1930s

Origin of the League of Nations

I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.

Image source: Wikimedia.

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S.55s over the Alps

This photograph purportedly shows a squadron of Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats over the Alps on 1 July 1933, during the second and last of the long-distance formation flights led by the Fascist air minister, Italo Balbo (hence 'balbo', briefly in vogue to describe a large formation of aircraft), Rome to Chicago and back. These flights were (and were intended to be) a powerful and spectacular display the reach and power of Italian aviation, repeated and enhanced through images such as this, and therefore a prime example of what I call aerial theatre.
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Abolish all war aeroplanes

I found this pro-disarmament poster on eBay (at US$1985, I won't be buying it!) The text reads:

THE TRANSPORT OF THE FUTURE.
FOR WHAT?
DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
OR
FRIENDSHIP AND PEACE
Abolish All War Aeroplanes

This is the seller's own description:

An incredibly rare original vintage anti-war poster circa 1938 in fine condition, archivally mounted on acid-free paper and linen-backed. Measures 28 1/2 x 18 3/4 inches (63 x 48 cm). Fine condition or nearly so (A). Lightly toned, a few repaired closed short tears from edges (clearly shown in photos). A few minor instances of printer overpainting in the letters. Possible light stain or mild abrasion to image area. Generally in fine condition. Produced by the Friends' Peace Committee, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 and the Northern Friends' Peace Board, Spring Bank, Rawdon, Nr. Leeds, England, and printed by H.W. & V. Ltd., London.

I doubt that it's as late as 1938, as claimed by the seller. A biplane is a bit (though not completely) old-fashioned for 1938, for a start. Katherine Firth suggested that the font is more late 1920s/early 1930s. And the poster's message doesn't make much sense for 1938, when disarmament was no longer realistic. Not that pacifists are always realistic, by any means; but the connection that is drawn between civil and military aviation, between the possibilities of 'death and destruction' through 'war aeroplanes' and 'friendship and peace' through aerial 'transport of the future' is very suggestive of 1932-34, when the World Disarmament Conference debated and tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve precisely this nexus -- usually considered to be the commercial bomber. That said, these two groups (both affiliated with the Society of Friends, i.e. the Quakers) do seem to be separating out civil aviation from military aviation, arguing that a simple ban on military aircraft would save civilisation from destruction and allow it to benefit from air travel. It was more perhaps usual to argue that the internationalisation of civil aviation in some form was required in order to prevent airliners from being turned into bombers, with a further step being the internationalisation of military aviation as well. I can't find any reference to this poster in BNA but a quick search does confirm that the Friends' Peace Committee and the Northern Friends' Peace Board were fairly vocal in 1933-35, for example writing an open letter to the prime minister in 1933 warning against starting aerial rearmament while the Geneva conference was still in the balance, and in 1935 deploring the inevitability of attacks upon civilians implicit in the initiation of air raid precautions.1 The poster is at least evidence that they tried to persuade the public (or some sector of the public) of the aerial danger too.


  1. Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 December 1933, 7; Western Daily Press (Bristol), 14 May 1935, 8

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Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.

The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.

The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.

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The 1955 novel Biggles in Australia is the subject of an interesting article in Inside Story by Adam Nicol, 'Uncivil aviation: Biggles down under' (I like the line 'The common term “civil aviation” -- that is, flight for leisure -- suggests that aviation is intrinsically warlike'), which could be usefully read alongside my UNE colleague Erin Ihde's 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace'.1 There is an error, though: in referring to the well-known fact that W. E. Johns, the creator of Biggles, called himself Captain Johns 'despite retiring from the Royal Air Force with the rank of flying officer, some four ranks below captain'. But flying officer is not four ranks below captain, unless Nicol is thinking of group captain, or naval captain, neither of which is the rank Johns was claiming. In fact there isn't a RAF rank of plain old captain, except for the brief period when there was, i.e. after the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and before August 1918 1919 when the current ranks (more or less) were established. In between, RFC ranks were used, that is to say, Army ranks. This is where Johns's captain comes from. Since flying officer in the RAF is the equivalent of a lieutenant in the Army, just below captain, Johns only promoted himself one rank, not four.

But this made me think that maybe there is a way to explain why Johns called himself captain, not flying officer, or at least to shed some light on the matter. (In fact he was very inconsistent about it, sometimes using one title, sometimes the other.) In fact it was not an uncommon practice for officers to be given an honorary promotion upon retirement. (Sometimes, too, they retired with the highest rank they may have temporarily held during their career, again normally one grade.) Apart from a bit of additional status in civilian life, I think this also meant a higher pension. Also, in this period when the Air Force was new, former officers who had been in the wartime RAF or indeed the RFC sometimes elected to be called by the military version of their ranks, since these were more familiar and could carry more cachet. P. R. C. Groves is an example of both. At the end of his career in the RAF he was a group captain, but was granted an honorary promotion to brigadier-general (and not air commodore, the next RAF rank up), which had not been an Air Force rank for nearly 3 years at this point. Since he'd actually spent 19 years in the Army and just under 4 in the RAF, brigadier-general might have felt more real to him, for all his devotion to the cause of airpower. But, usefully, since brigadier-general was, at the time, classed as a general officer rank, it also meant that he could be called General Groves, as indeed he always was, which is far more impressive than Air Commodore Groves, it must be said. Not everyone did this; L. E. O. Charlton, also ex-RFC, was happy with air commodore when he retired, though since he didn't receive an honorary promotion perhaps he didn't get any say in the matter.

As for Johns, I don't think he was actually granted an honorary promotion; the London Gazette's entry recording his retirement calls him a flying officer and says he is permitted to retain his rank.2 For comparison, the equivalent for Groves says he 'is granted the honorary rank of Brigadier-General'.3 Perhaps Johns felt he deserved an honorary promotion anyway; and almost certainly he thought Captain Johns sounded better than Flight Lieutenant Johns, the RAF equivalent, let alone Flying Officer Johns, his actual title. Maybe, too, those who had known him as a flying officer in the RAF assumed that he had earned his promotion, which might explain why he seems to have got away it even though he was still heavily involved in the aviation scene. Either way, we're stuck with Captain Johns now.


  1. Erin Ihde, 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace', Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (2013): 363-80

  2. London Gazette, 22 December 1931, 8260

  3. Ibid., 17 February 1922, 1415

When the present is too painful to think about, there is always the past to retreat into.

Japanese planes forced down an airliner which was flying from Hong Kong to Wuchow to-day [24 August 1938], and, it is reported, machine-gunned the passengers.

Of 18 people in the plane it is believed that 15 have either been killed or drowned, as the machine, which landed on the Macao River, sank.

The pilot, named Woods, and a Chinese passenger, both of whom were wounded, have arrived at Macao, the Portuguese province at the mouth of the Canton River.

Woods said that after he had landed the machine on the west side of the river, four of the 12 Japanese planes that had forced it down, dived and machine-gunned the helpless passengers.1

Well, there's no respite there.

The turbulent Mohmand tribes who have been gathering ominously on the North-West Frontier of India under incitement by Congress Party and communist agitators to strike a blow at the British administration, failed to heed the warnings to disperse contained in leaflets dropped by aeroplanes which flew over the tribal country in the vicinity of the border, and to-day [9 March 1932] they incurred the penalty stated in the warnings, when scores of their villages were bombed by Royal Air Force 'planes from Risalpur and Kohat. Several villages were wrecked and set on fire, Tribesmen hidden on the mountain tops turned fierce rifle fire on the 'planes, which replied with machine guns.

The bombing will continue until the raiders return to their mountain fortresses. One section of the tribesmen, which was threatening the approaches to the remote British outpost at Chitral is reported to have dispersed.2

No respite there either.

When the airmail leaves Parafield for Perth tomorrow mornining [sic] it will carry a highly-bred Nawab with it -- Higham Nawab of Warncourt, a six-weeks-old Persion [sic] kitten, dusty black in color, and about nine inches long.

The Nawab comes from a distinguished family. He was bred by Miss A. E. Jarmyn, of Prospect. His mother is Higham Gipsy, a litter sister to Higham Roulette, a South Australian grand champion Persian. The Nawab will go to Perth in a specially light matchwood box, and he will be in the care of the pilot of the mail plane.

He has been sold to Miss A. G. Cohen, of Buckingham Hill, Western Australia, who will call for him when the mail plane arrives.

Miss Jarmyn thinks that the Nawab will not be airsick because he is so small. She will give him a good breakfast before he goes, to make him comfortable and sleepy.3

That will do! Except – this is on the same page:

News, 11 November 1932, 8

Mr. Baldwin stressed the probable horrors of aerial warfare. The greatest fear among ordinary people of all nations, he said, was fear of the air. It was well for the man in the street to understand that no power could protect him from air-bombing. The only defence in aerial warfare was to kill more people than the enemy killed.4

There's no escaping the present, or the past.


  1. Argus (Melbourne), 25 August 1938, 1

  2. Western Mail (Perth), 17 March 1932, 34

  3. News (Adelaide), 11 November 1932, 8

  4. Ibid

An update of my list of early 20th century British newspapers online is well overdue. As such, there are a large number of new titles available (some only for a limited range of years), along with the usual additional ranges of years for existing titles. But it's clear that the imminent First World War centenary has really driven this expansion, or at least shaped it, because the range 1914 to 1918 appears over and over again.

By far the most new titles come from Welsh Newspapers Online (WNO):

Abergavenny Chronicle
Abergavenny Mail and Farmers' Gazette
Adsain (Corwen)
Amman Valley Chronicle
Baner Ac Amserau Cymru
Barmouth and County Advertiser
Barry Dock News
Barry Herald
Brecon & Radnor Express Carmarthen and Swansea Valley Gazette and Brynmawr District Advertiser
Brecon County Times, Neath Gazette and General Advertiser
Brython (Liverpool)
Cambrian Daily Leader (Swansea)
Cardigan Bay Visitor (Aberystwyth)
Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser
Carmarthen Weekly Reporter
Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald and North and South Wales Independent (Caernarfon)
Chester Observer
Chester Courant and Advertiser For North Wales
Clorianydd (Llangefni)
County Echo, Fishguard and North Pembrokeshire Advertiser (Fishguard)
County Observer and Monmouthshire Central Advertiser (Usk)
Darian (Aberdare)
Denbighshire Free Press (Denbigh)
Dinesydd Cymreig (Caenarfon)
Dravod (Trelwe)
Flintshire Observer (Holywell)
Genedl Gymreig (Caenarfon)
Glamorgan Gazette (Bridgend)
Gwalia (Caenarfon)
Gwyliedydd Newydd (Blaenau Ffestiniog)
Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph (Haverfordwest) (free)
Herald Cymraeg (Caenarfon)
Herald of Wales (Swansea)
Llan (Rhyl)
Llandudno Advertiser and List of Visitors
Llanelli Mercury and South Wales Advertiser
Llanelli Star
Merthyr Express (Merthyr Tydfil)
Monmouth Guardian (Rhymney)
Negesydd (Glayndon)
North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser For the Principality (Bangor)
North Wales Times (Denbigh)
Pembroke County Guardian and Cardigan Reporter (Solva)
Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman's News
Rhedegydd (Blaenau Ffestiniog)
Rhondda Leader (Tonypandy)
Rhondda Leader, Maesteg, Garw and Ogmore Telegraph (Tonypandy
Rhos Herald (Rhosllannerchrugog)
South Wales Weekly Post (Swansea)
Tenby Observer, Weekly List of Visitors, and Directory
Towyn-on-sea & Meirioneth County Times (Welshpool)
Tyst (Merthyr Tydfil)
Udgorn (Pwllheli)
Welsh Coast Pioneer (Chester)
Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser (Aberystwyth)
Welshman (Carmarthen)
Wythnos A'r Eryr (Bala)

This is an extremely impressive expansion; in fact there are now so many Welsh newspapers I've had to break up the listing in order to make it more readable -- Scotland and Ireland, take note. This raises the question of whether I will continue to include Welsh-language newspapers in this listing: it would make my life easier if I didn't have to check them too, and not many researchers outside of Wales can read Welsh. But when combined with the superior user interface and the completely free access, this makes WNO the most impressive online newspaper archive in Britain. The only limitations are the scope: nothing later than 1919, and nothing that's not Welsh (though it now includes a few titles published outside Wales, in Chester and Liverpool, aimed at or including Welsh markets).

These are the new titles in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA):

Biggleswade Chronicle
Birmingham Daily Mail
Birmingham Daily Post
Birmingham Gazette
Burnley Gazette
Burnley News
Chelmsford Chronicle
Cheshire Observer
Daily Gazette for Middlesborough
Daily Herald
(London)
Daily Record and Mail (Glasgow)
Evening Chronicle (Newcastle)
Evening Despatch (Birmingham)
Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald and Chronicle & Observer
Hamilton Advertiser
Lancashire Daily Post
(Preston)
Leicester Chronicle
Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Mercury
Perthshire Advertiser
Sports Argus
(Birmingham)
Sussex Agricultural Express
Western Mail
(Cardiff)

There are some good things here. Birmingham was previously completely unrepresented, but now it has no fewer than five newspapers, including, unusually, a sports newspaper. However all of them are only available for 1914-1918. The most important newspapers here are probably the Labour Daily Herald and the Cardiff Western Mail, though again they are only for 1914-1918. A small number of titles have actually had issues removed from BNA, whether for copyright or quality control reasons I'm not sure.

The other major archives all have new titles too, though not many. Several Kentish newspapers have been added to ukpressonline for 1914-1918: Herne Bay Gazette, Kent Messenger, and the South Eastern Gazette. More interesting is that these newspapers for the period up to 1912 can be accessed for free, as long as you accessing them in Britain and use a special landing page. It looks like this has been the case for a while, though I missed it because it's not at all obvious from the usual ukpressonline site. Irish Newspaper Archives has added a couple of titles, the Dundalk Democrat and the Skibbereen Eagle. Unfortunately the Kildare Observer, which used to be a free sampler, now has to be paid for. This is probably to do with an upgraded user interface, which is much improved (but unfortunately doesn't seem to work in all browsers). And NewspaperArchive has added a suburban London paper, the North London Mercury And Crouch End Observer, as well as the London and Belfast editions of the US Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes (for the Second World War, obviously).

Finally, a nice standalone (and free!) archive of the Halifax Courier is now available for the First World War period -- thanks to Bruce Gaston for the tip.

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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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The Next War in the Air

My book, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941, is getting closer to being real. In June, in just three months, it will be in the bookstores. Soon the indexing will be undertaken. Yesterday I made the final corrections to the text, and shortly I'll receive the page proofs from Ashgate, for last-minute error checking. And it has a draft cover design! Which I must say I am rather pleased with.
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