11 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Fw 198

Fw 198. Image source: Current Aviation, 26 November 1943, via Model Airplane Kits.

In the course of my research, I get to read many predictions about the future, partiularly the future of warfare. One of the reasons I like doing this is that it helps to restore the uncertainty of what used to be the future, but is now the past. I know (more or less!) the events which lay in the future of the writers whose dusty old books I read. They did not. This is completely obvious, of course, but it can be hard to remember this, and to put myself into the mindset of someone who lacked my knowledge of what was going to happen next. In reading their predictions of future events, I can get back some sense of their open future, which my past has closed off to me.

An example of this is the Battle of Britain: the many representations of the aerial combat between the Luftwaffe and the RAF in the last 66 years have fixed the combatants in our memory. From movies, documentaries, books, games, and even alcoholic beverages, we all1 know of the defending fighters, the valiant Spitfire and trusty Hurricane; and their opponents, the dangerous Me 109 fighter and the not-so-dangerous Me 110. We know that the Spitfire and Me 109 were the best fighters on their respective sides, and indeed were pretty evenly matched; that the Me 110 was outclassed by the Spitfire and Hurricane; that in turn the lesser British fighters (the Defiant, the Blenheim and the Gladiator) were soon placed out of harm's way; and so on.

...continue reading


  1. For small values of 'all', admittedly ... 

25 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The Sky's the Limit

This is the front cover of a book by J. M. Spaight on British airpower, called The Sky's the Limit. It was published in 1940, a not-insignificant year for the RAF. In fact, this 'New and up-to-date' edition was published in August, right in the middle of the Battle of Britain. (The first edition was published prior to the fall of France, judging from the number of references to the Armée de l'Air, now in the past tense.) It's a familar image -- the young fighter pilots sitting in their Spitfires on a glorious summer's day, standing by for the word from Ops to hurl themselves into the sky to repel the hordes of Nazi invaders. In fact, it's almost iconic. But hang on -- something's not quite right here. Take a closer look at the aeroplane in the background:
...continue reading

1 Comment

I'm preparing for my PhD confirmation, which means I'm nearly a year in. (Eeep!) This means giving a paper (done), writing a report justifying what I've done and plan to do, and appearing before a committee to discuss my report and progress. A cynical viewpoint would be that this is just a hoop-jumping-through exercise which is just something to get out of the way, but it's actually very useful to be made to step back, consider the bigger picture of the overall thesis, and have to explain to somebody else what it is that I'm actually doing, and what I plan to do in future.

So this is essentially the chapter plan. The basic idea is to explain and analyse the knock-out blow paradigm, and then the proposed responses to it -- what ought to be done about it. I've mostly been working on chapter 2, the research for which is largely complete, and has been written up for the period up to 1931. (It's a big chapter; it may need to be split into two.) Next, I will probably move on to chapter 3.

  1. Airpower advocates and sceptics. Who addressed the British public on the subject of airpower, how they were organised, and what their affiliations and ideologies were. This will include individuals and groups such as the Air League of the British Empire and the National League of Airmen.
  2. The knock-out blow. The construction and evolution of theories of aerial bombardment in the public sphere. The two main types of knock-out blow: attacks against infrastructure, and attacks against morale. From the pre-history of the knock-out blow before the First World War, to the 1930s when it became something more than an abstract possibility.
  3. High technology. The role of new (and sometimes non-existent) technologies in modifying the perceived threat of aerial bombardment. This includes, most importantly, chemical weapons, but also robotic aircraft, stealth technology, atomic weapons, and the conversion of civil aircraft to military use, all of which promised to make air attack more difficult to defend against. However, sound location and death rays provided some hope for the defence.
  4. Mitigation and prevention. How the threat of the knockout blow was mobilised in support of air defence, air raid precautions, disarmament, the limitation of bombing, or appeasement.
  5. Deterrence and the new order. How the threat of the knockout blow was mobilised in support of a stronger bomber force, an international air police, or a world state with airpower as its foundation. Turned inwards instead of outward, airpower threatened to undermine democracy.

This covers most of the things I want to talk about. I'm not completely happy with the last chapter -- I don't know if it will be strong enough to finish on. Appeasement would be a safer option, but perhaps less interesting. The other problem is that I haven't quite worked out how to fit in the connection between fascism and aviation. I've put it in chapter 5 here (as part of a "new order"), but it feels a little forced. A logical place for it may become clearer later on, or I may just have to ditch it. Of course, much of the thesis plan may change in future, but for the moment it shows where I intend to head.

I've put up a biographical note on the jurist and civil servant J. M. Spaight, an important commentator on airpower issues from before the First World War until after the Second. I should have put this up long ago (Airminded gets quite a few search engine referrals from queries relating to Spaight, and there's not much on the web about him), but I wanted to read some of his books first, in order to get a better sense of the man -- he doesn't have as colourful a background as the other writers I have notes on.

3 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

... I'm a bad historian! No, well, actually, I have a post included in the latest Carnival of Bad History, which may or may not mean the same thing. Head on over to Hiram Hover's place and decide for yourself -- and while you're there, make sure you sample the other egregious ("Outstanding ... in one way or another", as Sir Humphrey Appleby once put it) examples on display.

3 Comments

As promised, here's a revamped version of the speed plot I did the other day, this time distinguishing between biplanes (and triplanes), monoplanes and jets (just the one -- the Meteor). It's now a bit harder to read, though -- it's still red for fighters and blue for bombers, but now biplanes are represented by crosses (of the appropriate colour), monoplanes by open triangles, and jets by filled triangles. Also I noticed that my criteria for inclusion in the dataset had changed part-way through, so I've added a few aircraft to make that consistent (mainly torpedo-bombers) -- I'll update the original post shortly.

Maximum speed of British combat aircraft, 1912-1945

This shows very clearly the big jump that came with the move to monoplanes in the mid-1930s. And not just in fighters -- bomber speeds increased by around 100 mph. In fact, the last British biplane fighters, introduced in 1937, could barely keep up with their own bombers. Again, cubic spline fits to the various combinations illustrate this. (Referring to the left-hand endpoint of each fit, they correspond to biplane fighters, biplane bombers, monoplane fighters and monoplane bombers.)

Maximum speed of British combat aircraft, 1912-1945

Looking at the data again, there is another feature worth remarking upon. Based solely on the number of models entering production (ie, and not on the actual numbers of aircraft that were built), the period up to about 1925 is dominated by fighters, while the period from then up to the start of the Second World War is dominated by bombers. For the 1914-8 period, I think this is explained by the constant battle for air superiority over the Western Front, which saw new fighters rushed into service every few months to counter new German types. But I'm somewhat surprised that there were so many fighter types introduced in the early-to-mid 1920s, given that the bomber orthodoxy was supposedly being established at this time (though some of the fighters were for export or were otherwise speculative ventures, not designed to Air Ministry specifications). For the bombers, the reason would probably be the desire for a heavy bomber as a deterrent, but more so the increasing need for specialised aircraft adapted for different roles, as opposed to the "general purpose" aircraft common in the 1920s.

Antony Beevor. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006. The Spanish Civil War was a crucial event in British airpower history. I have the first edition of this book, but I haven't read it yet, so ...

Andrew Milner, Matthew Ryan and Robert Savage, eds. Imagining the Future: Utopia and Dystopia. North Carlton: Arena Publications Association, 2006. The proceedings of a conference held at Monash University in 2005. A bit too litcrit/cultstud for my liking, but 'topias are part of my thing, so ...

Templewood. Empire of the Air: The Advent of the Air Age, 1922-1929. London: Collins, 1957. Before being raised to the peerage as Viscount Templewood, Samuel Hoare had been a long-serving Tory Secretary of State for Air in 1922-4 and 1924-9 (and again, briefly, in 1940). This is his memoir of the golden age of aviation.

7 Comments

Last year I was playing with a plotting program for Mac OS X, which was pretty good, but not quite satisfactory. I've found a better one, Plot, which is free (as in beer), fairly easy to use, and very customisable. It has its own idiosyncrasies, but I like it a lot. Here's an example plot, showing how the top speed of British combat increased up to the end of the Second World War.

Maximum speed of British combat aircraft, 1912-1945

The data are drawn from John W. R. Taylor, Combat Aircraft of the World From 1909 to the Present (New York: Paragon, 1979). This excludes aircraft which never saw service as well as those not intended for combat (though not all actually saw combat). The year is that in which it entered service (usually with the RAF), or if this wasn't given, the year when the prototype first flew. (Some aircraft unfortunately had neither, and so were omitted.) The maximum speeds, in miles per hour, are not necessarily comparable, because they were often obtained at different heights; also, they may not have been sustainable under normal conditions. But they should be broadly indicative of real-world maximums. I've classified each aircraft as either fighters (red) or bombers (blue), based upon their actual use. However, that's fairly arbitrary for the period up to 1915, which is when aircraft adapted for specialised roles began to appear. I haven't included seaplanes but I have included carrier-borne aircraft. Generally, I have only included data for the most representative version (eg not for each of the innumerable marks of Spitfire). Because of these caveats and inconsistencies, the plot should not be taken too seriously -- it's just for illustrative purposes.

...continue reading

Just as reading Orwell serendipitously led me to a reference to the next war in the air, so too has reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Here, Mustapha Mond, one of the Controllers of the world state, gives an impromptu history lesson (I've cut out unrelated, interleaved dialogue from another strand of the plot):

'The Nine Years' War began in A.F. 141.'
'Phosgene, chloropicrin, ethyl iodoacetate, diphenylcyanarsine, trichlormethyl chloroformate, dichlorethyl sulphide. Not to mention hydrocyanic acid.'
'The noise of fourteen thousand aeroplanes advancing in open order. But in the Kurfurstendamm and the Eighth Arrondissement, the explosion of the anthrax bombs is hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.'
Ch3C6H2(NO2)3+Hg(CNO)2 = well, what? An enormous hole in the ground, a pile of masonry, some bits of flesh and mucus, a foot, with the boot still on it, flying through the air and landing, flop, in the middle of the geraniums -- the scarlet ones; such a splendid show that summer!
'The Russian technique for infecting water supplies was particularly ingenious.'
'The Nine Years' War, the great Economic Collapse. There was a choice between World Control and destruction. Between stability and ...'1

'A.F.' is 'After Ford', actually the introduction of the Model T -- making this 2049, give or take. So it's not a near-future war for Huxley, writing in 1932. Naturally enough, though, it's a war of its time: a massive Russian (presumably) air fleet attacks Berlin and Paris with high explosive,2 germs and gas. However, it's obviousy not a quick knock-out blow either. Along with the (consequent?) 'great Economic Collapse', the Nine Years' War gave humanity the impetus for radical change, discarding liberalism, democracy and religion in favour of eugenics, social conditioning and the world state.

Put like that, there are obvious superficial similarities to H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, published the following year. Of course, that ended in utopia whereas Brave New World is a dystopia, but clearly both Wells and Huxley looked at the rapid advances in technology (including military technology) and the world economic crisis, then several years old with no end in sight, and wondered if the conjunction of the two trends might not result in a future radically different from the past (an "ultimate revolution", as Wells put it).

They weren't alone, either -- it seems there was a "utopian/dystopian" moment in the early 1930s. At least two other books written during the Depression take similarly long views: Michael Arlen's Man's Mortality (1933) and Olaf Stapledon's astounding Last and First Men (1930). Aviation plays a part in both of these -- in the former as the basis for a Kipling-esque world government called International Aircraft & Airways, in the latter as an important, almost spiritual, element of the culture of the First World State. But while the prevention of the next war, or the next war after that, is an important motivation for a world state in these novels, the main reason is economic; pretty understandable when you think about the shock of the world slump, particularly how crises seemed to spread from country to country. Economic control and planning on a global scale seemed inevitable to some, though whether it would be worth it in the end was debatable. Huxley suggested that people would have to be conditioned to consume products from an early age, through messages piped into every child's ears in every sleeping moment:

In the nurseries, the Elementary Class Consciousness lesson was over, the voices were adapting future demand to future industrial supply. 'I do love flying,' they whispered, 'I do love flying, I do love having new clothes, I do love ...'3

The idea that people would need to be coerced into buying things seems absurd in today's consumer society (though again, it would have made more sense during the Slump, when falling consumption led to falling production, which led to higher unemployment, which in turn led to falling consumption ...) But maybe that just means that our secret masters have found more subtle means of persuasion :)


  1. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: HarperCollins, 2001 [1932]), 42-3. 

  2. The chemical formulae given are for TNT and mercury fulminate (a detonator). 

  3. Huxley, Brave New World, 43.