Books

3 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. 

2 Comments

The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla

We are familiar enough with the Spitfire Funds of the Second World War, in which patriotic individuals and groups could buy aircraft for the nation. There was a fair amount of precedent for this. In the early 1930s, Lady Houston more than once offered the government hundreds of thousands of pounds for air defence, though this was turned down. Perhaps she was inspired by the Nizam of Hyderabad who in 1917 donated a whole squadron of DH.9As, forming the initial complement of No. 110 Squadron RFC. In fact the idea of civilians donating military aircraft had its origins before 1914, at a time when Britain appeared very weak in the air. Most famously there had been the sorry story of the Morning Post airship, purchased from France in 1910 with the money raised by a subscription fund, damaged on arrival when it tried to squeeze into its hangar, and destroyed on its first flight after being repaired. But the idea persisted. A proposal made by the Review of Reviews during the 1913 airship panic for 'each county, each great city or town, each collection of villages in the homeland and the Empire [to] give one or more aeroplanes to the State' came to not much, though a few months later it was reported that 'a sum of £1000 has been subscribed in British East Africa for the purchase of an aeroplane for Great Britain'.1
...continue reading


  1. 'Britain’s peril in the air', Review of Reviews 47 (April 1913): 134; Manchester Courier, 4 July 1913, 7

8 Comments

With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).
...continue reading