1930s

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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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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. 

Cyril Power, Air Raid (1935)

Cyril Power, Air Raid (1935): British biplanes tangling with an unidentified enemy against a smoke-filled sky.

It is tempting, given the date, to see this as an air raid of the next war, especially given Power's marked interest in machines and speed and influence by Futurism and Vorticism. But it could just as well be an air raid of the last war. Power, then an architect and a lecturer, joined the RFC in 1916 and was put in charge of the repair workshops at Lympne, a transit point for aircraft going to and from the Western Front. Judging from his AIR 76, he arrived after the daylight Gotha raid on the airfield on 25 May 1917 (as well as the riot at nearby Hythe), but he would have been familiar with British bombers passing through. Power's partner, Sybil Andrews, also had some aeronautical experience as she had been a welder in a factory making parts for Bristol (possibly for the all-metal M.R.1, but that's a guess as details are sketchy).

It's probably both. Or neither. It's still a striking evocation of speed, violence and, well, power.

Image source: Museum of Fine Arts.

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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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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. 

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

I learned something new from an article in the March 2013 issue of History Today:

Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1963, Israel was suddenly gripped by a curious mass panic. Sensational newspaper reports and radio announcements claimed that the country was threatened by enemy 'atom bombs', 'fatal microbes', 'poison gases', 'death rays' and a 'cobalt warhead' that could 'scatter radioactive particles over large areas'. Within hours, opinion in the entire country had been ignited. Parliamentary debates, everyday conversations, even songs and poems were all preoccupied obsessively with the same theme -- that Israel was confronted by the imminent threat of another Holocaust, less than two decades after the first.

The source of this supposedly dire foreign menace was not Iran, nor the Soviet Union, although superpower tension at this stage in the Cold War was certainly intense. The perceived threat instead emanated from Egypt, which over the past decade had been led by the supremely charismatic and populist military officer, 44-year-old President Gamal Abdul [sic] Nasser.

Several months before, in the early hours of July 21st, 1962 Nasser had stunned the world by successfully test-firing a number of rockets. Specially-invited contingents of foreign journalists and cameramen had been driven to a remote spot deep in the Egyptian desert, not far from the central Cairo-Alexandria highway. They watched as a massive explosion shook the ground and a white missile lifted itself from a camouflaged position, a short distance in front of them. As one American correspondent wrote: 'It pierced a long, white cloud and later, in plain view, slowly arched to the north towards the Mediterranean.' Over the next few hours three more launches were carried out in quick succession before the journalists returned home, amid scenes of jubilation from ecstatic crowds. The Egyptian public had heard the news when a special announcement, broadcast on a national public holiday, announced on government radio that Egypt had 'entered the missile age'.

Given my interests, this sounds like something I need to know more about; and as chance would have it, the author of the article, Roger Howard, has a book due out later this year which may provide more details (Operation Damocles: Israel's Secret War Against Hitler's Scientists, 1951-1967). According to Howard's article, the real reason for the scare was not so much the Egyptian rocket programme itself, but the involvement of many German scientists who had worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, such as the aerospace (and his expertise did span both air and space) engineer Eugen Sänger. In fact, Howard argues that it was to deflect attention from the recent exposure of Operation Damocles, the intimidation of Nasser's German scientists, that Mossad director Isser Harel briefed the Israeli press with a wholly exaggerated account of Egypt's offensive capabilities. As Howard shows, and as cooler heads argued at the time, the targeting problem had not been solved, meaning the chance of a rocket hitting anything important was remote, as 1967 proved. Nor did Egypt even have a WMD programme at this time, rockets aside. The scare subsided; Harel was discredited and soon resigned.

While I don't (and can't) dispute Howard's account, from my perspective I wonder if the fear of new technological perils might have played as important a role as the spectre of Nazi-Egyptian collaboration. There are parallels to be drawn forwards and backwards in time, in Israel and elsewhere. Israeli fears about nuclear weapons and missile threats from its neighbours resurfaced in 1981, 1990-1, the 2000s, and today. Only six months before the Israeli rocket scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. All those lurid weapons mentioned in the Israeli press in 1963 -- fatal microbes, poison gases, death rays, atom bombs, even cobalt warheads -- had been staples of scaremongers in other countries for years, in most cases decades. In Britain, similar press panics over the danger of air attack took place in 1913, 1922, 1935 and 1938. It would be strange if Israel in 1963 was immune to such fears.

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I've written before about how the air defence problem seemed to inspire 'wildly creative' thinking in the early 20th century. Here are a couple more examples, submitted to the British government by members of the public, c. 1943 -- the one effectively a form of death ray, the other a (technically) non-lethal weapon:

One of the most popular discarded suggestions was that the atmosphere should be flooded with carborundum powder which would be sucked into the fascist aero-engines and chew them to pieces. It is difficult to convince people that there is an awful lot of atmosphere!

Another one was that they should spread throughout the atmosphere 'a gas' (unknown to the suggestor -- to be discovered by the chemist) which would congeal round the plane in flight, and when the crew baled out, would wrap itself around them so that they would arrive on the ground like chickens in gelatine. This was the solution of the paratroop problem!1

The desire of these would-be inventors to help defend the nation (and perhaps profit handsomely) exceeded their knowledge of science and engineering.

The author of the article from which the above quotation is taken was Ritchie Calder, a former journalist then doing propaganda work for the Political Warfare Executive. Maybe that's how he came to be writing about the contributions of British scientists to the war effort for an American publication, Popular Astronomy:

Their maximum accuracy is in the air, in spite of three-dimensional fighting. When one hears of a thousand-plane raid being packed into fifty-five minutes over a single town in Germany, one should remember not only the vast ground organization, the transport supplies, the loading of the bombs, the timing of the take-off and returns, but also the intensive work of the scientists behind the operation.2

But while Calder only deviates from such broad generalisations when poking fun at death rays and gelatin gases, this article does combine two things he was interested in: explaining science and defeating bombing. Before the war, Calder had been science editor for the News Chronicle; during the Blitz, he was a crusader for better post-raid welfare and shelter conditions. It's interesting that one of his sons, Nigel Calder, became a noted science journalist, while another, Angus Calder, became one of the most influential historians of the Blitz.


  1. Ritchie Calder, 'Science comes to Earth', Popular Astronomy 51 (1943), 346-7

  2. Ibid., 346.