Civil aviation

The main reason for my recent New Zealand trip was to go to a conference, but afterwards I spent a week researching in Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand. My main reason for that was to look into the trans-Tasman counterpart to the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare in Australia. I didn't quite find what I wanted (more on that another day), but I did find many other, unexpected and interesting, things. For example, commercial bombers.

In my commercial bomber article, I focused on the rhetorical use of the threat posed by commercial bombers in British airpower discourse more than the actual use of actual airliners as actual bombers. However, in a recent discussion I suggested that smaller air forces might have been more interested in convertibility, since they would tend to lack the resources to invest in long-range bombing or maritime patrol aircraft. And the evidence from New Zealand seems to bear this out (though the accuracy of my further suggestion that it was only attractive in desperate times is mixed).
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In my article about the commercial bomber concept, I began my discussion of the idea that airliners could be turned into bombers in 1918, with the report of the Civil Aerial Transport Committee. But it turns out that it appeared some years earlier, though in a far more fragmentary and undeveloped form than in the interwar period. And it involved airships, not aeroplanes.

In December 1912, the Admiralty received a joint report from the military and naval attachés in Berlin about the wartime disposition and employment of Germany's airship fleet. They suggested that the German government was paying subsidies to airship manufacturers so that their civilian production would be built to the minimum standard required for military service. So, in the next war,

the naval and military authorities will thus have at their disposal not only the Government aircraft, but also a number of dirigible airships belonging to private firms fully manned and equipped and ready for instant service[.]1

The attachés estimated that this would yield a German fleet of between 21 and 23 airships, though as it's unclear how many of these were civilian it's equally unclear how much of a difference their inclusion would make. But generally speaking, they increased the aerial threat to Britain:

A number of vessels in this formidable array of airships would be capable of sailing from Germany to Sheerness, Woolwich, or any other desired point in England and return without the necessity of an intermediate descent to the earth.2

The commercial bomber idea also appeared in the press. 'C. C. T.' (i.e. C. C. Turner) , writing in the Observer at the end of March 1913, also attempted to estimate the size of the German air fleet in the event of war. He came up with 13 government-owned airships, and

In addition, there are in Germany privately-owned airships:--

First-class... 2
Second-class... 83

So his total came to 23 airships, which corresponds well with the (presumably confidential) estimate provided by the attachés. This could be because they were working from the same information, or perhaps Turner got his figures from the Admiralty. The basic rhetorical function of the commercial bomber is much the same here as it was later, to inflate the size of the enemy air fleet and make it seem more threatening, the better to demonstrate 'the fatal complacency and ignorance permitted, and even fostered, in this country'.4 However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the commercial bomber idea was useful only so long as Germany had no air force, and more or less disappeared with the creation of the Luftwaffe (or so I argue). Here, it is being claimed that it is Britain which effectively has no aerial force to speak of, since it is credited with only 2 airships '(on order)'.5 So piling on even more German airships hardly seems necessary. Perhaps the point is to increase the German lead over France, which has 10 airships attributed to it '(these are less powerful than Germany's').6

If Turner got his information from the Admiralty, he might also have taken the idea that civilian airships could be used for military purposes from the same source. But perhaps it was obvious enough: military airships and civilian airships were in fact more or less identical at this time. Schwaben, a DELAG airliner which first flew in June 1911, was built to the same plan as two military Zeppelins, Ersatz ZII and ZIII. Two other DELAG Zeppelins, Viktoria Luise and Hansa, were indeed pressed into military service in August 1914 after a rudimentary refit. Though they were mainly used for training, it seems that Hansa, at least, flew combat missions over France and the Baltic. And Sachsen, the last DELAG Zeppelin to be built before the war, raided Antwerp on the night of 25 September 1914. So as well as being the first commercial bombers in theory, airships might have been the first, and even the only, commercial bombers in practice.


  1. The National Archives [TNA], AIR 1/657/17/122/563; quoted in Neville Jones, The Origins of Strategic Bombing: A Study of the Development of British Air Strategic Thought and Practice upto 1918 (London: William Kimber, 1973), 39. 

  2. TNA, AIR 1/657/17/122/563; quoted in Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 231. 

  3. Observer, 30 March 1913, 11. 'First-class' means Zeppelins and Schütte-Lanzes

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

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It was less than two months ago that my peer-reviewed article 'The shadow of the airliner: commercial bombers and the rhetorical destruction of Britain, 1917-1935' was accepted by Twentieth Century British History, but it's already available online, thanks to the journal's advance access policy. (So while the article has been typeset, the page numbers are only temporary, pending its formal publication at a later date.) This is great; otherwise it could easily take six months before making its appearance.

The publishers of Twentieth Century British History, Oxford Journals, also have an enlightened policy of allowing authors to put a free-access URL to the article on their own website: 'The article should only be viewed from the Oxford Journals site, and not hosted by your own personal/institutional web site or that of other third parties, though you or your co-authors may post the URLs on your own sites or those of your institutions/organizations'. What this means is that if you follow this link (abstract), this link (full text) or this link (PDF) you can read the whole article for free! Technically I suppose this is a form of Green OA, but no money changes hands; it's just part of the service. I suppose they realise that library subscriptions represent the vast bulk of their income, and letting authors provide free access to their articles from their websites is not going to undercut this. This also is great.

Here is the abstract:

Aerial bombardment was widely believed to pose an existential threat to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. An important but neglected reason for this was the danger from civilian airliners converted into makeshift bombers, the so-called 'commercial bomber': an idea which arose in Britain late in the First World War. If true, this meant that even a disarmed Germany could potentially attack Britain with a large bomber force thanks to its successful civil aviation industry. By the early 1930s the commercial bomber concept appeared widely in British airpower discourse. Proponents of both disarmament and rearmament used, in different ways and with varying success, the threat of the commercial bomber to advance their respective causes. Despite the technical weakness of the arguments for convertibility, rhetoric about the commercial bomber subsided only after rearmament had begun in earnest in 1935 and they became irrelevant next to the growth in numbers of purpose-built bombers. While the commercial bomber was in fact a mirage, its effects on the disarmament and rearmament debates were real.

Here endeth the tale of the Unpublishable Article of Doom.

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When I started my PhD, I hoped to examine fictional representations of aerial bombardment in plays as well as in novels, newspapers and other written sources, but had to abandon this intention because I found very few which discussed the next war in the air in any detail. There are a few where it appears in the background, such as Karel Čapek's Power and Glory (1938), which is much more about poison gas than aerial warfare. The threat of bombing is more important in Wings Over Europe (1928), written by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne, though this is more of a throwback to older narratives of the world being held to ransom by a league of scientists which possesses the ultimatum weapon (in this case the Guild of United Brain Workers has atomic bombs in aeroplanes circling the world's capitals) rather than owing anything to contemporary airpower theory.

But, as I found with cinematic representations, there were some plays about the knock-out blow. One such is Night Sky, which premiered at London's prestigious Savoy Theatre on 6 January 1937 under the direction of Maurice Elvey.1 The producer was Clifford Whitley; the playwright was L. du Garde Peach, better known (at least to some) as the author of Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History (1963).
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  1. As it happens, a decade earlier Elvey had directed the film version of Noel Pemberton Billing's play, High Treason, which also featured the danger of aerial bombardment -- though as he was apparently the most prolific British film director ever we shouldn't read too much into this. 

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I'm pleased to say that Twentieth Century British History has accepted my article 'The shadow of the airliner: commercial bombers and the rhetorical destruction of Britain, 1917-1935' for publication. It should appear online by the end of the year and in print some time after that. Conceptually, though not really intentionally, this article links with the ones I've written on the international air force and the 1935 air panic. The topic is the idea that civilian aircraft could be swiftly converted into effective bombers, which had its origin in the First World War and became extremely common in airpower discourse between the wars, thanks partly to P. R. C. Groves. This is something which has been little discussed by historians, with the main exception of those working on the proposed internationalisation of aviation. I argue that the commercial bomber functioned rhetorically to create a threat from Germany during the Weimar and early Nazi periods, when it was disarmed in the air but strong in civil aviation. Conversely, the issue quickly disappeared from view when the creation of the Luftwaffe was announced.

I have discussed this article here before, actually, though without saying what it was about: it's the one I asked for crowdsourced help in fixing it, after it had already been rejected and rewritten a number of times. Since it was then accepted by the next journal I sent it to (even if not immediately), for me this vindicates the idea of crowdsourcing the editing process in this way. I wouldn't do it as a matter of course, but I'd certainly do it again if (and when) I run into trouble. So thank you to the following people who provided feedback on the article draft:

Alan Allport, Christopher Amano-Langtree, Corry Arnold, Katrina Gulliver, Wilko Hardenberg, Lester Hawksby, James Kightly, Beverley Laing, Ross Mahoney, Andre Mayer, Bob Meade, Andrew Reid, Alun Salt

You'll all be in the acknowledgements, so if I've forgotten anyone, please let me know!

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VH-UXG, courtesy Phil Vabre

Very sad news today. On Monday, VH-UXG, a De Havilland DH.84 Dragon owned and flown by Des Porter, went missing on a flight from Monto to Caboolture in Queensland. A distress call and an emergency beacon were heard briefly, but then nothing more was known until today, when VH-UXG's wreckage was found in rugged terrain north of Borumba Dam. Unfortunately, all six on board were killed: Des and Kathleen Porter, Carol and John Dawson, Janice and Les D'evlin. My sympathies go out to their family and friends for their tragic loss.

The aeroplane itself is also a loss, if nowhere near as tragic a one. The Dragon, along with its successor the Dragon Rapide, is perhaps the classic 1930s small commuter airliner, designed for flying feeder routes between regional airports and metropolitan centres. Before Monday, there were apparently only eight Dragon survivors worldwide -- not four, as reported in the media -- of which six, remarkably, were still flying; now there are only seven and five respectively. (One of the seven is here in Melbourne at the RAAF Museum, tucked away in the back of one of the hangars.)

As can be seen from the photo above (taken from here, with the kind permission of Phil Vabre), VH-UXG was a beautiful aeroplane and had been lovingly restored. It was built in 1934 and flew in Britain for a couple of years as G-ACRF for Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Ltd before being sold in 1936 to Aircrafts Pty Ltd, a Queensland airline and charter service, and then in 1948 to Queensland Flying Services. It had been sold again, this time into individual ownership, by the time it crashed and was written off at Archerfield in April 1954, and it was this wreckage which Porter eventually restored. Incredibly, his father was the owner and pilot of VH-UXG in that crash, and just a few months later was killed in another Dragon crash along with Des's older brother; Des himself survived. Parts of that aeroplane were apparently incorporated into VH-UXG's tail. (This is what I've pieced together from several online sources; again the media reports differ somewhat, saying that VH-UXG was the actual aeroplane Des's father and brother were killed in. I welcome any corrections.)

This raises the question of whether we should be flying such near-unique and near-irreplaceable vintage aeroplanes at all. I think we should. These machines were not designed to sit in museums, but to soar in the sky. That's their proper context, or at least part of it, and we can better understand them, and the people who built, flew and watched them, by trying to use them as authentic a manner as possible. That entails risk, but risk was and is inherently a part of flying. Statistically, this means we will eventually lose all flightworthy vintage aircraft to accidents (though we are still adding new ones to the list and there is a surprising amount that can be done with wreckage), but we'll at least still have the museum-bound survivors. One day even those will crumble into dust and rust. But that is the fate of all things. We can't pretend otherwise, so we should make use of what we've got while we've got it.

Some more lovely photos of VH-UXG, including when it was new, can be found here, here and here.

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In my discussion of the ill-fated Sykes Memo, I noted that it included proposed force levels for the Dominion air forces, which I haven't seen discussed before. This is interesting because it came at an interesting moment. It's early December 1918, with the Empire was in the flush of victory and all things seeming possible (at least they did to Sykes, which is why he lost his job as Chief of the Air Staff). But it's before any of the Dominions had actually created their own independent air forces (SAAF: 1920; RAAF: 1921; RCAF: 1924; RNZAF: 1937 -- though those dates are inevitably contentious; see Pathfinder 114 for a RAAF perspective). Their decisions to do so inevitably reflected local concerns and conditions, but they also took advice from the RAF, as the Empire's 'mother' air force. So Sykes's proposals provides some insight into how the centre viewed the periphery in an airpower sense at this cusp between war and peace, and what advice he might have given the fledging air forces had he not been ejected from command of the RAF.

So, as before, I've tabulated the squadron numbers from the Sykes Memo in From Many Angles, and added some comments after.1
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  1. F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74. 

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Daily Mirror, 4 May 1942, 1

The front page of the Daily Mirror today is almost wholly given over to a story which the other papers are far less interested in. The recently-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr William Temple (that's him on the left, though what is being done to him I have no idea; and that's his forehead on the right), used a speech in Manchester yesterday to give 'a new charter to Britain -- a charter of social reform which will bring happiness to millions of people if applied in post-war reconstruction' (1). Its nine points are:

1. Provision of decent houses for the people of this country;
2. Every child to have adequate and right nutrition;
3. Equality in education. There shall be genuinely available to every section of society the kind of education will develop their faculties to the full;
4. Adequate leisure for personal and family life. Where the family is separated because of employment, there should be two days' holiday each week;
5. Universal recognition of holidays with wages;
6. The application of science to discover labour-saving devices, to save labour instead of labourers;
7. Wide appreciation of the fact that labour is a partner in industry, just as much as management and capital;
8. Recognition by workers and employers alike that service comes first, and the opportunity to make profit comes afterwards;
9. The opportunity for all people to achieve the dignity and decency of human personality.

An accompanying article by A. W. Brockbank says that Temple also warned against yielding 'to the lure of people who try to persuade us that it would be wise to establish such a non-party State'":

'The minority must have the right to become the majority if it can. It must be lawful to be in opposition to the Government.'

Just who he has in mind here is not made clear.
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Looking over the list of Australian mystery aircraft sightings suggests that some generalisations can be made.

Aeroplane vs airship, 1900-1918

In the 1910s, mysterious lights in the sky were usually described as being airship-like; after 1910 they were far more likely to be called aeroplanes. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1910 was when aeroplanes first flew in Australia; certainly a search of Trove Newspapers (using Wraggelabs' QueryPic) shows that 1910 was the first year when the word "aeroplane" appeared markedly more frequently than "airship". So that's easy enough to explain.

The same search shows that 1909 was the year that aviation really broke through into public consciousness. That's also the year of the Australian phantom airship wave.1 As it was the first burst of interest in aircraft, the first time that people started to learn about them, it's perhaps not surprising that people might think they saw them flying around where they weren't. The 1918 mystery aeroplane scare came after several years of increasing press coverage of aviation, obviously due to the war. So again that fits. Aeroplanes were something people were reading (and probably talking) about a lot. But that by itself is evidently not enough to generate a mystery aeroplane scare: there were a few seen in 1914, and a handful in the years after that, but nothing on the scale of 1918. There needs to be a plausible reason for aircraft to be flying about: and the reported visit of the Wolf and its Wölfchen to Australian shores provided that, though the desperate situation of the Allied armies in France was also a factor.
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  1. Of course, part of the 1909 data in the ngram above is from the airship sightings. But not many. 

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London, 2026

Airmindedness is a word which gets bandied around a lot these days -- okay, not actually a lot, but it's not just me either. But I think it's too broad a concept; at the very least, it needs to be divided into positive airmindedness and negative airmindedness. I mostly write about negative airmindedness. This more or less is the attitude 'Aviation is vitally important to the nation because it is incredibly dangerous'; the previous post is a good example of this. In Britain, I would argue, this was the predominant form of airmindedness in Britain between the wars, due to the perceived danger of a knock-out blow from the air. But mixed in with that there was also positive airmindedness: 'Aviation is vitally important to the nation because it is incredibly beneficial'. (Before 1914 this was stronger, though the phantom airship panics would suggest that even then negative airmindedness held sway.) Above is an example, a 1926 London Underground poster by Montague B. Black.

LONDON 2026 A.D. -- THIS IS ALL UP IN THE AIR
TO-DAY -- THE SOLID COMFORT OF THE UNDERGROUND

It presents a vision of London a hundred years' hence, the far-off year of 2026, drawing on the futurism of aviation to sell the (sub)mundane transport of today. (Airmindedness was very often about the potential of aviation than its reality, the future rather than the present.)
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