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.

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!


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
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  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.
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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.
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So, after a month of reposts, my celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary is nearly over. All that remains is the surprise which I promised, which is (no surprise!) the PhD thesis I submitted way back in 2009, for which I was subsequently awarded my PhD -- after all, Airminded began life as a PhD blog. This thesis formed the basis for my book published in 2014, but they are different works. While there is of course substantial overlap between them, the book has been substantially revised and updated from the thesis, and in places completely rewritten. So the book is much better, but the thesis is a lot cheaper, because it's free. I'm aware that there are people who are interested in my book but can't afford the asking price (or find it in a library), so the thesis is the next best thing. I actually should have put it online as soon as it was passed, so that it could be read and cited, but I was worried that publishers wouldn't be interested in it. But I now think that fear is greatly exaggerated -- much like the knock-out blow from the air itself!

You can download my PhD thesis from the Downloads page or directly from here.


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,, 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...


Alan Allport. Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War, 1939-1945. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Alan's –– since he's a longtime friend of this blog I feel justified in the slight informality -- last book looked at what happened to the British soldier when he went home after the Second World War ended. This is much more ambitious in that it's about everything that happened to the British soldier before Demobbed. Hopefully Alan will write a social history of the RAF next. (Well, I can dream, can't I?) In any case, he will no doubt be pleased to learn that it's on sale in Australian bookshops, since that's where I found it; and that I showed both Browned Off and Demobbed to a colleague who promptly decided to buy his own copies for his current research. That's outreach and impact, right there.

Anne Witchard. England's Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War. Melbourne: Penguin, 2014. A very cute little (less than a hundred pages) book and a useful parallel to the Germanophibia with which I am better acquainted. Witchard argues that the casualties of the First World War led to fears of racial decline and hence the identification of the Chinese as a racial enemy. I know what you're thinking -- didn't M. P. Shiel, Jack London, and for that matter Sax Rohmer himself all write about the Yellow Peril before 1914? Well, yes. That's a good point. Hopefully Witchard will address it.

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.

  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54. 


David Clarke. How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth. London: Aurum Press, 2015. Clarke is a journalist and academic who has also worked with the National Archives on the declassification of Britain's official UFO files. Here he takes a wider view, providing a social history of ufology (a subject he has already tackled, with Andy Roberts) framed through his own personal journey from believer to sceptic. Given that, I'm a bit disappointed that there seems to be little about phantom airships, a topic which he pioneered. Still, there's plenty of interest here.

Robin Prior. When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Or, to be slightly more precise, when Britain saved the West by saving itself - Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz (and Churchill rather than Chamberlain or indeed Halifax). Knowing Prior's previous work (mostly on battles of the First World War), this will be thoroughly researched and logically argued. At first glance, it's not clear that he is challenging much of the historiographical consensus on 1940, however: for example he allows that Fighter Command had the Battle of Britain well under control, while making the point that this wasn't obvious to contemporaries. Which is to say that Prior is sensible. As Prior says there aren't many military histories of 1940 as a whole, so a fresh, integrated and scholarly account is welcome.

Nigel Watson. UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena. Stroud: History Press, 2015. With Clarke, a sometime-collaborator, Watson is the other major pioneer of the history of phantom airships (and who also is more interested in their cultural significance than the remote possibility of physical reality). The collection which he edited, The Scareship Mystery (2000), has long been my standard reference on the subject for both peacetime and wartime mystery aircraft scares -- not that there are many competitors, mind. This is something of an update, a bit less in-depth but also broader. In fact, apart from the more usual mystery aircraft wave of the period, there is a chapter on the Australian mystery aeroplane panic in 1918 drawing upon my own research, which is very gratifying. There is also some information on Norwegian mystery aircraft scares, in 1908 and during the First World War, which I don't know much about. A chapter on wartime spy scares and other rumours bears on my own research in this area.