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 113. 

Mosquitoes over Brisbane. 1945

The State Library of Queensland identifies this image as 'R.A.A.F. Mosquito bombers, ca. 1945'; I suspect it's from a RAAF march and flypast put on for the Third Victory Loan in the centre of Brisbane on 6 April 1945. On that occasion, according to the Courier-Mail,

The veteran Lancaster bomber 'G. for George,' will lead planes flying over the city during the march. They will include 6 Liberators, 15 Beaufighters, 9 Mosquitoes, 12 Beauforts, 6 Spitfires, and 3 Kittyhawks.

Either way, it's a nice bit of aerial theatre.

In my previous post I looked at who was behind the leaflet drop drop on striking workers at Coventry in December 1917. The official answer was that it was an obscure MP and military administrator, Major H. K. Newton; I suggested that it was actually an RAF officer and Ministry of Munitions propagandist, Captain Ernest Andrew Ewart, alias Boyd Cable. And there is some more evidence to support the existence of a wider campaign by the Ministry of Munitions.
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So, who was behind the drop of propaganda leaflets on the striking workers at Coventry in December 1917? Most of the press accounts in fact avoid identifying the aeroplanes involved or who was flying them. At least one, however, says they were 'military pilots' and this seems likely. While civilian flying didn't stop entirely during the war, it was restricted and there were simply far more military aircraft around at this stage of the war. Radford aerodrome nearby was used for testing; it was originally owned by Daimler but at some point came under military control as No. 1 Aircraft Acceptance Park. So this could be where the leaflet-droppers came from, one way or another. But whoever the pilots were, presumably they were acting on somebody's orders. Whose?
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Coventry Graphic, 4? December 1917

This photo purportedly shows a British military aeroplane dropping leaflets on the streets of Coventry in early December 1917. I suspect it's a fake, a composite, or else it's a bit odd that nobody seems to have noticed all that horsepower roaring just overhead.1 But the event it shows did happen. According to the Daily Mirror,

A considerable number of aeroplanes flew over Coventry yesterday [2 December 1917] at low altitudes, distributing a quantity of literature pointing out the necessity for an increase in aeroplane production.2

A local paper, the Midland Daily Telegraph, provided more detail:

Throughout Sunday a fleet of aeroplanes hovered the city distributing profuse showers of handbills pointing out the vital need for an increase in aeroplane production [...] The doings of the aviators were watched with great interest, and there were frequently exciting scrambles amongst the crowds for the messages which came floating into the streets and gardens of the city.3

So, what was going on?
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  1. The 'spectators' include some Australian soldiers, judging from the slouch hats. 

  2. Daily Mirror, 3 December 1917, 2

  3. Midland Daily Telegraph, 3 December 1917, 3


As I discussed in a previous post, the arrival of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 suddenly made the Aerial League of the British Empire's foray into wartime propaganda films irrelevant. Yet the bizarre coincidence that the film happened to give a prominent place to the time and date of the Armistice suggested the possibility that the League's investment might be recouped by somehow marketing Eleven, Eleven, Eleven as a novelty. The sole mention of the film in the British press, in the Preston Herald in December 1918, was pretty clearly planted with a friendly journalist in an attempt to do just that.1
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  1. Possibly through the offices of E. Jerome Dyer, in effect the film's producer; his name turns up in the Preston press quite frequently in connection with the Vegetable Products Committee which was active there. 


This summary of an unreleased and untitled film is from the 'Grave and Gay' column of the Preston Herald for 7 December 1918:

In this film a man dreams that England is under German rule, and various scenes are shown depicting the organised brutality of the Boche. But, in the dream, there is a movement to throw off the German rule. The head of the movement is a chemist and inventor who has discovered a new force. Secret meetings are held in his underground laboratory, on the walls of which is a huge placard with the words, 'Eleven, Eleven, Eleven!' It is decided that the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is to be the hour of the successful uprising and of England's freedom.1

A couple of things make this interesting, or at least unusual. One is that 'These scenes had all been actually photographed long before the armistice', and so the prominence of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the plot was both 'very remarkable and beyond the possibility of dispute'.2 The other is that the film was produced by the Aerial League of the British Empire, which seems hard to explain, given the apparent lack of any aerial theme at all. So what was going on here?
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  1. Preston Herald, 7 December 1918, 2

  2. Ibid.