Books

1 Comment

Australia and the Great War

I have a new publication out -- at least, it's out electronically, I haven't seen a physical copy yet! It's a chapter in a collection published by Melbourne University Press and edited by Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology. My chapter is entitled 'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand'. It's based on my presentation at the British Empire and the Great War conference held at Singapore in February 2014, and as the title suggests is effectively an expansion of my article on the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 to encompass its New Zealand counterpart. In a way, expansion is not quite the right word, since I had to compress my discussion of the Australian side compared with the article version, and to be consistent I had to pitch the New Zealand part at the same level. But then again, compared with Australia there wasn't anything like the archival material in New Zealand, while the press was both more sceptical and more candid about what it thought was going on. And the fear of bombardment, as opposed to espionage, seems to have been uppermost there. So there were interesting differences as well as similarities to tease out, and it ended up being more than just a rehash of the Australian article with some Kiwi stuff thrown in.
...continue reading

3 Comments

Keep Calm and Carry On

The Guardian has published a very interesting piece by Owen Hatherley on the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' phenomenon, an extract from his new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity. He persuasively locates the poster within the context of an 'austerity nostalgia [...] a yearning for the kind of public modernism that, rightly or wrongly, was seen to have characterised the period from the 1930s to the early 1970s; it could just as easily exemplify a more straightforwardly conservative longing for security and stability in hard times'. I'm not British, but from the outside this seems like a plausible explanation for the renewed interest in the Blitz spirit in recent times.
...continue reading

Jeremy Black. The Cold War: A Military History. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. I already have a book with this title (by David Miller) but that was published in 1999, and another half-generation's distant might lend some valuable perspective. The indefatigable Black traces the Cold War all the way back to 1917, perhaps the drawing on the research for his recent book on the interwar period, Avoiding Armageddon (2012).

Michael Bryant. A World History of War Crimes: From Antiquity to the Present. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. China and India appear a couple of dozen times each in the index, so this is a fair attempt at a world history; but inevitably it's dominated by the evolution of war crimes (and of course the legal systems which defined war crimes) in Europe and its sphere of influence.

T.M. Devine. The Scottish Nation: A Modern History. London: Penguin, 2012. A subject I should know more about (among many others).

Lindsey A. Freeman. Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Part history, part sociology of Atomic City -- Oak Ridge, the site of the world's second self-sustaining nuclear reactor as well as the focus of American postwar nuclear utopianism as well as disillusionment. All of that spells: fun!

Terry Moyle. Art Deco Airports: Dream Designs of the 1920s & 1930s.. London, Chatswood and Auckland: New Holland, 2015. Airports and Art Deco grew up together, so it's no surprise that there are Art Deco airports. Quite a few of them, in fact, from Le Bourget at Paris to Shushan at New Orleans. This is a very attractive, well-illustrated book, but while it's not quite an academic work it is more than a coffee table book, and it has a decent bibliography and endnotes section as well.

Robert M. Neer. Napalm: An American Biography. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 2013. If you buy only one book on napalm, this is the one you want (and maybe the only one there is). We tend to associate napalm with Vietnam and maybe Korea, but of course it was born in the Second World War, where it would have incinerated more Japanese than the atomic bombs did.

Peter J. Dean, ed. Australia 1944-45: Victory in the Pacific. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Having devoured Australia 1942 and Australia 1943, I was disappointed when Australia 1944 didn't appear. This explains why! As with the previous volumes, this is an Australian perspective on the war, although there is a chapter on the Japanese Army in the areas facing the Australians. There's a cast of thousands (well, seventeen) in the 'Contributors' section, including Joan Beaumont, Rhys Crawley, Lachlan Grant, David Horner, Karl James, Michael McKernan, Michael Molkentin (branching out here – his topic is the home front rather than aviation), and Peter Stanley. There are chapters on POWs, jungle warfare, special operations and intelligence, as well as two on the end of the fighting in New Guinea and four on the controversial Borneo campaign. Once again the chapter on the RAAF seems somewhat out of tune with the rest of the book, but overall this looks like an excellent conclusion to an excellent series.

Frederick Taylor. Coventry: Thursday, 14 November 1940. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Taylor's Dresden (2004) is near-definitive, so I have high hopes for this. There's an interesting discussion of the question of whether Coventry (and other blitzes) led to a desire for reprisals on the part of the British public; although Tom Harrisson is misleading on this topic, and the opinion polls need careful interpretation, Taylor is probably right to conclude that reprisals were not uppermost in the minds of most people. Still, I think the Blitz spirit was not as stoicly passive as legend (or myth) has it.

2 Comments

In the middle of January 1915, days before the first, fairly ineffectual Zeppelin raids on Norfolk, the novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes visited some relations of Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary. There she

was told that Mr. Gatty [a London historian] had heard from the Duke of Westminster that Winston Churchill says he expects a fleet of a hundred Zeppelins to leave for England on the eve of the Emperor's birthday, January 26th! He expects seventy to be destroyed, but believes that thirty will reach London and he estimates the casualties at 10,000 to 12,000! Several people are so affected by this tale that they have already sent their children away into the country.1

This sounds very much like an airship panic, complete with rumour, fear and even evacuation. Indeed, Jerry White places this in the context of rumours in the East End on 3 or 4 January that a Zeppelin had reached Colchester in Essex, and the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 22 January passing on the almost unanimous prediction of experts that a raid on London was certain to come within a few weeks (though equally that it would be a failure). He attributes these public fears to an infection by official fears: on 10 January the War Office warned the London Hospital to prepare for air raid victims, presumably informed by the Admiralty's submission to the Cabinet on 1 January that Germany planned 'an attack on London by airships on a great scale at an early opportunity'.2 Indeed, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, threatened Churchill, his political master, with resignation if his proposal to 'take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft' was not taken to Cabinet.3 (It was, and it was rejected.)

White's account is intriguing, but as a glance back at the prewar airship panics of 1909 and 1913 might suggest, there was a lot more going on, which obviously is what I intend to explore in the next few posts!


  1. Susan Lowndes, ed., Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 (1971), 47; quoted in Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014), 124. Emphasis in original. 

  2. White, Zeppelin Nights, 124-125. 

  3. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 2 (2007 [1923]), 38; quoted in White, Zeppelin Nights, 81. 

Ian Castle. The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War. Oxford and New York: Osprey, 2015. As seen on the Internet! I already own the two books which this combines. But they were review copies so I didn't pay for them; it seems fair enough to support the author more concretely this time.

Robert Loeffel. The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Depressingly timely in the current situation. While on the question of titles, I think most people would assume that a book called The Fifth Column in World War II was about Europe, or perhaps the United States -- definitely not Australia. But this does at least look briefly at the origins of the fifth column fear in Europe, as well as how it was imported into the Australian context. (Spoiler: there was no fifth column, as such.) I'd love to see something this thorough for the British case, for that matter. As a bonus, my article about the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane episode is cited, a clear sign of quality :)

Neil R. Storey. Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War. Stroud: History Press, 2015. As with The First Blitz, I've discussed this book here recently, sight unseen, so I should probably actually buy it instead of just talking about it. It's a very solid and well-illustrated text, and looks like a fairly comprehensive guide to the Zeppelin raids on Britain (and it even discusses the prewar phantom airships, though without giving sources). However, by only including airship raids it provides a distorted picture of the campaign (and the Gotha raids of 1917 and 1918 were the most 'Blitzy' of the war, if you're going to go down that path); and its claim to originality is undermined by the failure to cite Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman's The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (1984), which is still the definitive account of the operational aspects of the raids and is pretty clearly also based on the GHQ summaries (among other sources), even if their own refusal to actually cite anything is irritating.

1 Comment

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!

3 Comments

The novelist William Le Queux is famous, or rather infamous, for beating the drum of the German invasion and spy threat before the Great War. But what did he do during the war? Unsurprisingly, he did much the same thing. On 28 February 1915, for example, The People published an article by Le Queux entitled 'HOTBEDS OF ALIEN ENEMIES AND SPIES IN THE HEART OF THE METROPOLIS. THE SCANDAL OF THE ALIEN ENEMY AND SPY IN OUR MIDST. HOME OFFICE TURN A BLIND EYE TO TREASON-MONGERS AND TRAITORS'.1 This was not a work of fiction, but rather a supposedly factual expose of 'the alien enemy in our very midst [which] will be read with amazement and disgust'.2 The disturbing revelations were the result of Le Queux's intrepid forays into the 'nests of Germans who, unchecked by the authorities, vilify Britain and openly pray for her downfall', right in the heart of darkness, i.e. 'the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court-rd. and Soho'.3 For example, he claimed to have sat in on a conversation (apparently posing as an Italian –– the mind boggles) between two men and a woman in a house on Tottenham Street:

They laughed the British Government to scorn, and declared that certain Ministers were Germany's friends. 'We shall win,' declared one of the men. 'The British Army will never re-enter Belgium. We have some surprises there for them, just as we have here in England when our Zeppelins come. All is prepared, and, at a given signal, these English fools will wake up with a start. We already have our hand upon these vermin here, and it will not be long before the Eagle will show its claws. Happily, the fools are asleep. We are not! We know every night what is happening. Tonight, at eight o'clock, there were five German aeroplanes between Dunkirk and Dover. But they are not coming to England.'

'How do you know that?' I asked, instantly interested.

The round-faced man, a typical Prussian, only smiled mysteriously behind his glasses, and refused to satisfy my curiosity.4

Le Queux, of course, was able to verify that there were indeed five German aeroplanes near Dunkirk that night, and further that information was reaching the German spies in London on a nightly basis. And if more evidence was required, there was much more:

Everywhere I went, both around Tottenham Court-rd. and in Soho, I heard the same vile abuse of England, the same wild enthusiasm over German victories, the same blind, unshaken confidence in the German power to eventually crush us, and the same declaration that the bombardment of London from the air is only a matter of days, and that it will be the signal for terrible havoc and destruction to be worked in all our great cities by the army of secret agents who are 'lying low' awaiting the signal to strike, and thus produce a panic.5

And so on. The point was, of course, to rouse the Home Office from its slumber, to force it to place 'the whole matter of enemy aliens and espionage [...] under the control of a central board with absolute power to crush it out, and so protect the State from a deadly peril which has permeated into every walk of our national life'.6
...continue reading


  1. The National Archives [TNA], MEPO 3/243: clipping from The People (London), 28 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

The Peril in the Air

This could be the lurid cover of an Edwardian novel about the dangers of aerial bombardment, with an aeroplane, an airship and Death himself hovering over a great city, watching the terrified populace streaming outwards in panic: the first knock-out blow from the air. But it's not. Instead it's the lurid cover of an Edwardian advertising brochure for Peps tablets, claimed to alleviate everything from coughs and colds to potter's rot and pulmonary tuberculosis, any ailment of the throat and chest.
...continue reading

2 Comments

S.55s over the Alps

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