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SM.81, c. 1936, with CR.32 escorts

Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bomber over Spain, c. 1936, with Fiat CR.32 fighter escorts. Image source: Wikipedia.

Exactly seventy years ago, in late November and early December 1936, Madrid was being bombed. The way Antony Beevor describes it, it was the first attempt at something like a knock-out blow:

The nationialists' failure to break through on 19 November made Franco change his strategy. He could not risk any more of his best troops in fruitless assaults now that a quick victory looked much more difficult. So, for the first time in history, a capital city came under intense air as well as artillery bombardment. All residential areas except the fashionable Salamanca district were bombed in an attempt to break the morale of the civilian population. The Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the Luftwaffe conducted a methodical experiment with their Savoia 81s and Junkers 52s. The bombing did not, however, break morale as intended; on the contrary, it increased the defiance of the population. In London, Prince Otto von Bismarck, the German chargé d'affaires, derided British fears of air attacks 'since you see what little harm they have done in Madrid'.1

My first instinct was to scoff. The first capital to undergo intense aerial bombardment? London was bombed in 1915; Paris in 1914. But the key word is 'intense'. In the First World War, the only period when London was bombed repeatedly was at the end of September and start of October 1917, when Gothas and Zeppelins attacked on six nights out of nine. It sounds like the raids on Madrid were much more frequent than that, and they were certainly heavier: the Condor Legion dropped 36 tons of bombs on 4 December alone, about a tenth of the total dropped on Britain during the whole First World War. Casualties don't seem to have been markedly greater, though: nearly 100 deaths in those six London raids, maybe twice that in the Madrid ones (though contemporary reports gave higher estimates).
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  1. Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), 181. 

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R. J. B. Bosworth. Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship, 1915-1945. London: Penguin, 2006. I have plenty of books on generic fascism, German fascism, British fascism ... so one on the original fascism doesn't seem excessive!

Paul Kennedy. The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government. London: Allen Lane, 2006. Only one chapter on the pre-1945 period, mostly the League of Nations of course. Actually I should track down a decent history of the League one day.

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Public Lending Library of Victoria Notice to Borrowers

This sticker is in the back of a book published in 1940, originally part of the collection of the Public Lending Library of Victoria (itself a part of the Public Library of Victoria, as the SLV was then known). I was struck particularly by no. 4. Were books considered possible vectors for infectious disease -- TB, perhaps? (If so, then obviously the best idea would be to get those books back into circulation as soon as possible.) Or maybe the Chief Librarian was worried that if everyone in the house was sick, their library books wouldn't be returned on time, even despite the THREEPENCE fine for every three days or fraction thereof that they were overdue. (I can just imagine the Librarian glaring at the hapless late returner and spitting out the words "That will be THRUP. PENCE.") I also like the way in which books are treated like people: they are not to be "detained" or "injured" (as a bibliophile, I'm always in danger of the former habit but completely agree with their firm stance on the latter). But I'm dying to know what Lending Library Rule 6 was. If there are any former patrons still around they could probably tell me -- given the familiarity they were expected to have with the Lending Library Rules it's probably burned into their minds. And can you imagine your embarrassment at waking up the day after moving house, and realising that you've neglected to notify the Librarian without delay?

From here, we can see that the reign of terror of Wm. C. Baud and C. A. McCallum, Chief Librarians, ended in 1960. We can be thankful that we live in more enlightened times: since August last year, I've accumulated $13.50 in overdue fines at the university library (about 5s in 1940s terms), and they don't seem to care in the slightest. Viva la revoluciĆ³n!

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.

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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 ...
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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.

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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.
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[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.
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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. 

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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.