Australian soldiers in Whitehall

During the Second World War, several million foreign servicemen and -women were stationed in Britain for varying periods of time. These included many Australians, for most of whom it was their first glimpse of Britain.1 In 1940, one of them described his impressions of the mother country in an article for the Spectator entitled "An Anzac on England". His name was Sydney Melbourne (although for some reason I strongly suspect this was a pseudonym), and he was probably serving with one of the Australian Army units diverted to Britain after the fall of France.2 So to mark Anzac Day, and this being a British history blog, here's what one wide-eyed colonial had to say about Pommyland. And it mostly wasn't flattering!

The first thing which struck him was the shocking waste of good farming land.

Why is so much land that is obviously fertile lying idle in farms of 1,000 acres and even larger? Why are so many patches of scrub and useless bushes left uncleared? We [Australians] can respect good timber -- that is always an asset -- but stunted copses and brambles are an eyesore which no good farmer should tolerate a day longer than he can help.3

According to Sydney, in the Antipodes (he fraternally provided some examples from New Zealand) settlers fought hard to cultivate land much more marginal than that which was left unused in Britain, and despite droughts and fires exported their produce overseas and made a good living. He praised Hitler's agrarian policy, which utilised German land more fully and reduced the need for imports, and was puzzled that the British preferred the picturesque over the productive, `the dangerous result of a short-sighted policy [...] beauty will not feed a nation's workers (or employ them), and in these times efficiency is a more valuable asset than is scenery'. There's no question that Britain in 1940 was underutilising its land, since during the war it made strenuous efforts to increase the area under cultivation, so as to reduce the need for imports (and hence vulnerability to U-boats). But from the perspective of 2007, in the middle (or, hopefully, near the end) of the worst drought on record, it seems strange to boast of how intensely Australia uses even marginal land: it's precisely this sort of behaviour that has landed us in the current fine mess.
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  1. Including two members of my family

  2. The main units were 18th Brigade and 25th Brigade, which at around this time were put together to form the bulk of 9th Division

  3. Sydney Melbourne, "An Anzac on England", Spectator, 20 September 1940, 289. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are from this source. 

John D. Anderson, Jr. The Airplane: A History of its Technology. Reston: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2002. As an aviation historian I should have some understanding of the technology of flight, and this seems a more enjoyable avenue into the subject than some dry textbook. It's a bit US-centric, though that's justifiable to a large extent.

John Benson. The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2003. A bargain-table find at my local quality bookshop; not immediately useful to me but good to have on the bookshelf.


P-B slip-wing bomber

At the end of October 1940, while the British and German air forces were nightly striking at each other's cities, Captain Norman Macmillan (a decorated RFC veteran and former head of the National League of Airmen) argued in Flight that Britain's greatest need was for the development of a bomber which was possessed great speed (400 mph), long range (5000 miles) and high bombload (5 tons), for

We may dominate the seas, but that to-day is not enough. We must dominate the land as well, and we do not do so. We shall not be able to dominate the land until we possess bombers which can reach out to the uttermost corners of the earth, from the bases we possess. And we cannot win this war until we are able to straddle the whole of Europe from the air.

That means range and speed.1

One man answered the challenge: Noel Pemberton-Billing, founder of Supermarine and sometime demagogic independent MP. He rejected the contemporary dogma of the self-defending flying fortress, which had proven a failure in daylight operations and so were forced to bomb less accurately at night. The only defence, he believed, was speed, not guns. His design -- the P.B.49, a twin-engine monoplane with a crew of three -- more than met Macmillan's specifications, and had the added virtues of being small and inexpensive.2 In fact, it was around the same size as the later Mosquito, and about as fast; but had more than twice the bombload at its maximum combat range of 8000 miles, itself more than five times the range of the wooden wonder. At shorter ranges, more bombs could be carried -- 10 tons per bomber to Berlin, for example. How was this incredible performance to be achieved? By slip-wing, of course.
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  1. Norman Macmillan, "For the long-range bomber", Flight, 31 October 1940, 381. 

  2. Noel Pemberton-Billing, "That long-range bomber", Flight, 14 November 1940, 413-5. 

1 Comment

The US Air Force Historical Studies Office has put up several dozen monographs on the history of the USAF and its predecessors, PDFs available for free download. It seems to be more narrowly focused than the similar effort by Air University Press, as only a few titles look like they might discuss the RAF in any detail: D-Day 1944: Air Power Over the Normandy Beaches and Beyond by Richard P. Hallion (1994), Preemptive Defense: Allied Air Power Versus Hitler's V-Weapons, 1943-1945 by Adam L. Gruen (1998) and, rather oddly, Coningham: A Biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham by Vincent Orange (1992). The most interesting, however, given a recent post here, is The Command of the Air by Giulio Douhet (1927, translated 1942). Via WWII mailing list.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

... is up at Investigations of a Dog, and it's huge. Gavin's intention was that it would be as inclusive as possible, using a very broad interpretation of "military history"; since only about a fifth of the blogs included were in the survey of the military historioblogosphere I did less than a month ago, I'd say he's succeeded in that brilliantly!


One of the pleasures of reading period newspapers and magazines, as I am doing now, is chancing upon reviews of old films I know and (usually) love. Here's what Graham Greene (yes, that Graham Greene) had to say about The Wizard of Oz:

The book has been popular in the States for forty years, and has been compared there to Alice in Wonderland, but to us in our old tribal continent the morality seems a little crude and the fancy material: the whole apparatus of Fairy Queen and witches and dwarfs called Munchkins, the Emerald City, the Scarecrow Man without a brain, and the Tin Man without a heart, and the Lion man without courage, rattles like dry goods.

After rubbishing the tastes of the former colonials in this fashion, Greene goes on to tell us that

the Wizard of Oz who sends the dreaming child with her three grotesque friends to capture the witch's broomstick turns out to be a Kansas conjurer operating a radio-electric contrivance.

After reading this, I was retrospectively enraged on behalf of the filmgoers of 1940! How rude. As he died in 1991, Greene never got the chance to review The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense, which is probably just as well ...

It wasn't all bad: he thought the songs 'charming' and the witch suitably repellent; in particular, he noted that

Miss Judy Garland, with her delectable long-legged stride, would have won one's heart for a whole winter season twenty years ago

And I must agree with Greene when he protests at the adults only certification given the film by the British Board of Film Censors:

Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow-white was unsuitable for those under sixteen, was laughed out of existence? As it is, in many places, parents will be forbidden by the by-laws to take their own children to The Wizard of Oz.

What can the censors have possibly objected to? Domicular homicides? Airborne primates? Saccharine overdoses? Weird.

The review is from the Spectator, 9 February 1940, p. 179.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

I haven't written much about General Giulio Douhet, the Italian prophet of airpower whose name is -- almost -- synonymous with strategic bombing. His 1921 (revised edition, 1927) book Il dominio dell'aria (usually translated as The Command of the Air) is one of the most definitive expressions of airpower extremism -- the idea that aircraft alone could win wars. In it, he articulated a theory of airpower which is essentially what I call, in the British context, the concept of the knock-out blow: fleets of unstoppable bombers roaming the skies, bombing cities and factories and infrastructure, thereby so undermining the morale of the civilian population that resistance collapses and the nation surrenders. He was widely influential among the staffs of the air forces of Europe, as James Corum has discussed.1 Whenever the origins of strategic bombing are discussed, Douhet's name is almost certain to pop up, often linked with that of Hugh Trenchard -- sometimes with the implication that Douhet was the source of belief in the bomber. For example:

The ideas [of strategic airpower], emanating from Douhet and Mitchell and strongly supported by Wever in Germany and Trenchard in Britain, strongly called for the exercise of concentrated bombing over the enemy's homeland.2

So why haven't I mentioned him more often? Because I don't believe he had much influence, if any, on the development of airpower theory in Britain. This is not a new idea -- Robin Higham argued as much in the 1960s,3 as did Malcolm Smith in the 1980s,4 and it seems to be pretty much accepted by specialists today. Both Higham and Smith point out that there was little discussion of Douhet in Britain before the mid-1930s, and The Command of the Air was not published in English until 1942.5 There are some important differences in the British and Italian theories: in particular, the latter held that absolute air supremacy was not only possible but necessary. More importantly, there are many plausible, native sources of British airpower theory dating from before 1921.
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  1. James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 89-104. 

  2. John Ray, The Night Blitz, 1940-1941 (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1998), 10. 

  3. See 'The place of Douhet' in Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981 [1966]), 257-9. 

  4. Malcolm Smith, "'A matter of faith': British strategic air doctrine before 1939', Journal of Contemporary History, 15 (1980), 423-42. 

  5. Smith says that the RAF Staff College acquired a manuscript translation as early as 1927; but he refers back to Higham for this and I can't find where Higham talks about it. He does mention a manuscript in the possession of the US Army's Air Corps Tactical School in 1933. 

The crisis is over: sanity has prevailed!

Yielding to the unified voice of those millions who desire Internet harmony, Mr. Holman has turned his sword-like challenge into a ploughshare of cooperative and solicitous thoughts!

We extend fraternal greetings to Mr. Holman for his wise and beneficent decision! We rejoice in our return to the collective labor of constructing an air-minded blogosphere!

A nervous world can sleep easier tonight.


WE ARE ALWAYS pleased to learn of a new post on Professor Palmer's most interesting blog, the Avia-Corner. It is the first place one would turn in order to learn about the often murky world of Soviet aviation. However, his latest rant -- there is unfortunately no other word for it -- caught us by surprise, for it is aimed squarely at Airminded itself. It seems that the good professor has taken exception to our previous post, which happened to refer to one of his in what was by no means an unfriendly spirit. As the reaction is out of all proportion to the supposed offence, the suspicion occurs that it is officially inspired. The possible motivations for this scarcely need explaining, but a reply must here be given.
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It's always interesting to see echoes of the golden age of aviation in today's pop culture. At the Avia-Corner, Scott Palmer ends an update on the search for Amelia Earhart with a related music video: Amelia Earhart versus the Dancing Bear, by The Handsome Family. Well, I'll see his 'aviatrix lost at sea, never to be found' and raise him the 'mother proud of [a] little boy'.

This aviatrix is Amy Johnson; I've written about her in relation to this song -- The Golden Age of Aviation by the Lucksmiths -- before. But I like it so much, it deserves a second airing.
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