14 Comments

Since my previous "web log beg" worked so well, here's another. Because this is my first trip to Europe, and could well be my last for a long time, I'd like to do a bit of travel in September to have a look around (I get kicked out of the college on 3 September to make way for the regular students, so I either become an itinerant or fly straight home). It will just be for a couple of weeks or maybe a bit longer, since I'll be running out of both time and money by then. So where to go?

I've just confirmed that the Hamburg conference is actually on; that starts on 5 September (6, really) and finishes on 7. So I may as well make my way straight there. After that I'll have about 10 days, give or take -- I'm due to fly back (from Heathrow) on 17 September but I can change that. What can I fit in in that time? What should I see and do? Some parameters: I'll have a medium-sized suitcase with me, probably partially-stuffed with books, so backpacking is out. I won't be driving, and it's years since I've ridden a bike so I don't see myself doing that. So I'm already limiting myself to places which are good for walking, public transport or (if all else fails) touristy coach trips. I'm not too old for hostels (I think!), but would probably prefer hotels if I can afford it -- which I probably can't, but anyway I can worry about that later.

As for what I'd like to see: well, British history-type stuff obviously. Military history, planes, all that good stuff -- yes of course. But I can get a lot of that in and around London. I love museums and the like; picturesque country landscapes are nice but we have some of that here, so that's less of a priority. And since I'm from a young country, where the built environment dates to no earlier than the 19th century (with one exception), I have a hunger to see really old things. Early modern, medieval would be great; even earlier would be better. I'm a sucker for anything Roman, so Rome is an obvious choice. I don't have any Italian but they've been fleecing tourists for over two thousand years, so I'm sure I'd manage. I'd like to visit the Western Front battlefields in Flanders, particularly Pozières, but I figure I can probably do that earlier in the summer as a day or overnight trip. I also want to visit Cornwall: my patrilineal ancestors came from there, there's Tintagel and other fun pseudo-Arthurian connections, it's got that almost-Celtic-fringe thing happening, and it looks pretty in the pics. What about Scotland? I hear Edinburgh is nice. South is Hadrian's Wall, north the Highlands -- all good. Is there anywhere else I should be thinking about? How long does take to "do" these places, particularly in the absence of a car? 10 days is presumably only enough for two (plus Hamburg) once travel is factored in.

As you can see, I'm pretty clueless about the whole thing, so any and all clues would be most helpful! I don't have to decide everything right now, but there is a time factor: as part of my ticket to the UK, I get a free BA "internal" flight, which could be to Rome or Edinburgh (is it even sensible to fly from London to Edinburgh? it's such an itty bitty distance, or seems that way to an Australian), but apparently not to Hamburg (I'll have to double-check that though). Which is fantastic, but I basically have to decide where by Friday! Arghh, pressure.

54 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The German bombing of London and other British cities between September 1940 and May 1941 is referred to as "the Blitz", a contemporary term which, if not actually coined by the press, was certainly popularised by it. Blitz is short for blitzkrieg, German for "lightning war", which was the label given to the spectacularly mobile armoured offensives, strongly supported by tactical bombing, which led to the rapid conquests of Poland and France. Sometimes it is suggested that it was inappropriate or inaccurate to apply a word having to do with fast-paced ground combat, involving Panzers and Stukas, to a fundamentally different type of warfare, a strategic bombing campaign lasting nine months in which no territory was exchanged and no soldiers even saw each other. For example, after noting the popular origins of blitz, A. J. P. Taylor added as a footnote:

Popular parlance was, of course, wrong. 'Blitz' was lightning war. This was the opposite.1

The Wikipedia page on the Blitz says:

The German military doctrine of speed and surprise was described as Blitzkrieg, literally lightning war, from which the British use of blitz was derived. While German air-supported attacks on Poland, France, the Netherlands and other countries may be described as blitzkrieg, the prolonged strategic bombing of London did not fit the term.

I'd like to suggest here that while it's true that the Blitz wasn't a lightning war, nonetheless it was a blitzkrieg. Confused? Hopefully I can explain ...

Firstly, note that initially blitz and blitzkrieg were synonymous terms. So immediately after the first big raids on London on 7 September 1940, the Daily Express was already using the familiar term: 'Blitz bombing of London goes on all night'.2 But at the same time, the Spectator was calling it a blitzkrieg:

The full purpose of the Blitzkrieg may have been more fully revealed by the time these lines are read. Its immediate object no doubt is to break morale.3

(Blitzkrieg seems to have been more common at first, but after a month or so it was replaced by blitz.) I think this is significant, because it shows that the British didn't think of the Blitz as something fundamentally different from blitzkrieg. It was the blitzkrieg, as applied to the attempted conquest of Britain -- which, being separated from the Continent by the English Channel, obviously wasn't going to play out in exactly the same way as it did in Poland and the West.
...continue reading


  1. A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 [1965]), 501. 

  2. Daily Telegraph, 9 September 1940, p. 1; quoted in OED entry for "blitz". 

  3. "A decisive hour", Spectator, 13 September 1940, 260. Emphasis in original. 

I don't often mention the various history carnivals here, which makes me a bad netizen; but I'm trying to get into the habit of picking out my favourite post from the monthly Military History Carnival. MilHisCar III is now up, and although a great post on the military origins of the phrase "basket case" did catch my eye, I have to go with the two posts I myself nominated from Old is the New New, on the esoteric and military-industrial origins (via wargaming) of role-playing games. Further proof, if it were needed, that Rob MacDougall is king of the geek/historians!

13 Comments

Last year I talked about J. M. Spaight's The Sky's the Limit (here, here and here), and how its account of the then-developing Battle of Britain was somewhat surprising to anyone familiar with the standard narrative of the summer of 1940. Which is not at all to say that the standard narrative is wrong, just that things quite naturally looked different while the Battle was still in progress.

Now I'm looking at press accounts of the beginning of the Blitz, September and early October 1940, and again I'm finding things which don't seem to have made it into the received picture. One very striking one is the apparently near-universal opinion that the Me 109 fighter was inferior to British fighters: not just a little bit, but greatly; not just to the Spitfire, but to the Hurricane as well.1 So for example, the Manchester Guardian's air correspondent confidently reported that

That Göring's air force has had no single-seat fighter that could compare with the Spitfire or the Hurricane is a fact that has been obvious since the very start of the war in the air against Britain and the replacement of the Messerschmitt 109, that has suffered so heavily at the hands of R.A.F. fighter squadrons, by something better was to be expected.2

Nearly seventy years later, reasonable people still can and do disagree over the relative merits of these fighters. But I think you would be hard-pressed these days to find anyone who would claim that the Me 109 was not comparable in air combat to the Spitfire, and substantially (though certainly not overwhelmingly) superior to the Hurricane. The reason for the underrating of the Me 109 is not hard to find, when British claims for German losses were routinely too high by a factor of two or three. But I suspect Fighter Command pilots wouldn't have been so sanguine, regardless of the numbers!
...continue reading


  1. Since we're talking day fighters, technically this probably should be classified as the Battle of Britain, not the Blitz, but in some ways this is is an artificial and unhelpful distinction. 

  2. Manchester Guardian, 19 September 1940, p. 5. The 'something better' was the mythical He 113. 

13 Comments

It's not often that I happen across a discussion of knock-out blow novels outside specialist literature, so I was interested to see that Gideon Haigh (probably best known as a cricket writer, but also a fine essayist) talks about Nevil Shute's What Happened to the Corbetts (1939) in the current issue of The Monthly. The article itself (which is not online; a precis of sorts is available from the Sunday Telegraph) is about On the Beach, published fifty years ago this month: 'arguably Australia's most important novel'1 since it was the first really popular novel to deal with nuclear war and human extinction, selling 4 million copies worldwide.

In retrospect, 1957 was a hinge point in the Cold War, when passive resignation about nuclear arms began yielding to alarm and horror. It was the year that the CND was founded in Britain and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy was established in the US; it was the year that the National Council of Churches warned that the arms race might "lead directly to a war that will destroy civilization". In 1955, fewer than one-fifth of Americans knew what fallout was; by 1958, seven in ten were saying they would favour a worldwide organisation to prohibit nuclear weapons.

How many people during that transition read JB Priestley's 'Russia, the Atom and the West' in the New Statesman? Or heard the Nobel-winning chemist Linus Pauling rail against nuclear arms? And how many read On the Beach? Nevil Shute's novel was the great popular work on the gravest matter besetting civilisation.2

Haigh is right to see that the two books have a great deal in common.

What Happened, like On the Beach, is a conventional novel on an unconventional, very nearly taboo, subject: the civilian experience of war, with its trials of disaster and displacement. It is not, however, an anti-war novel. To write against war when its coming was inevitable would have struck Shute as pointless posturing. He was arguing not for peace but for preparedness, to ready Britons "for the terrible things that you, and I, and all the citizens of the cities in this country may one day have to face together". On the novel's release in April 1939, a thousand copies were distributed to workers in Air Raid Precautions. It was "the entertainer serving a useful purpose".3

But I don't know that I agree that the subject of the 'civilian experience of war' was 'very nearly taboo'. There were plenty of novels dealing with this subject written in the 1920s and 1930s, at least as it related to aerial warfare. It's just that virtually all of the others were sensationalistic trash in comparison to What Happened to the Corbetts, as I have previously argued.4 Otherwise I like Haigh's take on it.

And what happened to Nevil Shute? After moving to Australia in 1950 and buying the country's first dishwasher, and writing a few more books, he died in 1960. And after that?

The decline of Shute's reputation is unremarkable: it simply attests the perishability of popular art. Shute sold 15 million books in his lifetime, but he aspired to neither literary immortality nor critical approval: "The book which thrills the reviewer with its artistic perfection will probably not be accepted by the public, while a book which the public value for its contents will probably seem trivial and worthless artistically to the reviewer." His obscurity also reflects the contours of the book market: the middle-class, middlebrow novelist of ideas is a discontinued line.5

Still, he wrote one book of almost geopolitical significance; that's more than most writers can aspire to.


  1. Gideon Haigh, "Shute the messenger: how the end of the world came to Melbourne", The Monthly, June 2007, 52. 

  2. Ibid., 53. 

  3. Ibid., 47. 

  4. Haigh has clearly benefited from reading Paul Brians' Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, but doesn't seem to have any comparable sources for the knock-out blow literature. That's ok, but you know, he could have asked me! 

  5. Haigh, "Shute the messenger", 46. 

10 Comments

During the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, British newspapers regularly published official German statements about the progress of the air war. Those relating to the war over Britain could be checked against both British communiques and, to an extent, personal experience. There were large discrepancies: for example, for 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe claimed to have lost 26 aircraft compared to 94 lost by the RAF. The British claims were almost precisely inverse: 22 British losses to 99 German.1 Partly the differences were inherent in the nature of air combat: the same kills were often claimed by different pilots, aircraft which may have looked like goners somehow made it back to base. But in the era of Dr. Goebbels and Lord Haw-Haw, there must also have been great suspicion of anything said by any German official. According to a leading article in the Manchester Guardian, what 'the German High Command [says] on the eve of or in the course of an attack, is not evidence'.2

But there was also the air war over Germany. Here, German official statements were one of the few sources of information about the effectiveness of Bomber Command's assaults on Germany available to the British press. The very same leading article noted a discrepancy here as well, a different kind. The first really big raids on London, on 7 September 1940, killed around 400 civilians and injured 1300, according to first reports. But strangely, these casualties were far greater than those being sustained in Berlin:

Our own aircraft were over Berlin for nearly three hours on the previous night [6 September 1940] and attacked an aeroplane engine works at Spandau as well as a Berlin power station. According to the official statement made in Berlin on Saturday the anti-aircraft protective was forced by the third wave of bombers and in a working-class district fires were started and "appreciable damage done to buildings." Yet the casualties are given as three people killed and several injured. It is to be concluded either that the casualty list has been incompletely compiled or else that our bombers showed even more ability at confining themselves to their legitimate objectives than they did in forcing the city's defences.3

'[I]ncompletely compiled' seems an unnecessarily polite way of calling the Germans liars, but I'll let that pass. The first thing to note is that there are several alternative explanations for the difference in reported casualties between Berlin and London that the Manchester Guardian neglected: for example, maybe Berlin's ARP was better than London (lots of deep shelters, perhaps); or maybe Bomber Command wasn't hitting Berlin as hard as the Luftwaffe was hitting London. Neither of those possibilities would have been very palatable.

The editorial conclusion is, I think, very revealing:

The apparent contrast in casualties inflicted would argue a much closer and more effective concern with legitimate targets on the part of the R.A.F.4

So, rather than discount the German claims of light casualties as more of the usual lies, designed to show the world that Germany was winning the air war, the Manchester Guardian evidently preferred to regard them as true, because that confirmed the belief that Bomber Command was only attacking legitimate (that is to say, military) objectives, unlike the Germans. In this way, German propaganda seems to have fostered the delusions of both countries.


  1. Actual losses were more like 28 British to 41 German. 

  2. Manchester Guardian, 9 September 1940, p. 4. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid.  

14 Comments

This post is an exercise in -- well, I'm not sure if there's a name for it, but I found some medium-resolution images on eBay of a pamphlet printed by the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League in 1934. (The seller says 1933, but all other evidence I have on this group is from 1934; the first meeting was held in June 1934.) Some examples may exist in archives, but certainly it's a very rare item, which might explain the US$899.00 asking price. Dedicated scholar though I am, that's somewhat above what I'm willing to pay! Luckily, I don't have to, because I can reconstruct nearly all the text by zooming in, zooming out, and some judicious squinting.

The tone is set by the front of the pamphlet:

Hands Off Britain Air Defence League

'England awake!', he demands angrily/defiantly. I don't know if he's anybody in particular, or was just some guy chosen because he resembled the target demographic.
...continue reading

18 Comments

The title relates to both the content of a paper I gave yesterday at the School's Work In Progress Day, and to my own state of mind beforehand! I think it went well, though -- at least there was no rotten fruit thrown at the end! -- which is good because it was the first real outing for my current chapter on defence panics. The deadly-dull paper title was "Moral panics, defence panics and the British air panic of 1934-5", and here's the abstract:

The sociological concept of moral panic was developed to describe and explain how societies react to internal threats to their values and interests, such as crime or deviant behaviour, with particular emphasis on the roles played by the media and expert opinion. In this paper I will argue that the reactions of a society to external, military threats -- "defence panics" -- can develop in essentially the same way as moral panics, and can be analysed using a similar framework. My main example will be drawn from the British air panic of 1934-5 over the threat of illegal German aerial rearmament.

For the record, these are the main defence panic candidates I'm interested in, some of which I've discussed here before:

  • phantom airship scare, 1913
  • Gotha raids on London, 1917
  • "French" air menace, 1922
  • Hamburg gas disaster, 1928
  • German germ warfare experiments, 1934
  • German air menace, 1934-5
  • Guernica, 1937; Barcelona, 1938; Canton, 1938; Munich crisis, 1938
  • the Blitz, 1940

I had a slide up with Airminded's URL but stupidly forgot to actually mention it. So if anyone who heard my talk has managed to find their way here despite this, hello and well done! Amazingly, there was actually one student there who already reads Airminded -- I was very chuffed to learn that reading it is less boring than working :) -- but I quite rudely forgot to ask their name. If they or anyone else from the session would like to drop me a line, they can drop me a line here in the comments, or via the contact form. I'd like to hear from you!

24 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Here's a confession: I don't really get Guernica -- the painting, that is, not the event (which is why I haven't mentioned it in this series until now). I understand that it's a passionate reaction by a great artist to the tragedy unfolding in his own country. It's physically imposing, rich in symbolism and, by now, a part of history itself. I'd love to see it one day. But what I don't get is how, and why, Picasso's Guernica came to be seen as a more powerful reaction to the coming of total war than this:

Guernica
...continue reading