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On Friday, 1 April 2016, I gave my second Humanities Research Seminar (again introduced by Nathan Wise) at the University of New England, under the title of 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret German forts and aerodromes in Britain, August-October 1914'. It was based on a (hopefully) forthcoming article, which in turn is based on a series of posts here as well as a research trip. The abstract:

I will explore the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and hidden Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914. These were so persistent that they were repeatedly investigated by both thepolice and the military. I argue that these rumours were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of the German enemy within. But they also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasing likelihood of a long, total war.

I haven't listened to it (and don't plan to!) so can't vouch for its comprehensibility -- especially since since I didn't have as much time to prepare it as I would have liked. It might be safer to wait for the article!


Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.

The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.

The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.


Airminded was down for a couple of days recently, and it now has a new look. The reason for this is that it was hacked, and nuking the entire site from orbit was the only way to be sure.

To be more specific, I noticed last week that Google searches for Airminded were throwing up some odd results, with words and links that no real person has ever typed on this blog appearing next to the more expected ones. But when I checked the posts in question, they looked fine. So, spoofing my browser's user agent, I was able to see Airminded as Googlebot saw it, and it looked something like this:
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Dr Beachcombing of Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog kindly dropped me a line to alert me to his post about Public Service Broadcasting, a British music duo who draw on old propaganda and information films for inspiration and samples. A number of these are from the Second World War period, including 'Spitfire', 'London Can Take It', 'Dig For Victory', and 'Lit Up'. My favourite is the one above, 'If War Should Come'. Based on the 1939 GPO film of the same name, despite/because of the remixing and the electronica it is nicely evocative of the shadow of the bomber.
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10 April 1940 has remained in history as "the great panic day". The reason for this designation is the panic that spread through the population of Oslo, after the rumors of the British bombing of the capital had spread. Here you can see how the Oslo people rush out of town on foot, on bicycles, in trucks and buses. The clip is without audio.

From NRK via the excellent RealTimeWWII. (The caption has been run through Google Translate and tweaked by me so it makes more sense, so I can't vouch for its accuracy.)

This one of the many things I didn't know before. I can't find much about it on the web in English; Wikipedia says:

The same day [10 April 1940], panic broke out in German-occupied Oslo, following rumours of incoming British bombers. In what has since been known as "the panic day" the city's population fled to the surrounding countryside, not returning until late the same evening or the next day. Similar rumours led to mass panic in Egersund and other occupied coastal cities. The origins of the rumours have never been uncovered.

It's interesting that the rumours named Britain as the aggressor. Of course Germany bombing a city it already occupied wasn't particularly plausible, so given that the rumour existed it would have to attach itself to Britain. The Altmark incident (and the planned mining of Norwegian waters, though I assume that was not publicly known as it was interrupted by the German invasion which was publicised shortly before the panic) might have suggested that the British were prepared to go further and attack Norway to achieve their own ends. I don't know much about airmindedness in Norway before the war (apart from the ghost flyers) either but in recent months civilians in two small, nearby nations had already suffered aerial bombardment, namely Poland and Finland (and let's not forget China and Spain in 1938) so to that extent the panic was not unreasonable.


I received this request for assistance from Jean Dewaerheid, a Belgian writer who is working with Peter Haas and Pierre-Antoine Courouble to track down wooden bomb eyewitnesses:

Three authors (from Belgium, Germany and France) have been working for years on a bizarre subject: the dropping of dummy wooden bombs on wooden airplanes.

In order to deceive the Allies during the Second World War, the Germans built fake airfields on the continent, often with runways and sometimes with buildings, but always with fake wooden planes, called "Attrappen". Strange stories can be heard in which allied airplanes made fun of them by dropping wooden bombs on which they had sometimes painted remarks like "Wood for Wood".

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Flight, 27 June 1935, 725

My main interest in this series about the RAF Displays at Hendon has been in the set pieces with which they ended. But as this is the last post it's worth looking a bit at the organisation of the Display itself. Flight had some useful articles for this in its preview of the 15th Display, held on Saturday, 29 June 1935. Above is a map showing the aerodrome, the seating arrangements, car parks, access roads and Colindale tube, which opened in 1924 and was a major boon for visitors to the Display.1 (For those who have been to the area more recently -- say to the RAF Museum or British Library Newspapers -- it's interesting to compare how the area has changed.) We can see from the seating plans some of the groups the RAF was trying to impress: there are boxes for the House of Commons, the House of Lords and public schools -- presumably with an eye to future officer recruitment. Private boxes seating six could be booked for between £4 and £7 (depending on location?); at the other end of the spectrum the groundlings could buy tickets for the least exclusive enclosures on the day for 2s., or a spot on a hillside overlooking the aerodrome for 1s.2 Attendance peaked in 1931 at 169,000 (bringing in £27,585 6s. 11d.), though including onlookers sitting in places where they didn't have to pay the figure came up to around 500,000 (or so Flight reckoned).3 The organisation of the Display was a year-round affair, with the 'display office' being closed only for a couple of weeks in August. The programme is 'usually settled fairly exactly by the beginning of the year', but by whom is not clear. The whole thing is overseen by a 'Display Committee' headed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham; the 'Flying-Subcommittee' chaired by Air Vice-Marshal Joubert de la Ferté handles the exciting bits; and the 'General Purposes Committee', of which Air Commodore B. C. H. Drew is secretary, organises everything else -- ticketing, liaison with transport and police, construction, etc.4
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  1. Flight, 27 June 1935, 725

  2. Ibid., 726; the map is from here also. 

  3. Ibid., 727

  4. Ibid. 


Flight, 1 July 1932, 599

The week before the 1932 RAF Display, Flight's editor commented on the rationale behind the theme chosen for the finale:

Sometimes the story composed for the set piece has been framed with some object, such as to obviate the criticisms of pacifists. Thus at one Display the enemy were called Pirates, so that nobody could object to their flaming end. This year we are to have a battle piece, pure and simple, which is the best thing of all. The R.A.F. exists to defend us, so we may as well get some idea (so far as sham fighting can give it) of what our aircraft would do to those who may attack us.1

But on the day (Saturday, 25 June 1932), the set piece seemed to disappoint Flight's correspondent. The set-up (above) was described as follows:

The scene this year represented a main aerodrome of the Enemy, situated alongside a disused fort in which large quantities of bombs were stored [...] The Enemy squadrons having been somewhat worrying, it was decided to carry out a heavy air attack to destroy this base.2

A squadron of 'our Single-Seater Fighters' strafes the aerodrome, drawing off 'the Enemy Fighter Squadron' in pursuit.3 Reconnaissance aircraft (Hawker Audaxes) report the scene to be clear, and so the bombers (Hawker Horsleys and Fairey IIIFs) are sent in.
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  1. Flight, 24 June 1932, 542

  2. Ibid., 1 July 1932, 598. The illustrations are from ibid., 599

  3. Ibid., 598. 


I may or may not have been right in guessing that the Soviet Union was the pretend enemy in the 1928 RAF Display set-piece, but as we shall see I think I'm on safer ground with the next year's edition (for some reason held slightly later in the summer than usual, on Saturday, 13 July 1929). The tenth 'Grand Finale or Set Piece' had an unusually elaborate geopolitical backdrop and an unusually elaborate set.1 The scene was 'Hendon Sea Port' AKA 'Hendon-by-the-Sea', which

represented a foreign defended port overseas, and consisted of a harbour with a quay terminating at a fort at the seaward extremity and various buildings at the landward end. Alongside the mole with waves rippling against its sides (these waves, by the way, were the silk of old parachutes, pegged to the ground and fluttering in the wind), was an imposing troopship, with smoke already issuing from its black and orange funnels; troops were embarking and stores were being transferred from lorries.

Outside the harbour various vessels, complete with waves, cruised about, while other craft, including an ammunition lighter, were anchored inside. This was the "peaceful" but active scene we looked upon at the start, and one could hardly believe it was not real.2

It's clear that the RAF put a lot of effort into these sets which were destined to be blown up (see the British Pathé newsreel above), even allowing for the fact that they were built from scrap metal and old parachutes.
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  1. Flight, 18 July 1929, 682

  2. Ibid. 'Hendon-by-the-Sea' is from ibid., 683


Flight, 30 June 1927, 431

The seventh RAF Display was held on Saturday, 3 July 1926. By now it was, as Flight noted, 'amongst the foremost of the functions of the London social season'.1 Their Majesties the King and Queen were in attendance, along with representatives of three other royal houses (including the King, Queen, Infante and Infanta of Spain, possibly drawn by the appearance of the Cierva autogyro), 'Several Indian Princes', nearly one in three of the combined Houses of Parliament, and about 150,000 less exalted guests. (The graphic above shows the growth of 'Miss Popularity Hendon' since the beginning.)2 The main feature of the day was massed formation flying: at one point, six fighter squadrons comprising fifty-four aircraft in total were in the air. The set-piece seems to have suffered by comparison. Flight's description seems rather muted when compared to previous years:

After this came the Set Piece -- during which the Royal Party made a tour of inspection of the machine park. The "Story" this year was the combined attack on a hostile aerodrome by fighters and day bombers. It commenced with a low bombing attack with light bombs by the fighters, which followed up with a machine-gun attack to silence the ground defences. Next came along, higher up, the day bombers, with the fighters above them in attendance. The bombers then very effectively finished off the aerodrome and previously-damaged aircraft.3

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  1. Flight, 8 July 1926, 399

  2. Ibid., 30 June 1927, 431

  3. Ibid., 406