P-B slip-wing bomber

At the end of October 1940, while the British and German air forces were nightly striking at each other's cities, Captain Norman Macmillan (a decorated RFC veteran and former head of the National League of Airmen) argued in Flight that Britain's greatest need was for the development of a bomber which was possessed great speed (400 mph), long range (5000 miles) and high bombload (5 tons), for

We may dominate the seas, but that to-day is not enough. We must dominate the land as well, and we do not do so. We shall not be able to dominate the land until we possess bombers which can reach out to the uttermost corners of the earth, from the bases we possess. And we cannot win this war until we are able to straddle the whole of Europe from the air.

That means range and speed.1

One man answered the challenge: Noel Pemberton-Billing, founder of Supermarine and sometime demagogic independent MP. He rejected the contemporary dogma of the self-defending flying fortress, which had proven a failure in daylight operations and so were forced to bomb less accurately at night. The only defence, he believed, was speed, not guns. His design -- the P.B.49, a twin-engine monoplane with a crew of three -- more than met Macmillan's specifications, and had the added virtues of being small and inexpensive.2 In fact, it was around the same size as the later Mosquito, and about as fast; but had more than twice the bombload at its maximum combat range of 8000 miles, itself more than five times the range of the wooden wonder. At shorter ranges, more bombs could be carried -- 10 tons per bomber to Berlin, for example. How was this incredible performance to be achieved? By slip-wing, of course.
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  1. Norman Macmillan, "For the long-range bomber", Flight, 31 October 1940, 381. 

  2. Noel Pemberton-Billing, "That long-range bomber", Flight, 14 November 1940, 413-5. 

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The US Air Force Historical Studies Office has put up several dozen monographs on the history of the USAF and its predecessors, PDFs available for free download. It seems to be more narrowly focused than the similar effort by Air University Press, as only a few titles look like they might discuss the RAF in any detail: D-Day 1944: Air Power Over the Normandy Beaches and Beyond by Richard P. Hallion (1994), Preemptive Defense: Allied Air Power Versus Hitler's V-Weapons, 1943-1945 by Adam L. Gruen (1998) and, rather oddly, Coningham: A Biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham by Vincent Orange (1992). The most interesting, however, given a recent post here, is The Command of the Air by Giulio Douhet (1927, translated 1942). Via WWII mailing list.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

... is up at Investigations of a Dog, and it's huge. Gavin's intention was that it would be as inclusive as possible, using a very broad interpretation of "military history"; since only about a fifth of the blogs included were in the survey of the military historioblogosphere I did less than a month ago, I'd say he's succeeded in that brilliantly!


One of the pleasures of reading period newspapers and magazines, as I am doing now, is chancing upon reviews of old films I know and (usually) love. Here's what Graham Greene (yes, that Graham Greene) had to say about The Wizard of Oz:

The book has been popular in the States for forty years, and has been compared there to Alice in Wonderland, but to us in our old tribal continent the morality seems a little crude and the fancy material: the whole apparatus of Fairy Queen and witches and dwarfs called Munchkins, the Emerald City, the Scarecrow Man without a brain, and the Tin Man without a heart, and the Lion man without courage, rattles like dry goods.

After rubbishing the tastes of the former colonials in this fashion, Greene goes on to tell us that

the Wizard of Oz who sends the dreaming child with her three grotesque friends to capture the witch's broomstick turns out to be a Kansas conjurer operating a radio-electric contrivance.

After reading this, I was retrospectively enraged on behalf of the filmgoers of 1940! How rude. As he died in 1991, Greene never got the chance to review The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense, which is probably just as well ...

It wasn't all bad: he thought the songs 'charming' and the witch suitably repellent; in particular, he noted that

Miss Judy Garland, with her delectable long-legged stride, would have won one's heart for a whole winter season twenty years ago

And I must agree with Greene when he protests at the adults only certification given the film by the British Board of Film Censors:

Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow-white was unsuitable for those under sixteen, was laughed out of existence? As it is, in many places, parents will be forbidden by the by-laws to take their own children to The Wizard of Oz.

What can the censors have possibly objected to? Domicular homicides? Airborne primates? Saccharine overdoses? Weird.

The review is from the Spectator, 9 February 1940, p. 179.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

I haven't written much about General Giulio Douhet, the Italian prophet of airpower whose name is -- almost -- synonymous with strategic bombing. His 1921 (revised edition, 1927) book Il dominio dell'aria (usually translated as The Command of the Air) is one of the most definitive expressions of airpower extremism -- the idea that aircraft alone could win wars. In it, he articulated a theory of airpower which is essentially what I call, in the British context, the concept of the knock-out blow: fleets of unstoppable bombers roaming the skies, bombing cities and factories and infrastructure, thereby so undermining the morale of the civilian population that resistance collapses and the nation surrenders. He was widely influential among the staffs of the air forces of Europe, as James Corum has discussed.1 Whenever the origins of strategic bombing are discussed, Douhet's name is almost certain to pop up, often linked with that of Hugh Trenchard -- sometimes with the implication that Douhet was the source of belief in the bomber. For example:

The ideas [of strategic airpower], emanating from Douhet and Mitchell and strongly supported by Wever in Germany and Trenchard in Britain, strongly called for the exercise of concentrated bombing over the enemy's homeland.2

So why haven't I mentioned him more often? Because I don't believe he had much influence, if any, on the development of airpower theory in Britain. This is not a new idea -- Robin Higham argued as much in the 1960s,3 as did Malcolm Smith in the 1980s,4 and it seems to be pretty much accepted by specialists today. Both Higham and Smith point out that there was little discussion of Douhet in Britain before the mid-1930s, and The Command of the Air was not published in English until 1942.5 There are some important differences in the British and Italian theories: in particular, the latter held that absolute air supremacy was not only possible but necessary. More importantly, there are many plausible, native sources of British airpower theory dating from before 1921.
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  1. James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 89-104. 

  2. John Ray, The Night Blitz, 1940-1941 (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1998), 10. 

  3. See 'The place of Douhet' in Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981 [1966]), 257-9. 

  4. Malcolm Smith, "'A matter of faith': British strategic air doctrine before 1939', Journal of Contemporary History, 15 (1980), 423-42. 

  5. Smith says that the RAF Staff College acquired a manuscript translation as early as 1927; but he refers back to Higham for this and I can't find where Higham talks about it. He does mention a manuscript in the possession of the US Army's Air Corps Tactical School in 1933. 

The crisis is over: sanity has prevailed!

Yielding to the unified voice of those millions who desire Internet harmony, Mr. Holman has turned his sword-like challenge into a ploughshare of cooperative and solicitous thoughts!

We extend fraternal greetings to Mr. Holman for his wise and beneficent decision! We rejoice in our return to the collective labor of constructing an air-minded blogosphere!

A nervous world can sleep easier tonight.


WE ARE ALWAYS pleased to learn of a new post on Professor Palmer's most interesting blog, the Avia-Corner. It is the first place one would turn in order to learn about the often murky world of Soviet aviation. However, his latest rant -- there is unfortunately no other word for it -- caught us by surprise, for it is aimed squarely at Airminded itself. It seems that the good professor has taken exception to our previous post, which happened to refer to one of his in what was by no means an unfriendly spirit. As the reaction is out of all proportion to the supposed offence, the suspicion occurs that it is officially inspired. The possible motivations for this scarcely need explaining, but a reply must here be given.
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It's always interesting to see echoes of the golden age of aviation in today's pop culture. At the Avia-Corner, Scott Palmer ends an update on the search for Amelia Earhart with a related music video: Amelia Earhart versus the Dancing Bear, by The Handsome Family. Well, I'll see his 'aviatrix lost at sea, never to be found' and raise him the 'mother proud of [a] little boy'.

This aviatrix is Amy Johnson; I've written about her in relation to this song -- The Golden Age of Aviation by the Lucksmiths -- before. But I like it so much, it deserves a second airing.
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RAF Pageant, Hendon, 1920

The Australian International Airshow 2007 took place last week, at Avalon near Melbourne. All I saw of it was a C-17, a F-111 escorted by two Hawks, four F/A-18s in a diamond formation, and a few helicopters (Tigers?) -- presumably all RAAF/ADF aircraft -- which buzzed the City and inner suburbs earlier in the week. I did go to the 2003 air show -- info and pics here and here -- and got to see a variety of interesting aircraft -- a B-1B, a Meteor, a Canberra, a Global Hawk, even a flying Blériot replica. And fell in love with Connie, like everyone else who saw her.

One of the highlights was the First World War display, involving a Fokker Triplane, a Sopwith Camel, an SE.5a and a Nieuport 11 (and several chronologically-challenged Tiger Moths and maybe some others). Naturally they put on a mock combat, something these old warbirds do best -- yeah, seeing and hearing F-15s scream low over the runway is a thrill, but 2 seconds later and the plane is gone, or else up high in the sky and you have to reach for your binoculars. Biplanes fly low and slow -- so everyone can follow the action -- but are also very maneuverable -- so are fun to watch. Plus there's that whole "knights of the air" thing going on. Anyway, the climax of the display was an attack on a balloon -- I think it was supposed to be an observation balloon, but my memory is fuzzy and I'm not sure if it was in the air or still on the ground. Of course the attack is successful and the hydrogen goes whoosh! and there's a nice big explosion.
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