Aircraft recognition poster, c. 1914

Back to back Roads to War! This week's topic is the most airminded yet: the first German air raids on Britain. I had to cheat slightly to fit them in, as technically I'm supposed to talk about the centenary events in the week leading up to the broadcast date, i.e 23 December, but the first German bomb didn't fall on British soil until 24 December. However, if you count bombs falling pointlessly into the sea off Dover pier then 21 December 1914 was the date of the first German air raid on Britain. That's not exactly exciting, so I also talked about the slightly more interesting Christmas Eve raid (which famously destroyed a Dover cabbage patch) and the even slightly more interesting Christmas Day raid (which led to the first aerial combat in British skies). Even so, that wasn't enough to fill up 15 minutes, so I also talked about the fear of aerial attack and (of course) phantom airships, including one over Hartlepool the second night after the bombardment which led to a rumour that the Germans were back and this time had landed, and hence to a minor exodus as people fled to the relative safety of Middlesbrough.

Image source: Online Bicycle Museum (!) Note the injunction for members of the public in country districts to report hostile aircraft to the authorities.

Weekly Mail, 22 May 1909, 7

Chatting to Andrew Gray the other day, I realised that I'd never got around to posting about a small discovery I'd made about one of the most sensational sightings from the 1909 phantom airship scare. This is the claim by a Welsh showman named Lethbridge that he had actually seen an airship on the ground, seen its crew, seen them board the airship and take off. Here's how I summarised this incident when I postblogged 20 May 1909, quoting from the London Standard (and ultimately the Cardiff Evening Express):

a travelling Punch-and-Judy salesman by the name of Lethbridge was walking back home from Senghenydd to Cardiff over Caerphilly Mountain. At about 11pm [on 19 May 1909] he saw an airship which had landed on the mountain, and its crew. At least, that seems to be the implication of the interview he gave to the Cardiff Evening Express yesterday.

At the mountain's peak, he saw 'a long, tube-shaped affair lying on the grass on the roadside, with two men busily engaged with something near by'. The men wore 'big, heavy, fur coats, and fur caps fitting tightly over their heads'. When he got within twenty yards 'they jumped up and jabbered furiously to each other in a strange lingo -- Welsh, or something else; it was certainly not English'. They picked up something from the ground, and the object started to rise into the air. The men then 'jumped into a kind of little carriage suspended from it', with wheels. Once it had cleared some telegraph lines, it turned on two lights and headed towards Cardiff.

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I received this request for assistance from Jean Dewaerheid, a Belgian writer who is working with Peter Haas and Pierre-Antoine Courouble to track down wooden bomb eyewitnesses:

Three authors (from Belgium, Germany and France) have been working for years on a bizarre subject: the dropping of dummy wooden bombs on wooden airplanes.

In order to deceive the Allies during the Second World War, the Germans built fake airfields on the continent, often with runways and sometimes with buildings, but always with fake wooden planes, called "Attrappen". Strange stories can be heard in which allied airplanes made fun of them by dropping wooden bombs on which they had sometimes painted remarks like "Wood for Wood".

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A common complaint1 about this blog is that it doesn't feature nearly enough pictures of airships. So here's one, a 27-metre long non-rigid which belonged to Henry Spencer, scion of a remarkably airminded family (sixteen aeronauts across four generations). Indeed, he built it with his brothers. The photograph was taken on 16 February 1909 and apparently shows the first ever powered flight from Hendon aerodrome, though neither Spencer nor his airship are mentioned in David Oliver's Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1994).

But much more interesting than the airship itself, it must be said, is what it was used for. The clue is the slogan emblazoned on the side of the envelope: 'VOTES FOR WOMEN'. Spencer had hired his airship out as a propaganda platform to Muriel Matters, an Australian-born suffragette who was very active in the Women's Freedom League (a non-violent breakaway from the better-known WPSU). Matters had won some publicity the previous year by chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons. Her airship flight was also designed to make Parliament take notice of the suffragist cause: the new session was opening that very day and it was her intention to fly over Westminster and drop Votes For Women leaflets on it. In the end Spencer and Matters didn't make it there, having been blown off course into a tree in Coulsden, well to the south. Three decades later, Matters herself gave a wonderful account of her flight to the BBC, which can be heard online here. (Ignore the photo there, which is of the Army airship Baby.)

The photograph above is from a scrapbook belonging to an American women's suffrage organisation, so the message did travel quite some distance, albeit to a receptive audience; I couldn't find any mention of Matters' flight in a quick search of the British press. It took nearly a decade for the WFL's demand to be partially fulfilled. And it's nice to see that the part Matters played in using airpower for progressive causes is still remembered in her native South Australia.

  1. From me. 


[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Folk physics (or naive physics -- there's also folk biology, folk psychology, and so on) is the term used in philosophy and psychology to describe the way we all intuitively understand the physical world to work. It's very often at odds with scientific physics (unsurprisingly or else there'd be no need for the latter). For example, we all know that in order for something to move, there has to be some force moving it. If you stop pushing a box across the floor, it will stop moving; if a car's engine stops working, the car will slow down and stop too. That's folk physics. Scientific physics disagrees: force causes acceleration, not velocity; in the absence of any other forces, once an object is set in motion it will keep moving forever. Of course it's that caveat which is responsible for the different conclusions of folk physics and scientific physics in this case: friction with the ground exerts a force on the box and the car and so robs them of their momentum. Folk physics works well enough for us in our everyday lives but would be disastrously misleading in, say, trying to dock a spacecraft to a space station.

I wonder if it's useful to apply this demarcation to military strategy? There have been attempts to formalise principles of strategy, of course, though trying to sciencise (yes, I just made that up) them by making them rigid formulae is not necessarily fruitful. Strategy has always been an art much more than a science, and as such is pretty intuitive itself. But certainly there can be (and probably usually is) a gap between what military leaders do and why they do it, and what everyone else, particularly civilians, understand them to be doing. This gap creates a space for folk strategy to exist.
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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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This is a BBC interview with Group Captain Robert Lister, recorded in 1980, about his experiences as a junior officer in 20 Squadron on the North-West Frontier. He transferred there in 1935, and flew Audaxes in air control operations against Waziri tribespeople, sometimes in support of the Army, sometimes independently. He candidly notes that the 250-lb bombs were the ones which would be used against villages, but also that leaflets were invariably dropped beforehand, warning of an imminent attack.

But the clip isn't just Lister talking; it's Lister talking over his own cinefilm footage from 1935! Both from the ground and from the air, bombing and strafing Waziri villages. Also to be seen are the detonation of an improvised explosive device planted in the landing strip by the rebels, and one of the goolie chits affixed to the side of every Audax, to be used in the event of a forced landing. Fascinating stuff.

Thanks to Marc Wiggam for the lead.

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Last year I was interviewed by Dan Vergano, science reporter for USA Today, for an article he was writing for Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine on the 1909 phantom airship wave. It's finally been published, in the July 2009 issue, and can also be read online. It's a lively and engaging overview of the episode, and features quotes from such experts on airships (both real and imaginary) as Robert Bartholomew, David Clarke and Guillaume de Syon. Go have a read!

I was invited this week to take part in a 'round table' discussion between Major Paul Moga (USAF), Professor James Arthur Mowbray (Air War College), and selected bloggers with an interest in aviation (including Scott Palmer of the Avia-Corner). I'm not sure the producers realised that I'm down under, but although the scheduled time for the chat actually was at a reasonable hour, my time, I had to decline because of a prior engagement. At least it spared everyone concerned the trouble of translating my native Strine on the fly ...

The purpose was to advertise a documentary series called Showdown: Air Combat, which starts this Sunday on the Military Channel. Which I'm happy to do in this case, because the aforementioned discussion has been made freely available online. Of course I won't be able to watch it, but it looks interesting: the basic idea being to replay, using warbirds or RC models, ten notable dogfights from the First World War on. Sadly, only one episode features a British aeroplane, that on the Red Baron's last flight.

The discussion can be played below, or listened to here. It lasts for about 45 minutes.

At one point (about 25 minutes in), Prof. Mowbray says that the aeroplane was always viewed as one of the most expensive weapon systems, and that so when Douhet started talking about fleets of thousands of bombers, everybody laughed at him because nobody could afford that many. Of course, in a discussion like this there's not the time to fully qualify one's remarks, and I'd hate for anyone to take me to task for a mistake made when speaking off the cuff, but I can't agree. Before 1914, people like Claude Grahame-White often made the argument that you could buy a thousand aeroplanes, say, for the cost of one dreadnought -- and it might only take one bomb from one aeroplane to sink that dreadnought. A bargain at twice the price, if true. And at the end of the war, the great powers did have massive fleets of aircraft -- the RAF had over 22000 aircraft on its books (though this number includes every category of aeroplane: reserves, trainers, obsolete models and probably scraps of broken wing sitting in the corner of the hangar). It probably would have had many more had the war continued into 1919. But don't let my pedantry put you off having a listen!


E. H. Carr in conversation with Collin Brooks, BBC Home Service, 30 September 1940:

After 1919 we were always worrying about keeping up our naval supremacy. And, of course, we were right. But what did we do about the Air Force? Hardly anything. We just let it dwindle away. We thought air power of so little importance that there was a time early in the nineteen-thirties when there were six countries in the world with air forces bigger than ours. And as you know, we had not really made up the leeway when war began. If we had only outnumbered the Germans in the air as we did at sea, how different it all would have been! Well now, why did we care so much about our Navy and so little about our Air Force? Simply because our Navy had been tremendously important before 1914 -- in fact for three centuries or more -- and to keep a strong Navy was all part of getting back to normal, whereas we had no Air Force before 1914, and therefore Air Forces were abnormal and we thought them a nuisance. But I believe you can hardly overestimate the harm we have done ourselves by this habit of trying all the time to get back to an old world instead of bracing ourselves to the job of building a new and different one.1

So, according to Carr, in the postwar period, the British never accorded airpower the same respect as they did for seapower, simply because they were too attached to tradition. So they refused to adapt to the new reality, or in other words, did not become sufficiently airminded, and paid the price for this failure. His whole talk was not actually about airpower or even warfare as such; he was using this as an example of a widespread flaw, as he saw it, in the British psyche.

The end of September 1940 might seem a strange time to be complaining about Britain's aerial weakness. The Luftwaffe had been assaulting the country since mid-August with little success. London itself came under continuous and heavy attack from 7 September, when the Blitz began. By the point of Carr's broadcast, many (not all, yet) commentators in the press had already concluded that that if this was the worst that Germany could do, then the storm could be weathered.

But there was still room for criticism: the subtitle of the broadcast was 'How did we get here?', and Carr could have been referring to the fact that Britain was the one being attacked (if it had the bigger air force, it could have been doing the attacking -- though if press accounts were to be believed, it was already doing so very effectively -- or at least deterred attack by Germany). Or, perhaps more likely given his reference to the relative size of the RAF at the start of the war, that it wouldn't have come to war at all, that Germany wouldn't have dared invade Poland or occupy Bohemia and Moravia, etc, for fear of a powerful Bomber Command.

Incidentally, in this respect Brooks was an appropriate choice as Carr's interlocutor: he was Lord Rothermere's righthand man throughout the 1930s, and was chosen by him to manage the National League of Airmen in 1935. As such he was involved in one of the most ambitious attempts to create an airminded Britain. (Though nothing is made of this in the discussion/interview, and anyway it's not clear to me how interested he was in the air problem himself, rather than because Rothermere told him to be.)

But, all seriousness aside, this opens up a whole new field of historical inquiry: what did the other great historiographical writers think about airpower? Did Elton grow up fearing the shadow of the bomber? Did Braudel sign on to the international air force concept? What did Collingwood think of the Zeppelin menace? Was Ranke in favour of military ballooning? (Don't) watch this space ...

  1. "Taking stock -- I. How did we get here?", Listener, 10 October 1940, 508.