The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all.1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.) ...continue reading →
Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too. ↩
For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...
I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.
After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.
I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!
For my twelfth (and last?) contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I spoke about what was undoubtedly the most important battle to take place in late April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres in Flanders. The reason why this was so important is because it opened with the first successful, large-scale poison gas attack in the history of warfare (the first unsuccessful attack had been at the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front at the end of January). I looked how the particular gas used by the Germans, chlorine, worked in chemical, biological and military terms, the role played by Fritz Haber in developing it, the shattering effect it had on the French lines, and the unreadiness of the German army to do much to exploit its success. I also noted briefly the prewar laws against the use of poison gas and its subsequent career in the war and after, including in the present Syrian civil war.
In my eleventh contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I took another look at how the economic war at sea was working out. My particular focus this week was the sinking of the Dutch freighter Medea (above), the first neutral casualty of Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign. I also discussed the difficult position of the Netherlands as it continued to trade with both sides while trying to keep out of the war that was all around it, and the way that Medea's sinking led to fears of a German invasion -- which in turn threatened Churchill's plans for the Dardanelles. As usual, there's some aviation in here too, particularly German air attacks on merchant ships in the North Sea.
For my tenth contribution to the Road to War series on ABC New England today, I discussed how the mutual naval blockades between Britain and Germany were becoming more total. In this week in 1915, Britain extended its blockade of Germany; the German unrestricted submarine blockade began to sink greater numbers of ships, including one of the British blockaders; Germany acknowledged that it would have to pay the United States for sinking one of its merchant ships; and, off the Chilean island of Más a Tierra, the British intercepted the German raider SMS Dresden (above, just before its scuttling). So there was a lot going on in the economic war at sea.
I'd forgotten that today was the 70th anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, but luckily the producers of Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 Live remembered. I spoke to presenter Dotun Adebayo and fellow historian Raymond Sun this afternoon (just before 5am Greenwich Mean Time), and for the next 29 days you can listen to our conversation here (the recording is the whole programme, 4 hours long, so skip to about 3:47:15).
Today I made my ninth contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, talking about U-boats (AKA 'the Zeppelins of the sea') and their advantages and disadvantages in warfare. More specifically, I spoke about the German declaration on 4 February 1915 of unlimited submarine warfare in the seas around Britain, switching from their previous Kleinkrieg strategy of targeting warships in order to reduce the British surface superiority (U-9, above, sank three armoured cruisers in one engagement alone). I put this into the context of erosion of international law with the British imposition of a North Sea blockade the previous November, as well as the increasing readiness to attack civilian targets directly, as evidenced by the naval bombardment of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby in December and the aerial bombardment of Norfolk in January.