Jörg Friedrich's book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, was first published in Germany in 2002. In 2006, it was published in an English translation (by Allison Brown) by Columbia University Press. The Fire consists of seven sections: Weapon, Strategy, Land, Protection, We, I and Stone. These chart the development of aerial attack on Germany during the Second World War, the counter-measures undertaken by authorities, the experience of those under attack and the destruction wreaked upon cities and culture. The book received extensive publicity when it came out in Germany: according to the Columbia blurb, it features 'meticulous research' into a strategy the wisdom of which 'has never been questioned.' At the end of last year, we -- Dan Todman and Brett Holman -- received unsolicited copies for review. Despite some anxieties about the implications of such a marketing strategy (for the profession as a whole and for individual careers), we decided to collaborate on a review in the form of a conversation, which we'll post at Airminded and Trench Fever and highlight at Cliopatria and Revise and Dissent.

Dan Todman: It's very clear from the way this book is presented and the way it has been publicised that it's meant to be contentious. If we start with the moral aspect of strategic bombing -- a key area for recent literary and philosophical debate by writers such as W. G. Sebald and A. C. Grayling -- there are times when Friedrich comes close to saying something explosive in his treatment of German civilians as innocent victims. Yet he always backs off from the logical endpoint of his argument. Here is Friedrich describing the essential randomness of bombing for "terror":

The annihilation principle does not ask such questions. Not until it is too late does everyone know that they can be struck. Terror does not seek to achieve anything; its regime is absolute. It comes out of the blue, needs no reasons, atones no guilt. Its success might be unconditional subjection, but even that does not end the horror. It makes no deals; its resolve is inscrutable and its aim, absurd.
... there was no correlation between the annihilation of the Jews and the annihilation by bombs. And no analogy. And death by gas will not create one. (296)

Ultimately, even in his epilogue written for the English translation, it seems to me that Friedrich makes a moral judgement on bombing only by implication.

Brett Holman: He does always seem to step back from the brink when he is about to actually come to a conclusion. (I say "seem" because he very often uses such flowery, allusive language that I sometimes find it hard to work out what he is saying.) And yes, that epilogue was disappointingly tame -- it was his chance to explain the purpose of The Fire to a readership very different to the one it was originally written for.

But the whole tenor of the book does lean towards the Germans-as-victims side of things. Or what is much worse, suggesting that area bombing is equivalent to the Holocaust -- despite his explicit denial of same in the above quote. I'm not the first person to notice that he often uses words like "crematorium" when describing the effects of incendiary bombing, which is perhaps apt but certainly unfortunate in this context. At one point Friedrich calls 5 Group 'No. 5 Mass Destruction Group' (306), which I thought was perhaps a mistranslation. Judging from Jög Arnold's H-German review, it may well be -- he translates the original German as 'group of mass extermination Nr. 5', which is even worse! To me, Friedrich's choice of words seems very pointed, and very telling.

It's also odd how the victims of Allied bombing always seem to be nuns and children, never Nazi officials or Gestapo agents. (Which, by the way, echoes wartime propaganda -- critics of which cynically marvelled at the amazing accuracy of the enemy's unguided bombs in seeking out orphanages and nursing homes.) Never does he admit that any hits on factories, or disruption of production due to loss of workers or infrastructure had anything more than a minor, temporary effect. The impression I got from reading The Fire was that bombing didn't help the Allies win the war at all, and only killed innocents.
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Here's a treat for (some of) you: the very first aerial warfare movie ever made, in its entirety! Most commonly known as The Airship Destroyer (but sometimes called Battle in the Clouds or The Aerial Torpedo), it's less than 10 minutes long and was produced in 1909 by Charles Urban, an American pioneer of cinematic special effects working in Britain. It's pretty prophetic stuff: airships bombing cities and railways, fighters intercepting them, radio-guided SAMs, even an armoured car thrown in for good measure. I would guess it was inspired in part by the phantom airship scare which took place earlier that year. Here's a contemporary description taken from an American trade journal, Motion Picture World (date unknown, taken from here, slightly emended):

BATTLE IN THE CLOUDS. - Section 1. - preparation. The Aero camp - Loading supplies - Start of the airships - The inventor of the airship destroyer - His love story - The parting - The alarm - The aero fleet in full flight - The aerial torpedo and its inventor.

Section 2. Attack. In the clouds - Dropping like shells from the firing deck of an airship - the chase - High angle firing from a gun on an armored motor car - Total destruction of the car - Railway wrecked by the aerial fleet - Shelling the signal box - The heroic operator meets death at this post - The fight in the air - Airship versus aeroplane - Wreck of the aeroplane - The burning of a town by the aerial fleet - Thrilling rescue of his sweetheart by the inventor.

Section 3. Defense. The inventor with the assistance of his sweetheart sends his airship destroyer on its mission of vengeance. The torpedo, steered through the air by wireless telegraphy - One flash and the airship is doomed - It falls, a mass of scorching fire, into the waters of a lake.

Urban produced a couple of other films along similar lines (The Aerial Anarchists, The Pirates of 1920, both 1911) and had some imitators -- possibly including D. W. Griffith, who made a film in 1916 called The Flying Torpedo.

The link can be found on this page at BFI's screenonline, if the above direct link doesn't work. Unfortunately it's only viewable by people in .uk educational establishments. Which sadly doesn't include me, but that's ok, I've seen it before, in a 16mm copy at what I think is now part of ACMI. So no need to feel guilty on my account :)

A good account of early aviation films can be found in Michael Paris, From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun: Aviation, Nationalism and Popular Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), 10-22.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

With the inaugural Military History Carnival coming up, it seems like a good time to ask: what does the military historioblogosphere look like? The obvious answer to that is another question: what on Earth is a military historioblogosphere anyway? Well, 'historioblogosphere' is just a silly word I invented to describe the history blogosphere, and so the military historioblogosphere is the part of that to do with wars and suchlike. (And actually, of course, it's the Anglophone military historioblogosphere ...) In practice, I will take the 'Wars and Warriors' section of Cliopatria's History Blogroll as the closest thing we have to a census of the military historioblogosphere. Which is not to say that it is complete, nor that I think everything on that list should be there, but it's a whole lot more comprehensive than any list I'm willing to maintain! It obviously excludes blogs which may discuss military history, but are not primarily focused on it -- but it's a good place to start.

So I've gone through the blogs listed there and compiled some basic statistics with them, and made some basic plots with them. (I used Keynote because it's soooo much easier and prettier than Excel, or Powerpoint for that matter; and because my otherwise go-to app for plotting, Plot, doesn't do pie charts.) I actually intended to do something along these lines ages ago, but never got around to it; fortunately I kept the data on my hard drive; and as it happens it was almost exactly a year ago that I compiled it, so it's perfect for a year-on-year comparison! So let's begin.

Blogs: numbers

The number of blogs in the military historioblogosphere. The red portion represents the increase in the past year. The blue part (blogs active in March 2006) actually decreased. This is because some blogs have moved out of the military historioblogosphere since then, according to Cliopatria -- mainly because they've ceased activity, but not always. The percentage of blogs in the list in March 2006 which did not make the cut the following year -- call it the churn rate -- is 23%.

The total percentage increase is 65%. This sounds impressive, but actually it's well below the growth rate of the blogosphere as a whole (which would predict a 151% increase in a year). Of course, the Cliopatria blogroll is human-generated, not machine-indexed, so it might be expected that it would fall short of the actual increase. And of course there may well be selection biases affecting what is considered blogroll-worthy by Cliopatria.
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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.