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!

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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!
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  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. 

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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. 

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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.  

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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.
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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!

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[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
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This post is about a revelation I had a while back, which those of you with a firmer grasp of the English language than I will think is nothing at all new (and you're right!) The thing is that I'd always been puzzled by the word barrage. This gets used a lot by journalists: 'the minister faced a barrage of criticism for her decision', 'the home team's late barrage of goals sealed their victory', and so on. Obviously, this is related to the artillery barrages so characteristic of trench warfare on the Western Front, intense bombardments which were usually the prelude to an attack across no-man's land. There were several kinds of artillery barrage, for example hurricane barrages (shorter but even more intense) [edit: bzzzt, wrong, see below] and creeping barrages (moving just ahead of the advancing troops). There was also the anti-aircraft barrage, where the targets are up in the sky instead of on the ground. So it's easy to see how the civilian uses of barrage came from the military ones (or perhaps vice versa); the sense of the word in both would seem to be something like the raining of blow after furious blow upon an opponent.

OK, but what about barrage balloons? They didn't rain furious blows upon anything, they just sat there swaying in the breeze, on the off chance that enemy aircraft might fly down low and hit their mooring cables. And what was the deal with balloon barrages,1 which confusingly were composed of barrage balloons? And then there were anti-submarine barrages, essentially nets stretched across maritime choke-points such as the Strait of Dover or the mouth of the Adriatic. None of these things have the very active quality of the previously-mentioned barrages -- they're all in fact very passive indeed. It's hard to see what the one sort of barrage has to do with the other, but since they are all called barrages and arose during the same period of the two world wars, presumably there's some logic to it all. But what?
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  1. In the First World War these were called balloon aprons, a slightly different idea where the balloons were also connected to each other by horizontal cables, from which yet more cables were suspended. I'm not sure why balloon aprons were abandoned by the Second World War; perhaps because they were more fiddly to deploy? 

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The latest Fortean Times (June 2007) has a great article by Kim Newman on Hammer Films, the much-loved British horror film production company. While discussing the early 1970s, when Hammer's fortunes were declining, he refers in passing to 'the tragically unmade Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls'. That's all he said, but it was enough ... could it have been a cross-over between two of my favourite genres -- lost world movies and airship movies? Indeed it could. Here's a poster Hammer mocked up to pique the interest of potential investors:

Zeppelin v Pterodactyls

And I managed to find a very brief plot summary:

The story was along the lines of THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, with a German Zeppelin being blown off-course during a bombing raid on London and winding up at a "lost continent"-type place.

Oh man ... tragically unmade is right! What more you could want from a film, I ask you.

Still, it does remind me of two Amicus productions (which can easily pass for Hammer movies in a darkened cinema ...), The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and its sequel The People that Time Forgot (1977). In Land (which I'm not sure I've seen), it's a German U-boat which finds the lost world, during the First World War. In People (which I have), a steamship sets out to look for the survivors of the first film, and in the process its amphibian seaplane gets into a dogfight with a pterodactyl. So at least between the two they have some of the elements of the abortive ZvP. But nothing so gloriously cheesy as a Zeppelin (and anachronistic trapeze fighters) versus pterodactyls.