Television

12 Comments

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.

4 Comments

In May 1941, after nine months of German bombing and the evacuation of yet another British army from Europe, the Daily Mirror printed a fascinating little piece of futurism, in the form of a letter written as though it was May 1944, with Britain victorious and Germany prostrate. The headline itself gives some idea of this future shock: '"On our television set we saw CHURCHILL in BUSTED BERLIN!"'1 -- the television transmitters at Alexandra Palace had been switched off since September 1939. Invoking the early television experiments functions here as a promise of a better world to come, and not just because the 'bad old war days' will be over.

There isn't a lot about how the war actually went, but it would seem that it ended in 1943. There's no indication that the United States played any part in the war (though it is friendly to Britain; there are now no 'passports and visas and quotas' to bar travel between them). Or the Soviet Union for that matter (Barbarossa is still over a month away at this point). Britain seems to have won the war through bombing, or at least that's the only form of military activity mentioned:

My gosh, they've certainly got on with the work of rebuilding Berlin after those terrific winter blitzes by the R.A.F.! British authorities are directing the work. It hasn't so much been renovation as recreation, because just before the Germans sued for an armistice, there was precious little left of Berlin and it had been completely evacuated of everyone bar soldiers and A.R.P. people.

This (along with Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse being 'just blotted out') suggests that British air raids became so heavy that Berlin had to be evacuated of all non-essential personnel. Hamburg too was hit hard: it 'was finished in the spring of 1942 and it isn't functioning as a port yet'. At some point Hitler died, though how isn't stated. It seems clear that the British air raids were the cause of the German armistice request (this was written long before unconditional surrender, of course), or perhaps that's just me.
...continue reading


  1. Daily Mirror, 17 May 1941, 7. There's even an illustration showing Churchill's television appearance in front of the Brandenburg Gate, or at least that's what I think it is; sadly it isn't clear enough to reproduce here. 

29 Comments

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.

5 Comments

Since coming home from London, I keep coming across interesting things which I could have seen while I was there, but didn't. Which is not at all surprising, given the city's size and history, but it's true even in the relatively restricted confines of Bloomsbury, where I was staying and got to know fairly well (or so I thought). My first inkling of this came when I was watching Black Books for the nth time, and idly wondered where the exterior location filming was done. Practically around the corner from where I was staying, as it happens; I must have walked past the street it's in on an almost daily basis, if not down the very street itself. If I'd known I would have gone in and bought a book, even at the risk of being verbally abused for my troubles!

But there were also things I didn't know about which were more relevant to my research. Chronologically, I stumbled across the earliest when flipping through a new Osprey book, London, 1914-1917: The Zeppelin Menace by Ian Castle. It's got these nice maps showing the tracks of individual Zeppelins across the city, and where their bombs fell. And from one of the raids, there were two nearby, one in the south-east corner of Russell Square Gardens and the other in Queen Square. Unfortunately I was too poor (or at least too responsible) to buy the book, and I can't remember what the date of the raid was. Judging from this, it would appear to be 8 September 1915. And the Bedford Hotel on Southampton Row was hit on 24 September 1917 by one of the first Gotha night raiders.

Anyway, I've been to former bomb sites before. A more truly unique event which took place in Bloomsbury was the discovery of the nuclear chain reaction which underpins all nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors -- or at least the idea of the chain reaction. This flash of inspiration took place in the brain of Leó Szilárd, a refugee Jewish physicist, on 12 September 1933, at the traffic lights at the intersection of Southampton Row and Russell Square (in fact, only a few metres from where the Zeppelin bomb had fallen). Again, I walked past this spot several times a week, at least. It would have been an appropriate, if noisy, place from which to contemplate the subsequent atomic age.

Even that place, significant though it may be, has nothing to mark its connection to this past. That's not true for the final (so far) thing I missed in Bloomsbury, the Goodge Street Deep Level Shelter. This was one of eight air raid shelters excavated between 1940 and 1942, parallel to existing Tube stations on the Northern Line. During the war, they were intended to hold 8000 people each; afterward, they could be used as the basis for an express line. Due to the end of the Blitz, none of them were used as shelters until 1944, and the new tunnel was never built. Goodge Street was in fact used by Eisenhower as a headquarters (though I think SHAEF itself was in Bushy Park); apparently he announced D-Day from here and one of the two entrances is called the Eisenhower Centre. That's on Chenies Street, which I'm not sure I walked down; but the other is on Tottenham Court Road, and I most certainly walked past that more than once without even noticing.

Well, darn it all to heck.

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!

8 Comments

I was remiss in not mentioning the 12th Military History Carnival at Thoughts on Military History when it took place last month. My eye was drawn to ExecutedToday.com's post about Harry 'Breaker' Morant and Peter Handcock, the Australian soldiers executed in 1902 for killing Boer prisoners-of-war. There's still a debate about whether Kitchener issued an unwritten order to take no prisoners, meaning that the Australians were made scapegoats as a sop to either the Boer government (i.e. so it would consider peace) or to the British public. It seems unlikely to me, on the face of it, or at least unnecessary -- it's not like similar, illegal but tacitly accepted, acts were unknown in the later wars of the twentieth century.

By chance, I caught an episode of the excellent (but cancelled) Rewind the other night which dealt with the Breaker.1 The transcript is online, and is worth a read: it does poke some holes in the scapegoaters' arguments.


  1. Rewind dealt with various mysteries and puzzles from Australian history. I missed it when it originally aired, which is a shame. It was different to most other history programmes in that it wasn't afraid to present the viewer with primary source texts to support (or refute) an argument, or indeed to go digging around in archives for clues. I nearly stood up and applauded when, in a segment on the death of Billy Hughes's daughter, the reporter said 'So where to look for proof? Well, one obvious place is the National Library to look through Billy Hughes's private papers'! 

6 Comments

"Slough" by John Betjeman (1937):

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

David Brent's analysis of "Slough":

'Right, I don't think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place, so he's embarrassed himself there' -- brilliant.
...continue reading

14 Comments

Long-time reader, second-time commenter Ian Evans was in the Royal Observer Corps in York at the end of the 1950s. Here he describes how the ROC, in addition to retaining something like its planespotting functions during the Second World War, took on the job of measuring the Third:

When I joined the ROC (1958) it was still pretty much an RAF auxiliary, officers with handlebar moustaches and all. We spotted, reported and plotted aircraft in a very similar manner to our WW2 predecessors, though things had been simplified and speeded up, with special procedures for fast low flying aircraft (Rats). The nuclear reporting role was just being introduced, the observer posts were given “bunkers”, a small underground room with bunks and stores, airlock and reinforced tunnel to the surface, a nuclear burst recorder (a souped-up pinhole camera), a pressure recorder to measure the blast strength, a Geiger counter to measure the fallout, and individual dosimeters (we were rather cynical about these).

The operating theory was that there would be sufficient political warning for the observers to man their posts, they would wait for the noise to stop, surface, extract the recording paper from their recorders, read off the bearing and altitude of the burst and the peak overpressure. This would then be phoned in to Group HQ where we would plot the (hopefully several) bearings, and get the position of the detonation. Then, using the reported overpressures, plus sets of tables and nomograms we woud evaluate the bomb power and report back to…..anyone still alive. After that the posts would report radiation levels at regular intervals until…

Which is quite a terrifying job description (luckily they didn't have to do risk assessments in those days!)

But, of course, there was plenty of terror to go around. Long-time reader and commenter CK pointed out a 1982 BBC documentary called "Nuclear War: A Guide to Armageddon" (written and produced by Mick Jackson, director of Threads) about the effects of a nuclear war and how civilians should prepare for it.


...continue reading

7 Comments

The big trip to the UK looms. It's my first and I'm greatly looking forward to it -- all the more so because I have long been fascinated by the place and its history. Although I can't say it was always my plan to do a PhD in British military aviation history, looking back, there were some clues:

Hawker Hurricane

Go ahead and laugh! This is a drawing I did when I was 9 or 10. It shows a Hawker Hurricane,1 specifically PZ865, "The Last of the Many", the final production unit. I proudly showed it to our neighbour across the road, who (as I recall) had been in the air force in the war (which back then, meant the Second World War). All I can remember of his reaction was that he said the nose was too long for a Hurricane, and well, he was right :)
...continue reading


  1. As the cunningly-drawn faux brass plate at the bottom informs the viewer. LOL. 

5 Comments

Here in Australia, we're just catching up on the last two series of Foyle's War, a British detective drama which differs from the estimated 734 other British detective dramas in existence by being set in Sussex during the Second World War. This is a very large part of its charm (though due regard must be given to the performances of the three leads, Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks, and Anthony Howell -- classic English diffidence and stiff-upper-lippery all round, if you like that sort of thing). The war is used very well, I think -- plots generally revolve around some aspect of wartime experience, such as black marketeering, conscientious objectors, homegrown fascists. The Blitz and the threat of invasion overshadow the early episodes; the Yanks turn up in the later ones and start stealing all the women.

But the episode which screened last Sunday, "Bad blood", initially didn't look very promising in terms of its use of history. There were some uncharacteristically clunky references to various battles and personalities shovelled into a couple of conversations, along the lines of 'well it looks like Russia's done for, Stalingrad will be next to fall (wink wink) and what about old Rommel, eh?' Though it does at least allow us to date one scene to a period of approximately 5 minutes on the morning of 19 August 1942, because we are told that 'it looks like things might work out in Dieppe'! But all of that was forgiven as the central plot unfolded ...
...continue reading