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. 

5 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The kick-off for the football1 World Cup final is only hours away. To mark the occasion, here's Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, head of the Royal Air Force, on the correct use of airpower (in 1923, in the context of a hypothetical war with France):

Would it be best to have less fighters and more bombers to bomb the enemy and trust to their people cracking before ours, or have more fighters to bring down more of the enemy bombers. It would be rather like putting two teams to play each other at football, and telling one team they must only defend their own goal, and keep all their men on that one point. The defending team would certainly not be beaten, but they would equally certainly not win, nor would they stop the attack on their goal from continuing. I would like to make this point again. I feel that although there would be an outcry, the French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did. That was really the final thing. The nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end.2

It may not be immediately apparent, but in Trenchard's analogy, the 'goals' to be defended are the great cities of each warring nation. So goals are scored by bombing cities, killing and terrorising their inhabitants; and the 'match' won by causing a collapse in civilian morale, who will then cause their 'team' to give up.

The analogy is starting to get a bit torturous by this point! But football is not a great analogy for the standard RAF view of strategic bombing to begin with. On the one hand, it's true that in football a team which only defends can't win. On the other hand, a strong defence is still desirable, because one goal is often enough to win (or lose) a match. Equally, it's more than possible to have matches end in a draw, and not the decisive knock-out blow Trenchard predicted.

Knock-out blow ... now that's a boxing term.3 Sport and war seem to mix very easily in British history. The Duke of Wellington might not have said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but Henry Newbolt did compare the imperial burden to a schoolboy game of cricket, in his 1897 poem "Vitai Lampada":

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Cricket is, of course, much more interesting to Englishmen than is war. At least, this is the case in P. G. Wodehouse's brilliant parody of the Edwardian preoccupation with the possibility of German invasion, "The swoop!" (1909). A newspaper poster proclaims

SURREY
DOING
BADLY
GERMAN ARMY LANDS IN ENGLAND

with a stop-press report that

Fry not out, 104. Surrey 147 for 8. A German army landed in Essex this afternoon. Loamshire Handicap: Spring Chicken, 1; Salome, 2; Yip-i-addy, 3. Seven ran.

Wodehouse may have been on to something. In 1940, newspaper sellers reported the progress of the Battle of Britain as though it were a cricket match: 'Biggest raid ever -- Score 78 to 26 -- England still batting',4 as did BBC radio commentators:

[T]he man's baled out by parachute -- the pilot's baled out by parachute -- he's a Junkers 87 and he's going slap into the sea and there he goes -- smash ... Oh boy, I've never seen anything so good as this -- the RAF fighters have really got these boys taped.5

It does seem a bit unsporting of the Luftwaffe to have tried to take out their defeat on the home of cricket itself, though.

More seriously, that the everyday heroics of the sports field could inspire men on the battlefield is shown by the famous incident on the first day of the Somme, where Captain W. P. Nevill led men of the 8th East Surreys over the top, dribbling a football. Nevill fell, dead -- no faking there, unlike the real thing -- but his men took their objective.

Going the other way, and bringing us back to where we began, since 1966 English football fans have taunted their German counterparts with the chant "Two World Wars and one World Cup!" -- though some might argue that three World Cups is at least an equivalent record. Neither Germany nor England is playing in the final this time around: it's France vs Italy. And as Italy knocked out Australia thanks to a somewhat dubious penalty, I'm hoping that France will squeal, as Trenchard predicted -- not in terror but in joy!


  1. By which I mean soccer ... 

  2. Chief of Air Staff meeting, 19 July 1923, AIR 2/1267; quoted in Neville Jones, The Beginnings of Strategic Air Power: A History of the British Bomber Force 1923-39 (London: Frank Cass, 1987), 29. Emphasis added. 

  3. When the Sun crowed 'Gotcha!' at the Royal Navy's sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War, it reported that 'The Navy had the Argies on their knees last night after a devastating double punch'. 

  4. Quoted in Malcolm Smith, Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 63. 

  5. Ibid., 62. 

Scott W. Palmer, an associate professor at Western Illinois University, has a new book due out this month entitled Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia. In 10 words or less, it's about Russian airmindedness up to the end of 1945. This in itself is a good thing, but what makes it even better is that Scott has set up a website to promote the book (including excerpts in PDF format), as well as a blog, The Avia-Corner. In his first post, he explains that Dictatorship of the Air is not just a book, but

is meant to be the beginning of a conversation about the relationship between culture and technology and how this relationship has contributed to the development of the modern world. The “Avia-Corner” weblog is intended to further the discussion begun by [Dictatorship of the Air].

He also highlights a gallery of Soviet posters promoting airmindedness, which he has put online and plans to expand.

So, I welcome Scott into the tiny fraternity of aviation history bloggers, and look forward to more from him in the future!

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Nevil Shute's 1939 novel What Happened to the Corbetts is, as you might expect, one of the most well-written of the knock-out blow novels; it's certainly one of the few that is still read today (outside of H. G. Wells' three contributions to the genre).1 Shute takes a different approach to most of his predecessors, choosing not to chart the grand strategic and high political course of the war: instead he tells the story of an ordinary middle-class family from Southampton, the Corbetts.
Peter Corbett is a solicitor, and knows nothing of political or military matters. He doesn't even know why Britain is at war, or at first, with whom. (The enemy is never named, but is fairly obviously Germany.) Joan Shelton's resolutely Little Englander horizons are shown by her thoughts as they leave for France in their tiny yacht:

Now, that dim wedge-shaped bit of land was England, perhaps the last of England she would see for years. Gone was the pleasant, semi-detached house that she had married into, had her children in. Gone was their well-loved, battered Austin car. Gone were the happy summer week-ends, bathing at Seaview or Newtown. Gone was the cinema, two streets away from them, where they knew the manager and the cashier by their names. Gone were the occasional, economical trips to London. Gone were their friends, the Gordons and the Hutchinsons and the Littlejohns -- all gone. Gone were the shops she loved, the one that had the puppies in the window, the one that sold the radiograms that they could not afford, the piano that they would have had when they were very rich. All these were gone. That rocky point with the white lighthouse, unlit and hardly visible behind them in the mist, was the last of all these things. When that went, England would be gone.2

It's refreshing to read a next-war novel where the protagonists aren't dashing RAF flyboys, fearless secret agents, intrepid Fleet Street journalists or up-and-coming backbench MPs, with privileged insight into and influence upon the war!

...continue reading


  1. In my LibraryThing catalog, I have tagged all my future-war books as wars-to-come. The far right column shows how many of LibraryThing's nearly 52000 users have a copy of the same work. Between them, there are 36 copies of Wells' knock-out blow-ish novels (The War in the Air, The World Set Free and The Shape of Things to Come). There are 6 copies of What Happened to the Corbetts; no other knock-out blow novel has more than one copy (ie mine). By comparison, Erskine Childers' classic The Riddle of the Sands has a monstrous 56 copies. 

  2. Nevil Shute, What Happened to the Corbetts (Melbourne, London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939), 212-3. 

7 Comments

It's hard to believe, but it's exactly a year since I started Airminded, taking the historioblogosphere by storm with my cryptically-entitled first post, First post! It's been both fun and (I think) productive for me thus far, with the highlights probably being hosting the History Carnival, and being asked to help found the group blog Revise and Dissent. I'd blog even if nobody read what I wrote, but I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the trouble to comment, especially Chris Williams and Alex for their support in the early days.

Bonus! factoids:

Normal blogging will resume shortly ...

22 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Photographs of actual combat in the First World War are exceedingly rare, in the air as well as on the ground. Both of these are purportedly of Zeppelins flying over Britain. Are they fake or not? My answers are below.

The low down thing that plays the low down game

`The low down thing that plays the low down game'. Source: British postcard, Zeppelin im Krieg.

Over London's roofs

'Over London's roofs. London's defences against Zeppelin raids were never adequate. Searchlights sometimes succeeded in spotting the raiders, as in the actual photograph by an amateur shown in the impression on the opposite page, but the anti-aircraft guns never secured a direct hit. Zeppelin raiders were only checked and finally defeated by aeroplane attack'. Source: Hamilton Fyfe, "Early Zeppelin nights of terror", in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [ca. 1935]), 17.

...continue reading

1 Comment

If you were wondering what the biggest and loudest air raid siren of all time is, then wonder no more, because it's the American Chrysler Victory Siren, made in the 1950s. Well, I don't know for sure that it was -- I'd like to see what the Soviets had to offer -- but it was clearly a mighty impressive piece of hardware: 12 feet long; 3 tons in weight; and 138 decibels at a distance of 100 feet! (120 dB is the pain threshold.) These were dotted all over the United States -- 20 in Detroit alone.

You can hear one of the few remaining examples in action here. It certainly sends a chill down my spine, which is perhaps strange as nuclear drills were not a feature of my youth here in Australia, so I only know the sound of such sirens second-hand. But I can't help but imagine what would have been happening to the communities these sirens were meant to warn, as the missiles (or in the 1950s, the bombs) rained down. Which in turn leads one to marvel at the optimistic choice of the name Victory Siren ... though I suppose the Defeat Siren ("If you can hear this, you're already dead") might not have sold so well!1


  1. Of course, nuclear war looked somewhat more winnable in the 1950s, and civil defence correspondingly less pointless, than was later the case. But still. 

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Via Deltoid: the higher education supplement of The Australian newspaper this week has a couple of articles on academic blogging in Australia. (Choice quote from the first link: 'A spate of studies has shown that making articles available online boosts citations by 50 to 250 percent.')

Hopefully this will encourage more Australian academics and students to take up this noble pursuit -- there are disappointingly few of us, even though the term "weblog" was (apparently) coined by two Australian academics in 1995! As far as I know, I'm the only history blogger in the Australian academy (and as a lowly PhD student, I'm only just in the academy :) If there are any others out there, give us a cooee in the comments.

3 Comments

zeppelin and hendon

My laptop is my primary workhorse, and I've just upgraded -- a very exciting time in any computer geek's life! On the left, my old 12" 1.0 Ghz G4 Powerbook, "zeppelin"; on the right, my new 13" 2.0 GHz Core Duo MacBook, "hendon". Zeppelin has been a rock-solid little machine for me these last couple of years, but it was starting to lose pace with my needs. Switching over to hendon been a very smooth process (other than getting Instiki to work again), and it's just so nice and fast -- it's better in every way (except for the size, I prefer the smaller formfactor). It should see me through me through the rest of the PhD in style.

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.