Medea

In my eleventh contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I took another look at how the economic war at sea was working out. My particular focus this week was the sinking of the Dutch freighter Medea (above), the first neutral casualty of Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign. I also discussed the difficult position of the Netherlands as it continued to trade with both sides while trying to keep out of the war that was all around it, and the way that Medea's sinking led to fears of a German invasion -- which in turn threatened Churchill's plans for the Dardanelles. As usual, there's some aviation in here too, particularly German air attacks on merchant ships in the North Sea.

Image source: The Great War Blog.

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Abolish all war aeroplanes

I found this pro-disarmament poster on eBay (at US$1985, I won't be buying it!) The text reads:

THE TRANSPORT OF THE FUTURE.
FOR WHAT?
DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
OR
FRIENDSHIP AND PEACE
Abolish All War Aeroplanes

This is the seller's own description:

An incredibly rare original vintage anti-war poster circa 1938 in fine condition, archivally mounted on acid-free paper and linen-backed. Measures 28 1/2 x 18 3/4 inches (63 x 48 cm). Fine condition or nearly so (A). Lightly toned, a few repaired closed short tears from edges (clearly shown in photos). A few minor instances of printer overpainting in the letters. Possible light stain or mild abrasion to image area. Generally in fine condition. Produced by the Friends' Peace Committee, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 and the Northern Friends' Peace Board, Spring Bank, Rawdon, Nr. Leeds, England, and printed by H.W. & V. Ltd., London.

I doubt that it's as late as 1938, as claimed by the seller. A biplane is a bit (though not completely) old-fashioned for 1938, for a start. Katherine Firth suggested that the font is more late 1920s/early 1930s. And the poster's message doesn't make much sense for 1938, when disarmament was no longer realistic. Not that pacifists are always realistic, by any means; but the connection that is drawn between civil and military aviation, between the possibilities of 'death and destruction' through 'war aeroplanes' and 'friendship and peace' through aerial 'transport of the future' is very suggestive of 1932-34, when the World Disarmament Conference debated and tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve precisely this nexus -- usually considered to be the commercial bomber. That said, these two groups (both affiliated with the Society of Friends, i.e. the Quakers) do seem to be separating out civil aviation from military aviation, arguing that a simple ban on military aircraft would save civilisation from destruction and allow it to benefit from air travel. It was more perhaps usual to argue that the internationalisation of civil aviation in some form was required in order to prevent airliners from being turned into bombers, with a further step being the internationalisation of military aviation as well. I can't find any reference to this poster in BNA but a quick search does confirm that the Friends' Peace Committee and the Northern Friends' Peace Board were fairly vocal in 1933-35, for example writing an open letter to the prime minister in 1933 warning against starting aerial rearmament while the Geneva conference was still in the balance, and in 1935 deploring the inevitability of attacks upon civilians implicit in the initiation of air raid precautions.1 The poster is at least evidence that they tried to persuade the public (or some sector of the public) of the aerial danger too.


  1. Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 December 1933, 7; Western Daily Press (Bristol), 14 May 1935, 8

SMS Dresden before scuttling

For my tenth contribution to the Road to War series on ABC New England today, I discussed how the mutual naval blockades between Britain and Germany were becoming more total. In this week in 1915, Britain extended its blockade of Germany; the German unrestricted submarine blockade began to sink greater numbers of ships, including one of the British blockaders; Germany acknowledged that it would have to pay the United States for sinking one of its merchant ships; and, off the Chilean island of Más a Tierra, the British intercepted the German raider SMS Dresden (above, just before its scuttling). So there was a lot going on in the economic war at sea.

Image source: Wikimedia.

William Mulligan. The Great War for Peace. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014. It may not have been the war that ended war, but Mulligan argues that we nevertheless shouldn't underestimate the contribution the First World War made to peace, not only through the usual suspects (the League of Nations and a slew of other international organisations) but also through normalising the idea of peace.

David Stevens. In All Respects Ready: Australia's Navy in World War One. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014. When I bought this I thought it was part of OUP's Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, of which Michael Molkentin's Australia and the War in the Air is the first volume (of five). Oddly, though, it's not, and the series isn't going to have an entry on the naval war. Either way it looks like a comprehensive and accessible overview.

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Art.IWM PST 12220

FREE
TRIP
TO
EUROPE;
INVITATIONS
ISSUED
TO-DAY

or

ALL ELIGIBLE MEN Will be Given FREE CLOTHING, FOOD, MONEY, STEAMER AND TRAIN ACCOMMODATION, AND A TRIP FULL OF ADVENTURE AND INTEREST, FORMING THE GREATEST EVENT OF THEIR LIVES, TO DO THEIR DUTY AT THE PLACE WHERE EVERY FIT AUSTRALIAN SHOULD BE -- STANDING SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH HIS PRESENT DEFENDERS IN EUROPE; INVITATIONS (IN THEMSELVES DIPLOMAS OF HONOUR FOR EVER) WILL BE ISSUED AND COMRADESHIP ESTABLISHED TO-DAY ON APPLICATION TO ANY RECRUITING OFFICER.

Source: Imperial War Museum.

Amanda Laugesen, Furphies and Whizz-bangs: Anzac Slang from the Great War, South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2015. Did you know that a word as quintessentially Aussie as 'Aussie' was a product of the First World War? Well, you do now, because I just told you; and I know it because I just read it (among other things) in this book.

Diana Preston, A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare, New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2015. Preston argues that the period in April-May 1915 was essentially where the era of weapons of mass destruction began, spanning as it did the first use of poison gas, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the first Zeppelin raid on London. I think she has a point; while I would place this in a slightly longer context of brutality and destruction (Belgium, Scarborough, etc), the conjunction of these events may well have marked a watershed in the mental shift to a total war, at least in English-speaking countries.

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Tu-95 Bear

Every so often, Vladimir Putin gets annoyed with NATO and engages in a bit of sabre-rattling, sending a few Tu-95 Bear bombers on long-range flights off the coast of Portugal or Canada in order to remind them that Russia is not to be taken lightly (I happened to be at a conference at a RAF base shortly after these flights resumed, and it had certainly caught the attention of the air force officers there). In many ways, the Tu-95 is the equivalent of the American B-52: they are both strategic bombers, which first flew in 1952 yet are expected to remain in service into the 2040s. Remarkably, though, the Tu-95 is not a jet, it's a turboprop. That makes it seem like a charming old relic of a bygone age; and maybe it is, but it's a nuclear-capable one. Which is precisely why interceptors are scrambled whenever these bombers appear off the coast and why reports of the interceptions soon appear in the media, which in turn is why Russia keeps doing it. Earlier this week, two Tu-95s were sent down the English Channel, as far as Cornwall, apparently in response to British concerns about Russian involvement in Ukraine and the Baltics. Lately, these flights are becoming so frequent as to almost be routine: the RAF carried out four times as many interceptions in 2014 as in 2013; another English Channel flyby took place three weeks before the latest one.
...continue reading

Errol W. Martyn. A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation Before the Great War. Volume 2: Aero Clubs, Aeroplanes, Aviators and Aeronauts 1910-1914. Upper Riccarton: Volplane Press, 2013.

Errol W. Martyn. A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation Before the Great War. Volume 3: The Joe Hammond Story and Military Beginnings 1910-1914. Upper Riccarton: Volplane Press, 2013. Volume 1 is very good so I decided it was worth buying volumes 2 and 3. More narrative than analytical, but there is a lot of material here for early NZ airmindedness and aerial theatre, drawn largely from the contemporary press but also with significant use of archival material. Very well illustrated too, with lots of photographs and ephemera. I don't know of anything equivalent for Britain, unfortunately, though of course that would be a much bigger job.

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I'd forgotten that today was the 70th anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, but luckily the producers of Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 Live remembered. I spoke to presenter Dotun Adebayo and fellow historian Raymond Sun this afternoon (just before 5am Greenwich Mean Time), and for the next 29 days you can listen to our conversation here (the recording is the whole programme, 4 hours long, so skip to about 3:47:15).

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Hector Hawton. Night Bombing. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1944. A rather interesting secondhand bookshop find. Hawton was a novelist, rationalist and during the war a flight lieutenant in the RAFVR. Here he has written an explanation, a history, and a justification of British bombing strategy in the Second World War. It's less overtly propagandistic than J. M. Spaight's wartime writings, I think, Hawton grants that the Blitz was largely directed at industrial targets, as is Bomber Command's campaign; but he also straightforwardly and even proudly lists the urban areas the British have destroyed and the civilians they have killed. Perceptive, too; he speculates about what might happen if the power of the atom were ever harnessed for war (noting that science often moves more quickly than laypeople think) and suggests that no nation would be able to maintain a monopoly of such a weapon, but also that it would be too terrible to be used.

Richard Hillary. The Last Enemy. London: Macmillan, 1950 [1942]. A classic of Australian war literature.

Michael Molkentin. Australia and the War in Air. The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, volume 1. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014. Both an operational and an institutional history of the Australian Flying Corps, as well as the origins of military aviation in Australia before 1914 and the birth of the RAAF, but also a contribution to a much broader historiography about the RFC/RAF and the development of early airpower (think Sydney Wise's Canadian Airmen and the First World War). And it even finds space to mention the Australian mystery aircraft of 1909 and 1918. The book of Michael's PhD thesis, but don't hold that it against it.