R. A. Saville-Sneath. Aircraft Recognition. London: Penguin, 2006 [1941]. Sometimes I think publishers bring out books just for me! This is a cute little facsimile reprint of a wartime Penguin Special guide for aircraft spotters, complete with silhouettes, glossary, identifying features, and so on; everything from Albacores to Wirraways. I've been inspired to set up my own observer corps post on the roof; first I'll need to work out which direction France is, though.


The earliest cite for the word 'airport' in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1919:

1919 Aerial Age Weekly 14 Apr. 235/1 There is being established at Atlantic City the first 'air port' ever established, the purposes of which are..to provide a municipal aviation field,..to supply an air port for trans-Atlantic liners, whether of the seaplane, land aeroplane or dirigible balloon type.

As is often the case with the OED's cites, earlier ones can be found (though not many, it is true). The following is from March 1914, from a proposal by the Aerial League of the British Empire to decentralise flying by setting up airfields around Britain:

The time will come when, with the development of aviation, every town of any importance will need an air-port as it now needs a railway station.1

Now, it seems pretty obvious that 'airport' was coined by analogy with the much older word 'seaport', just like 'air power' and 'sea power'. I don't doubt that this is mostly true, but there is another possibility too. The word 'air-port' (with hyphen) did in fact exist before the coming of flight: it referred to a hole for ventilation, especially on a ship or in an engine -- what today might be called an air intake or outlet. I'll come back to this in a moment.
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  1. The Times, 16 March 1914, p. 5. Emphasis added. 

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Last month, I mentioned Gavin Robinson's proposal for a military history carnival. He's now dropped a note in comments with details of the first Military History Carnival:

Everything is ready to go now. The first Military History Carnival will be held at Investigations of a Dog on Thursday 12th April. It will then take place around the middle of every month - exact date to be decided by the host. Submit posts for the first one by e-mailing the permalink to mhc1@4-lom.com or using the submission form at Blog Carnival. Posts should be more recent than 1st March 2007 to be considered. They can be on any aspect of military history in any part of the world in any period from ancient history up to the end of the 20th century.

Anyone who would like to host a future carnival, please e-mail me to let me know which month you’d prefer to do. I already have a host for May, but anything after that is open.

Cry havoc, etc.


Now that I've finally undone the damage WordPress 2.1 did to my sidebar (My Link Order was the answer), it's time to add a few blogs to it. Some I've only found recently, others I should have added ages ago.

Like everyone else, I've quickly become enamoured of Paleo-Future, partly because I've long been interested in how the future used to look (one aspect of which I'm exploring in my research), and partly for pure nostalgia. I myself have given up hope of seeing the skies filled with flying cars, but Futurama-style city-wide transportation tubes would save on shoe leather.

My continuing quest for quality modern British history blogs (other than those concerning war) has yielded The Victorian Peeper, the blog of Kristan Tetens, a cultural historian at Michigan State. Another (ok, not so modern) is Antiquarian's Attic. The mysterious Antiquarian researches Anglo-Saxon decorative metalwork, but posts on many subjects and periods.

Now to war (broadly defined). I've previously recommended Christopher Knowles' How it really was, where he is research-blogging his MA on the British occupation of Germany after the Second World War -- so I should have added it then! Victoria's cross? is a very interesting project, examining the proposition that the Victoria Cross is awarded for political reasons as much as for military ones. It's written by Gary Smailes, a freelance historian and researcher. And Thoughts on Military History is the, erm, thoughts on military history of Ross Mahoney, a further education lecturer in Cornwall as well (later this year) an MPhil student researching the role of the RAF during the Dieppe raid -- so as one of the airminded, he's already off to a good start as far as I'm concerned!

Finally, something a bit different: Larvatus Prodeo, an Australian group blog which admittedly is mostly political, but sometimes has posts on history. It also has the occasional post on Australian defence procurement which can be fun to try and derail with the help of fellow devil-may-care flying fools!

Update: oops, I forgot to add the new project of my R&D associate, Alun Salt: Clioaudio, a history podcast. Probably not something I should attempt, as a native Strine speaker. In fact, aorta mica Laura genst it.


The B-17 is one of the most famous aircraft used in the Second World War. It was known as the Flying Fortress. Or perhaps I should say the Flying FortressTM, for it was actually registered as a trademark by Boeing (well, Wikipedia says so, anyway). The phrase was supposedly coined by a journalist in an article which appeared in the 16 July 1935 issue of the Seattle Times, after he witnessed the rollout of the prototype Model 299. It's an apt enough name, given the number of defensive machine-guns (13 or more on the mid-war B-17G).

But I've noticed that the phrase "flying fortress" actually predates the debut of the Model 299 by several years, at least in British aviation literature. I can't say whether or not the American journalist was aware of it, but to me it looks like "flying fortress" was used widely enough to be considered a generic term for a certain type of aircraft: the self-defending bomber.
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Two big-picture histories this week ...

David Edgerton. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. An anti-heroic history of technology, which bids fair to puncture assumptions that higher tech necessarily is better tech, or that the rate of technological change is ever-increasing (take that, singularitarians!) Or so I gather from a quick skim.

Azar Gat. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. I'm ashamed to say I still haven't read his Fascist and Liberal Visions of War. This new one looks at the evolutionary roots of war, and the way in which technology and culture have (overall) limited the incidence of war more recently, and tackles many other big questions along the way. Or so I gather from a quick skim.


Vickers-Bygrave bombing teacher

The above drawing (click to enlarge), which appeared in the 3 May 1934 issue of Flight, depicts an ingenious bombing simulator manufactured by Vickers-Armstrongs -- the Vickers-Bygrave Bombing Teacher. The basic idea is that an image of the area around a bomb target (which is printed on a glass plate) is projected onto the floor, scrolling along to represent the flight of the simulated aeroplane at 8000 or 9000 ft. The bomb aimer peers down at the image through a bomb sight, and sends course corrections to the pilot, who alters the flight path in response. An electro-mechanical linkage then moves the glass plate accordingly.

When the pupil has calculated the direction and force of the wind and has sighted on the target, he throws a switch which represents the bomb release. A device times an interval, equal to the time taken by the bomb to reach the ground, and at the end of this period the movement of the "ground" is stopped. Painted on the floor is a fixed "trail point," which marks the point on which a correctly aimed bomb should drop. Any error may be seen by the difference in the position of the "target" and this fixed trail point.1

Something very similiar seems to have been used by RAF Operational Training Units during the Second World War, though they were then called Air Ministry Bombing Teachers. (Presumably the Air Ministry's in-house version, perhaps improved over the Vickers-Bygrave.) Many former wartime airfields still have their distinctive two-story bombing teacher buildings, for example this one at Waltham. But I don't know how widely such devices were used before the war -- though 601 (Bomber) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, at least, had one in early 1934, according to the article. Given the poor performance of Bomber Command in the early years of the war, one would think that the RAF could certainly have used a few more bombing teachers!

I was thinking that a few bells and whistles could have increased the realism of the Vickers-Bygrave dramatically. For example, dry ice could be used to simulate clouds over the target. You could use a negative, with most of the features painted over, to imitate night bombing. Hydraulics (or manpower!) could be used to buffet the airframe, as in turbulence or anti-aircraft fire (a few firecrackers could help with that too). Not surprisingly, I wasn't the first to have this idea. This interesting site on the history of flight simulation has a page on the Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT), developed at the RAF's request by the makers of the Link Trainer. Though no mention is made of the Vickers-Bygrave, it's clearly a very similar concept, with the addition of what is effectively a planetarium above, so that the navigator could practice celestial navigation. According to the RAAF (which had one at East Sale), 'The CNT instructor could introduce bumpy flying conditions, changes of wind, create daylight or nightfall, scurry clouds across the sky, or arrange static to worry the wireless operator'. But development of the CNT was initiated as late as 1939, and the first one didn't come into operation until 1941 or later. (The RAAF's remained in operation until the late 1950s, so it must have been very useful.)

Perhaps it's because, as a Gen Xer, I grew up with simulations in a way that previous generations did not, but it seems incredible to me that it took five years or more to take the basic concept of the Vickers-Bygrave and add substantial degrees of realism to it. (Well, I can't completely exclude the possible that this happened sooner, but I have no evidence for that as yet.) Then again, one of the dangers of simulation is that it can reinforce preconceptions, rather than challenge them: to a large degree simulations simulate what is thought will happen, rather than what will actually happen. In other words, garbage in, garbage out. So, maybe the failure to develop a Celestial Navigation Trainer before 1939 is of a piece with the failure to practice bombing runs under warlike conditions in the same period, and the failure to set up a Bombing Development Unit before the start of the war. If bombing is thought to be easy, then there's no need to train too hard for it. Wartime experience was, of course, the ultimate bombing teacher.

See also: this American bombing teacher from 1940, with that wondrous war-winning Norden bombsight fortunately shrouded from public view.

  1. 'Bombing instruction', Flight, 3 May 1934, 434. The drawing is on the facing page, 435. 


It's never too early to start thinking about the shape of the next war, even if the current one is still being fought. At the end of May 1945 -- only three weeks after V-E day and over two months before V-J day -- some discussion on the subject was held in the House of Lords by interested peers. On 29 May, Lord Vansittart proposed an international commission of scientists to monitor Germany to make sure it did not develop or use 'any scientific discovery or invention considered dangerous to the safety of mankind'.1

He said we were dealing with a periodically homicidal nation, and unless we kept a firm hand on them we should have V10 in less than 10 years. There had been an insufficient answer to V 1, and no answer at all to V 2 except the old-fashioned one of conquering the sites. Science had not given the answer. The second world war had been within measuring distance of the atom bomb. Where would the third begin? We had had the very devil of a lesson, and it would be our own fault if we had another.2

He also called for something like 'a world inspectorate in order to guard against the development or over-development of secret devices',3 which could lead to 'a secret armaments race of a far more terrifying character' than any that had gone before.

Vansittart was clearly disturbed by the effects of the German V1 and V2 missiles on London. At this time, London was (along with Antwerp) the only great city in the world with experience of missile warfare -- the last one had fallen in March 1945. V2s in particular were very unsettling, as no defences and no warnings were then possible for objects travelling on a ballistic trajectory four times faster than the speed of sound.
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  1. The Times, 30 May 1945, p. 8. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 


Part of a BBC broadcast by George Bernard Shaw, entitled 'Whither Britain?', 6 February 1934:

Are we to be exterminated by fleets of bombing aeroplanes which will smash our water mains, cut our electric cables, turn our gas supplies into flame-throwers, and bathe us and our babies in liquid-mustard gas from which no masks can save us? Well, if we are it will serve us right, for it will be our own doing. But let us keep our heads. It may not work out in that way. What will London do when it finds itself approached by a crowd of aeroplanes capable of destroying it in half-an-hour? London will surrender. White flags and wireless messages 'Don't drop your bombs; we give in' will fill the air. But our own squadrons will have already started to make the enemies' capitals surrender. From Paris to Moscow, from Stockholm to Rome, the white flags will go up in every city.1

Shaw accepts a key tenet of the knock-out blow here: that it is awesomely destructive. So much so that the immediate impulse would be to surrender. But he also accepts another tenet: that it is extremely fast. He uses this to paint an absurd picture of the capitals of Europe therefore surrendering simultaneously. In effect, the knock-out blow is so powerful that it is pointless to attempt it. Flight (the more moderate of the two British aviation weeklies) quoted Shaw because he illustrated its editorial position, that the bombing of civilians as such would not happen, just as dum-dum bullets were not used in the late war, and prisoners were not tortured to death: 'absolutely unrestrained warfare is unthinkable. A line must be drawn somewhere'.2 It was therefore sensible to ban bombing of civilians (as opposed to legitimate military targets), but not to ban bombers altogether, as some were trying to get the Disarmament Conference at Geneva to do. Even worse would be to ban fighters, because they were a sure defence against airliners converted into bombers.

I didn't know that GBS had spoken on the wireless about the threat of bombing. It was only in looking through another, printed, source that I came across this excerpt. As it happens, Shaw's broadcast (part of a series of twelve; another speaker was H. G. Wells) has been preserved3 and can be purchased, or even listened to for free (if you are in the British Library).

Radio Times, 1934

But more generally, I wonder what the best way to find information about the contents of early radio broadcasts is? Infax is great, but very incomplete for my period, has only very basic search capabilities, and limited information as to content. Ditto for the British Library Sound Archive. I think the best sources are likely to be the Radio Times and The Listener. The former isn't available here (before 1959, anyway); I've never seen a copy and I don't even know how detailed its information would be. But I see that the State Library carries The Listener -- apparently more highbrow and so probably a better bet anyway -- from September 1937 onwards, so that's something.

Image source: TV & Radio Bits.

  1. Quoted in Flight, 15 February 1934, 141. 

  2. 15 February 1934, 141. 

  3. You'll have to search for it yourself, thanks to the BL's ignorance of the value of stable URLs. Searching for what seems to be an alternative title, 'Are we heading for war?', should take you straight to it.