Air control

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


One of the most intriguing things to emerge from my post-blogging of the Blitz a few years ago (but which sadly didn't make it into my Blitz article) was the notion of reprisals after notice, that is to say, of publishing a list of German cities which would be bombed intensively until the Luftwaffe ceased attacking British cities. This attracted some support from newspaper columnists and the public as a middle way between humanitarian restraint and all-out reprisals, and I've suggested that 'it was strategy from below, folk strategy', since it was 'not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war'.

But it was part of the official private discourse on the bombing war. On 11 September 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Charles Portal, wrote to the Air Staff proposing that twenty German towns be warned by radio that they were targets, with one to be bombed after each indiscriminate Luftwaffe raid on London. Other options for attacking German civilians were canvassed, for example that they be bombed without any no warning.1 Peter Gray notes that on that same day the War Cabinet discussed the same proposal:

Discussion followed on a suggestion that we should threaten Germany with reprisals by bombing any one of twenty German towns (to be named) if the indiscriminate bombing of London continued.2

The decision was that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, 'consider the question of reprisals at some future date', but that 'for the present our bomber force should continue to be used to attack military targets'.3
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  1. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4. 

  2. The National Archives, CAB 65/9/9, W. M. (40) 247, War Cabinet conclusions, 11 September 1940. See Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 171. 

  3. CAB 65/9/9. 


In the middle of the First World War, the Australian government found itself preoccupied with the possibility of civil unrest, perhaps even rebellion. In December 1916 the Hughes government passed the Unlawful Associations Act, which proscribed the Australian branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies had campaigned strongly against conscription in the October referendum, and proscription was Hughes's revenge for the No vote. But more than that, he believed that every IWW member was armed, and that many were of German extraction and thus potentially treasonous. Determined to be prepared for any eventuality, by the start of February 1917, the government had assembled 900 armed men, chosen for their political reliability, in each state's capital city, backed up with a machine gun. Melbourne, as the national capital, was the best defended. It had an AIF infantry battalion, a reserve company, the District Guard, two 18-pounder guns, two machine-gun sections, and 50 light-horsemen.

It also had two aeroplanes at its disposal, for 'their great moral effect':

(a) To overawe rioters by their presence in the air.
(b) To cooperate with the Artillery.
(c) To assist in dispersing the rioters by the use of machine guns and revolvers and by dropping bombs or hand grenades.1

What was that last part again?

To assist in dispersing the rioters by the use of machine guns and revolvers and by dropping bombs or hand grenades.

I find this quite extraordinary, that an Australian government was preparing to strafe and bomb its own citizens for the crime of rioting. That's the sort of thing that dictators do.2 But should I be surprised? Let's look at some similar cases from around the same time.
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  1. Quoted in Neville Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23, Volume 2: Australia and World Crisis, 1914-1923 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009), 199. [Update: Meaney likes to combine references for several paragraphs in the one footnote so it's not always clear to me which citation goes with which quote, but I think these are from: letter, Acting Commandant, 3rd Military District, Melbourne to Secretary for Defence, 2 February 1917, NAA B197 1887/1/52.] Two aeroplanes doesn't sound like very much, but it was probably all they had

  2. Though, to be fair to the late Colonel Gaddafi, reports that in February 2011 he ordered his air force to bomb protestors in Tripoli don't seem to ever have been confirmed. 


The RAF Displays held at Hendon between 1920 and 1937 were unique, in that no other air force attempted to project a vision of itself, its capabilities and its responsibilities in so public a way, on such a large scale and over such a long period. Of course, that's largely because there weren't many air forces around. Or rather, they did exist, but not independently of their nation's army and navy. Putting on such a big show was important for the RAF precisely because it was newborn: it needed to convince everyone (parliamentarians, journalists, the public, the other services, other nations) that it was necessary and/or that it was successful. Hendon seemed to have fulfilled this very well, judging by press attention and attendance numbers.

But viewed another way, the RAF Displays weren't unprecedented at all. Both the British Army and the Royal Navy had their own forms of public display. The Army had long performed in public, in fact, such ceremonies as trooping the colours, and the 19th century witnessed a huge growth in the popularity of military reviews, according to Scott Hughes Myerly 'the most popular and elaborate public manifestation of the military spectacle':

The action on the field consisted of evolutions of drill, musket volleys with blanks, and cannon salutes. Often a sham battle or mock, siege would be staged between two opposing units, or a bayonet or cavalry charge would be a part of the show.1

I'm not sure of the actual content of these mock battles, though the fact they they were performed during the Napoleonic Wars suggests an obvious ideological function. For its part, the Navy also developed fleet reviews into what Jan Rüger has termed 'a new form of public theatre'.2 This happened much later in the century, however, dramatically increasing in frequency after the review held for Victoria in 1887 on the occasion of her golden jubilee. By their nature, naval reviews afforded fewer opportunities for presenting narratives of actual combat. There were some, though, for example a 'mock-attack carried out by torpedo boats and submarines' at the 1909 Spithead review.3 Like the RAF later, and doubtless the Army before it, the Navy rather dubiously insisted that these were not mere spectacles but training for war.

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  1. Scott Hughes Myerly, '"The eye must entrap the mind": army spectacle and paradigm in nineteenth-century Britain', Journal of Social History 26 (1992), 105-31, at 106. 

  2. Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 24. 

  3. Ibid., 26. 


Flight, 8 July 1920, 703

I recently said that I've been meaning to write about the spectacular and dramatic set pieces which usually marked the climax of the RAF Pageants, held at Hendon aerodrome every summer from 1920 to 1937. So here goes! The themes chosen for these set-pieces tell us something about what ideas about airpower the RAF wished the public to absorb.1 Flight had good coverage of the pageants, and where possible I'll reference British Pathe newsreels. As there were so many I'll have to make this a series.

First, a bit of context. In 1910, Hendon (or London) aerodrome was established on the outskirts of London by Claude Grahame-White as a place where pioneer aviators could come to build, to train and to fly. But it was also the site of hugely popular aerial derbys and flying displays for the public, who came up from London in their many thousands to watch Grahame-White and others stunting over the airfield: the so-called 'Hendon Habit'. During the war, Hendon was requisitioned by the RFC for the purposes of training, test flying and occasional air defence. Grahame-White never got it back after the war, but he did manage to convince the government to allow it to be used once more for airminded propaganda: the Aerial Derby was re-established there in 1919.2
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  1. See David E. Omissi, 'The Hendon Air Pageant, 1920-1937', in John M. MacKenzie, Popular Imperialism and the Military: 1850-1950 (Manchester: Manchester University press, 1992), 198-220, for more. 

  2. On Hendon generally, see David Oliver, Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1994). 


Shortly after the Blitz began in earnest, Conservative MP Victor Cazalet wrote to the editor of The Times to urge that the RAF carry out reprisals against German cities for the 'indiscriminate bombing' of London.1 'The attack on the civil population is a military weapon', he argued. 'Can we possibly afford to give Germany a monopoly of this weapon?'

Cazalet's letter ignited (or, rather, re-ignited) a debate about the efficacy and morality of reprisals. Less contoversial, however, was the way he thought reprisals should be carried out:

We should, I suggest, designate some 12 German towns, and openly declare that unless this indiscriminate bombing ceases we intend to wipe out each night one of these German cities. Let each one of the towns selected anticipate when their turn may be coming. If they evacuate them all -- we will choose 12 others.

Cazalet was convinced that this would have 'a most striking and speedy effect upon the German population [...] Widespread bombing will quickly disillusion them', given their reliance on propaganda for knowledge of how the war was progressing.
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  1. The Times, 12 September 1940, 5. 


[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Golden fist, crushed jet

Libya now holds an unfortunate record. It is the country which has the longest experience of aerial bombardment. Libya was first bombed in 1911, by Italy; now, in 2011, it is being bombed by its own air force. That makes it just under a century from the first bomb to the latest.

It helps that Libya was the very first country to experience aerial bombardment from aeroplanes and from airships. I'm using the word 'country' here in a loose sense, as it was then part of the Ottoman Empire (technically, the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica). Italian forces landed in Tripoli in early October 1911, after a (naval) bombardment. Its total air forces in Libya never totalled more than nine aeroplanes and two airships. The aeroplanes first carried out a bombing mission on 1 November 1911, attacking Ain Zara (one bomb) and Taguira (three bombs). The two airships didn't go into action until March 1912, but still managed to carry out over 300 sorties between them before the end of hostilities in October. The effect of airpower on the Italian victory was negligible, but a precedent was set.
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Times, 26 September 1940, 4

Page 4 of The Times:

For the second night in succession heavy bombers of the R.A.F. have attacked military objectives in the heart of Berlin. During the raid, which lasted over two and a half hours, two factories making electrical equipment, a power station, a foundry, and a canal bridge were all bombed.

Page 1 of the Daily Mail:

GERMANY, thanks to the R.A.F., is at last tasting the bitter medicine her Air Force administered to the defenceless Poles, Dutch, Belgians, and the French. From many neutral sources yesterday came unimpeachable evidence of the shock with which the R.A.F.'s latest raids on Berlin came to a population that was always taught to regard itself as secure. The life of Berlin, like the life of London, is being painfully revolutionised by bombs. Whole areas have had to be evacuated because of time bombs; hours of work have been advanced. And still the R.A.F. have the bombers to spare for the punishment of the would-be invading armies across the Channel.

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This is a BBC interview with Group Captain Robert Lister, recorded in 1980, about his experiences as a junior officer in 20 Squadron on the North-West Frontier. He transferred there in 1935, and flew Audaxes in air control operations against Waziri tribespeople, sometimes in support of the Army, sometimes independently. He candidly notes that the 250-lb bombs were the ones which would be used against villages, but also that leaflets were invariably dropped beforehand, warning of an imminent attack.

But the clip isn't just Lister talking; it's Lister talking over his own cinefilm footage from 1935! Both from the ground and from the air, bombing and strafing Waziri villages. Also to be seen are the detonation of an improvised explosive device planted in the landing strip by the rebels, and one of the goolie chits affixed to the side of every Audax, to be used in the event of a forced landing. Fascinating stuff.

Thanks to Marc Wiggam for the lead.