Cold War

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

I learned something new from an article in the March 2013 issue of History Today:

Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1963, Israel was suddenly gripped by a curious mass panic. Sensational newspaper reports and radio announcements claimed that the country was threatened by enemy 'atom bombs', 'fatal microbes', 'poison gases', 'death rays' and a 'cobalt warhead' that could 'scatter radioactive particles over large areas'. Within hours, opinion in the entire country had been ignited. Parliamentary debates, everyday conversations, even songs and poems were all preoccupied obsessively with the same theme -- that Israel was confronted by the imminent threat of another Holocaust, less than two decades after the first.

The source of this supposedly dire foreign menace was not Iran, nor the Soviet Union, although superpower tension at this stage in the Cold War was certainly intense. The perceived threat instead emanated from Egypt, which over the past decade had been led by the supremely charismatic and populist military officer, 44-year-old President Gamal Abdul [sic] Nasser.

Several months before, in the early hours of July 21st, 1962 Nasser had stunned the world by successfully test-firing a number of rockets. Specially-invited contingents of foreign journalists and cameramen had been driven to a remote spot deep in the Egyptian desert, not far from the central Cairo-Alexandria highway. They watched as a massive explosion shook the ground and a white missile lifted itself from a camouflaged position, a short distance in front of them. As one American correspondent wrote: 'It pierced a long, white cloud and later, in plain view, slowly arched to the north towards the Mediterranean.' Over the next few hours three more launches were carried out in quick succession before the journalists returned home, amid scenes of jubilation from ecstatic crowds. The Egyptian public had heard the news when a special announcement, broadcast on a national public holiday, announced on government radio that Egypt had 'entered the missile age'.

Given my interests, this sounds like something I need to know more about; and as chance would have it, the author of the article, Roger Howard, has a book due out later this year which may provide more details (Operation Damocles: Israel's Secret War Against Hitler's Scientists, 1951-1967). According to Howard's article, the real reason for the scare was not so much the Egyptian rocket programme itself, but the involvement of many German scientists who had worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, such as the aerospace (and his expertise did span both air and space) engineer Eugen Sänger. In fact, Howard argues that it was to deflect attention from the recent exposure of Operation Damocles, the intimidation of Nasser's German scientists, that Mossad director Isser Harel briefed the Israeli press with a wholly exaggerated account of Egypt's offensive capabilities. As Howard shows, and as cooler heads argued at the time, the targeting problem had not been solved, meaning the chance of a rocket hitting anything important was remote, as 1967 proved. Nor did Egypt even have a WMD programme at this time, rockets aside. The scare subsided; Harel was discredited and soon resigned.

While I don't (and can't) dispute Howard's account, from my perspective I wonder if the fear of new technological perils might have played as important a role as the spectre of Nazi-Egyptian collaboration. There are parallels to be drawn forwards and backwards in time, in Israel and elsewhere. Israeli fears about nuclear weapons and missile threats from its neighbours resurfaced in 1981, 1990-1, the 2000s, and today. Only six months before the Israeli rocket scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. All those lurid weapons mentioned in the Israeli press in 1963 -- fatal microbes, poison gases, death rays, atom bombs, even cobalt warheads -- had been staples of scaremongers in other countries for years, in most cases decades. In Britain, similar press panics over the danger of air attack took place in 1913, 1922, 1935 and 1938. It would be strange if Israel in 1963 was immune to such fears.

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In 1910, two Army officers, Second Lieutenant Bowle-Evans and Lieutenant Cammell independently put forward a new idea for an anti-aircraft weapon: the vortex ring gun.

In principal, it involved the formation of a vortex in the air, by the firing of an explosive charge inside a conical 'gun' which, if it were pointed upwards, would propel the vortex towards the intended airborne target on which, it was suggested, the violent air movement within the vortex would have a sufficiently destructive effect. Some practical support for the theory was provided firstly by a Dr Pernter of Germany who had some years earlier carried out some experimental firings which were said to have torn apart birds and other objects, and secondly by the farmers of a large region ranging from Hungary to northern Italy, who appeared to use such guns routinely in the belief that they could disperse hailstorms.1

These proposals seem to have been made to the War Office; in any case a year later the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, was corresponding on the subject with Sir Oliver Lodge, the eminent physicist. Lodge told Haldane that 'I really think the thing is worth a trial', but although he proposed acquiring a vortex ring gun from Piedmont for testing purposes it's unclear whether this ever happened.

The idea of using a vortex ring gun for air defence was aired in public at an Aeronautical Society lecture given on 3 December 1913 by Captain C. M. Waterlow, Royal Engineers, on the topic of the 'The coming airship'. In a discussion of the potential for aerial combat between aeroplanes and airships, Waterlow thought the former would be disadvantaged because of its inferior weight-carrying capacity: the airship could afford to be much better armed. This is perhaps not surprising since he was himself an airship pilot. When it came to the weapons which would be used, he suggested vortex rings:

The question of a suitable weapon had hardly been considered, but he would remark that there were great possibilities in the use of vortex rings, such as had been used in France in connection with vineyards. To show the destructive effects that they can produce, he stated that when fired horizontally they were capable of breaking up a wooden fence at a distance of 100 yards.2

The basic principle behind vortex ring guns is quite sound: a smoke ring is a common form of vortex ring, and toy vortex guns can bought or even made at home. Practical uses are a bit more dubious. The use of vortex ring guns (or hail cannon) to disperse hailstorms has a long history but little scientific evidence to back it up. More recently, militaries have looked at vortex ring guns as non-lethal weapons, to knock people down, but they don't seem to be able to do this even over a distance as short as 30 metres.
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  1. Malcolm Hall, From Balloon to Boxkite: The Royal Engineers and Early British Aeronautics (Stroud: Amberley, 2010), 204. 

  2. '"The coming airship"', Flight, 13 December 1913, 1362

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Essen, after 5/6 March 1943

Don Charlwood's No Moon Tonight has a reputation as one of the best Bomber Command memoirs. Charlwood was a Victorian who joined the RAAF in 1941, trained as a navigator in Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, and then flew in Halifaxes and Lancasters with 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. Having survived his tour of 30 ops in 1942 and 1943, he stayed in aviation after the war, albeit on the ground as a civil air traffic controller. No Moon Tonight was originally published in 1956 and was the first of more than a dozen books by Charlwood, some memoirs, some aviation history, some Victorian history. In 1986 he wrote that the book was 'kindly received both in Australia and Britain', and that 'letters from ex-aircrew men of various nationalities began to tell me I had not been alone in my response to the Bomber Command experience'.1 It's one aspect of that response I'm interested in here: his feelings about the morality of area bombing.
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  1. Don Charlwood, No Moon Tonight (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1991 [1956]), xi. 

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I have been very remiss in not noting until now the posting of Military History Carnival #30 at Cliopatria. It's a good one, as usual. The post I found most interesting this time is at Bring the Heat, Bring the Stupid (as it was last time, actually) on the US Linebacker II bombing offensive against North Vietnam in December 1972. It strikes me that this was really the last Second World War-style strategic bombing campaign fought by a major power, at least in terms of having to fight through determined air defences. These included fighters and anti-aircraft (in the form of missiles rather than guns), though with the latter much the most dangerous -- to the USAF's surprise and loss. The US lost 16 of the 207 B-52s it deployed in the eleven-day campaign -- 8 out of 99 on one night alone -- which was an unsustainable casualty rate, especially when you consider that the factories back home weren't churning out plentiful replacements as they had done in the Second World War. Still, the USAF successfully adapted to the threat (or North Vietnam started running out of SAMs, take your pick): by the last few days it was running out of targets but no longer out of aircraft. Compare with Desert Storm less than two decades later, when (despite some scary moments) the Coalition as a whole lost only 42 aircraft to enemy action in over 100,000 sorties.

And speaking of Cliopatria, I must note with regret its passing. I was a member at the end of its 8.5 years, an opportunity of which I definitely did not make best use. My thanks go to Ralph Luker for affording me that wasted opportunity, but much more for making Cliopatria one of the few history blogs to even try to link the disparate elements of the historioblogosphere together. I hope he enjoys the copious amounts of free time his blogging retirement will doubtless free up!

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Brighton Technical School, 1942

This is an image we might particularly associate with the United States in the 1950s, when schoolchildren were taught to duck and cover in the event of the flash of an atomic blast. But its use in civil defence drills predates the Cold War (albeit without a Bert the Turtle to help kids remember the message). I've seen scattered references to it being used in ARP drills in British schools in the the 1930s, and the same thing may well have happened in the First World War. But details, and photos, seem to be rare. The above photo was actually taken in Melbourne, at Brighton Technical School, probably in 1942. (Here's another Australian one from the 1940s, and here's one from London in July 1940.) It's really just common sense: if the roof and walls are about to come crashing down and there's no time to get to a proper shelter, getting the students under their desks when the bombs started to fall would give them some protection and might save their lives.

I wonder about the handkerchiefs or rags the boys have in their mouths? My guess is that it's intended to guard against being choked with dust and plaster. Also, soaked in water, they might help against some forms of gas attack, such as chlorine. Soaking them in urine would be more effective, but that would probably be beyond the scope of most school gas drills!

Source: State Library of Victoria (via Geoff Robinson).

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Military History Carnival #29 is up at Cliopatria. There are quite a few airpower posts this time around; consider this one at Bring the Heat, Bring the Stupid on the DEW Line, the North American continental early warning system built in the 1950s and lasting into the 1980s. I knew about the DEW Line itself, a radar chain built along the north coast of Canada and Alaska to provide early warning of Soviet bombers. But I didn't know about the Texas Towers, effectively radars sited on oil rigs, nor did I know about the radar picket lines formed from destroyer escorts and Lockheed Constellations. The former bring to mind the Maunsell forts in the Thames and Mersey estuaries, some of which were for air defence, fitted with AA and searchlights (though I'm not sure if they were used for early warning as such). The latter remind me of suggestions made in 1939 (April) by the pseudonymous Ajax for both sea pickets ('observation ships equipped with sound locators, detectors, range-finders, and searchlights') and air pickets ('reconnaissance air-cruisers', five-man flying boats with long range and endurance) to extend the pitiful range of land-based sound locators and give some warning of an impending air raid on London.1 Nothing new etc.


  1. Ajax, Air Strategy for Britons (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1939), 82, 83. 

Brian Madison Jones. Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961. (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011).

I found Brian Jones's Abolishing the Taboo interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the subject matter: the Cold War fear of nuclear war was the successor to the interwar fear of strategic bombing. Secondly, it's the book version of a PhD dissertation, which is something I'll be tackling myself.

The Eisenhower presidency (1953-61) was when the United States created its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, rising from the roughly 800 warheads inherited from Truman to over 18,000 by the time Kennedy came into office: as Jones notes, even after recent disarmament measures this number has never since fallen below the level when Eisenhower came into power.1 So this was the critical period when we (meaning the world) had to learn how to live with the Bomb. Jones's intention is to explain how and why this happened, through a focus on Eiseinhower's attempts to make nuclear technology normal: that is, as just another way of making the United States stronger and safer. Speaking as a non-specialist in this area, I think he largely succeeds in this. But I do have some criticisms.
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  1. Brian Madison Jones, Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011), 122. 

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Antler R3 (Taranaki) test

The last time Britain nuked Australia was at Maralinga on 9 October 1957, over half a century ago. The last of the Antler series of tests, code-named Taranaki (above), involved the detonation of a 25 kiloton fission bomb from a captive balloon at a height of 300 metres. The fallout 'moved east and then north-east towards the Queensland coast, missing the rain areas in New South Wales and Victoria as predicted'. Radiation levels in some areas 'slightly exceeded Level A [no health risk] for "people living in primitive conditions"', more than was predicted but not dangerously so, according to the safety criteria then in place.1 A 1985 Royal Commission however criticised the Antler tests on the grounds that '"inadequate attention was paid to Aboriginal safety", and that the patrols designed to ensure that the range was clear were "neither well planned nor well executed"'.2 Service personnel were also placed in greater than expected danger: a Canberra tasked with flying through the cloud half an hour later to collect air samples rapidly received unexpectedly high doses and had to abort the mission.3

Today the Federal Government introduced a bill into Parliament which will provide compensation and better health care for at least some of the latter group (the local Maralinga Tjarutja people received compensation in 1994). According to Warren Snowden, the Minister for Veteran Affairs:

The bill will benefit Australian personnel who participated in the British nuclear test program and their dependents by enabling compensation and health care to be provided with a minimum of delay [...] The personnel were involved in the maintenance, transporting or decontamination of aircraft used in the British nuclear test program outside the current legislated British nuclear test areas or time periods.

And there may be more to come:

The quality of the records from the test period and the secrecy surrounding the operation means that it is impossible to rule out the likelihood that new information may come to light which warrants further extension of coverage to additional groups of participants.

Not before time, either.

Image source: Nuclear Weapon Archive.


  1. Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith, Britain, Australia and the Bomb: The Nuclear Tests and Their Aftermath (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 202. 

  2. Ibid., 204. 

  3. Ibid., 202-3. 

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One sub-species of military intellectual is the retired field marshal (or admiral, or air marshal) who, at the end of a long career, sets down their thoughts on the future of warfare for the interested reader. Even though they may be quite famous, their essays into futurism are nowadays read less often than that of their junior counterparts, full-time military intellectuals like J. F. C. Fuller or L. E. O. Charlton, who had substantial careers in the military but left while still relatively young (and may well have borne chips on their shoulders due to their usually enforced early retirement). Partly this is due to their naturally having written less -- often just a few pages at the end of their memoirs. Often it would be due to writing and intellectualism not being something which came naturally to them. But because of their great experience (and, greater experience of the heights of strategy than the Fullers and the Charltons, one might add), it's worth looking at what the retired field marshals have to say.
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Cmnd. 124, Defence: Outline of Future Policy, is one of the most famous (and infamous) documents in British military history. It's better known as the 1957 Defence White Paper, or the Sandys White Paper after the Minister of Defence responsible for it, Duncan Sandys. It ended National Service, committed Britain to nuclear deterrence, and foreshadowed drastic cuts in conventional force levels. Aviation bore the brunt of these last. Fighter Command was to be abolished (though in the end it won a reprieve, at least until 1967) and a large number of advanced fighter types under development for the RAF were cancelled, including the Avro 720, the Fairey Delta 2, the Hawker Siddeley P.1121, and the Saunders-Roe SR.177. Only the English Electric P.1 and TSR-2 were spared (the latter only temporarily). Unsurprisingly, all this was controversial then and remains so today for those who remember such things. Certainly, the White Paper was a cost-cutting exercise: Sandys had a brief from the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to find savings of £100 million from the defence estimates. But my interest here is the intellectual context of the Sandys White Paper: it wasn't just about saving money.
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