This is the talk I gave at Earth Sciences back in May. It's long and picture heavy and much of it will be be familiar to regular readers, but some people expressed some interest in it so here it is. I've lightly edited it, mainly to correct typos in my written copy. I've put in links to the Boswell drawings because they're under copyright, and I've replaced one photo because I realised it was of British Army Aeroplane No. 1b, not British Army Aeroplane No. 1a! How embarrassing.
Facing Armageddon: Britain and the Bomber, 1908-1941
Today I'm going to give you an overview of my PhD thesis topic. My broad area is the history of military aviation in the early twentieth century, so first I'll give you a little background on that.
The first heavier-than-air manned flight was made by the Wright brothers in 1903, as you can see here. Within a few years, countries around the world started thinking about how they could use this new technology for warfare.
This is the British Army's first aeroplane, which wasn't very successful but did at least make the first ever flight in Britain. In 1914, the First World War broke out and this pushed aviation along very quickly. At first, aeroplanes were mostly used to find and report on the movements of enemy troops, but soon they were used to drop bombs on them too.
And when aircraft became powerful enough, they started to bomb targets far behind enemy lines. This is the German Gotha G.IV, which was used to bomb London in 1917 and 1918. Of course, each country also developed fast fighter aircraft to try to shoot down their opponents' slow bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.
Here's one of the most famous fighters of the First World War, the British Sopwith Camel, as flown by both Biggles and Snoopy. It was fast, agile, and armed with twin machine guns.
After the war ended in 1918, aviation technology continued to progress, though not quite as quickly. By the 1930s, air forces were starting to be equipped with sleek biplanes such as this Hawker Hart, which was the fastest aeroplane in the Royal Air Force -- which is a bit startling since it was actually a bomber and not a fighter!
The late 1930s witnessed the birth of a new generation of aircraft, powerful monoplanes with maximum speeds well in excess of 200 or even 300 miles per hour. They were also better armed than earlier aircraft: these Hawker Hurricane fighters had 8 machine guns.
This is one of the bombers that the Hurricane would be defending Britain against, the Ju 88, Germany's most effective bomber. It could carry up to 2.5 tons of bombs. Germany built over 14000 of these bombers by the end of 1945.
Finally, this is one of the most powerful bombers of the war, the British Avro Lancaster. It was capable of carrying up to 10 tons worth of high explosive or incendiary bombs to Berlin and beyond.
But that's all just by way of introduction. My research isn't actually about aeroplanes as such or how they were used. What I'm looking at is the fear of bombing in Britain in the early twentieth century, from the early days of flight before the First World War, up until the end of the Blitz on British cities in 1941. More specifically, I'm interested in how the threat of aerial bombardment of cities was debated in the public sphere, as distinct from what was being discussed behind closed doors by the government and the armed forces. A number of historians have written excellent studies of British air strategy and air policy. Many of them mention the pervasive fear of bombing on the part of the British public, especially in the 1930s, but nearly always, they just take this fear as a given, and don't spend much time trying to understand it or its origins. This annoyed me, because the little that they did tell me about the popular fear of bombing was fascinating, and I wanted to know more: why was the public scared of bombing, and what were they afraid would happen? Hence the thesis!
However, it's very difficult to measure public opinion itself, especially before the introduction of opinion polls (which means virtually all of the period I'm studying). You can get the occasional odd glimpse into what the average person really thought about the dangers of bombers coming over and blowing them up, but perhaps not enough to do a whole thesis on. So instead I'm focusing on some of the most important influences on public opinion: primarily books, journals and newspapers which discussed the air menace and what should be done about it. And to a lesser extent, I also use things like cinema newsreels, films and radio broadcasts. Concerned citizens -- often professionals such as military experts, doctors, or scientists -- used all of these forums to present predictions of what would happen to cities and civilians under air attack, along with their proposals about how to solve the problem. Novelists took the serious speculations of the experts and turned them into nightmarish visions of what future wars held in store for the inhabitants of great cities. These fictional scenarios in turn coloured much of the debate about bombing. In fact, fictional and non-fictional discussions about bombing were often remarkably similar to each other.
So, what was the threat? Most people today have probably heard of, for example, Guernica, the Blitz or Dresden, which are all still potent symbols of the horrors of total war. This is Guernica, a small town of about 5000 people in the Basque country in northern Spain. In April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War it was devastated by a German air raid.
London was bombed by the Luftwaffe on 57 consecutive nights from 7 September 1940, forcing more than 200,000 people to take shelter in the underground railway stations every night. Here are just some of them in Elephant and Castle.
And this photo was taken from a British aeroplane during the Allied air raids on the German city of Dresden in the middle of February 1945. The little points of light are incendiary bombs, which started a massive firestorm. About 30,000 people -- men, women and children -- were killed in these raids.
But as terrible as these events were -- and there are many more I could have mentioned -- they were nothing compared with the predictions made before the war. Essentially, the widespread belief in the 1920s and 1930s was that at the beginning of the next war, a huge fleet of enemy bombers would suddenly strike at London and other cities and destroy them with high explosive bombs, incendiaries, and poison gas, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties within a matter of hours or days, shattering essential infrastructure and leading to mass panic. Under such circumstances, it was widely assumed that Britain's government would be forced to surrender within days or weeks of the outbreak of war. This is what was sometimes called the 'knock-out blow', that is, the sudden blow which would knock Britain out of the war.
This graph shows the effects of the German air raids on Britain in the First World War. 'Casualties' means the number of people killed or seriously wounded, in this case in each month. Green shows the casualties caused by airships, and red the casualties caused by aeroplanes. Note that it peaks at about 600 casualties in any one month.
And this is the equivalent graph for the Second World War. The peak casualties per month has shot up to more than 16000. That's September 1940, when the Blitz began. In all, there were more than 146000 civilian casualties in Britain during the war, around a third of whom were killed.
Now, here's a comparison between what actually happened in 1939-1945 and what British government officials in 1938 predicted might happen if a war started in 1939 -- that's the knock-out blow: over a million casualties per month, half of them fatalities, over only two months. Nearly two orders of magnitude more destructive than what actually happened. These estimates were not plucked out of thin air, but they weren't much more than naive extrapolations from the First World War experience: divde the number of casualties between 1914 and 1918 by the tonnage of bombs dropped, and then multiply by the number of bombers the enemy had and the amount of bombs they could carry. This turned out to be a huge exaggeration, but you can see why everyone was so worried!
In extreme versions of the knock-out blow, civilisation itself would collapse, as the complex webs of commerce, transport and social control which bind society together break apart, leaving people to fend for themselves as best they could. From the perspective of a later generation, this sounds a lot like the effects of nuclear war.
And in fact in 1966 Harold Macmillan, a former Conservative Prime Minister who had been a backbench MP in the 1930s, wrote that 'We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today'. It could in fact mean the end of life as we know it.
I'll now give you some typical examples of how this fear of the bomber was manifested in literature and the arts. The following quotes are from a knock-out blow novel published in 1934 called Invasion from the Air. Firstly, the enemy air force attacks suddenly, with little or no warning, just after or even before the declaration of war:
At five minutes to twelve on that fateful night Germany struck from the clouds. The blow was totally unexpected, for the declaration of war by Britain against Germany and Italy had no more than been conveyed to the departing Ambassadors [...] London's bewildered eight millions were precipitated into actual war conditions before the majority of them knew there was a war.
Secondly, the attack is massive in scale:
Squadron after squadron assailed the cities and towns in waves, each wave having its separate duty and aims. Upwards of two hundred enemy aircraft -- fighters, bombers and [poison gas] sprayers -- were brought down that morning as against only fifty British machines, but eight hundred broke though all attempts to stop them.
And thirdly, it is devastatingly destructive:
Thousands of people were killed or burnt to death or died subsequently insane at the memory of that battle, while, as always after the raids, vast numbers developed later the agonies of poisoned
lungs and throats, eyes and nasal passages [...] When the battle had passed Regent's Park was scarred with great pits where explosive bombs had fallen [...] the bodies of old and young, broken and mutilated, lay everywhere.
So the knock-out blow would bring the horrors of the trenches of the Great War into everyone's homes.
The Fall of London: Waterloo, by James Boswell (1933)
Next, here are some drawings which were actually commissioned for the novel I've just quoted from, but in the end weren't actually used. They show the aftermath of the attacks, as the terrified mob revolts and rampages through London. Wrecked trains at Waterloo Station.
The Fall of London: Corner House, by James Boswell (1933)
A patrolling soldier in gas gear tramping past the body of a woman.
The Fall of London: The Colosseum, by James Boswell (1933)
The rioting crowds, clashing with troops. An upper and middle-class fear of the unruly mob goes back at least to the time of the French revolution; more recently, since 1918 there had been an increase in working-class assertiveness and the example of the Russian Revolution to worry about. So the fear of the knock-out blow was not only about the possibility of war but also reflected other anxieties about British society.
Now, I'll show you a clip from the 1936 film Things To Come, which was adapted from a novel by HG Wells. This was a history of the future in three parts, and was a big-budget spectacular for its day. The first part of Things To Come features a graphic depiction of a gas attack on a city called Everytown, which bears a suspicious similarity to London. It was Wells' argument that the destruction of modern society by total warfare was a necessary prelude to its recreation into a technocratic, utopian world state.
So much for the threat of the knock-out blow. What could be done about it? Surprisingly, the obvious answer, the one that actually did work in the Battle of Britain -- air defence by fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns, harnessed to a sophisticated command and control system -- was given little credit. It was widely believed that bombers were too fast and too well-armed to be shot down, at least in sufficient numbers to stop an attack.
I'll show you a graph which helps explain this pessimism. First here's a map showing Britain in relation to Europe, and some of the directions from which enemy bombers might attack. Ideally, the defending fighters would intercept the bombers before they reached London, the biggest and most important city. But there weren't nearly enough fighters to keep up a standing patrol, so they'd have to wait until an air raid was detected, and then take off to intercept it. However incoming aircraft could usually only be detected once they'd crossed the coast. And it's only about 50 miles, give or take, from the coast to London. The problem was that as technology improved and bombers got faster, there was less and less time for the fighters to react.
This graph shows in blue the time in minutes it would take for a bomber to cross the 50 miles from the coast to London. In the First World War, this could take around half an hour. By the Second World War, this time was down to only 10 minutes or so. The points in red show the time taken for the defending fighters to take off and climb to the height of the attacking bombers. As you can see this time is generally less than the crossing time, so in theory the fighters would have time to find the bombers and hopefully shoot them down. But lots of things could go wrong -- the bombers might be detected late, the detection might not be reported soon enough, the bombers might have changed course or be hiding in cloud and so on. So the greater the margin of safety the better. In the 1930s, this margin was only 5 to 10 minutes which was not reassuring at all. Air defence exercises in the early 1930s seemed to confirm the difficulty of intercepting bombers before they could reach their target.
As the former and future prime minister Stanley Baldwin pessimistically told Parliament in 1932,
I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through
A widely-quoted remark at the time and for years afterwards. He went on to offer the standard alternative: essentially to bomb the enemy harder than they bombed Britain.
The only defence is in offence, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves. I mention that so that people may realise what is waiting for them when the next war comes.
One solution, then, was a bigger air force so that Britain could kill more women and children more quickly than any enemy.
This was a solution generally favoured by those on the political right, such as the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League. This is a leaflet they distributed in 1933 or 1934. As you can see, they ask 'Why wait for a bomber to leave Berlin at 4 o'clock and wipe out London at 8?'
Their demand is for the creation of 'a new winged army of long-range British bombers to smash the foreign hornets in their nests'. This was in fact the official Royal Air Force strategy at the time, pretty much, though due to years of disarmament and budget cuts, it did not have nearly enough aircraft to carry it out. The British governments of the 1930s did begin to rearm, but were reluctant to do so too quickly for fear of harming the economic recovery or offending the Germans.
There were also those, generally on the political left, who rejected the logic of two nations trading massive blows with each other, for it seemed likely that even the victor in such a war would be devastated. What alternatives were there? One was to mitigate the effects of bombing, by preparing Air Raid Precautions, or ARP as it was known. This could mean everything from training civilians in how to survive poison gas attacks, to the construction of deep shelters able to accommodate thousands of people during air raids. Although this sounds unobjectionable, some pacifists could and did argue that ARP was a mere palliative, and might actually invite war by making Britain feel over-confident about its ability to withstand a knock-out blow. So they favoured more radical solutions such as complete disarmament, or at least the abolition of military aircraft. But this in turn encountered problems. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the idea developed among aviation specialists that large civilian aircraft such as airliners could be easily turned into bombers, more or less by strapping bombs under the wings. This possibility undermined disarmament efforts because it was feared that once all nations had disbanded their air forces, an aggressor could arm its airliners and hold the rest of the civilised world to ransom. So, one proposed solution to this dilemma was to place the civil aviation industries of all countries under international control.
From there it was a logical step for many supporters of collective security to propose the formation of an international air force, a very popular position in the early 1930s for parts of the left and one which was under serious consideration at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932. An international air force would harness the devastating power of the bomber to uphold collective security, because if one country attacked another it would immediately be bombed itself by the combined air forces of the world. It was also attractive to some people as a possible foundation of a world state, which would end war forever by ending nations themselves.
So, I've explained what people thought bombing would do, and what they thought could be done about it. I would lastly like to talk about the discourse itself, how these problems and solutions were propagated from specialists to the public. In the ordinary course of things, most people don't pay much attention to even existential threats such as terrorism, nuclear warfare, asteroid impacts, or indeed the knock-out blow. They may well be aware of them, and even anxious about them to some degree, but such information as they may pick up from the media, books or conversations with acquaintances will be random, fragmentary and possibly unpersuasive. It often takes some crisis, real or perceived, to concentrate people's minds on the supposed threat to society, and here the mass media plays a key role in creating the perception that there is a threat, and in suggesting solutions to the threat. So I suggest that this process is very much like the concept of a moral panic, as proposed by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972. Usually this is a media-driven panic about the danger posed to society by some group within it -- like criminals, drug users, religious cults. But it seems to me that something closely analogous can happen in relation to external threats to society. To distinguish these incidents from moral panics, though, I call them defence panics. Defence panics seem almost endemic in Britain in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Initially these expressed fears about the loss of British naval supremacy and the possibility of invasion by a foreign power such as France or later Germany. The most famous expression of this was the great dreadnought panic of 1909, when an intense press campaign called for the laying down of 8 new battleships to pre-empt a supposed acceleration in the German naval construction programme. But only a couple of months later, there was a similar panic, this time time over German airships, and this panic was itself repeated on a larger scale in 1913. From then until the Second World War, the threat of air attack was unparalleled in its ability to create defence panics. Examples include scares over the size of European air forces in 1922 and 1935, claims about German preparations for biological warfare in 1934, the bombing of Spanish and Chinese cities in 1938 which were part of the background to the Munich crisis, itself a major defence panic, and finally the shocks of the Gotha air raids on London in 1917 and the Blitz in 1940.
In the end, the knock-out blow never took place, because the power of the bomber was greatly exaggerated. But the belief that it could happen itself shaped how the British prepared to fight the war that did come. The internationalist solutions such as disarmament or the international air force never worked, because few nations could even contemplate giving up their sovereignty like this. Britain did invest in trying to avoid the worst effects of a knock-out blow, with air raid shelters and plans to evacuate the cities. But their ARP schemes were never very comprehensive, and individuals did little to prepare for bombing on their own behalf until war came. Far more was spent on the armed forces, and most important here was air defence. Even though in the early 1930s nearly everyone was pessimistic about the fighter's chances against the bomber, effort was still put into improving them, resulting in fighters like the Hurricane which I showed earlier. These played a essential part in blunting the bomber offensive in 1940, at least in daylight. But another crucial technological component of the solution to the the problem of the bomber came, bizarrely, from almost pseudoscientific attempts to find an electromagnetic death ray. Death rays didn't help shoot down bombers, but radar did help find them.
A top-secret chain of radar stations around the coast was set up in 1939, just in time for the Second World War. This had an effective range of 120 miles. So instead of only being seen when they crossed the coast, bombers could now be detected far out to sea.
Returning to our graph showing how long it took for bombers to cross the 50 miles from the coast to London. With radar, this distance effectively increased to 170 miles.
I've factored that into this graph, and as you can see, from 1939 the defenders had a much greater warning time, 30 to 40 minutes. Radar tilted the balance greatly towards the defenders. No longer was it a certainty that the bomber would always get through.
So part of the answer to the problem of the bomber came from an unexpected quarter. But it didn't just arrive by accident, it only came because people were worried about the problem and were looking hard for a solution. Sometimes, muddling through and hoping for the best just isn't good enough, not when the survival of civilisation is at stake.
Image sources: Wikimedia Commons (Wright Flyer, Avro Lancaster); RAF (here and here); Gotha GIV; RAFA Costa Blanca; World-War-2-Planes.com; Guernica, specchio del Novecento; Caring on the Home Front; Wikipedia; Airminded (here, here and here); YouTube; Norman Macmillan, The Chosen Instrument (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1938), 21; eBay; David Davies, Suicide or Sanity? An Examination of the Proposals before the Geneva Disarmament Conference (London: Williams and Norgate, 1932); An International Air Force: Its Functions and Organisation (London: The New Commonwealth, 1934). I can't find where the photo of the Hurricanes came from; but it's almost certainly under Crown Copyright.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.