DO YOU KNOW --

Whether you can be gassed by bombs dropped from airplanes?

The real strength of Germany's Air Force?

What sort of an air force Mussolini has?

Why bombers cannot win the present war?

What the Suicide Club of the war will be in history?

Why there will be few romantic Aces in the present war?

Who is the most skilled pilot in any Air Force?

The actual value of the aircraft-carrier?

What country leads the world in air power?

How it feels to release bombs over an enemy city?

Whether the balloon-barrage will stop enemy bombers?

What an 'obsolete' plane really is?

Whether transports or air-liners really make good bombers?

Why Germany did not bomb London in September 1939?

Who is the most important man aboard a bombing plane?

That the single-seater fighter is doomed?

How many planes a month an up-to-date factory can build?

What is the matter with Russia's air force?

All these and a hundred more questions are answered in this book if you read it carefully.

Source: A. G. J. Whitehouse, Hell in Helmets: The Riddle of Modern Air Power (London: Jarrolds, n.d. [1940]), 7.

21 Comments

I've been reading Respectful Insolence for quite a while now, but I somehow missed Orac's post critiquing Richard Dawkins' comments on Arthur Harris and the bombing of civilians in the Second World War, and how the development of precision-guided munitions ("smart bombs") reflects a change in the moral zeitgeist since then. Fortunately, Jonathan Dresner pointed out it to me; unfortunately (and unusually), I think Orac is wrong. That's ok: he's got more important things to do with his time than studying the history of strategic bombing, such as surgery and medical research. But since he brought the subject up ...
...continue reading

2 Comments

Scott W. Palmer. Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. I followed Scott's advice, but as I don't have a car or an office, I ended up with only one copy :) It looks like a worthy companion to Corn and Fritzsche, and indeed, now that it's finally arrived (only 3 months after I ordered it, thanks Amazon.co.uk) I plan to read it alongside those standard works on national airmindedness.

19 Comments

Bluebird at Daytona Beach, 1935

Bluebird at Daytona Beach, 1935. Image source: Florida Photographic Collection.

Well, the title of this post is a lie -- there's only two mysteries that concern me here, and one isn't particularly mysterious ...

Sir Malcolm Campbell was a world-famous British speed maniac (there's no other word for it), setting many records on land and sea. The last one was just over 300 mph, at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, in his specially-constructed car Bluebird. His son, Donald, famously and tragically was killed in 1967 trying to emulate his father's exploits. My interest in Campbell derives from his book on The Peril from the Air (London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d. [1937?]) -- fairly standard knock-out blow stuff, though with a greater emphasis on the utility of ARP than most (for example, he describes a large air-raid shelter he had built on his own estate, for his family and employees). Though he was most commonly seen pushing cars and boats to ludicrous speeds, he was also a pilot: in the First World War he had flown fighters in defence of Britain.
...continue reading

20 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Niall Ferguson has an article out in the New York Magazine, on the use of computer wargames in learning about history and strategy. (Via ClioWeb). It's a frustrating piece. As a sometime wargamer myself, I do agree with him that they can have their uses. But I think he fundamentally, and strangely, misunderstands what those uses might be.
...continue reading

12 Comments

I've previously mentioned the Holden airship. At the moment it is at Brisbane, and there are concerns that it will be flown over the Gabba during the first Ashes test next month.1 The problem is that Holden isn't paying Cricket Australia anything for the privilege of flying a billboard over the cricket ground, where it might well catch the eye of 40000 spectators bored with Australia's on-field drubbing of the puny English team. So the Queensland state government is planning to introduce legislation to ban such overflights of major sporting events, along with skywriting. Otherwise, the downfall of Australian civilisation could result, or something.

Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's no need for legislation here. It would likely just impose a fine for infractions, anyway, which might not be an effective deterrent to a sufficiently determined advertiser. A FAR more effective solution would be a belt of anti-aircraft guns around the Gabba, along with a squadron or two of Sopwith Camels and a system of sound locators and ground observers in surrounding suburbs. It worked in the First World War; it can work again.

Of course, the enemy advertisers may adapt, seeking to overwhelm the defences with masses of airships, or to escort the raiders, perhaps with trapeze fighters. Maybe the blimp will always get through, in which case a deterring counter-advertising strategy might well be called for -- holding a force of airships in readiness to instantly fly over sporting events sponsored by the opposition, should they dare to use their airships in a hostile manner. Perhaps the ultimate solution is the international control of all airships, which would then only be used over stadiums as directed by the League of Nations -- I mean, United Nations.

At any rate, I'm available, for only a moderately immoderate fee, to consult with any sporting venues wishing to develop a state-of-the-art-c.-1918 air defence system.


  1. Note to journos: outside of a few not-notably-successful experiments, blimps AKA airships do not rely upon hot air for lift. This one has 5 million litres of helium inside it. 

2 Comments

Last month, I noted a parallel between certain pre- and post-Hiroshima nuclear warfare narratives. Here's an even more common one, this time between the knock-out blow itself and nuclear warfare.

Here's the American astronomer Carl Sagan, from the final chapter ("Who speaks for Earth?") of the 1980 companion book to his acclaimed television series, Cosmos:

By the ninth decade of the twentieth century the strategic missile and bomber forces of the Soviet Union and the United States were aiming warheads at over 15,000 designated targets. No place on the planet was safe. The energy contained in these weapons, genies of death patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps, was far more than 10,000 megatons -- but with the destruction concentrated efficiently, not over six years but over a few hours, a blockbuster for every family on the planet, a World War II every second for the length of a lazy afternoon.1

Compare with Lord Ponsonby in the House of Lords, October 1933:

The next war, if there is one, is going to be as different from the last war as the last war was from the Battle of Hastings. During the four years of the Great War 300 tons of bombs were dropped on this country. In the next war 300 tons of bombs are going to be dropped on the great cities of this country in the first half-hour.2

And with P. R. C. Groves, in Behind the Smoke Screen (1934):

"Whereas in the late war some 300 tons of bombs were dropped in this country by the Germans, air forces today could drop almost the same weight in the first twenty-four hours and continue this scale of attack indefinitely." That estimate, made by the Air Staff [in 1926], was based on the number and known 'performance' of the bombers possessed by France. Since then the striking power of the French Air Force, which is the accepted standard of measurement in Europe, has been doubled. Hence, and given the same supposition as regards the distance of the objective, it has now a bombing or striking capacity of 600 tons daily.3

And finally, with Sir Malcolm Campbell, in The Peril from the Air (1937):

But nobody need think that war from the air next time will bear any relation to the happenings of 1914-18. What must be realized is that the development of the air arm has made it possible for an enemy to drop a 1,000 [sic] tons of bombs on London in a single day and night. That is, four times the weight that fell on the whole country during four years of war.4

There are many more examples that I could supply, but that will do. It's the same rhetorical device, isn't it: take the awful destruction of the last war, multiply it, and compress it to fit a timescale of hours instead of years. (And as time goes by, and technology progresses and forces expand, multiply it some more.) It's an effective one, too, whichever war you are talking about: if you don't find the thought of a world war in a day a sobering one, then you are probably Curtis LeMay or Arthur Harris. So here we see an instance where the rhetoric of the Cold War was developed first for the knock-out blow, long before the Manhattan Project.


  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York and Avenel: Wings Books, 1995 [1980]), 321-2. 

  2. Lord Ponsonby, Manchester Guardian, 28 October 1933; quoted in Patrick Kyba, Covenants without the Sword: Public Opinion and British Defence Policy, 1931-1935 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), 88. 

  3. P. R. C. Groves, Behind the Smoke Screen (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 147-8. Emphasis in original. 

  4. Malcolm Campbell, The Peril of the Air (London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d. [1937]), 49. Emphasis in original. 

1 Comment

Strange name, good blog. Gavin Robinson is moving on from a PhD on horse supply in the English Civil War:

This is mostly a history blog, but I’m aiming to be eclectic. I’m likely to be posting works in progress; reflections on things I’ve been reading; extracts from and criticism of my PhD thesis; and random thoughts on history, historiography, culture, literature, information technology, and, of course, other people’s blogs. This is all part of my strategy to broaden my horizons.

He's also weighed in on the discussion about when the Second World War started, with a post questioning the need for a single metanarrative of the war. His conclusion that 'Since we can’t dispense with the Second World War but can’t define it very easily, we might just have to accept that it’s fuzzy around the edges' seems reasonable to me. I like Gavin's interest in theory, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I am resolutely empirical myself.

2 Comments

Vera Brittain. One Voice: Pacifist Writings from the Second World War. London and New York: Continuum, 2005. Consists two of her wartime works, Humiliation with Honour (1942) and Seed of Chaos (1944), a condemnation of RAF area bombing. Scholarly introduction by Aleksandra Bennett, foreword by Shirley Williams.

Peter Cooksley. The Home Front: Civilian Life in World War One. Stroud: Tempus, 2006. I don't normally buy histories without references, but this one has lots of interesting and unusual photos, much of it related to the German air raids (all of Cooksley's couple of dozen previous books are aviation history). Searchlight trams -- who knew?

16 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

In a comment to an earlier post, Jonathan Dresner quite legitimately took exception to my use of the term 'interwar' to refer to the period 1919-1939:

From an Asian history perspective, the Japanese use of chemical weapons in China isn't really "interwar," as major combat operations began in late '37 (leading to the Nanjing Massacre, etc.) and ran continuously through '45.

While Jonathan is conveniently distracted, I thought I'd address the issue he raised -- essentially that of when did the Second World War start? Of course, this is a hoary old question, and the answer usually depends on where you're from. Australia's war started on 3 September 1939, the same date that Britain, France and New Zealand declared war on Germany. So we were in it from the start. Well, the start, bar the two days during which Poland was fighting alone. Or possibly the start, bar the two and a bit years since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, as Jonathan suggests. (I hope we can all agree that the United States was too late to the party to have much of a say in when it really started.)
...continue reading