Actually, as interwar visions of armageddon go, this is pretty mild. But it reminded me of the scene in Terminator 2: Judgement Day where Sarah Connor has a nightmare about the coming nuclear war, with a nuclear warhead exploding over a playground filled with children:

He was lying on a hill-side. Below him there was a flower-strewn valley. Children were playing there. He could hear their voices, thin and shrill, on the wind. Then he noticed that the children were not alone. Near them, concealed by a fold in the ground, were men, men in uniform. They seemed to be talking earnestly together over something too small for him to see. The next moment they scattered and ran. They seemed to be swarming all over the hillside. Then they stopped and turned to watch the field of flowers and the children playing. Everything was quiet except for the sound of the children's voices on the breeze. Suddenly there was a quick rumble from beneath his feet. Before his eyes the field rocked. With a tearing, splitting roar a huge crack appeared in it, widening to emit a fountain of blackened earth which rose and hung in the air like a curtain. Then the curtain fell, slowly, as if it were wind borne, to unveil the scene behind it. With a cry of horror the Professor awoke.1

This is from Eric Ambler's first novel, The Dark Frontier, a spy thriller published in 1936. The resemblance to Sarah's nightmare is closer than it might seem from the above quote, for despite the pre-Hiroshima date, the explosion in the valley is caused by an atomic bomb. As Ambler himself wrote, 'I must be among the earliest members of the Ban-The-Bomb Movement. I may even have been the first'.2 In fact, in his depiction of atomic warfare, he was preceded by at least two other well-known British writers: H. G. Wells in The World Set Free (1914) and Harold Nicolson in Public Faces (1932), and it's hard to believe he didn't know either of these books. But Ambler was certainly correct to claim membership in a select club.

Of course, since nobody then knew how an atomic bomb might work, it's not surprising that his proposed mechanism now seems a little odd:

"Horrible, certainly," agreed Groom, "but incredible, no. You are no doubt aware that ordinary high explosive depends for its action on a sudden and enormous expansion in volume. Trinitrotoluol, for instance, when detonated with fulminate of mercury expands by something like 500,000 volumes in a fraction of a second. The Kassen bomb, so far as I can gather, is an extension of the principle. Under the influence of the bomb, ordinary silicon rock or earth in its vicinity undergoes an atomic change on detonation, producing huge volumes of some inactive gas such as nitrogen, argon or helium. In other words you are using the earth as your high explosive. The Kassen bomb is merely a special kind of detonator."3

It's an interesting idea. Unfortunately for my purposes, Ambler doesn't connect his atomic bomb with air warfare at all. In fact, he's not particularly interested in the ramifications of such a weapon for warfare or diplomacy.4 Instead, it's just a MacGuffin, seeking the destruction of which leads the famous physicist Professor Barstow to lose his memory, think he's the fictional secret agent Conway Carruthers instead,5 travel to the fictional Balkan country of Ixania under what he believes is an alias but is actually his real name, help start a revolution, get into and out of a lot of scrapes, fall in love with a sinister countess, and yes, this is a parody of bad spy thrillers. Though perhaps not only that -- for example there's a very noticeable "merchants of death" theme running through it, which I don't think was there for laughs, and anyway the book could probably be read with profit as a "straight" thriller. Worth a read.

  1. Eric Ambler, The Dark Frontier (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973 [1936]), 35-6. 

  2. Ibid., 6. 

  3. Ibid., 28-9. 

  4. It's never used in the novel, outside of the Professor's nightmare. The only military use suggested is to bury it, then lure the enemy army onto it by retreating, and explode it remotely, which doesn't seem like a stratagem that would work more than once! 

  5. A relation of the narrator of The Riddle of the Sands, perhaps? 


Since I shamefully forgot to blog Battle of Britain Day last year, I made sure not to repeat this mistake this year. I'm marking the occasion by re-watching the classic 1969 film Battle of Britain, directed by Guy Hamilton. I must confess that I love this film. It's not just because of the fantastic aerial action sequences, featuring several dozen real Spitfires, Hurricanes, Me 109s and He 111s.1 Well, it's mainly because of that (and the music, oh yes, the music -- Ron Goodwin's stirring and bombastic theme as well as the William Walton piece in the dreamlike "duel in the sky" sequence [edit: actually called "Battle in the air"]) but it's also because it manages to encapsulate just about every theme, anecdote, stereotype and myth about the Battle going. 'Call me Meyer'? Check. The Big Wing debate? Check. 'Yellow-nosed bastards'? Check. WAAFs and their plotting tables? Check. Home Guards armed with pitch-forks? Check. Galland asking Goering for a squadron of Spitfires? Check. Over-enthusiastic and unintelligible Poles engaging the enemy against orders? Check. Civilians huddled in Tube stations? Check. 'Achtung! Spitfire!' Check. Fresh-faced young pilots rushed into action and to their deaths after only a few hours' training? Check. I could go on and on, and in fact I will! The invasion barges assembling in France? Check. The close escort order? Check. The importance of radar? Check. The turn on London? Check. RAF fighter pilots unbuttoning their top button? Check. OK, I'll stop now! But my point is that Battle of Britain is your one-stop shop for reaffirming the myth of 1940, and is, to me, all the more enjoyable for it. And as such, the film is probably partly responsible for the heated reaction last month to the claim that it was the Royal Navy which 'saved' Britain in 1940, not the RAF (Blog Them Out of the Stone Age had a good post on the matter).

I don't see why it has to be an either/or situation. The RAF was the first line of defence, the Navy was the second (and the Army, the third). Massively inferior as they were at sea, the Germans had absolutely no chance whatsoever, unless they had air superiority. Even then, of course, it would have been decidedly dicey and perhaps impossible. However, it never came to that, because the RAF did their job (and not just Fighter Command, but Bomber Command and Coastal Command too, in attacking the invasion ports and airfields, at great cost). But the Navy's strength was essential to Britain's victory. It was why Germany was forced to fight Britain in the air in the first place -- without the Navy, maybe Germany could have chanced an invasion against the battered Army.

Rather than the inter-service rivalry question, I think that the persistence of the myth of 'The Few' is more interesting, and more telling. In Battle of Britain, Dowding (Laurence Olivier) says something to the effect that his men needed a 4:1 kill ratio just to keep even, ie to shoot down four German aircraft for every British one lost. (Actually, he elides aircraft and aircrew, but it's clear the former was meant.) But as Stephen Bungay argues in The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (London: Aurum Press, 2000), once production, reserves, and training are taken into account, it was the other way around. The Luftwaffe had sustained heavy losses in the spring of 1940, which was very bad seeing as it had been built to maximise front-line strength, to the neglect of reserves. And despite having an apparently huge superiority in numbers, the key comparison was in numbers of fighters, and single-seat fighters at that, where the Luftwaffe only had a slight edge. Every German aircraft shot down over Britain meant a permanent loss of aircrew (with the exception of one who got away), whereas British pilots who were shot down were often soon back at their squadrons. In addition, despite all the predictions in the pre-war literature about the Germans carefully drawing their plans about when and where to strike Britain for maximum damage, the Luftwaffe's target plan was abysmal. Intelligence was either poor or ignored, key targets were neglected in favour of unimportant ones, and the nature of Dowding's command and control organisation was not understood, despite its descent (with modifications) from the system which they'd come up against in the First World War. The question is less, could Germany have won the Battle of Britain? and more, could Britain have lost it? And furthermore, why has this been forgotten? Why not take pride in Fighter Command's thorough and professional preparation for the defence of Britain, rather treating it as an heroic fight against the odds? My pat answer is that it's probably because the former smacks of German militarism, while the latter suits the English amateur sporting ideal. But I'm sure there are other possible explanations.

PS I forgot to include some links about the film. There are disappointingly few. The usual: Wikipedia and IMDB. A couple of pages about the filming, here and here (that one shows that model Me 110s were constructed for the film, but they don't appear in the film, as far as I know). Finally, one has to wonder if Susannah York's character had time-traveled to 1940 from 1969, judging by her hairstyle ...

PPS I also forgot to mention this claim that it wasn't the RAF who won the Battle of Britain, or even the RN, but the Dutch! You may ask how that is possible, since they were only in the war for 5 days. The answer to this is that the Dutch destroyed many aircraft which were supposedly due to be used for an airborne landing in Britain later that month. Yes, apparently Germany was so confident of knocking off France that they were planning to simultaneously launch the biggest overseas invasion in history. As can be seen, I wasn't persuaded, but perhaps I am too unimaginative.

  1. Supposedly, together they composed the 35th largest air force at the time. If so, then since it was flying unarmed piston engined aircraft, it was an air force that even New Zealand could have beaten. 

James S. Corum. The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997. This will be a helpful reality check, as I spend so much time reading (usually greatly exaggerated) accounts of the capabilities and intentions of the German air force.

Peter Fleming. Invasion 1940: An Account of the German Preparations and the British Counter-measures. London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1957. An early history of Operation Sealion (by Ian Fleming's older brother; he had the job of organising resistance in Kent and Sussex should the Germans invade). Looks like it has some interesting bits about popular (or at least press) reactions to the threat of invasion as well as the air war.


Some recent airship sightings:

Holden airship

An airship is currently gracing Melbourne skies, thanks to Holden. I've seen it but not with a camera handy, so this picture by Dr Snafu will have to serve. It's nice to see it floating around, but at only 54 metres in length, I'm forced to say: that's not an airship. THIS is an airship! Still, I'd love to fly in it ...

Great War Fiction has the trailer for the upcoming First World War aviation movie, Flyboys. Looks like great fun, with Nieuports and Fokkers slugging it out over the Western Front. And towards the end of the trailer, there's even a Zeppelin! While the producers seem to have done at least some research, it would be wise not too expect too much in the way of historical accuracy. I see they've gone for the usual massive Hollywood explosion with the Zep -- maybe they should have watched the Hindenburg disaster footage a few more times.

The Avia-Corner reports on an upcoming expedition to examine the wreckage, via submersible, of the USS Macon -- last of the US Navy's flying aircraft carriers. It crashed off the Californian coast in 1935. For understandable reasons none of the great airships of the early twentieth century have survived (aside from their unfortunate propensity for catastrophic failure, they take up rather a lot of room), so seabed wrecks are about all we have left, aside from a few fragments here and there.

Finally, Boing Boing notes that today is the 90th anniversary of the tank's combat debut. Or should I say "travelling caterpillar fort" instead? No, I probably shouldn't -- like many somewhat insecure nations, Australia sometimes likes to take credit for inventions it oughtn't to. Yes, Lance de Mole did come up with the basic idea, but so did a few others, even earlier. And he didn't build it -- others did. Which is the (rather tenuous) link with airships here: one of the men who did help make the tank a practical device was Commodore (later Rear-Admiral) Murray Sueter, who was the Royal Navy's first Inspecting Captain of Airships in 1909. He also helped develop torpedo bombers and anti-aircraft defence. His claim to be a co-inventor of the tank rests on his work on armoured cars for the defence of airfields in Flanders, and in persuading Churchill that caterpillar tracks were the way to go, rather than rollers or a giant wheel! After the war, Sueter was a long-serving and outspoken Conservative MP; his Airmen or Noahs: Fair Play for our Airmen; The Great "Neon" Air Myth Exposed (London: Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1928) is a rollicking good read on these and other matters.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Five years ago yesterday, like so many others I watched in horror and confusion as the September 11 attacks unfolded on the other side of the planet and on my TV screen. It seemed so novel and so strange, to think of humble airliners being used as weapons. (I still catch myself looking up at the sky when I hear one flying low, and wondering for a second -- 'Is it going to ... ?') But it wasn't really all that novel. Airliners and terror go way back.

However, it wasn't that people were worried that airliners in flight would be seized by terrorists and flown into important buildings. Instead, the fear was that a nation's airliners could be quickly and easily turned into bombers and used en masse to deliver a knock-out blow against an unsuspecting victim. In the 1920s and early 1930s, this idea was very widespread in Britain, at least among those people who were thinking about how to win, or better yet, prevent the next war.

...continue reading


Note: the photograph turned out to be real after all. See here.

In a comment to an earlier post, Alan pointed out that it has been claimed that the photo I used was a propaganda fake. As I have previously discussed the subject of fake combat photos, I was appropriately mortified at the thought of having been taken in myself! So let's have a closer look at it ...

...continue reading


As was widely announced in the picture-houses of the United Kingdom at the close of 1936:

This is from a book by the German exile and novelist Heinz Liepmann, Death from the Skies: A Study of Gas and Microbial Warfare (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1937), 273. There's no more information than that. What could he be referring to? A film? Newsreel? Advertisement? Public service announcement? Maybe it's from the 1936 political film Hell Unltd. The BFI describes it as follows:

Hell Unltd. links government's preoccupation with armaments to a likelihood of war, and relates this to the First World War. Stock footage of the horrors of this war is shown, while titles such as "die" and "to make a world safe for democracy" are displayed. This combination of titles and image is intended to show the negative effects of war and to condemn a government committing itself to further warfare.

On the other hand, it's also described as a 'heavily experimental' film, which seems an unlikely candidate to 'widely announce' anything. So what else might it be from?


Airfix Spitfire Mk 21

Airfix Spitfire Mk 21, a work in progress. Image source: Airfix gallery, user HawkerTempest5.

It looks like Airfix, Britain's oldest and most famous manufacter of plastic model aeroplanes (among other things), might be going under.

It will probably not surprise readers of this site to learn that I had a collection of model aeroplanes as a boy. It was small but diverse: a Mustang, a Kaydet, a Lancaster, a F-16 (and some ships too, the USS Pennsylvania and the Santa Maria) ... maybe some others I can't remember now. (They did not long survive the arrival of a baby brother.) However, I lacked the patience and the dexterity to be very good at making them. Probably the low point was the Lancaster. I didn't have the right colour paints, so it ended up being painted in the highly distinctive but ... erm ... somewhat unhistorical camouflage scheme of the Desert Air Force. Not only that, but I laid it on so thickly that if it were scaled up to full-size, I doubt it would ever have gotten off the ground under the weight of all that paint!

Airfix started making scale models in the 1950s (its first aeroplane was a 1/72 scale Spitfire in 1955). The first plastic scale models were the Frog Penguins, starting with a Gloster Gladiator in 1936. But it seems that the basic idea goes back a few years earlier, when the components were made from solid wood (so-called "solid scale" models), with some metal and acetate. In fact, an article at CollectAir suggests that the honour for originating the concept should go to the Air League of the British Empire:

A Junior Air League section was formed by A.J. Holladay, called the "Skybird League" in 1933 and the decision was made to market commercial solid-scale model kits of current model airplanes in 1:72 scale. Many "Skybird" members who crafted models from these kits and drawings later became RAF pilots such as Neville Duke. This was a civilian commercial endeavour, nevertheless it was the progenitor of the government recognition model program for the British and for the U.S., both of which would come belatedly.

I haven't been able to verify this yet, but it makes sense. The Air League had always been interested in promoting an airminded youth: as early as April 1909, only two months after it was founded, the Aerial League of the British Empire (as it was then known) staged a balloon flight and leaflet-dropping competition with the Boy Scouts, at Battersea Gasworks. Under J. A. Chamier in the 1930s, the Air League lobbied the government to set up an air cadet scheme, which bore fruit in the shape of the Air Defence Cadet Corps, formed in 1938 (today's Air Cadets Organisation is a direct descendent).

So swearing over the placement of fiddly decals and the smudging of acetate canopies with glue goes back a long way. If Airfix disappears, there will be other companies to carry on the tradition (the industry is particularly strong in Japan), but it will still be a sad day.

Lorna Arnold. Britain and the H-bomb. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001. Well, at least they weren't blowing up bits of Australia this time! Got this cheap -- last time I saw it, it was about 6 times the price. Glad I held off.

Lisa Blackman and Valerie Walkerdine. Mass Hysteria: Critical Psychology and Media Studies. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001. Another cheapie, might be useful for my phantom airship stuff, if I ever get back to that.

J. M. Spaight. An International Air Force. London: Gale & Polden, n.d. [1932]. Spaight's take on the international air police concept, essentially that if it happens it will be in some distant future after the way has been paved for it by the development of national air forces.


Last night I watched Threads, an extremely affecting BBC film from 1984 about the effects of a full-scale nuclear war on one British city, Sheffield.1 One might say it's a very British 'kitchen sink' approach to the subject, following the lives of two ordinary families during the international crisis (involving Iran -- so what else is new) leading up to the nuclear exchange, then switching to a relentless depiction of the death, confusion, suffering and struggle for existence in the days, weeks and years afterwards. 'Harrowing' is the word usually trotted out for movies like Threads; if you want to feel like you've been punched repeatedly in the stomach for two hours then you won't want to miss it. At the end of it, I let out a huge sigh of relief -- it was over, it wasn't real, I could thankfully escape back to reality again.

The reason why Airminded has a sometime interest in the Cold War is partly because -- at the risk of crossing a bridge before I come to it! -- it's an area I may go into after the PhD, but also because the fear of nuclear war is an obvious comparison to the fear of the knock-out blow. The one grew out of and replaced the other. In fact, it seems to me that they are extremely similar indeed: most of the ideas and tropes in literature anticipating nuclear war were used by the writers worrying about the effects of aerial bombardment upon British society before the Second World War. For example, the opening narration2 of Threads explains the meaning of the title (over shots of a spider weaving a web intercut with ones showing trucks transporting goods around the city):

In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.

As the film goes on to show, a nuclear war would completely sever these connecting threads, and with them, all hope and dignity. (One of the main characters sobs in grief when he finds that he can't get any water out of the taps to comfort his wife, dying from radiation exposure.) Of those Britons who survive the attack, many millions more die for lack of food, water and medical attention. L. E. O. Charlton would have understood the point immediately. In 1938 he wrote that

Our millions are bottle-fed, and all their needs are cared for, by a system of distribution and supply so intricate, and so haphazardly evolved, that once seriously dislocated beyond the power of immediate repair they would be as helpless as new-born babes to fend for themselves.3

But there are also differences. One obvious one is radiation, and its lingering effects. After a knock-out blow, the survivors could rebuild and repopulate Britain without having to worry about no-go areas or genetic damage. Another, related and more striking difference is that the natural world would be largely unaffected by a knock-out blow, whereas a nuclear war would blight the land and the sky for generations to come. In Threads, the global thermonuclear war leads to a nuclear winter (Carl Sagan and Richard Turco are both credited as advisors), with near-freezing temperatures and stunted harvests. Britain's population drops to medieval levels. These scenes, mostly of silent people in the bare fields hunched over and grubbing for what little crops still grow, are very bleak and extremely effective. Visually, they are so dark as to be almost black, while the wind howls constantly. Nature itself has been wounded. Contrast this with a passage in Sarah Campion's 1937 novel Thirty Million Gas Masks. The protagonist is caught in a cellar in an air raid, and recalls a bicycle ride the previous May, in glorious spring:

This at least, thought Judith in December confusedly in the hot horror of her gas-mask, was unconquerable. The bombs might fall; did, in fact, fall at this moment, upon the brick and macadam of the railway bridge outside, upon the chestnut trees and the grassy bank and the dark winter-resisting laurels: the bridge might never be built again, for there might be no men to build it: but the grass would sprout of itself over the brick, and the laurel would put out a startling green bud, pale as water, and the chestnut, though split from top to bottom, would spring up in new life from the seedling now cosily safe at its foot, and bear in April a galaxy of green fingers, and in May a candle-blossom as insouciant as the free air itself. This alone, she thought as a brutal crash turned her world tipsy for a moment, this perennial birth in the face of disaster would go on invincibly to some sort of conclusion, some final flowering, however hazardous.4

Unsurprisingly, visions of the knock-out blow could sometimes turn into anti-urban, back-to-nature utopias by the back door. With the cities destroyed or emptied, the population drastically reduced, industry and commerce at an end, people could return to a simpler and therefore (of course!) better way of life, closer to the land and free of the corruptions of modernity. A Threads-style nuclear war would take this a step too far, corrupting the land as well and offering only an unrelenting and probably pointless struggle for mere existence instead. Even this, though, could be paradise to some, as shown by the survivalist fiction of the later Cold War.

There are some very good websites devoted to Threads: I particularly recommend Don't Panic, Mr Mainwaring: Threads, while the site at Action After Warnings is extremely comprehensive. But above all, watch the film.

  1. Interestingly, it was co-produced by the Nine Network in Australia; however I don't remember it being shown here, whereas I do remember The Day After, or perhaps it was just the controversy surrounding it. 

  2. Actually, the narration was one of the weakest parts of the film: although used sparingly, the documentary-style voiceovers kept pulling me out of the story, a reminder that it wasn't real. For some reason, the more frequent textual overlays were far less jarring, and also more informative. 

  3. L. E. O. Charlton, G. T. Garratt and R. Fletcher, The Air Defence of Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1938), 102. 

  4. Sarah Campion, Thirty Million Gas Masks (London: Peter Davies, 1937), 173.