Currently, I'm tracing the evolution of the idea of the knock-out blow, the massive aerial bombardment that could knock a country out of the war. Though the idea intself has earlier antecedents, the first use of the phrase itself in this context that I've found so far is this, in a well-known (at least to airpower historians) lecture given in April 1914 by the engineer Colonel Louis Jackson:
If a flight of aeroplanes passed over the city, each one dropping a dozen incendiary bombs in different places, would not the result be more than the fire brigade could cope with? If a Zeppelin dropped half a ton of guncotton on to the Admiralty or the War Office, as she might do if not interfered with, what would be the result, in disorganization and discouragement? What would be the effect of cutting off the water supply of the East End, or sinking food-ships in the Thames? These things seem incredible to us, who have only known of wars on the frontiers. I confess I am reluctant to go to the length of my own arguments, but if it is conceded that London is within the range of action of a hostile Zeppelin or two, and a flight of aeroplanes, such action will soon be possible; and this is the age of the "knock-out blow" in everything. Would any ruler harden his heart to such action? Who can say?
Source: Louis Jackson, "The defence of localities against aerial attack", Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 58 (June 1914), 712-3. (Emphasis added.)
Obviously Jackson isn't calling such an attack the knock-out blow, it's just a knock-out blow, so the phrase was not yet synonymous with the concept. I'm not really sure what he means about it being 'the age of the "knock-out blow" in everything' … boxing would be the obvious reference, but that alone hardly qualifies as 'everything'. Perhaps he means that it was used in military/naval circles more generally: for example, a couple of years later, Lloyd George was claiming that the Somme offensive was the 'knock-out blow' against Germany,1 clearly a non-aerial context, and it was applied to other offensives too. At some point thereafter (certainly by the 1930s), though, I think the term was widely understood to refer to aerial bombardment alone, even to a significant extent in popular discourse–at least when preceded by the definite article. Jackson's lecture and article may have suggested that terminology to air strategists, or it might just be a case of convergent evolution.
- Quoted in A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 ), 62.
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