Plays

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Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.
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  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. [Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. 

An unusual phantom airship reference today. The Dundee Courier reports on the 'successful debut' of 'Mr William J. Wallace's talented company of entertainers', who 'made their bow before Dundee [sic] public on Saturday night' at St Mary Magdalene's Hall (p. 4). One 'descriptive sketch' in particular, entitled 'Coach Ride from Newport to Balmurnie via Pickletullem and the Gauldry', is described as having been 'a roaring success':

Everything went with a harmonious flow, and even although the second part was prepared with a rush it was wonderfully rhythmical. The scene on the top of the coach was most realistic, and the 'up-to-dateness' of the piece was emphasised by the card bearing the words 'Votes for Women' being dropped into their midst from a 'mystery airship.'

It seems unlikely that suffragists are seriously being blamed for scareships (although...) Rather it would seem that at least for the moment mystery airships, like the women's suffrage movement, have become well enough known that a variety show audience will recognise and appreciate a humorous reference to them. Though really, to be completely up-to-date, the show should have been put on a month ago. The 'musical sketch' about 'the burning question before Popton Parish Council', 'Should Popton Have a Pump', is probably more topical now.

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When I started my PhD, I hoped to examine fictional representations of aerial bombardment in plays as well as in novels, newspapers and other written sources, but had to abandon this intention because I found very few which discussed the next war in the air in any detail. There are a few where it appears in the background, such as Karel Čapek's Power and Glory (1938), which is much more about poison gas than aerial warfare. The threat of bombing is more important in Wings Over Europe (1928), written by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne, though this is more of a throwback to older narratives of the world being held to ransom by a league of scientists which possesses the ultimatum weapon (in this case the Guild of United Brain Workers has atomic bombs in aeroplanes circling the world's capitals) rather than owing anything to contemporary airpower theory.

But, as I found with cinematic representations, there were some plays about the knock-out blow. One such is Night Sky, which premiered at London's prestigious Savoy Theatre on 6 January 1937 under the direction of Maurice Elvey.1 The producer was Clifford Whitley; the playwright was L. du Garde Peach, better known (at least to some) as the author of Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History (1963).
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  1. As it happens, a decade earlier Elvey had directed the film version of Noel Pemberton Billing's play, High Treason, which also featured the danger of aerial bombardment -- though as he was apparently the most prolific British film director ever we shouldn't read too much into this. 

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Yorkshire Post, 5 May 1942, 1

Some good news from Burma, or at least less bad than usual. The Yorkshire Post reports that, although still retreating, Allied forces 'have successfully evaded the enemy attempt to cut them off in the Mandalay area' (1). The British have been divided from the Chinese, however, with the former retreating up the Chindwin and the latter up the Irrawaddy. The paper's military correspondent gives credit to General Alexander's 'skilful manœuvring' in avoiding encirclement, but also praises the 'valour' of Chinese soldiers after the fall of Lashio, who 'got across the path of the [Japanese] armoured brigade and even drove its tanks back with losses' and thereby gave the British time to make good their retreat. But the task is before Alexander now, 'one of the hardest ever set before a commander', to retire northwest without being engaged by the Japanese, to link up again with Chinese forces in the north, and 'to avoid being driven on India'. The Manchester Guardian's first leading article today admits that 'Japan's campaign in Burma is now almost won', at least 'the fine delaying actions fought by our troops have given India a previous four months for making ready' (4).
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Daily Express, 1 May 1942, 1

This news has been coming for the last few days: Lashio has fallen to the Japanese. As the Daily Express reports, the town was 'pounded by artillery and dive-bombers before the final assault' (1):

Then large numbers of tanks and armoured cars rumbled forward into the inferno as a battering ram for the enemy.

General Stillwell's defending [Chinese] army was overwhelmed by the superior numbers and weight of metal in the Jap attack.

A spokesman for Marshal Chiang Kai-shek did little to disguise the seriousness of the situation, saying that 'the Chinese will be be compelled to abandon positional warfare and resort to mobile war' in Burma. He continued:

The enemy columns now at Lashio and Hsipaw could continue to advance northwards, cutting off first the Chinese forces in Burma from China, and, secondly, Chinese land communications with India by way of upper Burma, or they could turn westward with the aim of encircling the Chinese now fighting on the Mandalay and Irrawaddy fronts.

He paid tribute to the 'outnumbered' British forces defending Burma, saying they have 'heroically held out, winning the praise and admiration of their Allies'.
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The Standard again has an article (p. 8) on the 'mysterious airship', though this time the information is taken from today's Daily Express. The Berlin correspondent of that paper has been making inquiries there, and reports that

German expert opinion is unanimous in believing that the airship ascends from some German warship in the North Sea, upon which it lands again after each of its flights.

The German navy is, as it happens, conducting exercises in the North Sea, and relatively small airships of the Gross or Parseval types could possibly be inflated and launched from a warship. But although the German navy is known to have ordered these smaller airships, it's unclear whether it actually has any yet.

The Norfolk News has a report on the activity of the phantom airship, or as the headline on page 15 has it, the 'phanton airship'. Disappointingly, although the Norfolk News is bang in the middle of scareship territory, it seems to be relying on the reports of London newspapers (again, the Daily Express). Accounts from three eyewitnesses are given. The first is the brother-in-law of Herbert Neaverson, a 'prominent Peterborough tradesman', who has made a statement to the War Office in London. He heard 'a swishing sound overhead and the throbbing of a motor' early in the morning at his home in Peakirk. He looked up and saw a 'peculiar light' coming from the direction of the sea. At Kingscliff, Great Clacton, one Mr Egerton Free saw 'an oblong machine hovering quite near my home' at dusk, ten days ago. It was 'stationary' for a few minutes and then disappeared in the direction of Frinton. Finally, Miss H. M. Bonville of Southend-on-Sea saw the 'fly by night' last Sunday, at about 11.20pm. Her description is similar to that of Free: it was 'a large, black object, oblong in shape'. Initially stationary, it suddenly rose in the air and headed in the direction of London, briefly showing 'a couple of very brilliant lights'.

The Norfolk News also adds that

A search for the airship's home is being undertaken by motorists and others in all parts of East Anglia.

If the warship theory is correct, then they won't find anything, of course. But this amateur sleuthing connects the phantom airship scare with the spy mania also prevalent at this time. Indeed, The Times carries several letters relating to the Legion of Frontiersmen, an unofficial patriotic organisation which at times indulges in the sport of spyhunting. More intriguingly, immediately following its 'mysterious airship' article, the Standard has a report of 'several suspicious movements of strangers' near an Admiralty telegraph station at Humberstone, near Grimsby (and so also on the east coast), leading to 'elaborate precautions'.

One of the staff of the station, it is stated [by a correspondent], was recently attacked and rendered unconscious by two men who sprang on him from behind and afterwards escaped [...] locally there appears to be the impression that the outrage was the work of foreign spies bent on obtaining an entrance to the room where the code-book is kept.

The current success of Major Guy du Maurier's play An Englishman's Home, about an invasion of England by 'Nearland', probably doesn't do much to sooth fears. Today's Southampton Times and Hampshire Express has a puff piece (p. 9) about its upcoming Southampton run ('It should be seen by all -- men and women -- not only for the great and valuable lesson it teaches, but also because it is a powerful, real, and interesting play'): on the first night's performance recruiting officers will be present for the Territorial Army. The Norfolk News also mentions (p. 8) the play: a speaker at a Norwich meeting of the Peace Society objecting to the military's use of 'every means to entrap the young fellows of our country' notes that:

Even whilst we are at this meeting a play is being introduced at our local theatre, the object of which is to show by a very much overdrawn production how needful it is to be prepared against an enemy that does not exist.

On the other hand, the Globe relates (p. 2) an amusing anecdote given by Major Baden Baden-Powell (brother of B-P, and an expert in military ballooning, as it happens) at the annual dinner of the Iron and Steel Institute. Baden-Powell referred to the 'stories of certain nations being ready to invade these shores, how they had plans laid down, and spies swarming in this country watching details'. He himself asked an officer from a 'certain army' [i.e. Germany's] whether this was true:

The officer told him that that was so, and that they had details of the Eastern counties, every village was marked, the principal landowners and officials were known, and even the postmasters of the villages were recorded. "How did you get it?" he asked, and the officer replied, "We spent 10s. 6d. and bought a Kelly's County Directory" (loud laughter). So much for spies (hear, hear, and laughter).

This shows that not everyone bought into the spy scare. But that the anecdote was worthy of telling and got such a big reaction also suggests that there were plenty who did.

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Last year I gave a lecture where I said that Things to Come, the 1936 Alexander Korda production of H. G. Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come, was not a very popular film, that not many people would have seen it. I had to retract that, but I then said that

I stand by my other point, however, which was that Things to Come is actually very singular, at least in British feature films: there are very few depictions of a city being turned to rubble by air attack

Now I have to retract that too, as since then I've compiled an -- admittedly short -- list of interwar British films which do depict cities being destroyed by bombing, or at least coming under the threat of air attack.

Some of these I did know about, such as The Airship Destroyer (1909). It's now available on YouTube, under an alternate title, Battle in the Clouds. In it, an airship bombs a city, which is last seen in flames. I'm not sure if either of the sequels, The Aerial Anarchists and Pirates of 1920 (both 1911) had anything comparable.

There's a long gap after that. The Flight Commander (1927) climaxes with Sir Alan Cobham bombing a Chinese village, which was filmed at the RAF Pageant, but that's more air control than strategic bombing. In High Treason (1928), written by Noel Pemberton Billing, an aerial war is threatened, but averted. There were a few American films set during the First World War which showed Zeppelin raids on London, including The Sky Hawk (1929) and Hell's Angels (1930), but they're, well, American.1

Things to Come (1936) was actually, I think, the first proper (i.e. scary) depiction in a British film of the effects of a truly devastating air raid. But there were others over the next few years. A pair of short instructional films, The Gap (1937) and The Warning (1939), have long piqued my interest, but unfortunately I didn't get to see them while in London. The Gap was a recruiting film for the Territorial Army, which manned Britain's anti-aircraft guns. London is hit by a surprise air raid, and because there are not enough AA gunners it is devastated. The Warning was aimed at drawing in volunteers for air raid precautions, and portrays the terrible aftermath of an air attack on Nottingham. Air defences swing into action, but do little to prevent the carnage.
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  1. I think one or the other of these was the source of a similar scene in a British film from the 1930s or 1940s, or perhaps it was from the Korda documentary Conquest of the Air (1936, but not released until 1938). I can't for the life of me remember what film I saw it in, but the scene was too short and too lavish to have been made specially.