S.55s over the Alps

This photograph purportedly shows a squadron of Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats over the Alps on 1 July 1933, during the second and last of the long-distance formation flights led by the Fascist air minister, Italo Balbo (hence 'balbo', briefly in vogue to describe a large formation of aircraft), Rome to Chicago and back. These flights were (and were intended to be) a powerful and spectacular display the reach and power of Italian aviation, repeated and enhanced through images such as this, and therefore a prime example of what I call aerial theatre.
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Sputnik I

After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.

I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!

Image source: NASA.

So, after a month of reposts, my celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary is nearly over. All that remains is the surprise which I promised, which is (no surprise!) the PhD thesis I submitted way back in 2009, for which I was subsequently awarded my PhD -- after all, Airminded began life as a PhD blog. This thesis formed the basis for my book published in 2014, but they are different works. While there is of course substantial overlap between them, the book has been substantially revised and updated from the thesis, and in places completely rewritten. So the book is much better, but the thesis is a lot cheaper, because it's free. I'm aware that there are people who are interested in my book but can't afford the asking price (or find it in a library), so the thesis is the next best thing. I actually should have put it online as soon as it was passed, so that it could be read and cited, but I was worried that publishers wouldn't be interested in it. But I now think that fear is greatly exaggerated -- much like the knock-out blow from the air itself!

You can download my PhD thesis from the Downloads page or directly from here.

[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 6 September 2014. The start of my investigation into rumours of, well, secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in 1914, which continued here and here, and concluded here. And will eventually be published somewhere.]

On ABC New England last week I briefly mentioned rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the early months of the First World War. So far as I have been able to determine, the stories, which peaked in October 1914, centred on three locations: the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Chiltern Hills.

The one in the Lake District is the best known of these, partly because of the involvement of B. C. Hucks, a famous aviator before the war (he was a regular at Hendon, the first British pilot to loop and, later, inventor of the Hucks starter), but paradoxically it's the hardest to find much information about. According to Cole and Cheesman,

One persistent rumour of a Zeppelin operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere was dispelled only after Lieut. B. C. Hucks -- a highly experienced prewar civil pilot -- had searched the Lake District from a Blériot monoplane.1

Hayward adds a few more details:

In September 1914 a local rumour in Cumberland held that a German airship was operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere, and flew sorties over Westmorland by night. The story was only dispelled after a Royal Flying Corps pilot undertook several patrols above the Lake District in a Bleriot monoplane, and saw nothing but glorious scenery.2

Similarly brief accounts can be found here and there, but they all likewise concentrate on Hucks' search rather than the rumours themselves, and I haven't been able to find any primary sources.3
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  1. Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 8. 

  2. James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), 18. 

  3. Presumably the War Office and the Home Office are the places to look. Hucks' WO 339 might also have something. 

[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 1 March 2014. This was an initial roughing out of an idea for my next big research project, which hasn't quite happened because I've been distracted by other things and haven't got any funding yet. But I still hope to pursue it in some form.]

Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.
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  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. [Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. 

[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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