[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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RAF Pageant, Hendon, 1920

The Australian International Airshow 2007 took place last week, at Avalon near Melbourne. All I saw of it was a C-17, a F-111 escorted by two Hawks, four F/A-18s in a diamond formation, and a few helicopters (Tigers?) -- presumably all RAAF/ADF aircraft -- which buzzed the City and inner suburbs earlier in the week. I did go to the 2003 air show -- info and pics here and here -- and got to see a variety of interesting aircraft -- a B-1B, a Meteor, a Canberra, a Global Hawk, even a flying Blériot replica. And fell in love with Connie, like everyone else who saw her.

One of the highlights was the First World War display, involving a Fokker Triplane, a Sopwith Camel, an SE.5a and a Nieuport 11 (and several chronologically-challenged Tiger Moths and maybe some others). Naturally they put on a mock combat, something these old warbirds do best -- yeah, seeing and hearing F-15s scream low over the runway is a thrill, but 2 seconds later and the plane is gone, or else up high in the sky and you have to reach for your binoculars. Biplanes fly low and slow -- so everyone can follow the action -- but are also very maneuverable -- so are fun to watch. Plus there's that whole "knights of the air" thing going on. Anyway, the climax of the display was an attack on a balloon -- I think it was supposed to be an observation balloon, but my memory is fuzzy and I'm not sure if it was in the air or still on the ground. Of course the attack is successful and the hydrogen goes whoosh! and there's a nice big explosion.
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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.