Air defence

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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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C. G. G. [C. G. Grey], 'A real aerial defence', Aeroplane, 12 June 1913, 670:

It has been brought to our attention -- it comes from the City, so it must be true -- that Britain has at last acquired a real means of enforcing the Aerial Navigation Act. It is alleged that a great inventor has persuaded the Secretary of State for War that he has an invention which, by means of Herzian [sic], or some similar waves -- vulgarly known as 'wireless' -- will cause the magneto ignition apparatus of all aircraft within a radius of seven miles to cease from functioning. In other words, the engines of all aircraft within range will be stopped, aeroplanes will be forced to land where they can, and dirigibles will be left at the mercy of the winds.

The account further states that the inventor has been allotted a piece of Government land in the neighbourhood of Folkestone, which is to be thoroughly surrounded by sentries to prevent foreign Powers who have neglected to provide themselves with City correspondents or copies of this journal from obtaining the slightest inkling of the fact that experiments are in progress.

This is a rather tongue-in-cheek account (if it's not clear from the quotation above, consider that Grey goes on to suggest that friendly aircraft be equipped with 'a clockwork or elastic drive' for backup -- and there's more where that came from), but it does sound like it derives from a real claim made by a City newspaper or newspaper correspondent, though it could just be a rumour current in financial circles. Even if Grey just made the whole story up, though, it's still a very early example of the idea of a death ray, at least in the sense, which became common from the 1920s, of an electromagnetic means of interfering with internal combustion engines at a distance. And it's in an air defence context, too. I know of no earlier such death rays, which of course means there are probably many.1


  1. H. G. Wells's 'Heat-Ray' from The War of the Worlds (1898) and George Griffith's 'death-rays' in The World Masters (1903) work differently, and weren't used against aircraft. 

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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. 

Judging from the report in the Western Gazette, Captain Faber, Conservative MP for Andover, evidently is not convinced by the letter he received from the Prime Minister downplaying the mystery airship visits, for in a speech to his constituents at Weyhill in Hampshire he invoked them as a counterargument to the War Minister's downplaying of airships in general (p. 11; above):

Turning to the question of airships, Captain Faber said that Germany and France were spending brains and millions of money on these ships, but whilst this was so, our incurable optimist said airships were of no use to us. Had we in this country a monopoly of brains? Were the airships lately over Sheerness and Grimsby of no use?

Faber ridiculed Colonel Seely's suggestion that 'he had a gun to defend these shores from airships':

Was he going to have a gun every half-mile all round England, Scotland, and Wales, ready loaded, with a man always there to shoot? For it must be remembered that an airship travelled at the rate of sixty miles an hour.

He claimed that German experiments had anyway shown that 'three hits from below made but little difference [...] If the wound was inflicted at the top of the airship, it would be different and dangerous'. As for Seely's idea that 'airships were no good at night, because they could not see',

Had he forgotten the bright lights of London and Liverpool, which were visible for many miles from above the earth, and the frightful consternation that would be caused by explosives dropped at night over any big town?

Faber also has some interesting information about one 'foreign airship' (presumably German, though why he doesn't say so is unclear) in particular, contained 'in a letter in his possession from an absolutely reliable source -- from a passenger in this very airship'. It 'covered 1,600 miles without a break in twenty-nine hours' just 'the other day', and is 'about half the length of the Mauretania, had a crew of twenty-eight officers and men, and cooking, dining, and sleeping rooms'. It also has advanced camouflage and navigational technology:

They could cover themselves at any moment with vapour cloud to stop dectection [sic]; they were always surrounded by prepared covering that prevent reflection, so that they could not be photographed; they carried maps that were unrolled by the steersman, showing all the country they travelled over. Goetz, the man who invented the Goetz lens, had contrived a patent which, with mirrors pointing downwards from either end, would record most accurately and minutely the survey of the country over which they passed. There were thirty-eight of these airships ready, and thirty on order. He gave these few details concerning foreign airships to open the eyes of the country to the menacing danger threatening us. (Cheers.)

The Gazette also carries a notice about the wreck of the Ersatz Z I over a week ago, noting that it was 'the "fly-by-night" monster airship which is supposed to have recently visited England and created a scare' (p. 5).

The word 'scareship' appears in an article in the Manchester Courier attacking complacency on the airship issue on the part of Liberals as a generic term rather than one referring to phantom airships specifically. The Radical press is accused of having

substituted the word scareship for airship, they regarded all our accurate information on airships capable of discharging tons of explosives as a figment of the imagination.

The Government is described as 'until recently, case-hardened sceptics to whom "airships" and "scareship" are synonymous terms', while Seely's bizarre idea about airships not being able to see anything if they can't be seen is described as 'This is precisely the sort of reason which appeals irresistibly to the people who confound an airship with a "scareship," but it is inexcusable levity in a Minister of War' (p. 7). The Courier's larger argument is that

Aerial navigation has passed from the realms of imagination. Germany, by her splendid enterprise, has so developed the airship that the countries of the world must alter their whole methods of defence. The war of the future will be fought in the air. Diplomacy or bartering between nations succeeds or fails in proportion to the defensive forces possessed by those nations. And the coming of the airship affects no other country so vitally as Great Britain.

What is needed is 'an Aerial Budget, with proper and adequate provision for our aerial needs', and what is needed for that is 'a great public agitation', and so the Courier calls upon 'the Aerial League, the Navy League, and those other bodies interested to press forward the campaign'.

Daily Herald, 14 February 1913, 6

Yesterday, the Daily Mail said that the Aerial Navigation Bill would be put before the Lords next week. In fact, as today's issue reveals, the bill already 'passed through all its stages in the House of Lords late last night' (p. 5). Moreover, 'all the regulations for the enforcement of the Government's Aerial Navigation Bill [...] have already been drawn up by the Home Office, with the assistance of War Office experts'.

In view of recent circumstances, everything has been hurried forward so that there will not be the least hitch or delay in enforcing the Act, which gives power to the authorities to shoot at sight at any aircraft coming from places outside the United Kingdom whose pilot fails to respond to certain signals. Pilots anxious to sail over our harbours and naval bases will be subject to the most stringent regulations.

The same article also discusses the mystery airships:

We are able to state that in the case of the airship which was reported by The Daily Mail to have been seen sailing above Sheerness on October 14, the authorities have satisfactory proof that this was not one of our own airships but one belonging to a foreign country.

The nature of this proof is not explained, nor is the identity of the airship its origin stated. No reference is made to the claim -- assumed to be officially inspired -- in The Times a month ago that there was reason to believe that the airship responsible was the German civilian airship Hansa. But it seems like this is new information, because that previous report also blamed Hansa for the Dover sighting, whereas the Mail says 'Nothing is certain in regard to the other reported flights'. However, given this 'conclusive proof of the visit of a foreign airship to Sheerness the other reports are naturally considered in a very grave light' (pp. 5-6).

The Mail further reports that, according to the War Office, 'special guns capable of firing at aircraft within a reasonable height are already mounted at various points round the coast' (p. 6). Again, yesterday it had merely said that this would happen at some unspecified point in the future. So things are speeding up.
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Daily Mail, 13 February 1913, 5

The Aeroplane today suggests that 'The visits of the various "scare-ships" have evidently not been without salutary effect', if they have given rise to the present Aerial Navigation Bill (p. 162). The Daily Mail would tend to agree, but hopes for more. It devotes both its first leading article and nearly a column's worth of articles on the opposite page to the bill and to the mystery airship danger (much of which are reprinted in the Dublin Irish Independent, p. 6, and the Dundee Evening Telegraph, p. 4). To take the Mail's reportage first (p. 5; above):

The Government has awakened to the fact that foreign airships have several times recently appeared over England. The result is that a Government Bill is now being rushed through Parliament to meet the danger.

The operative word here is 'rushed'. The bill was introduced into the House of Commons only on Friday (according to the Mail, but Hansard says Saturday; the text seems to have been published on Friday), but

will be the law of the land before many days have passed. Read for the second time on Monday, its remaining stages in the Commons were passed in a single session. During Tuesday's session it was, in the terse language of the orders of the day, considered in Committee, and reported, without amendment; read the third time, and passed. The Bill will be taken in the House of Lords early next week.

There was practically no discussion in the Commons. The proceedings took place after midnight in the sessions both of Monday and Tuesday [...] Thus a Bill of considerable importance to national defence has been hurried through with hardly a word of discussion. The Opposition were asked, and agreed, not to delay the Bill in any way.

Colonel Seely is reported to have told the Commons that the bill 'is not aimed at the aircraft of any foreign Power, but rather at preventing mischievous persons -- possibly from over-sea [sic] -- from hovering over places where there are combustible stores, to the great inconvenience of the people of this country'. This would not seem to explain the haste with which it has been conducted through to the Lords, unless the scareships are taken in account:

The reasons for this urgency are to be found in the frequent reports published in The Daily Mail, of the appearance of unknown airships over various parts of England.

(Though in fact the reports have not been nearly so frequent in the Mail as they have been in the Standard or the Express.) There then follows a summary of the Sheerness incident from last October (which was thoroughly investigated by the Mail) and eight sentences from yesterday's Times on the more recent airship visits and their presumably unfriendly purpose. The Mail then concludes by revealing that

It is understood that the 'sky guns' for firing at aircraft for which contracts were given some time ago will be stationed round the coast for the purpose of carrying out the new regulations.

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Yorkshire Post, 5 May 1942, 1

Some good news from Burma, or at least less bad than usual. The Yorkshire Post reports that, although still retreating, Allied forces 'have successfully evaded the enemy attempt to cut them off in the Mandalay area' (1). The British have been divided from the Chinese, however, with the former retreating up the Chindwin and the latter up the Irrawaddy. The paper's military correspondent gives credit to General Alexander's 'skilful manœuvring' in avoiding encirclement, but also praises the 'valour' of Chinese soldiers after the fall of Lashio, who 'got across the path of the [Japanese] armoured brigade and even drove its tanks back with losses' and thereby gave the British time to make good their retreat. But the task is before Alexander now, 'one of the hardest ever set before a commander', to retire northwest without being engaged by the Japanese, to link up again with Chinese forces in the north, and 'to avoid being driven on India'. The Manchester Guardian's first leading article today admits that 'Japan's campaign in Burma is now almost won', at least 'the fine delaying actions fought by our troops have given India a previous four months for making ready' (4).
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Daily Express, 2 May 1942, 1

All the newspapers today carry news of the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in Salzburg; only the Daily Express leads with it. Its angle is that there is 'STRONG evidence' that the two dictators agreed that Italy would sent 'a large part' of its army to Russia, while Germany would send 'thousands' of its soldiers to Italy (1). Two possible explanations are given for this apparently contrary strategy: 'A coming extension of the Mediterranean Front', or 'to prevent any chance of armed insurrection by the Italian Army'. The Italian people are said to be 'thoroughly discontented with their acutely depressed conditions' and so Mussolini has given his prefects 'supreme powers to deal with "possible future difficulties of an urgent nature"' (his own words), and the Gestapo is now in control of the Italian police. Where Morley Richards, the author of this piece, gets his information from is not clear; none of the other papers make the same claims. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the meeting are rather 'mysterious'; the Yorkshire Press asks why Japan apparently was not represented and was not mentioned in the final communique -- even though the only public reference to the meeting beforehand was a garbled one in a Tokyo newspaper (1).
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Daily Mirror, 29 April 1942, 1

The situation in Burma is getting worse, as the Daily Mirror (above, 1) and most other papers note in their lead stories.

The whole length of the vital Lashio-Mandalay railway is in grave danger as five Japanese divisions, totalling 100,000 men, supported by panzers and bombers, are storming the southern edge of the Upper Burma plateau.

With Japanese ground forces only 110 miles away, Lashio itself is being evacuated of civilians and supplies; it is burning following a raid by twenty-seven Japanese bombers (eleven of their escorts were shot down by the Allied defenders). Writing in the Daily Express, 'Military Reporter' Morley Richards writes (4) that 'The Battle for the Burma Road seems at the point of being lost':

If the Japanese reach Lashio and subsequently force the British north of Mandalay they will have achieved one of their major strategical objects: the temporary isolation of China.

The omens are not good: dispatches from the American Volunteer Group, for example, are coming from Kunming, indicating that its headquarters (and presumably the bulk of its aircraft) has moved back north into China.
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Yorkshire Post, 27 April 1942, 1

Just at the moment, this war seems mainly to be an air war. The main news today is that Rostock has been bombed for the third night in a row. In addition Stirling bombers carried out a low-level raid on the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia, and six targets in northern France were were attacked by bombers with strong fighter escorts. As the Yorkshire Post reports on its front page:

ROSTOCK has become symbolic of our new air offensive. On Saturday night and yesterday morning the harbour and aircraft works were attacked for the third successive night, by a strong force of bombers, with great results. That was not all. The famous Skoda armament works in Czechoslovakia were the target for the R.A.F. on an all-round flight of 1,400 miles.

Yesterday more attacking flights crossed the Channel for various destinations in this great opening of the Allied offensive.

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