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There's been a huge amount of interest on Twitter and in the media about the new Bomb Sight website, developed by the University of Portsmouth with assistance from the National Archives and elsewhere, and deservedly so because it's fairly excellent. In short it's an interactive map of the London Blitz compiled from a number of sources, showing where what kinds of bombs fell when. So you can browse to (or search for, though this has been temporarily disabled due to high traffic) your favourite part of London and see why there's a mid-20th century building interrupting that otherwise Victorian facade. Zooming in you see a marker for each bomb fall, with a link for more information. You can also get a statistical overview for each borough or ward, or for Greater London as a whole. Each location links in with relevant Blitz photographs sourced from the IWM, as well as related stories from the BBC's WW2 People's War site. In the map view, you can flip between the aggregate bomb census over seven months, or a single week's worth of bomb falls, or just the first twenty-four hours. You can also overlay the original Home Security maps from which the census data is derived, which is valuable because, thanks largely to the Blitz itself, some streets which existed in 1940-1 can no longer be found. As a bonus, London's invasion defences can also be displayed, using data taken from the Council for British Archaeology's Defence of Britain Dataset. An AR app is on its way, though sadly only for Android devices, not iOS.

Despite popular impressions, Bomb Sight doesn't show all the bombs recorded falling on London during the Blitz, but only those recorded between 7 October 1940 and 6 June 1941 as well as those recorded on 7 September 1940. That is, nearly the first month of the Blitz is missing. (This is quite clearly stated but it would be easy to overlook.) The reason for this is that the weekly bomb census maps only began to be compiled a month into the Blitz. It might be possible to fill in the gap from other sources; that's what has been done with the first day of the Blitz, which is from London Fire Brigade records via the Guardian. Of course, coming from different sources the data will be disjointed but that is inevitable with this kind of project. I gather that it is also intended that all the weekly censuses between October and June will be added to the site, which would mean you could slide through the weeks to see how the bombardment changed over time; or else further research might pin down the date of each bomb (at the moment when you click on one it only gives the census period, i.e. up to an eight month period). It would also be extremely interesting to compare bomb falls from the First World War, if only to illustrate the differences in the scale of bombing.

Also, Bomb Sight only covers London. Again, this is at least partly due to the nature of the data sources. But again it's something which could be remedied. Other, smaller Blitz maps like this have already been done for Southampton and for the West Riding of Yorkshire (for the night of 14 March 1941; from after the Blitz there is also Londonist's V-2 map. Depending on the permissions and formats, and hand waving wildly, it should be possible to aggregate these maps into Bomb Sight, if desired. Or else somebody else could build a website to do the aggregation. But in the end, somebody would probably have to do the hard work of sifting through local ARP records to generate the data for outside London, assuming those records do exist and are detailed enough.

None of which is intended to cavil at what the Bomb Sight project has achieved, as it's very good stuff indeed.

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The Open University's Chris A. Williams (who should be confused with the Chris Williams who comments here frequently, since they are the same person) has done a good thing by developing a nifty online simulation called Beat the Ministry, to accompany a joint OU/BBC television series -- on which Chris is lead academic consultant -- Wartime Farm (see also here and here). Beat the Ministry puts you in charge of planning British agriculture during the Second World War. You get to decide how much land to devote to farming, how many horses to use in ploughing as opposed to tractors, and how much land to allocate to the different types of livestock and crops. There are three rounds corresponding to the early, middle and late war periods. To maximise your score you need to take into account the way these choices interact with each other; for example, barley is good fodder so you probably don't want to skimp on that if you've decided to increase the number of horses used in order to reduce fuel and machine imports... and so on. There are also various crises which you'll need to respond to, such as labour shortages and the Battle of the Atlantic. Beat the Ministry is nicely done (especially the mock newsreel introductions), fun to play and should prove useful for exposing students to the kinds of decisions and factors that the real Ministry of Food had to weigh. Give it a go!

I haven't managed to actually beat the Ministry yet. But one thing I have learned: don't rely on the Australians.

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1,000 Bomber Raid!

This image and the one below are selections from the The National Archives' collaboration with Wikimedia Commons, so far comprising 350 examples of war art from the Second World War. These particular ones are propaganda posters (or draft versions of same) but there are also more informational ones as well as portraits and caricatures of Allied leaders.
...continue reading

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Shirley Jacobs writes to inform me that the W E Johns Appreciation Society now has a website. It's clearly quite an active group -- there's a magazine, Biggles Flies Again, published twice a year, and regular meetings with the next in Derby on 24 October. Via the site, one can keep up with W. E. Johns, Biggles, Worrals et al in the press, or explore the wider world of Bigglesiana on the web. (Which introduced me to a site devoted to Popular Flying, a magazine edited by Johns which featured articles by a number of airpower writers familar to me, such as J. M. Spaight, E. Colston Shepherd, Arch Whitehouse and Nigel Tangye.)

At one point I had managed to work in a brief reference to Biggles in my thesis, but sadly had to cut it for reasons of space. So here's what I was going to say!

And even Biggles, the flying adventurer whose popularity with boys dates from this period, got into the act [of popularising the knock-out blow theory] in Biggles and the Black Peril (published 1935), foiling German plans to set up navigational beacons on the English coast in preparation for a sudden and massive air attack.1


  1. W. E. Johns, Biggles and the Black Peril (London: Red Fox, 2004 [1935]). 

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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!

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[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Recently, I followed Gavin Robinson's lead and tried out the British Library's EThOS beta. EThOS stands for Electronic Theses (dissertations) Online Service, and it's just what you'd expect from that -- an electronic thesis delivery service. There's not too much new about that, but EThOS does have some very impressive features. First is the scope: nearly all British Universities are participating (with two very major exceptions, unfortunately: Cambridge and Oxford). What's more, any thesis ever accepted in Britain is eligible for inclusion in the database, possibly going back to the 1600s, according to the FAQ. This could become a rich vein of primary source material for intellectual historians. Second is the fact that the theses have been OCRed, not just scanned. This means that you can do keyword searches on the PDFs, for example. Third is the fact that they are free! Mostly, anyway. If you only want an electronic copy, it's free (hardcopy costs, obviously). If the thesis you want hasn't been scanned yet, then you may be asked to contribute towards the cost of that, but in most cases, not. And it doesn't appear to matter whether you are in the UK or not (which is good, because I'm not).

As for the cryptic title above, one of the theses I downloaded was one I've long wanted to read but have never seen until now: Howard Roy Moon, The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning 1888-1918 (London University, 1968). It's quite widely cited and I wondered why it hadn't been published. Now I know why: it's 735 pages long! I am suddenly feeling rather inadequate. Clearly, historians back then possessed superhuman powers. Or at least very strong arms, and hands adapted for furious typing and scribbling.

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It seems like forever since the last one, but it's only been two months. The (16th) Military History Carnival has been posted at the Osprey Blog. A few present-day items seem to have snuck in, but there's still plenty of history in there. My selection this time is about Burlington, at Underground, a rather beautiful photoblog about things underground. Burlington was a nuclear bunker in Wiltshire, built in the late 1950s to preserve continuity of government, should London fall to a knock-out blow nuclear strike. So there was room for the Prime Minister, some of the more important ministers and enough support staff to keep them and the country running for months. Underground links to another website with more information, including a fascinating internal phone directory from 1968, which shows just who was needed and who was not. The presence of 23 shipping officers and 12 for oil transport suggests that some semblance of national or even international economic transactions was anticipated. 50 fire control personnel, more than double those assigned to domestic and laundry duties, possibly seems excessive -- unless such time as they were actually needed, I suppose! On the other hand, a platoon of guards doesn't seem like much to defend the government with, but I guess it was more for internal security, and maybe there were more up top. 16 diplomatic staff -- maybe from the other 14 NATO members at the time, plus South Africa and Australia? And the biggest single contingent is for communications: a whopping 158 people. Which is a reminder of just how important it was to be able to talk to the outside world -- not much of a government if you can't tell anyone what to do -- and just how the technology has changed: you could probably run such a bunker with less than a tenth as many IT staff today ...

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Recently I've come across a number of really good websites about the Blitz. Oddly, none of them are about London, but instead are about the experience of some of Britain's other blitzed cities. Maybe London is just too big a subject, and the smaller scale of the regional blitzes is more congenial to thorough exploration.

So here's the list:

I'd be grateful for any additions.