[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. 


Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries has an article on academic blogging in its latest annual web issue, and guess which academic blog scores a mention ...

Airminded is an example of a graduate student blog; it is devoted to the topic of fears of air attack in Britain prior to World War II.1

Note that it doesn't say it's a good example of a graduate student blog :D

  1. Laura B. Cohen, "Blogs in academia: a resource guide", Choice 43 (August 2006), 9. Actually, the OCRed version says 'Airmindcd'! 


Executive Council of the New Commonwealth. An International Air Force: Its Functions and Organisation. London: The New Commonwealth, 1934. A submission to the International Congress in Defence of Peace, February 1934, detailing the organisation and role of an international air force.

Lawrence Freedman. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Third edition. An authoritative history. Starts in the right place, with the knock-out blow.

P. R. C. Groves. Our Future in the Air. London, Bombay and Sydney: George G. Harrap & Co., 1935. Not to be confused with his 1922 book of the same name. This is about both the danger of Britain falling behind in civil aviation and the danger of air attack.

Mick Jackson, dir. Threads. BBC Worldwide, 2005 [1984]. The UK's answer to the The Day After. I've never seen it before; I'll have to track down a copy of The War Game next. Come to that, it's years since I've seen The Day After ...

Patrick Kyba. Covenants without the Sword: Public Opinion and British Defence Policy, 1931-1935. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983. Studying public opinion before polling or even Mass-Observation is extremely difficult; this is a pioneering attempt, drawing upon metropolitan and provincial newspapers, the Peace Ballot, by-elections, and so on.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

He 111 over London, 7 September 1940

He 111 over London, 7 September 1940. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

So, I've looked at J. M. Spaight's predictions in The Sky's the Limit about how the British fighters would fare in the Battle of Britain, and how the German ones would too. All that remains is to examine his thoughts on the German bombers.

...continue reading


Veteran history blogger Alan Allport (Horizon and Cliopatria) has an interesting new blog: War Starts at Midnight! I can't find anything defining the blog's scope, but so far the posts are a mixture of links to images, reviews and news relating to the World Wars, centering on the Second World War and Britain. Which is not surprising given Alan's PhD is on British demobilisation after the Second World War. Good stuff -- added to the sidebar.