International law

Quite some time ago I promised to write more about J. M. Spaight's Volcano Island (published in 1943 but written late in 1942). I probably should do that at some point. Such as now.

Here I want to look at what he has to say about area bombing. He quite unapologetically uses this phrase, even calling one section 'The legitimacy of area bombing'.1 Given the opprobrium which now attaches to the term, it is a little startling to see it used in a defence of British bombing policy. It does seems to have been used more descriptively during the war, at least at first. The very earliest use I've been able to find was in the British press in December 1940, and referred to the resumption of German 'Blitz' tactics:

The return to mass raiding was not carried out on anything like the 'Coventrating' manner -- there was no attempt at area bombing of the different London districts, all of which had their share at varying periods of the night.2

However, 'area bombing' here apparently refers not to merely indiscriminate bombing (which the Gloucestershire Echo's headline asserts the Germans have admitted to). Instead it is concentrated in both time and space, as at Coventry (hence 'Coventration'), which actually describes what Bomber Command later tried to (and often did) achieve quite well. This might be an isolated example; the term doesn't seem to start cropping up again until late 1942, just about when Spaight was writing: in September the Devon and Exeter Gazette noted that 'The R.A.F. will continue its "area bombing" by night, while the famous Flying Fortresses will take up the attack by day with precision bombing'.3 By March 1943, Richard Stokes MP could ask in the House of Commons if 'instructions have been given to British airmen to engage in area bombing rather than limit their attention to purely military targets?' (only to be told by Sir Archibald Sinclair that 'The targets of Bomber Command are always military, but night bombing of military objectives necessarily involves bombing the area in which they are situated').4
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  1. J. M. Spaight, Volcano Island (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943), 67. 

  2. Gloucestershire Echo, 9 December 1940, 4

  3. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 25 September 1942, 4

  4. HC Deb, 31 March 1943, vol. 388, col. 155

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The Times, 12 February, 7

The Times hasn't been ignoring the phantom airships, but neither has it focused its editorial attention on them -- until now. The third leading article in today's issue is in support of the government's new Aerial Navigation Bill, arguing that 'This strengthening of existing legislative powers can hardly be thought premature, and may indeed be regarded as somewhat belated' (p. 7; above). The Times thinks the mystery airships are real, and it also thinks they are hostile.

It must have occurred to many people that the visits of foreign airships are becoming unpleasantly frequent, especially in view of the fact that we have no means of returning the compliment. They have a way of appearing over our ports just after nightfall or before dawn, coming no one knows whence and going no one knows whither. It would seem that either they have a predilection in favour of following our coastline, or they pass unnoticed, possibly at a greater height, across our territory. During the last four or five months they have been seen over Sheerness, Portsmouth, Dover, Liverpool, and on two separate occasions over Cardiff. Their course has never been traced. They are sighted at a given spot and then they disappear. That circumstance not only gives a surreptitious air to their visits, but raises an unpleasant suspicion that these visits may be more frequent than we know.

It then goes on to explain the threat posed by these mystery airships:

This aerial espionage of unknown extent and minuteness is an intrusion which we have a right to resent. Its motives are not likely to be friendly, nor can we flatter ourselves that the beauty of a bird's-eye view of our ports is so great as to lead foreigners to spend so much money in order to derive æsthetic gratification from it. Airships are already capable of being used to do a great deal of mischief, and their powers in this respect will certainly be extended. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the possibility of using such powers has entered into the calculations of some foreign country, it is obvious that this reconnoitring in time of peace might be found of great utility should an occasion arise.

The Times rejects the notion that there exists a freedom of the air as there does a freedom of the seas: 'The analogy of the sea is no analogy at all. A ship on the high seas cannot drop explosives into our arsenals, but an aircraft can'. Moreover, even on the high seas every ship 'has to display her name and to carry papers showing her movements, her registry, her nationality, and so forth. There is no analogy between ships and these aerial visitors to our ports'.

Our sovereignty goes up to the sky and down to the centre. In the past it has not been necessary to say so because no one had the means to challenge our dominion or to invade our atmosphere without first conquering our soil. The means of attacking us through and by the air now exist. It is therefore our business to define our rights and to make it plain that the air above us is our own, subject, like our soil and our territorial waters, to whatever municipal regulations we find it expedient to make.

And not only is legislation along the lines of the Aerial Navigation Bill necessary, but 'we also need an aerial police to enforce our regulations, in addition to whatever means we already possess'.
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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

(Or, 'Trenchard at sea'.)

Jamel Ostwald's recent post on urban bombardment in the early modern period, itself partly a response to my post on Trenchardism, prompted me to wonder how straight the line was between aerial bombardment and earlier naval and land bombardments? Was the naval precedent more influential or the military one?

This does not quite answer the question, but in his Air Power and the Cities (1930) the Air Ministry civil servant and lawyer J. M. Spaight, the most prolific British airpower writer of the interwar period, spent an entire chapter talking about the historical precedents afforded by naval bombardments, calling it 'The lesson of the naval bombardments'. Stated negatively, this lesson was that 'it has been no part of the policy of belligerent nations to destroy enemy coastal cities'.1 Or, stated positively, 'there has been a clearly marked tendency to confine attack to certain objectives', mostly (but not exclusively) 'those the destruction of which was calculated to prejudice the enemy's military effort and to which, therefore, the term "military objectives" may be broadly applied'.2 (He was a lawyer, after all.) Spaight projected this naval trend onto aerial bombardment, arguing that air forces in the next war would be unlikely to bomb cities indiscriminately:

On the few exceptional occasions in which objectives not of a military character have been shelled, the result has been protest, excuse, condemnation, never justification on the merits of the practice. It is sufficient to recall the salient facts of the naval campaigns of modern times to conclude that there has been no settled policy of indiscriminate bombardment in naval war. In general, bombardment has been confined to military objectives and undertaken for a military purpose.3

Ultimately, this served to buttress his argument that not only was disarmament a bad idea, but it wasn't even necessary, because airpower itself 'is the great disarmer'.4

How can war go on when air power can leap upon it, smother it, smash it? That would be bad work for civilisation if it meant smashing the cities; but it need not mean that. Indeed, it cannot mean that unless air power is to be mishandled, misdirected, grossly misapplied. Used aright, used to the fullest advantage, it will be kept for smashing the nests and. breeding places of armament not the cities.5

So why did Spaight emphasise the naval precedent and not the military one? Because, regrettably, 'it cannot be denied that the bombardment of a defended, town as a whole has been a practice not unknown to land warfare'.6 Indeed, he noted that both the British and the American manuals on the rules of law took the view that 'an attacking force is under no legal duty to limit the bombardment to the fortifications of a place attacked'.7 Moreover, land bombardments tended not to be decisive: 'the terrible bombardment of Strassburg [1870] only made its inhabitants more determined to resist'.8

The naval bombardments Spaight was referring to included Alexandria (1882), Beirut (1912), Canton (1841), Greytown (1854), Kagoshima (1863), Pisagua (1879), Tripoli (1828), Valparaiso (1866), and others mostly from the Crimean and First World Wars. Not all of these examples really serve his larger argument -- the German naval bombardments of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (1914) attacked targets of no military value and killed more civilians than any air raid on Britain in the next four years -- but he seems to have missed one that did.

In the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, three British cruisers anchored close to the shore and bombarded the ruling Sultan's palace without damaging the surrounding city, as discriminate a bombardment as any. (Though there were at least some civilians among the 500 or so casualties, this was not intended.) It was also decisive, in that it forced the Sultan to flee and allowed the British to install their own preferred candidate, which was the reason for the war in the first place. And it was also incredibly quick: the war began at 9:02am on 27 August 1896 and ended at 9:40am. Indeed, at 38 minutes the Anglo-Zanzibar War is supposedly the shortest war in history. With such effective examples of short, sharp shocks before them, it's easy to see why airpower theorists were drawn to the idea of using the air to strike at cities unreachable by sea. But not why so they so easily discarded the principle of discriminate, precision bombing so easily, confounding Spaight's prediction. The reasons for that lie in the technological and operational limitations of the air weapon, limitations which were not clear when Spaight wrote and would not be clear for some years yet.


  1. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 92. 

  2. Ibid., 93. 

  3. Ibid., 165. 

  4. Ibid., 235. 

  5. Ibid., 234-5. 

  6. Ibid., 95. 

  7. Ibid., 96. 

  8. Ibid., 95. 

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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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[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Jewish refugees arrested at Croydon, March 1939

On 29 March 1939, Croydon airport was the site of an extraordinary scene, as the Daily Express reported:

NEARLY 400 Jewish refugees streamed into Croydon in a succession of air liners yesterday -- the biggest influx the airport had ever experienced.

They came from Danzig, the Polish Corridor, Cologne, Berlin, Vienna, Switzerland -- all over Europe.

Most of them were allowed to enter the country [...]1

For example, David Herbst was allowed to stay when his wife Leishi, a former Austrian tennis star, showed up and was able to prove that Herbst 'had money in English Banks'.

[...] when some were told they would have to go back to the Continent in the morning they burst into piteous cries.

One man from Cologne dropped to his knees and pleaded, in tears, with the immigration authorities.

Wailing, he fell on his face and broke his nose. Afterwards he threatened to commit suicide.

He said his father had been taken away manacled and then shot and he believed he would be dealt with in the same way if he returned to Germany.2

Herbst's travelling companions were in the same situation. The thirteen of them had chartered a Danish tri-motor for £600 to fly them out of Warsaw (one source says Cracow). Herbst got to go home with his wife; but the other twelve were detained by the police overnight.

"Nobody knows who the people are. They are a mystery crowd," it was stated by an official. "Many had little money and could not give satisfactory reasons why they should be allowed to land in England."3

I assume the official was talking about legal reasons why the refugees should be allowed to land, rather than just being utterly dense; the reasons why they were fleeing were quite clear. Two weeks earlier, after threatening to bomb Prague off the map, German troops had been allowed to march in, occupying the Czech portions of Czechoslovakia which remained after the cession of the Sudetenland the previous year. Germany ended Czechoslovakia, taking Bohemia and Moravia for itself; Hungary took Carpatho-Ukraine and Slovakia became independent. This meant that suddenly Czech Jews (and those, like Herbst, who had fled from Austria after the Anschluss a year earlier) were subject to Nazi racial discrimination.
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  1. Daily Express, 30 March 1939, p. 1. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

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In a discussion of the activities of MI5's Port Control section during the First World War, Christopher Andrew mentions German musings about using biological weapons against British civilians:

The most novel as well as the most sinister form of wartime sabotage attempted by Sektion P was biological warfare. At least one of its scientists in 1916 devised a scheme to start a plague epidemic in Britain, either by infecting rats or, more improbably, by dropping plague bacilli cultures from Zeppelins over ports. The Prusso-German General Staff, however, vetoed bacteriological warfare against humans as totally contrary to international law (the Hague Laws of Warfare).1

But he doesn't provide any references. Is this plausible?

The British War Cabinet considered 'The possible Spread of Epidemics by dropping Germs from the Air' during its meeting on 9 February 1917.2 It accepted the advice from experts from the Royal Society, the Army Medical Service and the Local Government Board that the possibility was remote, and that any outbreak would be easily contained. Consequently Cabinet decided that 'no further action was required'. The expert reports themselves are quite interesting. That from Dr Arthur Newsholme, the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board, notes press reports of 'poisoned sweets and garlic saturated with garlic being stated to have been dropped at Constanza [Romania] from enemy aeroplanes'. Closer to home, the Board itself received a letter claiming that 'according to information "from a reliable source," infected sweetmeats had been dropped over Sheffield'.3 But, Newsholme added, no evidence had been produced in either case.

None of this relates to bubonic plague, however. And in Martin Hugh-Jones's summary of known (that is, by the British) wartime German biological warfare plans, plague is not mentioned.4 Most of the actual biological warfare activity by Germany during the First World War was directed towards anthrax and glanders, for use against horses, sheep and cattle. Nor does Hugh-Jones know of German wartime proposals to spread disease from the air (as opposed to proposals after the war, which is the focus of his article).

But bubonic plague can be weaponised and deployed from the air. Japan's Unit 731 proved that in China in 1940 and 1941, not only in controlled experiments but in field trials. And by field trials I mean, of course, bombing civilian areas with bubonic plague. There were at least four separate attacks, involving at most a handful of Japanese aircraft: Chuhsien, 4 October 1940; Ningpo, 27 October 1940; Kinhwa, 28 November 1940; and Changteh, 4 November 1941. The plague was not dropped in bombs but usually by way of fleas and grain; in two cases plague bacilli were detected by local hospitals. Only in Kinhwa did no outbreak of plague follow; a hundred people died in Ningpo alone.5

So it does seem possible that German scientists considered using Zeppelins to rain black death upon Britain, and that it may even have worked. The British experts may have underestimated the potential of this form of aerial attack; and the psychological impact might have been far greater than the medical one. Then again, the great influenza pandemic in 1918 didn't disrupt the war to any great extent, and it killed far more people than any plague would have done. So the War Cabinet's lack of concern was justified, in the non-event.


  1. Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 78. 

  2. Minutes, War Cabinet meeting 59, 9 February 1917, CAB 23/1. See also the discussion in Marion Girard, A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 84-6. 

  3. Letter, A. Newsholme, Appendix II, War Cabinet meeting 59, 9 February 1917, CAB 23/1. For the Constanza incident, Newsholme cites the News Chronicle and The Times, both of 13 October 1916. I can't find the latter article, but there is something similar in The Times, 27 October 1916, 9. 

  4. Martin Hugh-Jones, 'Wickham Steed and German biological warfare research', Intelligence and National Security 7 (1992), 381-3. 

  5. Ed Regis, The Biology of Doom: The History of America's Secret Germ Warfare Project (New York: Owl Books, 2000), 17-9. 

Time to put this increasingly misnamed trilogy out of its misery. (It's been going so long I can't remember why I started it!)

To reprise: on 21 June 1938, Philip Noel-Baker initiated a debate in the House of Commons about how Britain should respond to the increasingly-common (and, he asserted, illegal) bombing of civilian targets in warfare, as evidenced by China and Spain. He made a particular point of discussing Nationalist attacks on British-flagged merchant vessels in Spanish waters. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, responded, giving his own view of what sort of bombing was permitted by international law, and essentially saying that it was impossible in practice to do anything to defend these ships. A number of MPs rose to speak following the PM, largely on party lines. Here are the rest of them.
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So let's have a look at the responses to Chamberlain's response to Noel-Baker's parliamentary motion of 21 June 1938.

First up was Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal party. He was mainly concerned with foreign policy more generally, asking whether the recent Anglo-Italian agreement was not intended as part of an effort by Mussolini and Hitler to isolate France:

Aerodromes are being constructed near the frontiers of France, and within easy striking distance of the munition industries of the south-west of France. On the borders of Spain, on the German frontier, the Italian frontier, the Balearic Islands, on the flank of the French communications with North Africa, France is being encircled.

He dismissed Chamberlain's excuse that the government is seeking to come up with practical proposals to limit aerial warfare, since the outlines of the problem has been known for years and yet nothing has been done about it. Furthermore, Sinclair attacked the National Government's scrupulous interpretation of neutrality in the Spanish case:

Neutrality between the parties in a civil war, yes; but neutrality between the bomber and his innocent victims, when the bombers are all on one side and the innocent victims all on the other side, is neutrality between right and wrong.

Doing something -- defending British ships, punishing Franco -- just isn't as hard as Chamberlain makes out.
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After Philip Noel-Baker's opening speech on 21 June 1938, the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, replied for the government. He began by touching briefly on the Japanese invasion of China, in a way which interestingly foreshadowed something he said just over three months later:

if it were not that China is so far away and the scenes which are taking place there are so remote from our everyday consciousness, I think the sentiments of pity, [horror] and indignation which would be aroused by a full appreciation of those events might drive this people to courses which perhaps they have never yet contemplated.

In response to Noel-Baker's comments about the status of aerial warfare in international law, Chamberlain agreed that 'new weapons [don't] make new laws', but added that new weapons create new circumstances which the old laws may not cover. That is, the laws of war 'do not entirely meet the case which we have to meet to-day'. Having said that, he believes there are 'three principles of international law which are as applicable to warfare from the air as they are to war at sea or on land':

In the first place, it is against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks upon civilian populations. That is undoubtedly a violation of international law. In the second place, targets which are aimed at from the air must be legitimate military objectives and must be capable of identification. In the third place, reasonable care must be taken in attacking those military objectives so that by carelessness a civilian population in the neighbourhood is not bombed.

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Der Spiegel has a lengthy article based upon a new book by historians Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer called Soldaten (no English version yet, unfortunately). It's based on the transcripts of secret recordings made of the conversations of German POWs captured by British and American forces in the Second World War. They would have talked about many things, but the article focuses on the war crimes which the soldiers, sailors and airmen discuss quite candidly among themselves, as perhaps they never did again in their lives. It's quite horrifying reading. But as far as the German army is concerned, the details of the war crimes committed in the East and elsewhere, while shocking, aren't all that new. It's more unusual to see evidence of the war crimes carried out by the men of the Luftwaffe. I've extracted those particular transcripts from the article.
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