[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 15 May 2013. I've come up with some absolutely terrible titles for Airminded posts, but I like this one very much.]

Roland Garros is today mainly known for having given his name to the home of French tennis. But long before then he was famous as a pioneer aviator in both peace and war. In December 1912, for example, he set a new altitude record of 17,000 feet, while in September 1913 he made the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean, from France to Tunisia. On the outbreak of war the following year, he joined the French Army as a pilot flying Morane Parasols and flew his first combat mission in mid-August. After some unsatisfactory initial experiments with a rifle-armed observer, Garros sought a way of firing a machine gun in the direction of flight. By April 1915 he had a Parasol equipped with the first deflector gear, which consisted of an armoured propellor with deflecting plates, the idea being that any bullets which hit the propellor would bounce off and the rest would pour into the enemy aircraft. As insane as this seems, it worked, enough: Garros shot down three German aeroplanes in a few weeks, before being forced down behind enemy lines himself and captured. His war wasn't over, however. He escaped from a POW camp in Magdeburg in February 1918, made his way back to France and then back into the air, and claimed a fourth German victim before being killed in action in October, just over a month before the Armistice.1

Despite never meeting the formal definition of five combat kills (which anyway wasn't settled until after his capture), the ovations awarded him by an adoring press had effectively made Garros the first air ace. He wasn't the first French airman to shoot down an enemy aircraft, but something about the solitary nature of his victories captured the public imagination, and set the template for the more successful aces of all nationalities who followed him. So it's interesting to discover that this narrative was prefigured by a rumour about Garros published in the British press at the very beginning of the war, which had him ramming and destroying a Zeppelin at the cost of his own life.
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  1. Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 203-10, 238-9. 

[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 31 August 2011. This is one of a number of posts from Airminded's 7th year making an interesting or original point which probably deserve a wider audience somehow, but which either fall a bit outside my comfort zone or aren't quite big enough for an article. Or I just haven't found the time to write them up. So here (and in Google) they remain, for now.]

RAF recruiting poster

As Alan Allport has noted, Winston Churchill's famous speech of 20 August 1940 was and is remembered for a 'single, unrepresentative sentence', i.e.:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

The speech was given during the Battle of Britain, and 'the Few' are universally taken to be the pilots of Fighter Command, the last line of defence against the Luftwaffe. But, as Alan says, Churchill had relatively little to say about the Battle that day -- he did talk about it, but only as part of a general speech on the war situation. I suggested that if you read the line in context, it actually looks like Churchill is talking about Bomber Command, as he doesn't dwell on Fighter Command at all.
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[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 3 March 2011. Sometimes, blogging takes time. Which reminds me, there are at least two posts I need to finish writing... one day.]

Rutland Reindeer

A recent comment by J Campbell raised the question of whether Nevil Shute's 1949 novel No Highway was in fact a prediction of the De Havilland Comet airliner's metal fatigue problems, which led to two crashes ('hull losses', in industry parlance) in 1954. My response was that it seemed unlikely that Shute had any particular insider knowledge which could have led to such a prediction (made before the prototype had even flown) given that he had already been out of the aircraft manufacturing business for some years. (And if he did have reason to think that the Comet would have metal fatigue, why not warn de Havilland instead of writing a novel?) My own suggestion was that instead No Highway might have been loosely inspired by the R101 disaster back in 1930, a formative moment in Shute's life. Having read the novel now, I don't have any actual evidence for this, but there is an intriguing additional parallel which may have been overlooked (or not, I'm no Shute scholar).

In Shute's novel -- spoilers ahead -- the tailplane of the (fictional) Rutland Reindeer (seen above, from the 1951 film version No Highway In The Sky) is believed by an RAE scientist named Theodore Honey to be susceptible to metal fatigue. The story revolves around the efforts of Honey and Scott, his superior at Farnborough, to prove that an earlier Reindeer crash was due to metal fatigue and so ground the Reindeer fleet before disaster strikes. The obstacles include a slapdash investigation of the previous accident, entrenched interests at the Reindeer's manufacturer Rutland and its operator CATO, the (also fictional) Commonwealth Atlantic Transport Organisation, the novelty of Honey's fatigue theory (inspired by recent advances in nuclear physics!), and Honey's own diffident character and his eclectic interests, including pyramidology, British Israelism, the Second Coming (predicted for 1994), interplanetary rocket travel and spiritualism. Of which more in a moment.
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[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 25 April 2010. My first substantial, and I think still my most effective, critique of Anzac.]

460 Squadron RAAF, 8 December 1944

It's Anzac Day once again. On Anzac Day, Australia remembers some things but forgets others. We remember the sacrifices of the original Anzacs at Gallipoli, but forget that it wasn't only Australians who suffered. We remember the many thousands of young Australians who have fought in foreign wars since then, but forget to ask why they were there. We remember that war can bring out the best in people, but forget that it can also bring out the worst.

One thing we tend to forget is Australia's part in the bombing of Europe in the Second World War. There are a few memorials and exhibits, but when we think of Anzacs we usually think of slouch hats, not flying helmets.
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[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 29 August 2008. This is the first post of my day-by-day blogging -- postblogging -- of the Sudeten (or Munich) crisis; the others can be found here. I was briefly a pioneer of this kind of thing, but it's a pretty obvious idea which you can find all over Twitter, these days. For the blogging historian, it's a useful exercise just for the way it immerses you in the fog of history.]

BRITISH MOVES IN THE CZECH CRISIS / Ministers to Meet To-morrow / BERLIN AMBASSADOR CALLED TO LONDON / Lord Runciman sees Henlein. Manchester Guardian, 29 August 1938, p. 9

The Sudeten crisis (or Czech crisis, or Czech-German crisis as it is called here) wasn't front-page news in the Manchester Guardian on 29 August -- it was on page 9. But that was actually where most newspapers put the most important news. Compared with those of today, British newspapers of the 1930s and before seem to be inside out. The first few pages would have classified ads, then there might be sport, then domestic news. Then, in the middle spread, easy to find when you open the paper, would be the index, leading articles (editorials) and other commentary on the left-hand side, and the major news of the day on the right. (This particular issue had 16 pages, so the leaders were on page 8 and the news on page 9.) Then, on following pages, there might be foreign news, business news, and letters to the editor on the last page. So the Sudeten crisis wasn't front-page news, it was middle-page news!

So, here we see that there is already fairly intense diplomatic activity going on. Neville Chamberlain, the Conservative prime minister (though leading a coalition National Government) is to meet with his ministers (those who were 'available': it was the end of summer and Parliament was in recess, so not everyone was around. Chamberlain himself had just returned from Hampshire). The ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson (a pro-German -- always what you want in an ambassador to Germany), has been recalled for discussions. And Konrad Henlein met with Lord Runciman on the weekend. Runciman was a former Liberal MP and minister who had been sent by Chamberlain (albeit in an unofficial capacity) to mediate between the Sudeten minority and the Czechoslovakian government after an earlier crisis. He was known to favour the Sudetens. Henlein was always described as the leader of the Sudeten Germans, but he was actually leader of the Sudeten German Party, which was not the same thing since the Sudetens did not have autonomy. Indeed, autonomy is ostensibly what Henlein was seeking on behalf of the Sudetens.
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[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 17 May 2008. I reuse these visualisations of the Blitz and the knock-out blow from the air, especially the second one, all the time -- they're in my book and just this week I showed them in a lecture and a conference paper. So it's one of Airminded's more useful posts.]

The talk at Earth Sciences went well, I think. It was a good-sized audience and they seemed interested in what I had to say, judging by the questions afterwards. I also found out that one of the honorary fellows had actually lived in London during the war, and though only a child could remember watching out for V1s passing overhead and even the 'electric' atmosphere of the day that war was declared.

I was all set to record the talk, but forgot to fire up the audio app. At some point, I may try recording it again at home or just putting the text up. Until then, here are a couple of the graphs I used, along with some different ways of presenting the same numbers. (Except where indicated, the data is courtesy of Dan Todman, who compiled it from Home Office files. Thanks Dan!)

Civilian casualties in Britain due to aerial bombardment, 1939-1945 (monthly)

Firstly, this shows the civilian casualties (killed and seriously wounded) each month in Britain due to enemy action between 1939-1945. Most -- all? -- of these will have the result of bombing, so I've labeled it accordingly. (This is the counterpart of a histogram I did for 1914-1918, except that combined civilian and military casualties, and separated different forms of attack.) It's easy to pick out the Luftwaffe's major offensives: the biggest peak is September 1940, when the Blitz started; it ended in May 1941, after which casualties were never so high again. There's a relative lull in January and February 1941, due largely to bad weather conditions. In April-June 1942, there's the Baedeker Blitz and from January 1944, the Baby Blitz. Then there's the V-1 offensive in June-September 1944 and the V-2 offensive in September 1944-March 1945.
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[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 22 December 2006. My first attempt to set out a scholarly justification of my fascination with mystery aircraft.]


On the night of 23 March 1909, a police constable named Kettle saw a most unusual thing: 'a strange, cigar-shaped craft passing over the city'1 of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. His friends were sceptical, but his story was corroborated, to an extent, by Mr Banyard and Mrs Day, both of nearby March, who separately saw something similar two nights later. In fact, these incidents were only the prelude to a series of several dozen such sightings throughout April and especially May, mostly from East Anglia and South Wales. As the London Standard noted in May, there seemed to be common features to the various eyewitness accounts:

With few exceptions they all speak of a torpedo-shaped object, possessing two powerful searchlights, which comes out early at night.2

So, what was torpedo-shaped and capable of flight in 1909? An airship, of course. The press (metropolitan and provincial) certainly assumed that the most likely explanation for these 'fly-by-nights' was an airship or airships, generally terming them 'phantom airships', 'mystery airships', 'scareships' or something similar.
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  1. Standard (London), 17 May 1909, p. 9. 

  2. Ibid. 


[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 22 December 2005. Some people liked it, but Andy suggested that 'Your a prat who likes to distort history and I bet you wear sandels Brainwashed little moron'.]

I was in the bowels of the ERC library at Melbourne Uni the other day, scavenging for primary sources, when a book called The Peril of the White caught my eye - not because it has anything to do with my topic, but because of the author, who has one of the most splendidly silly names in modern British history: Sir Leo Chiozza Money.1 Sir Leo was a Liberal and then Labour politician who is unfortunately mostly remembered for having been caught in a park late at night with a young lady, while in the middle of giving her what he claimed was 'career advice' (apparently not intended as a euphemism). Anyway, he was also a writer, and his The Peril of the White was published in 1925. The 'peril' of the title is that of race suicide, due to the slowing birth-rate of European and European-descended peoples. More particularly, his worry was that this would place European control of the rest of the world's peoples in doubt, since their birth-rate remained high:

It is for ever true that we must renew or die. The European stock cannot presume to hold magnificent areas indefinitely, even while it refuses to people them, and to deny their use and cultivation to races that sorely need them.2

He graphically illustrated the problem with this colour plate in the frontispiece (click to see larger version):

The Peril of the White

Pretty standard stuff for the time, I think. But it's interesting that Chiozza Money ends on a plea for racial tolerance, arguing strongly against any kind of slavery, formal or economic: 'Every private act and every act of legislation which denies respect to mankind of whatever race will have to be paid for a hundredfold'.3 Though of course, his ultimate reason for being nice to the natives was to keep them happy and therefore quiet.
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  1. The silliest name, of course, belongs to Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, whose other claim to fame was leading the diplomatic mission to the USSR in August 1939 to see if Stalin was interested in an alliance with Britain. (He wasn't.) 

  2. Leo Chiozza Money, The Peril of the White (London: W. Collins Sons & Co, 1925), 159. 

  3. Ibid, 168. 


Airminded, 7 July 2005

It's 10 years to the day since I put up Airminded's first post, imaginatively entitled 'First post!' That is a long time ago, a very long time in internet years. Still, Airminded wasn't one of the first history blogs. In fact, Ralph Luker (of Cliopatria fame, alas long since retired from blogging) made a start on writing the history of history blogging two entire months before Airminded even began. Ralph identified Kevin Murphy as the first bona fide historian blogger: Kevin's Ghost in the Machine began in 1999 (in the last millennium!) and is still going strong, though it's not so much about history these days. King of the geek/historians Rob McDougall started on 1 January 2001. Rebecca Goetz started in July 2002 (as she recounts in her own recollections, conveniently published just last month); Tim Burke started in November. Mark Grimsley started the precursor to War Historian (for a long time the military history blog) sometime in 2003. Cliopatria itself, which in many ways became the centre of the history blogging community, or at least its central clearinghouse, started in December 2003. All these history blogs and bloggers were well-established by the time I came along, or indeed before I was really aware of blogging at all. So by starting a history blog in 2005, I was merely joining a swelling crowd.

The only sense in which Airminded might have stood out from that crowd in any sense (apart from being non-American) was in being resolutely, well, airminded. Most of the history blogs I was aware of when I was thinking of starting my own were much more personal or political than I wanted to get -- they were written by historians trying to make sense of academia, or trying to make sense of the world outside academia. I wanted my blog to be much more about trying to make sense of history, the history I was researching. In other words, Airminded was to be a history research blog. (About airpower and British society. Mostly.) But again, I wasn't the first to think along these lines -- Miriam Burstein's Victorian literature blog, The Little Professor, was definitely an inspiration for me; Esther MacCallum-Stewart's (much-missed!) Break of Day in the Trenches was at least three years old; Alun Salt was already around, somewhere (and still is, I'm very glad to say); Sharon Howard's Early Modern Notes was also well-established; a few months after Airminded, Kevin Levin's research blog, Civil War Memory, independently came out of a strong American Civil War blogging community, but soon set the standards for everyone to emulate (or try to).

I didn't always keep to my original vision -- I quickly pulled back from putting everything I was doing or thinking out there (and blogged about that, of course; I never did do anything with the idea I was so concerned to protect, something about interwar robotic warfare, I think) and I did comment on academia, memory, and sometimes even politics. In any case, history blogging as a whole has changed: as Becky notes, much of its conversation and spontaneity (and procrastination) has moved elsewhere, especially Twitter, for good or ill. And, naturally, Airminded has evolved along with my career; teaching is not conducive to serious blogging, at least not if you're me. But I think my blogging has created a profile for myself which I would not otherwise have had as a junior scholar in a remote part of the academic world. I've even worked out how to turn research blogging into research publications (at least sometimes). On the whole, Airminded has remained largely about my research, one way or another, and I'm pretty pleased with the way it has turned out.

Airminded has always been a big part of my scholarly identity. I started it a month before I started my PhD; ten years, 1426 posts, 873000 words (not to mention 6850 comments -- thank you! Most of you, anyway...) -- and one thesis, five peer-reviewed articles, and one scholarly monograph -- later, I'm coming towards the end of my first academic position, and Airminded will still be with me, whatever happens after that. (Take that as a promise or a threat, as you like!)

To celebrate Airminded's tenth birthday -- not having done much for its first or its fifth -- I'm going to take a leaf out of Sharon's blog and repost some of my favourite Airminded posts over the next little while. And for anyone who makes it through all of that, there might even be a surprise.

Image source: via Wayback Machine.


These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, http://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

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