Books

11 Comments

So, in the previous post in this series, I explained why (at least to a proximate cause) in 1914 people around Britain started worrying that German spies had gone around the country building concrete platforms for heavy artillery, as supposedly had been done before the war near Maubeuge and Antwerp. But what I didn't do was explain the concurrent (and in the case of Great Missenden, overlapping) belief that German spies had also gone around building Zeppelin bases, which after all is where I started. This seems especially puzzling since, thanks to their long range, Zeppelins certainly didn't need any such bases to launch air raids on London or elsewhere in Britain; this was well-known and was the basis for the phantom airship panic the year before the war.

What I think was happening here is essentially the same as happened with the Maubeuge platforms: people were reacting to the rapidly developing war situation, particularly the German advance to the Channel coast: Antwerp fell on 10 October 1914, Ostend on 15 October. The next major ports to the west, Dunkirk and Calais, were to remain in Allied hands for the rest of the war, but this couldn't have been known at the time. Already in late August, the Channel ports were being identified as potential forward bases for Zeppelins: 'While [the Royal Marines] hold Ostend there need be no fear of the town being made a Zeppelin base as was suggested a day or two since'.1 The Western Daily Press thought that

it is plainly the object of the enemy to establish themselves on the coast, and to find there more than one point d'appui for delivering attacks on England by means of aeroplanes and Zeppelins. It has been obvious that, during the past few weeks, the Germans have determined to make the fullest use of their aerial flotilla, quite irrespective of the regulations laid down in the second Hague Convention. The performance of a Zeppelin over Antwerp the other day stands in proof of this conviction.2

By 16 September it was being reported as rumoured in Berlin that 'Germany is preparing to invade England with a Zeppelin armada [...] the stories all agree that the base from which they shall start is Calais. As soon as the French army is disposed of, according to the German plan, a strong force will capture Calais'.3 A week later, there was more confidence, with the Aberdeen Daily Journal suggesting that 'If the Germans had succeeded in establishing a Zeppelin base at Dunkirk or Calais, there is no doubt the danger to London would have been real from a panic point of view'.4 The RNAS raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf on 22 September may have allayed fears, although whether it had done any significant damage was not clear, and the very fact of the raid and its daring nature itself proved that the government was taking the Zeppelin threat seriously. In fact it was assumed to be a reprisal for the bombing of Antwerp.5
...continue reading


  1. Birmingham Gazette, 28 August 1914, 4

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 29 August 1914, 4

  3. Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 16 September 1914, 2

  4. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22 September 1914, 4

  5. E.g. Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield), 24 September 1914, 2

Bryn Hammond. Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle. London: Phoenix, 2009. I was telling my students about Cambrai only yesterday... well, I mentioned it to them, anyway. Hammond argues that it was the improved British artillery doctrine that was the key breakthrough at Cambrai, rather than the massed tank assault it is usually remembered for.

Liz Millward. Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008. A pioneering gender history of aviatrices in the British Empire, including Lady Heath, Amy Johnson, and above all the New Zealander Jean Batten. Not only is this potentially relevant to my aerial spectacle project, but Millward has more recently been looking at flying displays. So I need to pay attention.

H. G. Wells. The War in the Air, and Particularly How Mr Bert Smallways Fared while it Lasted. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1941. 3rd edition. I already own a copy of The War in the Air, but it's a modern edition. Yes, I'm one of those people.

9 Comments

On ABC New England last week I briefly mentioned rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the early months of the First World War. So far as I have been able to determine, the stories, which peaked in October 1914, centred on three locations: the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Chiltern Hills.

The one in the Lake District is the best known of these, partly because of the involvement of B. C. Hucks, a famous aviator before the war (he was a regular at Hendon, the first British pilot to loop and, later, inventor of the Hucks starter), but paradoxically it's the hardest to find much information about. According to Cole and Cheesman,

One persistent rumour of a Zeppelin operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere was dispelled only after Lieut. B. C. Hucks -- a highly experienced prewar civil pilot -- had searched the Lake District from a Blériot monoplane.1

Hayward adds a few more details:

In September 1914 a local rumour in Cumberland held that a German airship was operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere, and flew sorties over Westmorland by night. The story was only dispelled after a Royal Flying Corps pilot undertook several patrols above the Lake District in a Bleriot monoplane, and saw nothing but glorious scenery.2

Similarly brief accounts can be found here and there, but they all likewise concentrate on Hucks' search rather than the rumours themselves, and I haven't been able to find any primary sources.3
...continue reading


  1. Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 8. 

  2. James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), 18. 

  3. Presumably the War Office and the Home Office are the places to look. Hucks' WO 339 might also have something. 

4 Comments

The 1955 novel Biggles in Australia is the subject of an interesting article in Inside Story by Adam Nicol, 'Uncivil aviation: Biggles down under' (I like the line 'The common term “civil aviation” -- that is, flight for leisure -- suggests that aviation is intrinsically warlike'), which could be usefully read alongside my UNE colleague Erin Ihde's 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace'.1 There is an error, though: in referring to the well-known fact that W. E. Johns, the creator of Biggles, called himself Captain Johns 'despite retiring from the Royal Air Force with the rank of flying officer, some four ranks below captain'. But flying officer is not four ranks below captain, unless Nicol is thinking of group captain, or naval captain, neither of which is the rank Johns was claiming. In fact there isn't a RAF rank of plain old captain, except for the brief period when there was, i.e. after the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and before August 1918 1919 when the current ranks (more or less) were established. In between, RFC ranks were used, that is to say, Army ranks. This is where Johns's captain comes from. Since flying officer in the RAF is the equivalent of a lieutenant in the Army, just below captain, Johns only promoted himself one rank, not four.

But this made me think that maybe there is a way to explain why Johns called himself captain, not flying officer, or at least to shed some light on the matter. (In fact he was very inconsistent about it, sometimes using one title, sometimes the other.) In fact it was not an uncommon practice for officers to be given an honorary promotion upon retirement. (Sometimes, too, they retired with the highest rank they may have temporarily held during their career, again normally one grade.) Apart from a bit of additional status in civilian life, I think this also meant a higher pension. Also, in this period when the Air Force was new, former officers who had been in the wartime RAF or indeed the RFC sometimes elected to be called by the military version of their ranks, since these were more familiar and could carry more cachet. P. R. C. Groves is an example of both. At the end of his career in the RAF he was a group captain, but was granted an honorary promotion to brigadier-general (and not air commodore, the next RAF rank up), which had not been an Air Force rank for nearly 3 years at this point. Since he'd actually spent 19 years in the Army and just under 4 in the RAF, brigadier-general might have felt more real to him, for all his devotion to the cause of airpower. But, usefully, since brigadier-general was, at the time, classed as a general officer rank, it also meant that he could be called General Groves, as indeed he always was, which is far more impressive than Air Commodore Groves, it must be said. Not everyone did this; L. E. O. Charlton, also ex-RFC, was happy with air commodore when he retired, though since he didn't receive an honorary promotion perhaps he didn't get any say in the matter.

As for Johns, I don't think he was actually granted an honorary promotion; the London Gazette's entry recording his retirement calls him a flying officer and says he is permitted to retain his rank.2 For comparison, the equivalent for Groves says he 'is granted the honorary rank of Brigadier-General'.3 Perhaps Johns felt he deserved an honorary promotion anyway; and almost certainly he thought Captain Johns sounded better than Flight Lieutenant Johns, the RAF equivalent, let alone Flying Officer Johns, his actual title. Maybe, too, those who had known him as a flying officer in the RAF assumed that he had earned his promotion, which might explain why he seems to have got away it even though he was still heavily involved in the aviation scene. Either way, we're stuck with Captain Johns now.


  1. Erin Ihde, 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace', Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (2013): 363-80

  2. London Gazette, 22 December 1931, 8260

  3. Ibid., 17 February 1922, 1415

2 Comments

Kristen Alexander. Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014. As an Australian, every time I watch Battle of Britain I notice the mention of the 21 Australian pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, and the 14 who were killed (these numbers are actually undercounts). This is the story of eight of them before, during, and after; only one of whom survived.

Carolyn Holbrook. Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014. How and why did Anzac become as important to Australians as it undoubtedly is today? It wasn't always so, as Carolyn's book shows. The PhD on which this is based won the Serle Award for best Australian thesis at the AHA last month, which is as auspicious an omen as you could hope for.

Bruce Scates. On Dangerous Ground: A Gallipoli Story. Crawley: UWA Press, 2012. Bruce gave the Russel Ward Lecture at UNE last night, on ways of telling the postwar stories of returned soldiers, using still-to-be-digitised repatriation records and moving pictures (in both senses of the phrase). But more importantly I got a free copy of his first novel, just for sitting in the first couple of rows of the audience! Winning.

4 Comments

Alison Bashford. Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. This was launched at the Australian Historical Association conference this week and looked like fun -- an intellectual history of eugenics, birth control, food supply and, of course, world population, from the 1920s to the 1960s -- so I bought it.

Lara Feigel. The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. I heard Feigel speak at Exeter a few years back. Here she has written something of a collective emotional biography of five key writers in Britain during the Second World War (Bowen, Greene, Macaulay, Spiel and Green). Inevitably the Blitz (and the V-weapons) bulk large, but it's not just about that.

Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. London: Profile Books, 2014. There's a centenary on...

Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War. London: Icon Books, 2013. ... in case you hadn't noticed.

Free books!

The Earl of Avon. The Eden Memoirs: Full Circle. London: Cassell, 1960. I already have the volume of Eden's memoirs covering his life up until 1938, so it's nice to complete the set. This one covers his postwar career; it's interesting to note that it was actually published first, out of chronological order, almost as though he felt he needed to defend his most recent period in office...

The Earl of Avon. The Eden Memoirs: The Reckoning. London: Cassell, 1965. Covers the period 1938-1945, including Eden's time as Churchill's wartime Foreign Secretary.

Winston S. Churchill. Great Contemporaries. London: Fontana, 1959 [1937]. Written during Churchill's wilderness (i.e. broke) years. Everyone from Alfonso XIII to Boris Savinkov is here.

Winston S. Churchill. My Early Life: A Roving Commission. N.p.: Fontana, 1959 [1930]. Churchill's own account of his youth, his time in the Army (including on campaign in the Sudan and on the North-West Frontier) and as a journalist (etc) in the Boer War.

Jack Fishman. My Darling Clementine. London: Pan, 1963. A biography of Clementine Churchill.

Warwick Heywood. Reality in Flames: Modern Australian Art & the Second World War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2014. This one I had to pay for -- the catalogue for a travelling AWM exhibition which is currently showing at NERAM in Armidale, and which just happens to include five works by Eric Thake, including Kamiri Searchlight.

Robert Rhodes James. Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939. London and Ringwood: Penguin, 1973. You may be sensing a bit of a Churchillian theme here. This is the pick of the bunch, a classic in its own right and an early (and still rather rare) critical biography.

'Johnnie' Johnson. Wing Leader. Harmondsworth and Mitcham: Penguin, 1959. Yes, '"Johnnie" Johnson is exactly how his name is written -- well, with the gloss 'Group Captain J. E. Johnston, D.S.O., D.F.C.' He was after all the highest scoring RAF ace of the Second World War, so he was a bit famous.

Harold Nicolson. Diaries and Letters: 1930-1939. London: Collins, 1966. I have the more recent, more definitive of his diaries, but that is less comprehensive, so it's nice to have this too.

Units of the Royal Australian Air Force: A Concise History, Vol. 9: Ancillary Units. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995. Now I need the other nine volumes.

Kenneth Young. Churchill and Beaverbrook: A Study in Friendship and Politics. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1978. Some more Churcilliana. Given that this is dedicated to Max Aitken (fils, presumably), it's probably not likely to be very critical.

4 Comments

The other guys

So my book is a thing that now exists. But although it was formally published on 18 June, many online bookstores have waited until today to actually ship it. (I recommend using Booko to find the cheapest prices, or you can get a 10% discount by ordering directly from Ashgate.) To mark this auspicious day, I thought I'd mention the other guys -- the other books which are, more or less, also about the history of the knock-out blow theory, and so are both inspiration and competition for The Next War in the Air.

  1. George H. Quester. Deterrence Before Hiroshima: The Airpower Background of Modern Strategy. New Brunswick and Oxford: Transaction Books, 1986 [1966]. The breadth of this book is quite remarkable: there aren't many other choices if you want a comparative discussion of the bomber fear in all the major powers, though this does inevitably mean that the coverage of is Britain is not thorough enough to satisfy me. I still feel that the nuclear context in which was written distorts Quester's interests and arguments too much -- in fact, it wasn't written as history at all, but as political science (it's Quester's PhD thesis; his advisor was Samuel Huntington) -- but his argument that nuclear deterrence theory after 1945 was anticipated by airpower theorists before 1945 is inarguable.
  2. Barry D. Powers. Strategy Without Slide-Rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939. London: Croom Helm, 1976. I have no idea what happened to Powers, but he wrote an excellent book which in many ways is the closest to my own, particularly in the way that it is concerned with civilian, unofficial and popular responses to the bomber. Sadly, though (and despite the subtitle), he doesn't cover the period after 1931 in any detail, which is a huge tease since that's when the fear was at its most intense. He also neglects the period before the First World War, which I argue is when the key ideas underlying the knock-out blow theory were formed. But I rate Strategy Without Slide-Rule very highly and cite it often.
  3. Uri Bialer. The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics, 1932-1939. London: Royal Historical Society, 1980. This is the book on the knock-out blow theory, the one that nearly everyone cites (or riffs off). And that's a problem, not because it's a bad book (it's a great book), but because, at least from my perspective, it is a surprisingly limited book. It's all there in the subtitle: not only does The Shadow of the Bomber only cover the 1930s (which, as I've said is the key period for the knock-out blow theory; but by the same token that's not when it started), but more importantly it is very focused on the elite viewpoint, at the highest political, military and civil service levels. Which is fine, and as it happens, necessary, but The Shadow of the Bomber is often cited as a generic reference for the fear of air attack in general. It's actually not very suitable for that, and my hope is that The Next War in the Air will take some of that market share.
  4. Alfred Gollin. The Impact of Air Power on the British People and Their Government, 1909-14. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989. A fascinating and invaluable account of the early years of airpower politics in all its forms, from pressure groups to parliamentary debates. And for a long time the only academic monograph to treat the phantom airship scares at length -- until The Next War in the Air, that is, and even then I only look at the 1913 one. Sadly, the promised third volume of the trilogy (the first being No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909) never eventuated.
  5. Michael Paris. Winged Warfare: The Literature and Theory of Aerial Warfare in Britain, 1859-1917. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992. The aim here is differentThe Next War in the Air, but this is a great overview of very early ideas about the uses of airpower, including (but not limited to) precursors to the knock-out blow theory. The amount of literature (fictional and non-fictional, adult and juvenile, books and articles, military and civilian) covered is staggering. But Winged Warfare is also very good on airpower politics and the RFC.
  6. Sven Lindqvist. A History of Bombing. London: Granta, 2002. I'm a bit ambivalent about this. It's good on predictive fiction about bombing, and it's written with verve and passion, but it's frankly a polemic. That mightn't matter so much if I was convinced by Lindqvist's argument that the knock-out blow theory was 'about' race (I would argue that it was more about class, but it's not an either-or thing), but I'm not; and he ignores anything that doesn't fit his thesis. The odd structure (it's not supposed to be read linearly, instead there are 24 different paths you can take through the book) also grates. Still, it's not a bad book; and it's more accessible than any other book on this list, with the exception perhaps of Patterson.
  7. Tami Davis Biddle. Rhetoric and Reality in Strategic Air Warfare: The Evolution and Reality of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. This is now the standard work on military ideas about strategic bombing during the period of the world wars, and it's all the more valuable for comparing these ideas with what actually happened in wartime, for both the American and the British cases. The Next War in the Air complements this by analysing civilian ideas about strategic bombing (albeit only for the British case), which Biddle does consider, but only briefly.
  8. Ian Patterson. Guernica and Total War. London: Profile Books, 2007. This came out partway through my PhD. This provides an excellent account of the bombing of Guernica, but as the title suggests this is just the point of departure. For a short introduction to the cultural responses to bombing, this is hard to beat (and much more measured than Lindqvist).
  9. Susan R. Grayzel. At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain From the Great War to the Blitz. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Since this came out after my PhD, it's not inspiration so much as competition. But while much of the period and subject matter overlaps with The Next War in the Air, the approach is very different. Notably, At Home and Under Fire approaches bombing from the perspective of gender, largely successfully. I disagree with some parts but I'm happy to assign other parts as readings for my students!
  10. Michele Haapamaki. The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain. London: I. B. Tauris, 2014. I recently gave The Coming of the Aerial War big props, so I won't say too much about it here. Again, the approach is different to The Next War in the Air, and the serious scholar of airpower and British culture will want to read both. Possibly the casual ones, too.

So, yes, I'm (literally and historiographically) placing The Next War in the Air next to these books. If other historians decide to do so as well, I'll be more than happy.

3 Comments

As of May 1916, the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla consisted of 91 machines purchased with funds donated by Britons overseas, 69 for the RFC and 22 for the RNAS. The RFC donations were organised through the Over-Seas Club -- £1500 for a B.E.2c and £2250 for a Vickers F.B.5 -- and were as follows.1
...continue reading


  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 18-23.