Contemporary

When the present is too painful to think about, there is always the past to retreat into.

Japanese planes forced down an airliner which was flying from Hong Kong to Wuchow to-day [24 August 1938], and, it is reported, machine-gunned the passengers.

Of 18 people in the plane it is believed that 15 have either been killed or drowned, as the machine, which landed on the Macao River, sank.

The pilot, named Woods, and a Chinese passenger, both of whom were wounded, have arrived at Macao, the Portuguese province at the mouth of the Canton River.

Woods said that after he had landed the machine on the west side of the river, four of the 12 Japanese planes that had forced it down, dived and machine-gunned the helpless passengers.1

Well, there's no respite there.

The turbulent Mohmand tribes who have been gathering ominously on the North-West Frontier of India under incitement by Congress Party and communist agitators to strike a blow at the British administration, failed to heed the warnings to disperse contained in leaflets dropped by aeroplanes which flew over the tribal country in the vicinity of the border, and to-day [9 March 1932] they incurred the penalty stated in the warnings, when scores of their villages were bombed by Royal Air Force 'planes from Risalpur and Kohat. Several villages were wrecked and set on fire, Tribesmen hidden on the mountain tops turned fierce rifle fire on the 'planes, which replied with machine guns.

The bombing will continue until the raiders return to their mountain fortresses. One section of the tribesmen, which was threatening the approaches to the remote British outpost at Chitral is reported to have dispersed.2

No respite there either.

When the airmail leaves Parafield for Perth tomorrow mornining [sic] it will carry a highly-bred Nawab with it -- Higham Nawab of Warncourt, a six-weeks-old Persion [sic] kitten, dusty black in color, and about nine inches long.

The Nawab comes from a distinguished family. He was bred by Miss A. E. Jarmyn, of Prospect. His mother is Higham Gipsy, a litter sister to Higham Roulette, a South Australian grand champion Persian. The Nawab will go to Perth in a specially light matchwood box, and he will be in the care of the pilot of the mail plane.

He has been sold to Miss A. G. Cohen, of Buckingham Hill, Western Australia, who will call for him when the mail plane arrives.

Miss Jarmyn thinks that the Nawab will not be airsick because he is so small. She will give him a good breakfast before he goes, to make him comfortable and sleepy.3

That will do! Except – this is on the same page:

News, 11 November 1932, 8

Mr. Baldwin stressed the probable horrors of aerial warfare. The greatest fear among ordinary people of all nations, he said, was fear of the air. It was well for the man in the street to understand that no power could protect him from air-bombing. The only defence in aerial warfare was to kill more people than the enemy killed.4

There's no escaping the present, or the past.


  1. Argus (Melbourne), 25 August 1938, 1

  2. Western Mail (Perth), 17 March 1932, 34

  3. News (Adelaide), 11 November 1932, 8

  4. Ibid

3 Comments

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

In Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, Thomas Hippler describes what he calls Douhet's 'ahistorical historicism':

His thinking is ahistorical to the extent that it poses a concept of history ('everything has changed') that simultaneously cuts off history itself. His thinking is historicist, because this absolute beginning not only occurs as a break within history, but also to the extent that it gives way to a technology-driven teleological understanding of later historical development. In other words, it gives way to interpreting the development to come in the sole light of the imagined essence of this beginning.1

That is, Douhet asserted that warfare in the future is going to be utterly different to warfare in the past, and that we can only predict it by looking at warfare in the present, which itself does not resemble warfare in the future either.

Douhet, of course, was not alone. Airpower prophets routinely asserted that the past was no guide to the future, and that the present was not much better, but it was all there was to go on. So Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper wrote in 1917 that

In viewing the lessons of this war, as they are likely to throw light on the future of the aeroplane, either as a vehicle for transport or as a weapon, it must be understood that this campaign by air, in the sequence of its phases, offers little or no guide to the trend of an air war of the future. The next great war, should it come, will begin where this leaves off; and all its subsequent stages, so far as any one air service is concerned, must be governed by the success or failure of that service in its first offensive by air -- an offensive which, following instantly on a commencement of hostilities, will need to be delivered with a maximum possible force and speed.2

The paradox is that as the last war receded and the next war, presumably, approached, airpower prophets had to continue to rely on that last war for their evidence, as it was the only example of large-scale application of airpower to date. Their futurism became increasingly historical, in other words. To take a random example, in 1937 Frank Morison devoted three quarters of his book to recounting the experience of London and Paris under aerial bombardment two decades previously, and the final quarter to showing how this experience gave only a hint of what was to come. Recalling the 'hectic days of excitement and warlike preparation' before the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, he suggested that

Surely few historical parallels could be more misleading, because the march of science has destroyed in advance that indispensable time-lag upon which the successful deployment of our military, social and industrial resources mainly depended.3

The reason, of course, was the march of technological progress:

It is practically assured that the speed of a long-distance bombing squadron, sent against London in the next war, will not be less than 250 miles per hour and may conceivably be in excess of that figure. This means that a formation sighted at Beachy Head, say at 11 a.m., if not intercepted and driven off, will reach the suburbs at 11.12 a.m. and be over Central London about one minute later.4

Hence the teleology, with war, and thus all of history, marching towards its inevitable fate of domination and even determination by the bomber. Of course Morison was not to know that within a couple years Beachy Head itself would be the site of a Chain Home Low radar station, and hence part of the solution to the bomber threat. But then, by definition believers in the bomber never had faith in the fighter.

Douhet, Grahame-White, Morison and the rest were essentially military mini-singularitarians. According its adherents, the Singularity is the point in the not-too-distant future when technological changes, especially in artificial intelligence, will accelerate and converge such that they will so utterly change society and humanity itself that it will be practically unrecognisable. But like the airpower prophets before them, singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil extrapolate wildly from the past -- CPU speeds, increasing lifespans -- to predict that the future will be nothing like it -- uploaded personalities, immortality.5 They too are ahistorical historicists, and if the past is any guide to the future, just as likely to be right.


  1. Thomas Hippler, Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 75. 

  2. Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, Air Power: Naval, Military, Commercial (London: Chapman & Hall, 1917), 1. 

  3. Frank Morison [Albert H. Ross], War on Great Cities: A Study of the Facts (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 186, 187. 

  4. Ibid., 189. 

  5. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005. 

12 Comments

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

The election of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would 're-prioritise' another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed 'wasteful'. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody's bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation's self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called 'black armband view of history'. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia's past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of 'black armband history' suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history -- my areas of expertise -- may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools 'must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past [...] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War [...]

He's right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn't mean it's unproblematic -- as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can't erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.

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

2010 Anzac Day clash

Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli of Australian (and New Zealand, though my remarks here mostly pertain to my own country) troops on 25 April 1915. In the last two decades Anzac day has increasingly been seen as marking the coming of age of the nation, and its annual commemoration has become the most sacred event on the national calendar. And as a military historian I think this is a problem.

The original diggers are gone now, and the numbers of the veterans of later wars are diminishing rapidly too, but dawn services at local war memorials and overseas battlefields seem to only become more popular. Broadcast, print and social media are filled with ritual invocations to never forget. New forms of commemoration appear. Stories of courage and sacrifice are told and retold. This is not in itself a problem. I'm not against Anzac Day, as such, and there's nothing wrong with remembering. It's what we're not remembering, or never knew in the first place, that is worrying. We should be looking to understand, not merely remember.
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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

Previously I argued that two books by Frank Joseph, Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy's Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011), were at the very least bad history and, in the case of Mussolini's War at least, possibly apologies for fascism as well. I also promised that I'd take a closer look at Joseph himself. It turns out that military history is only one of his interests, and that he is better known as a pseudoarchaeologist and a former neo-Nazi.

It took a little bit of detective work to piece this together, but only a little. It's in the author biographies supplied by his publishers. Praeger's author biography of Joseph says that

Frank Joseph is professor of world archaeology with Japan's Savant Institute, and recipient of the Midwest Epigraphic Society's Victor Moseley Award. His published works include more than 20 books in as many foreign editions, such as Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy's Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 193545.

Helion's biography is more extensive (Mussolini's War, 312):

A member of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and a scuba diver since 1962, Joseph has participated in underwater archaeological expeditions in the Bahamas, Yucatan, the Canary Islands, the Aegean, and Polynesia. A frequent guest speaker across the United States, he has lectured in Britain, Slovenia, and throughout Japan, where he was made 'Professor of World Archaeology' by Kyushu's Savant Society. Before the close of the past century, Japanese national television broadcast two different programs about his work.

In 1998, he received the Victor Moseley Award for his work on behalf of cultural diffusionist archaeology from Ohio's Midwest Epigraphic Society (Columbus). He also received 1999's Burrow's Cave Society Award, and his work has additionally commended by the Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation (Marquette, Michigan).

At first blush this perhaps doesn't sound so bad. The Oriental Institute is perfectly respectable, of course, though becoming a member requires nothing more than paying an annual fee. The 'Savant Institute' has very little web presence, at least in English, but it appears to have something to do with archaeology (Nobuhiro Yoshida, 'President of Japan Petroglyph Society and Professor at the Savant Institute & Japan Academic Center', spoke at the 2005 conference of the American Rock Art Research Association). The Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation exists 'To collect and preserve evidence of ancient civilizations in North America, and the Great Lakes region in particular, in a manner that supports their study by amateur and professional scholars and to educate the public about the significance'. The Midwestern Epigraphic Society 'researches the ancient migrations of mankind to the Americas, especially Pre-Columbian and particularly to the Midwest US, as revealed by cultural similarities, archaic writing, ancient world history and evidence found by modern science'.
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[The views stated here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Society for Military History or the Journal of Military History. Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

While they only apply to journals published in the UK, the recommendations of the recent Finch Report on open access (OA) have some worrying implications for historians overseas as well as those working in the UK, especially if they are working independently of any institutional base. If adopted, they would mean doing away with the current subscription-based model of access to scholarly articles. Instead, articles published under what is known as Gold OA would be free for anyone to download (ideally, though there will likely be a transition period). The cost of publication would instead be covered by charges paid by the authors themselves, the so-called Article Processing Charge (APC). The Finch Report suggests an APC of £1450, and envisages that this would ultimately be borne by the universities who employ the authors, or by the granting bodies who fund them. The Cameron government has already accepted the recommendations of the Finch Report.

This is fantastic news for libraries, struggling with increasing subscription fees and reduced budgets. It would also make the results of research directly available to the wider public who currently need to pay a not-inconsiderable amount to download a scholarly article, unless they can get access through a public library. These two reasons, which provide much of the impetus for OA, are self-evidently good ones.

Independent historians (like me) will likewise benefit greatly from being able to freely download articles under Gold OA. But they will lose more than they gain. In general they cannot look to their employer to pay the APC for any work that they wish to publish in academic journals. Similarly, they are unlikely to have grant money to draw upon to cover the costs of publication. Most of the time, independent scholars would have to pay the APC out of their own pocket. It's already difficult enough, and expensive enough, to do academic-level research outside academia; adding a £1450 charge for the privilege of actually publishing that research will make it effectively impossible for many independent historians. Perhaps some funding could be set aside for non-academics to draw upon for APCs, but any such scheme would likely be competitive and would at best mean a lengthy delay in publication; at worst, it would mean that research that has passed (or is capable of passing) peer review would not get published. Or maybe the APC could simply be waived, but somebody would ultimately have to pay it: if it's the journal itself, that might make it harder for them to accept work from independent historians (though twenty-one leading UK history journals have already stated that 'all our decisions about publication will be taken regardless of whether an author is able to pay an APC or not').

There is also the impact on historians working outside the UK (again, like me), including those in academia. Research funding in the UK might be restructured around Gold OA, but it won't be elsewhere in the world. Historians working outside the UK quite likely wouldn't be able to draw upon universities or funding bodies to pay the APC. Even if they could, they might find it difficult to justify spending scarce funds to publish in the UK when they could publish somewhere else in the world. This is a problem for historians of Britain (yet again, like me) who naturally wish to publish in British history journals. But it's also a problem for historians working on other areas who might wish to publish in, for example, War in History, Journal of Strategic Studies, or First World War Studies.

If implemented, the recommendations of the Finch Report would open access to research from the point of view of the consumer, but it would perversely narrow access from the point of view of the producer. In the sciences, where nearly all academic research is fully funded or carried out in universities, Gold OA will work wonders. It may well do so in the humanities too, but the collateral damage will be much greater. What is to be done?

Sceptical responses to the Finch Report from learned societies and scholarly journals include: American Historical Association; British Academy; International Society of First World War Historians; Journal of Victorian Culture; Royal Historical Society; and, as previously noted, the collective response from a number of journals (including First World War Studies). Most heartening is Past & Present's position:

We want to state clearly and unequivocally that merit will be the sole determinant of Past & Present’s decisions to publish articles.

Whether an author can pay an APC or not will be irrelevant.

We will accept APCs and will also publish the articles of authors who cannot pay APCs. This means that all authors outside the UK and all within can continue to be published free of charge in Past & Present.

Bravo.

5 Comments

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

The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that 'Hamas' goal is to kill civilians'; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming 'In Children's Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!' This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that 'German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked' by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.
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  1. Listener, 19 September 1940, 404. 

  2. Ibid. 

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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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Recentlyish, someone called dedonarrival left the following comment here on a post about the British demand for reprisal bombing of Germany in return for the Blitz:

Such gross ignorance. Google: British terror bombing and note when it started and when Germany retaliated with its twin engined medium bombers and range limited fighter escort .

I don't know who dedonarrival is; and they apparently never returned to read the responses. Not that they deserved much of one. But I thought I'd do what they suggested and Google British terror bombing to see what came up. Actually, most results refer to terror bombing of, rather than by, Britain, particularly the 7/7 attacks. So I added dedonarrival to the search terms to see if they had discussed this topic before, and it turns out that they (or someone with the same pseudonym) had. I found a comment on a New Statesman article about Hiroshima as a war crime which reads, in part:

2. 'It may be Inconvenient History but England rather than Germany initiated the murderous slaughter of bombing civilians thus bringing about retaliation. Chamberlain conceded that it was "absolutely contrary to International law." The Peoples' War, Angus Calder. London, Jonathan Cape, 1969.*

'Hitler only undertook the bombing of British civilian targets reluctantly three months after the RAF had commenced bombing German civilian targets. Hitler would have been willing at any time to stop the slaughter. Hitler was genuinely anxious to reach with Britain an agreement confining the action of aircraft to battle zones J.M. Spaight, CB, CBE, Principal
Secretary to the Air Ministry,
Bombing Vindicated.

'The inhabitants of Coventry, for example, continued to imagine that their sufferings were due to the innate villainy of Adolf Hitler without a suspicion that a decision, splendid or otherwise, of the British War Cabinet, was the decisive factor in the case.' F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism, p. 169.

Advice: mentioning such facts while grandads in the vicinity generally proves inexpedient.

Assuming it's the same dedonarrival, it at least shows where they are coming from; and makes some sort of argument which can be examined and critiqued. Moreover, as I'll come to later these quotes can be found elsewhere on the Internet being used for the same purpose, so they're worth treating seriously. Except for the fact that they're mostly bogus.
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Dr Beachcombing of Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog kindly dropped me a line to alert me to his post about Public Service Broadcasting, a British music duo who draw on old propaganda and information films for inspiration and samples. A number of these are from the Second World War period, including 'Spitfire', 'London Can Take It', 'Dig For Victory', and 'Lit Up'. My favourite is the one above, 'If War Should Come'. Based on the 1939 GPO film of the same name, despite/because of the remixing and the electronica it is nicely evocative of the shadow of the bomber.
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