In the last decade or so, it seems to have become a thing to refer to the German air raids on Britain during the First World War as the 'First Blitz'. There are now at least three books on the topic with that title or variations thereof: Andrew Hyde's The First Blitz: The German Bomber Campaign against Britain in the First World War (2002), Neil Hanson's First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (2008), and now Ian Castle's The First Blitz: The Aerial Battle for London in the First World War (2015). There's also Neil Faulkner and Nadia Durrani's In Search of the Zeppelin war: The Archaeology of the First Blitz (2008) and Neil Storey's Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War (2015).

There are good reasons for this. The lack of a convenient shorthand or commonly accepted label for the First World War raids is quite irritating when writing about them; and even referring to them as the Zeppelin raids obscures the fact that there were Gotha raids too, a more intense, if also more brief, phase of the campaign. There is relatively little awareness or understanding of the First World War raids, especially when compared with the memory of the (second) Blitz itself, so reusing the name immediately gives a sense of what happened. And the similarities are indeed striking: in my own PhD/book, while I refrain from using 'Blitz' to refer to both I do explicitly compare the way the British responded to air raids in 1917 and 1940 in a structural sense, including the development of civil defence measures and the impulse to carry out reprisal bombing in both periods. Even the 'Blitz spirit' was in evidence long before the Blitz.

But I also have some concerns. A minor one is that it's not generally a good idea to give books on the same topic the same titles, especially in the age of SEO. More problematically, though, it is an anachronism. Nobody in 1915 London would have known what a 'Blitz' was, unless they spoke German. They certainly wouldn't have associated it with aerial warfare, since that didn't happen until the end of the 1930s. Still, anachronisms are sometimes useful ('airminded' itself is a good example -- it wasn't used before the mid-1920s, but what it describes already existed by c. 1910). As long as the anachronism doesn't mislead; and in this case I don't think it does too much, for the reasons I've already discussed. Of course, there are nevertheless significant differences between the 'first' Blitz and the real one, such as the tempo and intensity of bombing, but generally speaking that is quite clear in this comparison -- it's part of the point that the first time around was just a foretaste.

I think the real problem for me is that by choosing 'Blitz' as a frame, other frames are excluded. And this is as true for 1940 as it is for 1915 and 1917. There are three connected problems here. Firstly, the Blitz is a national narrative. It constructs aerial bombardment as a characteristically British experience; there is no place in the story for all the other countries that were bombed in the Second World War, from Poland to Germany itself. Secondly, the Blitz is also a nationalist narrative. It celebrates the cheerfulness and stoicism of the British people under the terrible ordeal inflicted on them by the Luftwaffe, while ignoring the widespread demands to do the same or worse to German civilians. Finally, the Blitz isn't even really a war narrative; it's a disaster narrative. The Blitz often isn't portrayed as a military campaign or a strategy; instead, it's a visitation from the heavens, bringing ruin and devastation for no purpose other than to highlight the goodness of the good guys and the badness of the bad guys. Importing the Blitz frame from 1940-41 to 1915-18 risks importing some or all of these narratives too, even if only subconsciously or partially.

I'm not suggesting that the Blitz should be discarded (not that anyone would listen if I did). But there are, of course, other ways to frame this history. Richard Overy's The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) places the Blitz squarely in the European experience of aerial bombardment as well as the broader military context of the Second World War. And this suggests an alternate way to frame the air raids on Britain between 1915 and 1918: as part of the first bombing war, the same war in which Paris was bombed, Antwerp was bombed, Freiburg was bombed, Venice was bombed, and so on. So that's what somebody needs to write now. It won't be me, though!


Heinkel 111s

For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...

Image source: Wikimedia.

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.


These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, http://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...


I'd forgotten that today was the 70th anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, but luckily the producers of Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 Live remembered. I spoke to presenter Dotun Adebayo and fellow historian Raymond Sun this afternoon (just before 5am Greenwich Mean Time), and for the next 29 days you can listen to our conversation here (the recording is the whole programme, 4 hours long, so skip to about 3:47:15).


Stern Gang leaflet, 1947

Or, that time the Stern Gang tried to bomb London from the air.

In early September 1947, the Parisian police arrested ten people connected with the Stern Gang, nine of them Jews including Baruch Korff, an American rabbi who was head of the Political Action Committee for Palestine.1 Press reports claimed that the group's aim was 'to carry out reprisals for the return to Europe of the 4,500 intending emigrants on board the President Warfield'.2 The President Warfield is better known today as the Exodus, which in July had attempted to land Jewish refugees from Europe in what was still the British Mandate of Palestine, only to be forcibly and bloodily intercepted by the Royal Navy. By the time of the arrests in Paris the refugees were about to land in Hamburg, there to be (again, as it turned out, forcibly and bloodily) interned in displaced persons camps. Korff was outraged at all this, and seems to have been drawn to spectacular, and aerial, forms of protest and resistance: earlier in 1947 he had made the news with his plan to subvert British immigration controls in an 'Exodus by Air', which involved landing refugees at secret Palestinian airfields, or even parachuting them in.3 ...continue reading

  1. In the 1970s he became known as a staunch supporter of Nixon, even after Watergate. 

  2. The Times, 8 September 1947, 4. 

  3. Canberra Times, 13 March 1947, 1; Pittsburgh Press, 16 August 1947, 10


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.


A few years ago I argued that 'the Few' in Winston Churchill's famous speech of 20 August 1940 didn't refer to the pilots of Fighter Command, as is almost universally assumed, but instead referred to all British airmen, or even perhaps specifically the airmen of Bomber Command, since he spends about two paragraphs talking about bombers and about half a sentence talking about fighters. I still think that's pretty clearly the case (even if not everyone was convinced); and it's clear why he would have done so -- as he himself might have said, wars are not won by defensive victories. But I thought it was worth taking another look at the question of who people (or at least newspapers) at the time thought 'the Few' referred to, particularly since the British Newspaper Archive opened a few months after I wrote that post.

So I did a BNA search for the period 20 to 27 August 1940 (the day of the speech itself, to catch the evening newspapers, plus a week, to catch the weeklies) in articles only for the words 'Churchill' and 'few'. To be thorough, though, I really should have looked at all discussions of Churchill's speech, since some might have paraphrased that part of it or just not mentioned the word 'few'. I don't have time for that here, but focusing on the Few reveals just how few (ahem) newspapers thought that this phrase was worthy of comment. My search found just eight articles, once all irrelevant hits on 'few' were discarded.
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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
Daily Record and Mail (Glasgow)
Evening Chronicle (Newcastle)
Evening Despatch (Birmingham)
Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald and Chronicle & Observer
Hamilton Advertiser
Lancashire Daily Post
Leicester Chronicle
Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Mercury
Perthshire Advertiser
Sports Argus
Sussex Agricultural Express
Western Mail

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.


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