1920s

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The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla

We are familiar enough with the Spitfire Funds of the Second World War, in which patriotic individuals and groups could buy aircraft for the nation. There was a fair amount of precedent for this. In the early 1930s, Lady Houston more than once offered the government hundreds of thousands of pounds for air defence, though this was turned down. Perhaps she was inspired by the Nizam of Hyderabad who in 1917 donated a whole squadron of DH.9As, forming the initial complement of No. 110 Squadron RFC. In fact the idea of civilians donating military aircraft had its origins before 1914, at a time when Britain appeared very weak in the air. Most famously there had been the sorry story of the Morning Post airship, purchased from France in 1910 with the money raised by a subscription fund, damaged on arrival when it tried to squeeze into its hangar, and destroyed on its first flight after being repaired. But the idea persisted. A proposal made by the Review of Reviews during the 1913 airship panic for 'each county, each great city or town, each collection of villages in the homeland and the Empire [to] give one or more aeroplanes to the State' came to not much, though a few months later it was reported that 'a sum of £1000 has been subscribed in British East Africa for the purchase of an aeroplane for Great Britain'.1
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  1. 'Britain’s peril in the air', Review of Reviews 47 (April 1913): 134; Manchester Courier, 4 July 1913, 7

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With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).
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Getty Images has just announced an embed function, which makes it possible to very easily use images from their collections in blogs and other social media, while simultaneously maintaining Getty Images' rights and -- this is the really nice bit -- avoiding the use of unsightly watermarks. This is rightly being greeted with enthusiasm (though not so much by photographers), and I'll try to use it myself where possible. Even a quick search turns up many great historical images, some familiar, most not. (Basic tip -- to filter out stock photos, restrict your search to editorial images.)

But there are problems, too. Above is an example of a embed from Getty Images. It's from a lithograph by W. Walton of Day & Haghe, lithographers to the Queen, depicting 'Ariel, the first carriage of the Aerial Transit Company', and printed on 26 March 1843 by Ackermann & Co., Strand, London. But the only part of all that which is given in the Getty Images metadata is the title; the rest came from the Library of Congress's copy, which moreover has no usage restrictions at all (since it's long out of copyright) and shows the uncropped lithograph (admittedly, probably less desirable for a blog post). The only other information offered by Getty Images is that the date it was created was 1 January 1900, which is ludicrously incorrect.

We can't expect Getty Images to thoroughly research every image they hold, and an aeroplane flying over Egypt in the mid-19th century is kind of weird to begin with. But the problem of poor or incorrect Getty Images metadata is actually quite common.
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A key element in any wargame is the scenario. It sets the boundaries in time and space of the simulation, as well as its initial conditions. For a historical wargame, a scenario might be the battle of Cannae, or the British and Canadian sectors at D-Day. Creating such scenarios involves researching orders of battle, contemporary maps, unit diaries, histories and so on. From this research flows the game map, units and the rules themselves. For a counterfactual and indeed retrofuturistic game of the knock-out blow such as I'm contemplating, there are by definition no historical events to draw upon. So where would I start?

One way is to just create a generic scenario, drawing on my own understanding of interwar airpower writing. The obvious one would be the classic knock-out blow scenario, with Germany launching a surprise attack on London, and a war lasting a few days. That has the advantage of being relatively unconstrained and easy to design, and fits in well with the microgame approach Philip Sabin recommends. And I may well do just that. But there's another way, which is to use some of the scenarios imagined during the interwar period itself.
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So, I want to construct a knock-out blow wargame. In my PhD/book, I define an ideal knock-out blow from the air as having six key characteristics. Three of these describe the attack itself: surprise, scale, and speed. Three describe what it destroyed: infrastructure, morale, and civilisation itself.

Starting with the attack, as this will define most of the actual mechanics of the game:

  • Surprise. An attack would be next to impossible to detect. Strategically, an attack would likely come without any warning; the aggressor would be able to time the offensive for maximum effect, and the defender would not be mobilised. Even if an attack is expected, incoming bombers could not be detected before crossing the border, which in the British case means that the best that could be done would be to mount inefficient standing patrols to try to intercept them before they reached London, or attempt to catch them on the way back after unloading their cargo. And even then, the bombers would be hard to find, and able to defend themselves very effectively. Bombers will be the most important units in the game, therefore; fighters might even be abstracted out into the combat system. Also, if the initial attack does not incapacitate, then the defender would be able to launch its own raids on the aggressor, so both sides will need to have bombers.
  • Scale. The aerial fleets involved would be massive compared with the strategic bombing campaigns of the First World War, maybe even those of the Second, with hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of bombers. Some of these could be commercial bombers, airliners converted to military use, which might be a bit less effective than purpose-built bombers, but not by much. The low interception rates mean also that there would be little wastage. So there might be a lot of units, though the tendency to fly en masse might mitigate this. It depends on the scale.
  • Speed. A knock-out blow would operate very quickly: months, weeks, perhaps even days. This factors into the length of a turn. An entire knock-out blow could be simulated in, say, 15 turns of a week or so. Note, however, that at this scale it would take much less than a turn for bombers to reach the target. So a strategic level game like this would not involve units flying around the map, but rather they would be committed in an abstract sense to a target or even a theatre. They might not even be represented as counters at all, but as a numeric force level, which moves up and down according to attrition or production (which could be a factor at this scale). You might not even need a map (though if there are multiple theatres it might help). So, quite abstract. An alternative would be to have a smaller scale game, simulating something like one day in the war, and turns being maybe two or three hours. Then you could do the more familiar, and perhaps more accessible, style of game with units moving around the map and opposing units trying to stop them. Another level would be the tactical one, fighters vs bombers. At this scale, a game might not be very different from the historical reality, since it is a given that interception has taken place. But bombers in formation would be much more capable of self-defence, even without escorts (which were generally not thought necessary).

Turning now to the effects of a knock-out blow, the question is whether to simulate these directly or abstractly. It would be possible in principle to simulate a nation's industries, communications, resources, ports and civilian morale, and the interdependencies between them. Attacking any of these would have knock-on effects, and eventually the cumulative damage would cause society to break down completely. At this point, if not before, effective resistance would cease and the knock-out blow has succeeded. Factories, power plants, ports, railway and road nodes, administrative centres, etc, could be marked on the map and selected as targets; civilian morale is obviously more abstract, but equally obviously attacking population centres would be the best way to attack morale. (Hello, London.) Alternatively, all these targets could be taken off the map and damage to each type tracked by moving a counter along a track. Much easier, though perhaps less fun. Again, it would probably depend on the scale of the game itself, and whether there is a map at all. Either way, some way of representing the knock-on effects would be needed; perhaps when damage to one target system reaches a certain level then damage could be added to all of them. A similar mechanism could be used to determine the degradation of a nation's fighting ability, with production falling off as the knock-out blow proceeds, for example. (Raids directly against the enemy air force could also be undertaken, which might degrade it more rapidly but at the cost of passing up an opportunity to bring a knock-out blow closer.) Or all of that could be emulated much more simply with a victory point system.

So this gives some idea of the considerations involved in designing a game simulating the knock-out blow, not as it would have been fought, but how it was thought it would have been fought. Some things have become clearer. The key thing is decide the scale of the game, since war looks different at different scales. This is why Philip Sabin's concept of nested simulations is useful: two or three games are better than one (at least if your goal is enlightenment rather than enjoyment). In this case, there's a strategic game with turns of a week or so, and a large-scale map or no map at all; an operational game lasting a day and with a map covering the parts of each combatant reachable by its opponent's air force; and a tactical game at a much smaller scale, with turns lasting seconds or minutes and units of individual aircraft, say. As I've suggested above, I think this tactical game would tell us less about the knock-out blow than the other ones, so henceforth I'll concentrate on the operational and strategic games.

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As I discussed recently, Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) is primarily about using wargames to understand past wars. This is sensible; apart from the obvious benefit of helping us to understand history better, there's also the useful featurethat there are some facts to go on -- this war, campaign or battle happened once before, so we know something about the forces involved, the terrain it was fought on, the dynamics of combat at the time, and so on. Sabin does occasionally discuss wargaming future conflicts, though mainly in the context of wargaming in the military, where refighting the last (or worse) war is of limited interest.

However, I've been thinking about how to wargame something which is not quite a historical war, and not quite a future war: the knock-out blow from the air. This never actually happened in the past, but for a time was thought to be what might happen in the future. Precisely because of this, a wargame of the knock-out blow could be extremely valuable in demonstrating just how far it was from the reality of aerial warfare. But also precisely because of this, it would be difficult to find the information needed to design the game.

Difficult, not impossible. In fact, I've already done most of the work needed. Part of my PhD and forthcoming book involves a reconstruction of an ideal or consensus form of the knock-out blow theory as it was articulated in the airpower literature from the First World War to the Second. So I could use this as the basis for a wargame showing not what would have happened, or even what could have happened, but what people thought was going to happen in the next war.

Well, that's easier said than done. As Sabin discusses, there are many ways of representing warfare in a wargame, and hence many choices to be made about the maps, the counters, and most importantly the rules. How do this? While I have a reasonable amount of experience playing wargames, I have none designing them. One thing Sabin suggests is starting with an existing game on a related topic, and adapting it to suit or at least borrowing useful elements. Now, as far as I know, there aren't any other wargames simulating the knock-out blow, or for that matter strategic aerial warfare in the interwar period.1 So three realistic options come to mind. One is to start with a game set in the First World War, and project it forward. I have a couple of these: The First Battle of Britain and Airships at War 1916-1918. The second is to start with a game set in the Second World War, and project it backwards. Again, I have a few to work with here, including RAF and The Burning Blue. These approaches both have the advantage of the games being at appropriate scales, and of simulating the sorts of dynamics and tradeoffs inherent in aerial warfare. They have the disadvantage, of course, of being based on historical reality rather than contemporary imagination. The third option, then, is start with a game simulating nuclear warfare, since in many ways that's closer to the anticipated effects of the knock-out blow than was actual aerial warfare of the period. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a few such games, such as the Warplan: Dropshot/First Strike series and Fail Safe. Unfortunately I don't have any of these, though perhaps unsurprisingly I have been meaning to change that. These, of course, would be at a completely different scale to aerial warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, though that may not actually be too much of a problem at the strategic level.

It all depends on what aspects of the knock-out blow I want to simulate. I'll think through some of those choices in another post.


  1. There are some alternate history wargames out there, but in my experience they tend to either stick fairly closely to the real history, such as Case Green, or else tend to be fairly fantastic dieselpunk scenarios, Crimson Skies-style (or Aeronef for the steampunk crowd, and let's not forget the roleplaying equivalent, Forgotten Futures). I did find an interesting discussion on Interbellum about the wargaming potential of H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which is not too far off the mark; but that seems to be for miniature gaming. See also this, on the same blog. 

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

In Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, Thomas Hippler describes what he calls Douhet's 'ahistorical historicism':

His thinking is ahistorical to the extent that it poses a concept of history ('everything has changed') that simultaneously cuts off history itself. His thinking is historicist, because this absolute beginning not only occurs as a break within history, but also to the extent that it gives way to a technology-driven teleological understanding of later historical development. In other words, it gives way to interpreting the development to come in the sole light of the imagined essence of this beginning.1

That is, Douhet asserted that warfare in the future is going to be utterly different to warfare in the past, and that we can only predict it by looking at warfare in the present, which itself does not resemble warfare in the future either.

Douhet, of course, was not alone. Airpower prophets routinely asserted that the past was no guide to the future, and that the present was not much better, but it was all there was to go on. So Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper wrote in 1917 that

In viewing the lessons of this war, as they are likely to throw light on the future of the aeroplane, either as a vehicle for transport or as a weapon, it must be understood that this campaign by air, in the sequence of its phases, offers little or no guide to the trend of an air war of the future. The next great war, should it come, will begin where this leaves off; and all its subsequent stages, so far as any one air service is concerned, must be governed by the success or failure of that service in its first offensive by air -- an offensive which, following instantly on a commencement of hostilities, will need to be delivered with a maximum possible force and speed.2

The paradox is that as the last war receded and the next war, presumably, approached, airpower prophets had to continue to rely on that last war for their evidence, as it was the only example of large-scale application of airpower to date. Their futurism became increasingly historical, in other words. To take a random example, in 1937 Frank Morison devoted three quarters of his book to recounting the experience of London and Paris under aerial bombardment two decades previously, and the final quarter to showing how this experience gave only a hint of what was to come. Recalling the 'hectic days of excitement and warlike preparation' before the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, he suggested that

Surely few historical parallels could be more misleading, because the march of science has destroyed in advance that indispensable time-lag upon which the successful deployment of our military, social and industrial resources mainly depended.3

The reason, of course, was the march of technological progress:

It is practically assured that the speed of a long-distance bombing squadron, sent against London in the next war, will not be less than 250 miles per hour and may conceivably be in excess of that figure. This means that a formation sighted at Beachy Head, say at 11 a.m., if not intercepted and driven off, will reach the suburbs at 11.12 a.m. and be over Central London about one minute later.4

Hence the teleology, with war, and thus all of history, marching towards its inevitable fate of domination and even determination by the bomber. Of course Morison was not to know that within a couple years Beachy Head itself would be the site of a Chain Home Low radar station, and hence part of the solution to the bomber threat. But then, by definition believers in the bomber never had faith in the fighter.

Douhet, Grahame-White, Morison and the rest were essentially military mini-singularitarians. According its adherents, the Singularity is the point in the not-too-distant future when technological changes, especially in artificial intelligence, will accelerate and converge such that they will so utterly change society and humanity itself that it will be practically unrecognisable. But like the airpower prophets before them, singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil extrapolate wildly from the past -- CPU speeds, increasing lifespans -- to predict that the future will be nothing like it -- uploaded personalities, immortality.5 They too are ahistorical historicists, and if the past is any guide to the future, just as likely to be right.


  1. Thomas Hippler, Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 75. 

  2. Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, Air Power: Naval, Military, Commercial (London: Chapman & Hall, 1917), 1. 

  3. Frank Morison [Albert H. Ross], War on Great Cities: A Study of the Facts (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 186, 187. 

  4. Ibid., 189. 

  5. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005. 

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It's been six months since the last one and so it's time for another update of my list of early 20th century British newspapers online.

The most pleasing addition to the list of newspaper archives for 1901-1950 is the Spectator, the most influential conservative weekly of the period. The Spectator archive is free; near-complete from 1828 to 2008; contains both images and text -- and the OCR is high quality; tagged; and is easy to search or browse. However, there is no advanced search function (though you can use Boolean operators such as AND and NOT). While you can use the Trove-style filters to narrow a keyword search down to a decade of interest, you can't zoom into a year, let alone a month, week or day. There doesn't seem to be any easy way to save article images (the best way I've found is to zoom on the page and use the web browser to save as HTML; you get a lot of extra junk but among them are two usable images). And it's a shame that illustration captions and advertisements appear to have been excluded from the text search, though they are visible visually. Still, it's all still in beta, and did I mention that it's free?

Welsh Newspapers Online is expanding rapidly, having added the following titles:

Aberdare Leader
Brython Cymreig
Cambrian
Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard
Cardiff Times
Cymro
Cymro A'r Celt Llundain
Lials Llafur
Merthyr Pioneer
Montgomeryshire Express and Radnor Times
North Wales Express
North Wales Weekly News
Papur Pawb
Rhyl Journal
Rhyl Record and Advertiser
South Wales Daily Post
Weekly News and Visitors' Chronicle For Colwyn Bay
Weekly Mail

The coverage for most of these ends in 1910, as with most of WNO's titles; however, Cymro (published in Liverpool), Aberdare Leader, Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, Lials Llafur, and Merthyr Pioneer all cover at least the period 1914-1919. The war will be mentioned.
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The main reason for my recent New Zealand trip was to go to a conference, but afterwards I spent a week researching in Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand. My main reason for that was to look into the trans-Tasman counterpart to the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare in Australia. I didn't quite find what I wanted (more on that another day), but I did find many other, unexpected and interesting, things. For example, commercial bombers.

In my commercial bomber article, I focused on the rhetorical use of the threat posed by commercial bombers in British airpower discourse more than the actual use of actual airliners as actual bombers. However, in a recent discussion I suggested that smaller air forces might have been more interested in convertibility, since they would tend to lack the resources to invest in long-range bombing or maritime patrol aircraft. And the evidence from New Zealand seems to bear this out (though the accuracy of my further suggestion that it was only attractive in desperate times is mixed).
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In my article about the commercial bomber concept, I began my discussion of the idea that airliners could be turned into bombers in 1918, with the report of the Civil Aerial Transport Committee. But it turns out that it appeared some years earlier, though in a far more fragmentary and undeveloped form than in the interwar period. And it involved airships, not aeroplanes.

In December 1912, the Admiralty received a joint report from the military and naval attachés in Berlin about the wartime disposition and employment of Germany's airship fleet. They suggested that the German government was paying subsidies to airship manufacturers so that their civilian production would be built to the minimum standard required for military service. So, in the next war,

the naval and military authorities will thus have at their disposal not only the Government aircraft, but also a number of dirigible airships belonging to private firms fully manned and equipped and ready for instant service[.]1

The attachés estimated that this would yield a German fleet of between 21 and 23 airships, though as it's unclear how many of these were civilian it's equally unclear how much of a difference their inclusion would make. But generally speaking, they increased the aerial threat to Britain:

A number of vessels in this formidable array of airships would be capable of sailing from Germany to Sheerness, Woolwich, or any other desired point in England and return without the necessity of an intermediate descent to the earth.2

The commercial bomber idea also appeared in the press. 'C. C. T.' (i.e. C. C. Turner) , writing in the Observer at the end of March 1913, also attempted to estimate the size of the German air fleet in the event of war. He came up with 13 government-owned airships, and

In addition, there are in Germany privately-owned airships:--

First-class... 2
Second-class... 83

So his total came to 23 airships, which corresponds well with the (presumably confidential) estimate provided by the attachés. This could be because they were working from the same information, or perhaps Turner got his figures from the Admiralty. The basic rhetorical function of the commercial bomber is much the same here as it was later, to inflate the size of the enemy air fleet and make it seem more threatening, the better to demonstrate 'the fatal complacency and ignorance permitted, and even fostered, in this country'.4 However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the commercial bomber idea was useful only so long as Germany had no air force, and more or less disappeared with the creation of the Luftwaffe (or so I argue). Here, it is being claimed that it is Britain which effectively has no aerial force to speak of, since it is credited with only 2 airships '(on order)'.5 So piling on even more German airships hardly seems necessary. Perhaps the point is to increase the German lead over France, which has 10 airships attributed to it '(these are less powerful than Germany's').6

If Turner got his information from the Admiralty, he might also have taken the idea that civilian airships could be used for military purposes from the same source. But perhaps it was obvious enough: military airships and civilian airships were in fact more or less identical at this time. Schwaben, a DELAG airliner which first flew in June 1911, was built to the same plan as two military Zeppelins, Ersatz ZII and ZIII. Two other DELAG Zeppelins, Viktoria Luise and Hansa, were indeed pressed into military service in August 1914 after a rudimentary refit. Though they were mainly used for training, it seems that Hansa, at least, flew combat missions over France and the Baltic. And Sachsen, the last DELAG Zeppelin to be built before the war, raided Antwerp on the night of 25 September 1914. So as well as being the first commercial bombers in theory, airships might have been the first, and even the only, commercial bombers in practice.


  1. The National Archives [TNA], AIR 1/657/17/122/563; quoted in Neville Jones, The Origins of Strategic Bombing: A Study of the Development of British Air Strategic Thought and Practice upto 1918 (London: William Kimber, 1973), 39. 

  2. TNA, AIR 1/657/17/122/563; quoted in Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 231. 

  3. Observer, 30 March 1913, 11. 'First-class' means Zeppelins and Schütte-Lanzes

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid.