Periodicals

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These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, http://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.


  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54. 

Malaya XV

David Payne sent me this great photograph of Malaya XV Cheon Teong, Ngoh Bee, a B.E.2c which was donated to the British war effort as part of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla I blogged about last year. David's grandfather, Arthur Chapman, is in the cockpit; he was an engineer at Shorts on the Isle of Sheppey, though not necessarily at the time of this photo. David provides the following information:

Arthur Chapman (1877-1937) worked as Shorts "head man" from '09 but I don't know how long for. He taught himself to fly and helped teach the first four naval volunteers to fly. Also he was in the passenger seat when Commander Samson flew the first hydroplane off the Hibernia at the review of the fleet in 1912. At what date he left Shorts I don't know although he joined the RFC in 1917.

Otherwise the details of this photo was taken are unknown, including the identity of the two men standing in front of the B.E.2c. It would likely have been taken in 1916, which is when the Over-Seas Club's book recording the growth of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla was published; Malaya XV was the 15th of 17 aeroplanes in the Malayan squadron.

I notice that while the names of this aircraft's donors are given as Cheon Teong and Ngoh Bee, in the Over-Seas Club's book the first name is given as Cheow Teng.1 This seems to be an error; at least the name is given as Cheon Teong in a contemporary Singaporean newspaper.2 Either way, I hope he was pleased with his aeroplane.


  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 28. 

  2. Straits Times, 3 March 1916, 8

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Abolish all war aeroplanes

I found this pro-disarmament poster on eBay (at US$1985, I won't be buying it!) The text reads:

THE TRANSPORT OF THE FUTURE.
FOR WHAT?
DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
OR
FRIENDSHIP AND PEACE
Abolish All War Aeroplanes

This is the seller's own description:

An incredibly rare original vintage anti-war poster circa 1938 in fine condition, archivally mounted on acid-free paper and linen-backed. Measures 28 1/2 x 18 3/4 inches (63 x 48 cm). Fine condition or nearly so (A). Lightly toned, a few repaired closed short tears from edges (clearly shown in photos). A few minor instances of printer overpainting in the letters. Possible light stain or mild abrasion to image area. Generally in fine condition. Produced by the Friends' Peace Committee, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 and the Northern Friends' Peace Board, Spring Bank, Rawdon, Nr. Leeds, England, and printed by H.W. & V. Ltd., London.

I doubt that it's as late as 1938, as claimed by the seller. A biplane is a bit (though not completely) old-fashioned for 1938, for a start. Katherine Firth suggested that the font is more late 1920s/early 1930s. And the poster's message doesn't make much sense for 1938, when disarmament was no longer realistic. Not that pacifists are always realistic, by any means; but the connection that is drawn between civil and military aviation, between the possibilities of 'death and destruction' through 'war aeroplanes' and 'friendship and peace' through aerial 'transport of the future' is very suggestive of 1932-34, when the World Disarmament Conference debated and tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve precisely this nexus -- usually considered to be the commercial bomber. That said, these two groups (both affiliated with the Society of Friends, i.e. the Quakers) do seem to be separating out civil aviation from military aviation, arguing that a simple ban on military aircraft would save civilisation from destruction and allow it to benefit from air travel. It was more perhaps usual to argue that the internationalisation of civil aviation in some form was required in order to prevent airliners from being turned into bombers, with a further step being the internationalisation of military aviation as well. I can't find any reference to this poster in BNA but a quick search does confirm that the Friends' Peace Committee and the Northern Friends' Peace Board were fairly vocal in 1933-35, for example writing an open letter to the prime minister in 1933 warning against starting aerial rearmament while the Geneva conference was still in the balance, and in 1935 deploring the inevitability of attacks upon civilians implicit in the initiation of air raid precautions.1 The poster is at least evidence that they tried to persuade the public (or some sector of the public) of the aerial danger too.


  1. Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 December 1933, 7; Western Daily Press (Bristol), 14 May 1935, 8

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Stern Gang leaflet, 1947

Or, that time the Stern Gang tried to bomb London from the air.

In early September 1947, the Parisian police arrested ten people connected with the Stern Gang, nine of them Jews including Baruch Korff, an American rabbi who was head of the Political Action Committee for Palestine.1 Press reports claimed that the group's aim was 'to carry out reprisals for the return to Europe of the 4,500 intending emigrants on board the President Warfield'.2 The President Warfield is better known today as the Exodus, which in July had attempted to land Jewish refugees from Europe in what was still the British Mandate of Palestine, only to be forcibly and bloodily intercepted by the Royal Navy. By the time of the arrests in Paris the refugees were about to land in Hamburg, there to be (again, as it turned out, forcibly and bloodily) interned in displaced persons camps. Korff was outraged at all this, and seems to have been drawn to spectacular, and aerial, forms of protest and resistance: earlier in 1947 he had made the news with his plan to subvert British immigration controls in an 'Exodus by Air', which involved landing refugees at secret Palestinian airfields, or even parachuting them in.3 ...continue reading


  1. In the 1970s he became known as a staunch supporter of Nixon, even after Watergate. 

  2. The Times, 8 September 1947, 4. 

  3. Canberra Times, 13 March 1947, 1; Pittsburgh Press, 16 August 1947, 10

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Zeppelin L3

For my eighth contribution to The Road to War on ABC New England, I spoke about the first Zeppelin raid on Britain, on the night of 19 January 1915; certainly more consequential than the first air raid on Britain as it actually killed people in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn in Norfolk. I talked about the Zeppelins themselves (including L3, above), why everyone assumed they would be used to bomb Britain, why they were not used at first, and why they finally were used nearly six months into the war. I also talked a little about the response to the raids, including the rumours which sprang up afterwards about German spies driving around in motor cars during the raid guiding the Zeppelins to their targets.

For more from me on this topic you could also check out this article by Shane Croucher in the International Business Times.

Image source: Love Great Yarmouth.

I'm shocked to see that it's already nearly two weeks since I got back from my UK research trip -- it seems like it was just a couple of days ago. It was a fairly long trip: five weeks in total, essentially all of them spent in archives in London (National Archives, British Library, Imperial War Museum), Newcastle (Tyne and Wear Archives), Middlesbrough (Teesside Archives), Woodhorn (Northumberland Archives), Durham (Durham County Record Office), Edinburgh (National Records of Scotland), Leeds (Liddle Collection, University of Leeds), and Aylesbury (Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies), as well as at a conference in Wolverhampton (British Commission for Military History). In fact my initial plan of four weeks research and one week holiday fell by the wayside, as there was just too much I still needed to do in the archives in London to waste time in Berlin. I half-expected this would happen, which is why I didn't book a holiday in advance (corollary: if I really want a holiday, I should book it in advance). But it was certainly worth it in research terms, as I found some great stuff in that extra week.

I had to adjust my plans on the fly in other ways, too. For example, I spent two weeks in Newcastle, with the intention of using it as a base from which to examine archives in the northeast for evidence of invasion, Zeppelin and spy fears. But it turned out that there wasn't a whole lot to find, either in terms of private diaries and letters or local government records. One week, with better planning, would have been enough. Because I was in Newcastle, however, it was feasible to commute to Edinburgh or to Leeds, so I spent two useful days at the National Records of Scotland and one at the Liddle Collection. A shame I didn't plan this from the start, though.
...continue reading

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Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser, 24 October 1914, 7

Yesterday was the last research day proper of my big trip. Actually, I was supposed to be having a holiday, but instead I spent it in Aylesbury at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, trying to see if I could get to the bottom of the Great Missenden affair of 18 October 1914, when villagers decided that before the war Germans had hidden either a siege gun emplacement or a Zeppelin base in their midst. I didn't find anything in the nature of a revelation, but I did find some very useful bits and pieces. For example the above photograph from the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser shows 'the mysterious enclosure at Great Missenden' itself -- though why with all those hills and trees it was thought to be a safe landing place for an airship is anyone's guess.1 Otherwise most of the local press reports simply repeated the London Star's report, apart from the Bucks Herald which instead gave a sceptical summary, which did add some commentary, and the Bucks Advertiser which rather sniffily declared that 'little importance is attached to the rumours' and so 'it is inadvisable to pursue the matter further'.2 It probably didn't help that they all went to press nearly a week after the scare had begun and then been debunked, so it's treated as a curiosity rather than a live issue. But none of these papers, nor the South Bucks Free Press, denied that the hunt happened, though, so presumably it actually did.
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  1. Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser, 24 October 1914, 7. 

  2. Bucks Herald, 24 October 1914, 2, 8; Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News, 24 October 1914, 8. 

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.

...continue reading

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So, in the previous post in this series, I explained why (at least to a proximate cause) in 1914 people around Britain started worrying that German spies had gone around the country building concrete platforms for heavy artillery, as supposedly had been done before the war near Maubeuge and Antwerp. But what I didn't do was explain the concurrent (and in the case of Great Missenden, overlapping) belief that German spies had also gone around building Zeppelin bases, which after all is where I started. This seems especially puzzling since, thanks to their long range, Zeppelins certainly didn't need any such bases to launch air raids on London or elsewhere in Britain; this was well-known and was the basis for the phantom airship panic the year before the war.

What I think was happening here is essentially the same as happened with the Maubeuge platforms: people were reacting to the rapidly developing war situation, particularly the German advance to the Channel coast: Antwerp fell on 10 October 1914, Ostend on 15 October. The next major ports to the west, Dunkirk and Calais, were to remain in Allied hands for the rest of the war, but this couldn't have been known at the time. Already in late August, the Channel ports were being identified as potential forward bases for Zeppelins: 'While [the Royal Marines] hold Ostend there need be no fear of the town being made a Zeppelin base as was suggested a day or two since'.1 The Western Daily Press thought that

it is plainly the object of the enemy to establish themselves on the coast, and to find there more than one point d'appui for delivering attacks on England by means of aeroplanes and Zeppelins. It has been obvious that, during the past few weeks, the Germans have determined to make the fullest use of their aerial flotilla, quite irrespective of the regulations laid down in the second Hague Convention. The performance of a Zeppelin over Antwerp the other day stands in proof of this conviction.2

By 16 September it was being reported as rumoured in Berlin that 'Germany is preparing to invade England with a Zeppelin armada [...] the stories all agree that the base from which they shall start is Calais. As soon as the French army is disposed of, according to the German plan, a strong force will capture Calais'.3 A week later, there was more confidence, with the Aberdeen Daily Journal suggesting that 'If the Germans had succeeded in establishing a Zeppelin base at Dunkirk or Calais, there is no doubt the danger to London would have been real from a panic point of view'.4 The RNAS raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf on 22 September may have allayed fears, although whether it had done any significant damage was not clear, and the very fact of the raid and its daring nature itself proved that the government was taking the Zeppelin threat seriously. In fact it was assumed to be a reprisal for the bombing of Antwerp.5
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  1. Birmingham Gazette, 28 August 1914, 4

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 29 August 1914, 4

  3. Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 16 September 1914, 2

  4. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22 September 1914, 4

  5. E.g. Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield), 24 September 1914, 2