This seems to be a snippet from a documentary made in New Zealand.1 The main point of it is to show a Camel and a Spitfire flying side by side, but I found the first half more interesting, about the practical aspects of flying a First World War-vintage aeroplane. For example, I hadn't realised that the scarves worn by the pilots were not fashion accessories!

  1. No doubt the film crew were off eating fush and chups shortly afterwards. 


H. G. Wells. The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind. London: Macmillan and Co., 1914. The novel that unleashed atomic warfare upon the world. I actually already have a copy but it's a modern edition, and I'd prefer to reference an original edition, where possible. Besides which, the University of Nebraska Press inexplicably changed the title of their edition from The World Set Free to The Last War, which abomination I don't want stinking up my bibliography!

I've recently read a trilogy of novels about the next war, by Sydney Fowler Wright, a prolific but largely forgotten poet and novelist: Prelude in Prague (London: Newnes, 1935), Four Days War (London: Robert Hale, 1936), and Megiddo's Ridge (London: Robert Hale, 1937). Only the first is a true knock-out blow novel: in 1938, after a brief period of sabre-rattling, Nazi Germany launches a huge aerial attack on Prague and pretty much flattens it in one night.

And it was true that Prague had ceased to exist. Its chemical devices for fighting fire had proved utterly inadequate to overcome the hundred conflagrations which had burst out in so short a time, and had been recruited continually as new bombs rained from the sky.

And, from an early hour of the night, the supply of water had failed, after the German air-fleet had made a concentrated attack upon the great pumping-station, which was built conspicuously on the river bank, as though to invite its fate.

When the fires died, as they did not wholly do for a space of days, not the commercial city alone, but all on river-valley and hills which had been the beauty of Prague, was an ended dream. Cathedral, castle, and palace were broken and blackened shells.

Classic knock-out blow stuff. Czechoslovakia is doomed before the war has even begun: there's nothing anyone can do about it, despite brave resistance by the Czech fighters.

...continue reading


The War Room reports the short list of names for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter:

  • Black Mamba
  • Cyclone
  • Lightning II
  • Piasa
  • Reaper
  • Spitfire II

As noted at the War Room, most of these names are really, really bad, and sound like something a 12 year old boy would come up with.1 Of interest here is the homage to great fighter planes of yore -- the Spitfire and the P-38 Lightning. (At least, I assume that Lightning II refers to that and not the English Electric Lightning, itself one of the great post-war fighters.) Presumably, Spitfire II is on the list because of the British participation in the project (though their US$2 billion is just a drop in the bucket, when compared with the projected total cost of US$244 billion). Cyclone sounds like it would have fitted in well alongside the Hurricane, Tempest, Typhoon and Whirlwind, too. Other than those choices, these are some pretty silly names. Piasa is more likely to evoke feelings of slight puzzlement than dread.

Still, fair's fair: the British have made some aircraft with pretty silly names too. Such as the Fawn. The Flycatcher. The Tabloid. The Iris. It's lucky the next war didn't start in 1931, when the Blackburn Iris (a seaplane) entered service; imagine how dreadfully embarassed the aircrew would have been to have been seen by the enemy flying around in something named after a flower.

Of course, the name of a combat aircraft is irrelevant to its actual performance. I guess the only real purpose is for propaganda, particularly on the home front. In that light, it's interesting that the names given to British fighters2 become more aggressive-sounding over time -- think of the difference between the Siskin III (a 'small songbird', according to the OED) of the mid-1920s and the Spitfire of the late 1930s. If you are staring total air war in the face, you might as well put yourself in the mood ...

  1. Of course, the only people, other than 12 year old boys, who will care what the JSF is called are 12 year old boys at heart anyway :)  

  2. Bombers generally were generally named after places -- Overstrand, Bombay, Wellington, Manchester


[I posted this last Wednesday, but somehow, it was marked as "private" rather than "published", so nobody saw it but me! So I'm fixing that and bumping it to the top.]

The talk went off pretty well, I think -- at least I didn't hear any snoring and got some good questions at the end. The best part, though, was that "Four" Meaher (whose own paper on the political uses of the myth of the "great betrayal" -- ie of Australia, by Britain, in 1941-2 -- was one of the highlights of the day for me) put me on to this most amusing song called "The Deepest Shelter in Town", the lyrics of which are below. Googling, it turns out that it was sung by an English comedienne, Florence Desmond (whose first husband, incidentally, was one of the winners of the 1934 London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race, Tom Campbell Black). The reference to Herbert Morrison dates it to his early days at the Home Office (where he was responsible for air raid precautions), ie from October 1940, when he took over from John Anderson -- the height of the Blitz, which fits (though otherwise, the late 1930s might be an even better fit, when the left were attacking the government over the lack of deep air raid shelters).

Don't run away, mister,
Oh stay and play, mister.
Don't worry if you hear the siren go.
Though I'm not a lady of the highest virtue,
I wouldn't dream of letting anything hurt you.
And so before you go,
I think you ought to know

I got a cozy flat,
There's a place for your hat.
I'll wear a pink chiffon negligee gown.
And do I know my stuff?
But if that's not enough,
I've got the deepest shelter in town.

I've got a room for two,
A radio that's new,
An alarm clock that won't let you down.
And I've got central heat,
But to make it complete,
I've got the deepest shelter in town.

Ev'ry modern comfort
I can just guarantee.
If you hear the siren call,
Then it's probably me.

And sweetie, to revert,
I'll keep you on the alert.
I won't even be wearing a frown.
So you can hang around here
Until the "all clear,"
In the deepest shelter in town.

Now, honey, I don't sing
Of an Anderson thing,
Climbing in one, you look like a clown.
But if you came here to see
Why Sir John would agree
I've got the deepest shelter in town.

Now Mr. Morrison
Says he's getting things done,
And he's a man of the greatest renown.
But before it gets wrecked,
I hope he'll come and inspect
The deepest shelter in town.

Now, I was one of the first
To clear my attic of junk.
But when it comes to shelters,
Now-a-days, it's all bunk.

So, honey, don't get scared,
It's there to be shared!
And you'll feel like a king with a crown.
So please don't be mean,
Better men than you have been
In the deepest shelter in town.

Now, what she meant by 'I've got the deepest shelter in town' I'm sure I don't know, but I imagine she looked something like this when she was singing it!

Florence Desmond

Image source: Virtual History Film.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Recently, I read a book review which has left me scratching my head. It's by Trevor Wilson (English Historical Review, 71 (2006), 629-31) and is about, among other books, K. W. Mitchinson, Defending Albion: Britain's Home Army, 1908-1919 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) -- according to the publisher, 'the first published study of Britain's response to the threat of invasion from across the North Sea in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century', particularly during the First World War.

Firstly, I just want to say that I admire Trevor Wilson's work greatly -- he is one of Australia's pre-eminent military historians, and I think it is fair to say one of the world's, certainly when it comes to First World War studies. I'm very much looking forward to reading his most recent work (with Robin Prior), The Somme (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005); and his classic The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986) is a treasure-trove of information on all sorts of aspects Britain's participation in the First World War. To my mind, it marks him as someone with a broad conception of what constitutes military history, not just war-fighting and high politics but cultural and social history as well.

That's why I was surprised by his review. The first work he examines is, he judges, 'a thoroughly worthwhile book'. But 'The same can hardly be said with similar enthusiasm of Defending Albion'. This is not because it is a bad book, in and of itself: 'Mitchinson tells his story appropriately'. It's, apparently, because it's a boring subject: 'But a war book which contains no battles (except for the internal, non-violent sort) is of decidedly limited interest ... it must be wondered how necessary this journey has been'. I find this attitude very difficult to understand!
...continue reading

I was extremely flattered to be asked, along with a number of very fine history bloggers, by Cliopatria's Ralph Luker to participate in a new group blog at the History News Network. We've called it Revise and Dissent and it's been up and running for nearly a week now! Unfortunately, its launch has coincided with a lull in my blogging activity as I madly prepare for my talk on Wednesday, so I haven't posted at R&D yet, but of course the nice thing about a group blog is that nobody will notice :)

Meanwhile, here are a few interesting blogs I've come across recently. I'm Too Sexy for My Master's Thesis is a sentiment that most academic bloggers can relate to, I'm sure; but Rachel's thesis topic sounds pretty sexy too, on the British Army's Jewish Legion in the First World War. It's very much a research blog, which is good to see. Cas Stavert of Only Two Rs is writing a novel set in the First World War, and also reading lots of early twentieth century British novels -- which I'm finding very educational! (Via Great War Fiction.) Finally, Modern Mechanix extracts weird and wonderful articles and advertisements from old science magazines. Sadly they are all American, not British, but there is still much of interest to me. For example, check out this Italian gas mask for typists, or these early German and American radar devices. (Via Boing Boing.)


I'm giving a talk next Wednesday as part of the History Department's Work In Progress Day, and that's the title I would have given it, had I been the least bit imaginative the day I wrote the abstract. Instead I have a nothing title ("Airpower and British society: plans and progress"), and to go along with it, a nothing abstract:

My thesis is on the impact of airpower propaganda on the British people between 1908 and 1941. During this period, air panics -- most importantly the fear of the 'knock-out blow' of civilisation by bombing and gas attacks -- replaced naval and invasion panics as the most characteristic and significant expression of public concern about the defence of Britain. More positively, some looked to aviation to promote peace through deterrence or collective security. The ways in which these hopes and fears were articulated and manipulated have been little studied and provide insights into some perhaps surprising aspects of British society.

Of course, I am merely following the time-honoured academic tradition of writing the abstract long before the paper is written, or even thought about, which explains the nothingness! I will actually just be giving a general overview of what my PhD is about, what themes I hope to explore, what the sources are, and so on. I'm in the second-last slot of the day, so most people will probably be dozing off by then and I can slip my talk in without getting noticed :D 20 minutes plus 10 for discussion, a little razzle, a little dazzle, some laughs, some tears, and that's all there is to it.

Actually, it will be good to get it out of the way, because it will satisfy one of the conditions for the confirmation of my PhD candidature, which means I can get funding for overseas travel. It's the first talk I'll have given for my PhD, which probably should be confronting, but WIPD is apparently a very relaxed environment (59 other students from the department will be giving papers -- cleverly, they all chose interesting titles like "Sexing the belly: the cultural politics of Britney Spears' pregnant body"), and anyway I have given a couple of papers at big international conferences before, so I am not without experience. Mind you, I gave them very badly, but perhaps I have matured with age ...

The department is also revamping its website, and now has a list of its postgraduate students, including yours truly. This proves what I have suspected for a while, namely that as a British historian (historian of Britain, whatever) I am in a distinct minority in my department! What's with all this Australian history, sheesh.


P. R. C. Groves explains why, in his view, Britain in the early 1930s was possessed by a 'national defeatism', namely the idea that war was immoral and should be banned, and the nations disarmed:

The origins of the malady may be summarized as: the Voluntary System, the Somme and Passchendaele. The sacrifice of the flower of an entire generation -- largely owing to the ineptitude of the military mind, though the responsibility is at the moment immaterial -- implied the loss of a leavening virile influence in our national life. And this loss has vastly increased the influence of the feminists, the clericals, the doctrinaires and the dreamers, because it has decreased the normal healthy counterpoise to it. These well-intentioned idealists argue on a plane which has no relation to reality. Consequently their conclusions are false. The path which they advocate leads not to peace but to perdition. There is but one way to peace, and it lies through justice established and maintained by collective responsibility.1

So there are three parts to this. Firstly, the idea of a "lost generation", the premature deaths of Britain's best and brightest in the Great War. Secondly, the evil results of the loss of their manly influence: feminists and pacifists running riot. Thirdly, his rejection of this in favour of the (presumably virile!) solution of collective security (he endorses Lord Davies' New Commonwealth Society and the right wing of the League of Nations Union).

I tend to agree that it was because of the deaths of so many young men that the idea that war was inherently immoral became popular. But it seems to me (and I realise I'm going out on a limb here :) that this was more because of the fact of their deaths, and the perception that they were sacrificed to no useful purpose, rather than the supposed loss of a generation of masculine leaders. The sheer brute facts of the war, and the disillusionment with its results, were bound to influence what people thought about the use of force in international affairs.

  1. P. R. C. Groves, Behind the Smoke Screen (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 308.