Counterfactuals

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As I discussed recently, Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) is primarily about using wargames to understand past wars. This is sensible; apart from the obvious benefit of helping us to understand history better, there's also the useful featurethat there are some facts to go on -- this war, campaign or battle happened once before, so we know something about the forces involved, the terrain it was fought on, the dynamics of combat at the time, and so on. Sabin does occasionally discuss wargaming future conflicts, though mainly in the context of wargaming in the military, where refighting the last (or worse) war is of limited interest.

However, I've been thinking about how to wargame something which is not quite a historical war, and not quite a future war: the knock-out blow from the air. This never actually happened in the past, but for a time was thought to be what might happen in the future. Precisely because of this, a wargame of the knock-out blow could be extremely valuable in demonstrating just how far it was from the reality of aerial warfare. But also precisely because of this, it would be difficult to find the information needed to design the game.

Difficult, not impossible. In fact, I've already done most of the work needed. Part of my PhD and forthcoming book involves a reconstruction of an ideal or consensus form of the knock-out blow theory as it was articulated in the airpower literature from the First World War to the Second. So I could use this as the basis for a wargame showing not what would have happened, or even what could have happened, but what people thought was going to happen in the next war.

Well, that's easier said than done. As Sabin discusses, there are many ways of representing warfare in a wargame, and hence many choices to be made about the maps, the counters, and most importantly the rules. How do this? While I have a reasonable amount of experience playing wargames, I have none designing them. One thing Sabin suggests is starting with an existing game on a related topic, and adapting it to suit or at least borrowing useful elements. Now, as far as I know, there aren't any other wargames simulating the knock-out blow, or for that matter strategic aerial warfare in the interwar period.1 So three realistic options come to mind. One is to start with a game set in the First World War, and project it forward. I have a couple of these: The First Battle of Britain and Airships at War 1916-1918. The second is to start with a game set in the Second World War, and project it backwards. Again, I have a few to work with here, including RAF and The Burning Blue. These approaches both have the advantage of the games being at appropriate scales, and of simulating the sorts of dynamics and tradeoffs inherent in aerial warfare. They have the disadvantage, of course, of being based on historical reality rather than contemporary imagination. The third option, then, is start with a game simulating nuclear warfare, since in many ways that's closer to the anticipated effects of the knock-out blow than was actual aerial warfare of the period. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a few such games, such as the Warplan: Dropshot/First Strike series and Fail Safe. Unfortunately I don't have any of these, though perhaps unsurprisingly I have been meaning to change that. These, of course, would be at a completely different scale to aerial warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, though that may not actually be too much of a problem at the strategic level.

It all depends on what aspects of the knock-out blow I want to simulate. I'll think through some of those choices in another post.


  1. There are some alternate history wargames out there, but in my experience they tend to either stick fairly closely to the real history, such as Case Green, or else tend to be fairly fantastic dieselpunk scenarios, Crimson Skies-style (or Aeronef for the steampunk crowd, and let's not forget the roleplaying equivalent, Forgotten Futures). I did find an interesting discussion on Interbellum about the wargaming potential of H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which is not too far off the mark; but that seems to be for miniature gaming. See also this, on the same blog. 

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I've argued that in 1913 there was a perception that the Anglo-German naval arms race was becoming an aero-naval arms race which Britain was losing, and that there was a response on the part of the Navy League, the Aerial League and others to mobilise public opinion in support of an aerial defence programme in a deliberate echo of the 1909 dreadnought scare. In my AAEH talk I drew out these parallels a bit further. In the traditional naval phase:

  • 1906: launch of radical HMS Dreadnought destabilises existing naval balance
  • Popular/elite perceptions that hostile Germany trying to catch up/overtake Britain at sea
  • 1909 press/Navy League campaign: 'we want eight and we won’t wait' (successful)
  • Naval arms race over by 1912 (Britain won, detente reached)

In the aero-naval phase:

  • 1908: flight of new Zeppelin LZ4 demonstrates long-range capabilities
  • Popular/elite perceptions that hostile Germany has already overtaken Britain in air
  • 1913 press/Navy League campaign: '£1,000,000 for aerial defence' (failed)
  • However, aerial arms race just beginning (Britain losing, detente over?)

I concluded that despite the easing of tensions between the two nations at the diplomatic level, at a popular level the Anglo-German antagonism continued into 1913.1 Perceptions lagged reality. The naval race may have been won objectively, but it had not yet been won subjectively. And now technology again upset the balance, only this time in the air and with Britain starting from behind.

I also briefly put forward a counterfactual: that had the First World War not taken place, more aero-naval scares would have occurred in future years, replacing the more 'traditional' naval/invasion panics. We can't know that, of course. We do know that after 1918 they were replaced by pure air panics: the war both demonstrated the potential of aerial bombardment of great cities and discredited the possibility of an invasion of Britain. Without that evolution I suspect that the two would have co-existed and combined in the 1913 pattern, and the Anglo-German antagonism would have taken on a new complexion.


  1. Which concept in the last few years has come under increasing scrutiny: for a summary of the recent literature, see the introduction to Richard Scully, British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860-1914 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 

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The death last week of Margaret Thatcher was, naturally enough, the occasion of a plethora of reflections on her place in history. Equally naturally, the value of these reflections varies (and no doubt depends partly on the politics of both the writer and the reader). One of the less valuable ones was written by Dominic Sandbrook, a historian who is best known for his well-received series of books on Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. His next book will cover the early 1980s and so his is an obvious shoulder to tap for some historical perspective on Thatcher's Britain. Which makes what he did choose to write, a piece for the Daily Mail called 'Cuba without the sunshine', all the more disappointing.

Part of the problem lies in the unusual form chosen for his article: it's a counterfactual history of Britain since 1978, assuming that the Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, called and won an early election in October of that year, instead of waiting until May 1979 and going down to Thatcher's Conservatives, as actually happened. In principle there's nothing wrong with this. We implicitly admit the importance of counterfactual histories when we label some trend or event as being historically important, because we're really saying is that if that trend or event didn't happen then the subsequent course of history would have been different in some significant way (at least for the particular domain of history involved). So we should be able to use counterfactuals to think about Thatcher's importance.
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I've been remiss in not noting the arrival of Military History Carnival #28 at Cliopatria. While it seems to be moving from a round-up of the best military history blogging to covering 'military history on the Internet' generally, there are still some good old-fashioned blogs therein. For example, Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri presents a fascinating examination of the question: what was the reason for the inaccuracy of early modern firearms -- 'In other words, did soldiers use their firearms to its full potential?'

What I found particularly interesting were the details of experiments into musket accuracy conducted in the 18th century. For example:

Hanoverian experiments in 1790 showed that when fired at various ranges against a representative target (a placard 1.8 m high and up to 45 m long for infantry, 2.6 m high for cavalry) the following results were achieved: at 100 meters – 75% bullets hit infantry target, 83.3% cavalry, at 200 m – 37.5% and 50%, at 300 m – 33.3% and 37.5% respectively.

This statistical approach to thinking about combat seems close to what we would now call operational research, which has its origins in Britain in the Second World War (Bomber Command), the First World War (anti-aircraft gunnery), or maybe Charles Babbage's day (postal delivery), depending on who you talk to. But from my (admittedly limited) understanding of the methods of operational research, it probably could have arisen any time after the development of probability theory in the 17th century. The interest of 18th-century militaries in getting answers to questions susceptible to statistical analysis suggests that the impetus was there, so why didn't it happen sooner? For that matter (and it's a question I keep coming back to), why didn't the RAF develop them in conjunction with the bomber?

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Michael Kerrigan. World War II Plans That Never Happened, 1939-1945. London: Amber Books, 2011.

As a historian, I'm probably not supposed to like counterfactuals. There are very good reasons for this. It's hard enough to reconstruct what did happen without worrying about what didn't. There are no minutes from meetings which never took place, no diaries from people who didn't exist, no newspaper reports of events which never happened. The further you depart from our timeline, the more speculation you indulge in, the more pointless it seems: thinking about the Roman Empire undergoing a steam-powered industrial revolution is fun, but what does it tell us about, well, anything to do with reality? And if objectivity is impossible to achieve when doing history, alternative history is prone to wish fulfilment and outright fantasy.

And yet I think counterfactuals can be useful. There is so much we don't know about the past, so much that we cannot now recover, but in one important sense we know more than the people we study: we know what happened in their future. Our histories of the Soviet Union, for example, will forever have to take into account the fact that it dissolved in 1991, something which nobody knew in 1917, 1921, 1945 or 1968. That makes it hard for us to truly understand how people thought about the future and, crucially, how that affected their decisions and actions in the present. Considering counterfactual scenarios can help restore this sense of contingency, of uncertainty: what did happen was not necessarily what had to to happen. Or even likely to happen. Besides, historians implicitly indulge in counterfactual thinking all the time: whenever we single out some event or person or institution as important in whatever way, we are effectively saying that if it that event hadn't happened, or if that person hadn't existed, or if that institution hadn't been created, then history would have been significantly different (for whatever definition of 'significant' works for you).
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The title of this post is something which Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris did not say. There are an uncountable infinity of things Harris didn't say, but this particular one is of interest because during the Second World War it was widely believed that he did say it, and was taken to represent his aims and the aims of Bomber Command. It's part of a propaganda broadcast made to the German people in Harris's name, telling them what Bomber Command had in store for them if they did not overthrow their Nazi leaders:

Soon we shall be coming every night and every day, rain, blow, or snow -- we and the Americans [...] We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end if you make it necessary for us to do so. You cannot stop it, and you know it.

You have no chance.

The broadcast was picked up in Britain too, translated and printed in the daily press. In his memoirs, Harris says that he never said any of it, or even approved it; he had agreed that his name could be used on leaflets to be dropped into Germany, but this had somehow mutated into a radio broadcast. As Harris pointed out, he couldn't even speak German. Having said that, he nowhere disavows the substance of the speech, only that it understated the 'pains and dire penalties' which were 'actually meted out' to the German people by Bomber Command.1 Nor was he able to disavow authorship during the war. So this speech, though false, was more or less accurate and accepted as such. As I'm always looking out for ways to explore attitudes towards strategic bombing, the episode of the speech not made by Harris seems worth looking at.
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  1. Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2005 [1947]), 115. 

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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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On this day in 1945, the third atomic bomb was dropped on Tokyo. Or, rather, might have been had not Japan surrendered on 15 August. For a long time, I've believed that the two bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only ones which would be available for a month or two. But a comment at Edge of the American West pointed me in the direction of a memo recording the conversation between General John E. Hull and Colonel L. E. Seeman on 13 August, about atomic bomb production in the next few months. And it turns out that there was one ready to be shipped out to Tinian at that very moment. According to Seeman, it would be ready for use on 19 August.

As for where it would be used, I got that from the first chapter of Michael Gordin's Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War. He says there that the third drop would 'probably' have been on Tokyo. That surprises me a little, given that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen from a list of cities spared from conventional bombing so that the effects of the atomic bombs could be better assessed. Tokyo wasn't on that list (the other cities were Kokura and Niigata). Perhaps the thinking was that two 'test' drops were enough, and that if no surrender followed, it was time for a higher-value morale target? It could be questioned how much of Tokyo was left to destroy after the 65 conventional (or fire) raids which had already taken place. Or perhaps a decapitating strike was intended, to take out Hirohito and his ministers? Though that might actually make surrender more difficult to organise.

Clearly I'll have to add Gordin's book to my to-read list ...

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I've been reading a little about the Dardanelles campaign of 1915; not the famous landings in April but the failed naval campaign which preceded them in February and March. The basic idea was that British and French forces would sweep the Bosphorus clear of mines, knock out the Turkish naval guns on either side of the straits, proceed to Constantinople and then receive Turkey's surrender. In the event, the first two parts of this plan failed rather spectacularly (three battleships were lost to mines in a single day), but even if they hadn't, just how a fleet of warships was supposed to make a country surrender has never been very clear, at least not to me.

It's tempting to see this as a sort of naval knock-out blow. Constantinople, the Turkish capital, would be under the guns of the Allied battleships. Turkey had no significant navy of its own, besides the ex-German battlecruiser Goeben which would have been hugely outnumbered, so the city would be open to a devastating naval bombardment. So perhaps the sheer moral effect of this would cause a collapse. And it seems the Turks feared this. On 18 March, the day of the attempted breakthrough, according to Robert Massie:

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the government and the populace were convinced that the Allied fleet would break through. All Turks respected the near legendary power of the British navy; no one believed that a collection of ancient forts and guns at the Dardanelles could bar its way. Accordingly, word of the massive bombardment precipitated an exodus from the capital. The state archives were evacuated and hidden; the banks were emptied of gold; many affluent Turks already had sent their families away. The distance from Gallipoli to Constantinople was only 150 miles; most Turks expected that less than twelve hours after they entered the Sea of Marmara, British battleships would arrive off the Golden Horn.1

So if a moral effect was intended, it seems like it was starting to work. But as I say, it's frustratingly unclear in the histories and biographies I have to hand just what the Allies expected was going to happen. There's a suggestion that Kitchener thought the morale of the Turkish army would break; maybe there would be another revolution; or maybe the soldiers eventually landed at Gallipoli could have been used to take Constantinople instead. Of course, there would have been other benefits from forcing the straits: opening the sea lanes to Russia, foremost among them.
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  1. Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 464. 

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Primary sources

Some more navel-gazingpost-thesis analysis. Above is a plot of the number of primary sources (1908-1941) I cite by date of publication. (Published sources only, excluding newspaper articles -- of which there are a lot -- and government documents. Also, it's not just airpower stuff, though it mostly is.) I actually have no idea if it's a lot or not, and I'm sure there are some selection effects in there. But, although I've certainly not attempted any sort of statistical analysis (nor will I!), I think some features of the plot reflect real features of the airpower literature of period, at least as it relates to the bombing of civilians.

Firstly, there's a substantial increase in the number of sources in the 1930s, particularly from 1934 when there is a big peak. I argue in the thesis that this was only partly and indirectly due to the obvious reason (the arrival of Hitler in 1933). The more important reason was the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, which ran between 1932 and 1934 (actually it went longer, but was dead in the water when Germany walked out). This roused airpower writers -- whether pro- or anti-disarmament -- to action, and gave them a reason to explain to the public the effects of bombing on cities. The slight rise from the late 1920s is also due to the conference, I think, or rather the optimistic Locarno-era preparations for it. The big peak in 1927 is a bit odd, though. Let's call that an outlier.

The other two noticeable peaks are in 1909 and 1938. The first was very early in the public's awareness of flight. That really started in 1908, but the possible defence implications came to the fore in 1909 -- the founding of the Aerial League of the British Empire, the first phantom airship panic, the publication of the first serious books on the topic. And of course the dreadnought panic -- it was a peak year for Anglo-German rivalry. The 1938 peak was the culmination of the building concern over the previous decade. What the plot doesn't show is that, unlike previous years, it was largely sceptical, based on evidence from the Spanish Civil War. The Sudeten crisis that September showed that the fear of the knock-out blow still had a strong grip on the public and the press. But afterwards there's a sharp decline in interest, which I maintain is real.

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