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A key element in any wargame is the scenario. It sets the boundaries in time and space of the simulation, as well as its initial conditions. For a historical wargame, a scenario might be the battle of Cannae, or the British and Canadian sectors at D-Day. Creating such scenarios involves researching orders of battle, contemporary maps, unit diaries, histories and so on. From this research flows the game map, units and the rules themselves. For a counterfactual and indeed retrofuturistic game of the knock-out blow such as I'm contemplating, there are by definition no historical events to draw upon. So where would I start?

One way is to just create a generic scenario, drawing on my own understanding of interwar airpower writing. The obvious one would be the classic knock-out blow scenario, with Germany launching a surprise attack on London, and a war lasting a few days. That has the advantage of being relatively unconstrained and easy to design, and fits in well with the microgame approach Philip Sabin recommends. And I may well do just that. But there's another way, which is to use some of the scenarios imagined during the interwar period itself.
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As we all1 know, the Aerial League of the British Empire (later the Air League of the British Empire, now just the Air League) was founded in 1909. Less well-known is that the Aerial League also sponsored the formation of the Women's Aerial League (they are often described as being affiliated, or as the latter being part of the former, but while relations were friendly the Women's Aerial League seems to have led its own existence), which itself set up the Boys' and Girls' Aerial League (which I think later changed its name to the Young Aerial League). But even less well-known is that all of these aerial leagues were preceded by what seems to have been an entirely separate and apparently very short-lived air league known as Britain's Air League.

The only trace of this I have been able to find so far is a brief article in the Sunday Times in early January 1909:

BRITAIN'S AERIAL LEAGUE

On all hands the signs are visible that the aeroplane is rapidly becoming an accomplished fact. The appalling prospect which its use as an engine of warfare suggests has led to the formation of 'Britain's Aerial League,' the main object of which is to employ every means possible to bring about an international understanding by which the use of airships, aeroplanes, and other aerial machinery shall be prohibited in war, except for observation purposes. The incalculable damage which could be effected in a few hours by a fleet of foreign airships surely needs no insisting upon. Another object of the league is to urge upon public men, without distinction of party, the necessity for placing the United Kingdom upon a level with other countries as regards the building of aerial machines. It will also assist inventors in giving practical trials of their machines. The hon. secretary of the league is Mr. John Mayou, 1, Pump-court, Temple, E.C.2

The obvious question to ask is whether this might be in fact the good old Aerial League of the British Empire, given that it had its first meeting in February 1909, but with advance publicity appearing in the press in late January, less than three weeks after this article appeared. The name is different, of course, but maybe it was decided to change it before the actual launch -- 'Britain's Air League' is a rather awkward formulation, after all. Or perhaps the name was still under discussion at the start of January and the press was notified by mistake. It could be that this Britain's Air League is a glimpse of the embryonic Aerial League of the British Empire.
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  1. For very small values of 'all', obviously. 

  2. Sunday Times, 3 January 1909, 5. 

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Things are starting to happen with my forthcoming book, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908–1941, which is being published by Ashgate. The manuscript has just been proofread, the cover design is in the works, I have a marketing questionnaire to fill out. The book is now listed on the Ashgate website and in their First World War Centenary catalogue. Here's the book description:

In the early twentieth century, the new technology of flight changed warfare irrevocably, not only on the battlefield, but also on the home front. As prophesied before 1914, Britain in the First World War was effectively no longer an island, with its cities attacked by Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers in one of the first strategic bombing campaigns. Drawing on prewar ideas about the fragility of modern industrial civilization, some writers now began to argue that the main strategic risk to Britain was not invasion or blockade, but the possibility of a sudden and intense aerial bombardment of London and other cities, which would cause tremendous destruction and massive casualties. The nation would be shattered in a matter of days or weeks, before it could fully mobilize for war. Defeat, decline, and perhaps even extinction, would follow. This theory of the knock-out blow from the air solidified into a consensus during the 1920s and by the 1930s had largely become an orthodoxy, accepted by pacifists and militarists alike. But the devastation feared in 1938 during the Munich Crisis, when gas masks were distributed and hundreds of thousands fled London, was far in excess of the damage wrought by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz in 1940 and 1941, as terrible as that was. The knock-out blow, then, was a myth.

But it was a myth with consequences. For the first time, The Next War in the Air reconstructs the concept of the knock-out blow as it was articulated in the public sphere, the reasons why it came to be so widely accepted by both experts and non-experts, and the way it shaped the responses of the British public to some of the great issues facing them in the 1930s, from pacifism to fascism. Drawing on both archival documents and fictional and non-fictional publications from the period between 1908, when aviation was first perceived as a threat to British security, and 1941, when the Blitz ended, and it became clear that no knock-out blow was coming, The Next War in the Air provides a fascinating insight into the origins and evolution of this important cultural and intellectual phenomenon, Britain's fear of the bomber.

Contents: Introduction; Part I Threats: Constructing the knock-out blow, 1908-1931;The bomber ascendant, 1932-1941. Part II Responses: Living with the bomber: adaptation; The only defence is in offence: resistance; Wings over the world: negotiation. Part III Crises: Defence panics and air panics; The German air menace: 1913, 1922 and 1935; Barcelona, Canton and London: 1938; The Battles of London: 1917 and 1940; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.

Most importantly, it now has an official price and publication date: £70 (hardcover) and June 2014 respectively (though they're different on Amazon in the UK and the US). There will also be ePUB and PDF editions.

Time to start saving up your pennies!

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Airminded was down for a couple of days recently, and it now has a new look. The reason for this is that it was hacked, and nuking the entire site from orbit was the only way to be sure.

To be more specific, I noticed last week that Google searches for Airminded were throwing up some odd results, with words and links that no real person has ever typed on this blog appearing next to the more expected ones. But when I checked the posts in question, they looked fine. So, spoofing my browser's user agent, I was able to see Airminded as Googlebot saw it, and it looked something like this:
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So, I want to construct a knock-out blow wargame. In my PhD/book, I define an ideal knock-out blow from the air as having six key characteristics. Three of these describe the attack itself: surprise, scale, and speed. Three describe what it destroyed: infrastructure, morale, and civilisation itself.

Starting with the attack, as this will define most of the actual mechanics of the game:

  • Surprise. An attack would be next to impossible to detect. Strategically, an attack would likely come without any warning; the aggressor would be able to time the offensive for maximum effect, and the defender would not be mobilised. Even if an attack is expected, incoming bombers could not be detected before crossing the border, which in the British case means that the best that could be done would be to mount inefficient standing patrols to try to intercept them before they reached London, or attempt to catch them on the way back after unloading their cargo. And even then, the bombers would be hard to find, and able to defend themselves very effectively. Bombers will be the most important units in the game, therefore; fighters might even be abstracted out into the combat system. Also, if the initial attack does not incapacitate, then the defender would be able to launch its own raids on the aggressor, so both sides will need to have bombers.
  • Scale. The aerial fleets involved would be massive compared with the strategic bombing campaigns of the First World War, maybe even those of the Second, with hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of bombers. Some of these could be commercial bombers, airliners converted to military use, which might be a bit less effective than purpose-built bombers, but not by much. The low interception rates mean also that there would be little wastage. So there might be a lot of units, though the tendency to fly en masse might mitigate this. It depends on the scale.
  • Speed. A knock-out blow would operate very quickly: months, weeks, perhaps even days. This factors into the length of a turn. An entire knock-out blow could be simulated in, say, 15 turns of a week or so. Note, however, that at this scale it would take much less than a turn for bombers to reach the target. So a strategic level game like this would not involve units flying around the map, but rather they would be committed in an abstract sense to a target or even a theatre. They might not even be represented as counters at all, but as a numeric force level, which moves up and down according to attrition or production (which could be a factor at this scale). You might not even need a map (though if there are multiple theatres it might help). So, quite abstract. An alternative would be to have a smaller scale game, simulating something like one day in the war, and turns being maybe two or three hours. Then you could do the more familiar, and perhaps more accessible, style of game with units moving around the map and opposing units trying to stop them. Another level would be the tactical one, fighters vs bombers. At this scale, a game might not be very different from the historical reality, since it is a given that interception has taken place. But bombers in formation would be much more capable of self-defence, even without escorts (which were generally not thought necessary).

Turning now to the effects of a knock-out blow, the question is whether to simulate these directly or abstractly. It would be possible in principle to simulate a nation's industries, communications, resources, ports and civilian morale, and the interdependencies between them. Attacking any of these would have knock-on effects, and eventually the cumulative damage would cause society to break down completely. At this point, if not before, effective resistance would cease and the knock-out blow has succeeded. Factories, power plants, ports, railway and road nodes, administrative centres, etc, could be marked on the map and selected as targets; civilian morale is obviously more abstract, but equally obviously attacking population centres would be the best way to attack morale. (Hello, London.) Alternatively, all these targets could be taken off the map and damage to each type tracked by moving a counter along a track. Much easier, though perhaps less fun. Again, it would probably depend on the scale of the game itself, and whether there is a map at all. Either way, some way of representing the knock-on effects would be needed; perhaps when damage to one target system reaches a certain level then damage could be added to all of them. A similar mechanism could be used to determine the degradation of a nation's fighting ability, with production falling off as the knock-out blow proceeds, for example. (Raids directly against the enemy air force could also be undertaken, which might degrade it more rapidly but at the cost of passing up an opportunity to bring a knock-out blow closer.) Or all of that could be emulated much more simply with a victory point system.

So this gives some idea of the considerations involved in designing a game simulating the knock-out blow, not as it would have been fought, but how it was thought it would have been fought. Some things have become clearer. The key thing is decide the scale of the game, since war looks different at different scales. This is why Philip Sabin's concept of nested simulations is useful: two or three games are better than one (at least if your goal is enlightenment rather than enjoyment). In this case, there's a strategic game with turns of a week or so, and a large-scale map or no map at all; an operational game lasting a day and with a map covering the parts of each combatant reachable by its opponent's air force; and a tactical game at a much smaller scale, with turns lasting seconds or minutes and units of individual aircraft, say. As I've suggested above, I think this tactical game would tell us less about the knock-out blow than the other ones, so henceforth I'll concentrate on the operational and strategic games.

Joanna Bourke. Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. A now-classic gender analysis of the impact of the First World War on masculinity -- mostly in social and cultural terms, but the first chapter is entitled 'Mutilating' so sometimes the impact is quite literal. Other topics include the change in male identities occasioned by the much more intense official and public interest in the male body, and the postwar sanitisation of all the death and suffering in the form of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (which seems natural enough to us now, but supposedly the bones of the dead at Waterloo were turned into fertiliser only a century earlier).

Peter J. Dean, ed. Australia 1943: The Liberation of New Guinea. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Having read Australia 1942 (2012), I'm keen to find out what happened next. As the title indicates, the perspective is Australian, but there are also chapters on Japanese and American strategy alongside the analyses of the land campaigns in New Guinea. There are also chapters on the RAN and the RAAF in 1943, but this is where I have reservations. The one on the RAAF is by the same author who did the corresponding chapter in Australia 1942, a simple narrative of the aerial campaign, the battles and losses involved. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but the rest of Australia 1942 is much more analytical and pays much more attention to the strategic, logistical, administrative (etc) contexts. The chapter on the RAN was up to this standard; the one on the RAAF was not. Australian airpower history often seems to miss out like this.

Robert and Barbara Donington. The Citizen Faces War. London: Victor Gollancz, 1936. While certainly very sympathetic to pacifism, conscientious objection and war resistance, in the face of the knock-out blow from the air the Doningtons end up plumping for an international air force by way of internationalised civil aviation (and maybe the air pact). Robert later became a respected academic musicologist and early music expert; not sure about Barbara.

Margot A. Henriksen. Dr Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1997. Argues that the American countercultures of the 1960s were primarily a response to nuclear weapons. Sounds like a bit of a stretch, but as the book covers everything from atomic bomb shelters as well as youth rebellion, it should be fun.

Spencer R. Weart. Nuclear Fears: A History of Images. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1988. This has some overlap with the preceding book, but lacks the contentious hypothesis, covers most of the 20th century (and at least glances outside the United States) and tries to be comprehensive with respect to the various concepts about and responses to nuclear weapons in the public sphere (including death rays and UFOs). In some ways this is reminiscent of what I attempted to do in my PhD/book for the (conventional) bomber -- it would have been useful to have had this, say, eight years ago, especially as Weart provides an appendix on his methodology.

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Navy League poster, 1913

This is the poster produced by the Navy League in 1913 as a key part of its campaign to force the government to increase the amount it spent on military and naval aviation -- or as the poster itself puts it, rather more succinctly:

THE NAVY LEAGUE
DEMANDS £1,000,000.
FOR
AERIAL
DEFENCE

BRITONS
WAKE UP!

Describing this poster as a holy grail is somewhat of an overstatement, but it had been proving elusive. I'd read a description of it in the popular press, and found some information about where it was distributed and how much it cost in the Navy League archives, but I hadn't managed to find an actual reproduction of it until I looked at The Navy, May 1913, 135. The official organ of the Navy League was always a likely bet, but when I visited the UK last year, the British Library's copies were unavailable due to the move from Colindale to Boston Spa, and the relevant volume in the Navy League archives was missing. So, naturally, I found a copy in the State Library of Victoria on a quick visit during my holidays.

The description I'd already had turns out to have been perfectly accurate, and so arguably being able to see the design rather than read about it adds little (though the lines of airships and aeroplanes rising up behind Britannia might suggest it an influence from the Illustrated London News). But it will make a nice illustration for an article -- and even nicer if I can find a colour version...

Joan Beaumont. Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2013. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, it's high time we had a book like this: a synoptic overview of the whole of Australia's war, from the fighting overseas to the conflicts at home, from why we got into the war to what we got out of it. Sadly, no mention of mystery aeroplanes that I can see.

Arthur Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. Volume 1: The Road to War 1904-1914. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2013 [1961]. The classic account of the Royal Navy and the naval arms race with Germany before 1914. Dated now, no doubt, but still influential and still a good source for a lot of boring but necessary facts. Four more volumes cover the actual war years, if you like that sort of thing.

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As I discussed recently, Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) is primarily about using wargames to understand past wars. This is sensible; apart from the obvious benefit of helping us to understand history better, there's also the useful featurethat there are some facts to go on -- this war, campaign or battle happened once before, so we know something about the forces involved, the terrain it was fought on, the dynamics of combat at the time, and so on. Sabin does occasionally discuss wargaming future conflicts, though mainly in the context of wargaming in the military, where refighting the last (or worse) war is of limited interest.

However, I've been thinking about how to wargame something which is not quite a historical war, and not quite a future war: the knock-out blow from the air. This never actually happened in the past, but for a time was thought to be what might happen in the future. Precisely because of this, a wargame of the knock-out blow could be extremely valuable in demonstrating just how far it was from the reality of aerial warfare. But also precisely because of this, it would be difficult to find the information needed to design the game.

Difficult, not impossible. In fact, I've already done most of the work needed. Part of my PhD and forthcoming book involves a reconstruction of an ideal or consensus form of the knock-out blow theory as it was articulated in the airpower literature from the First World War to the Second. So I could use this as the basis for a wargame showing not what would have happened, or even what could have happened, but what people thought was going to happen in the next war.

Well, that's easier said than done. As Sabin discusses, there are many ways of representing warfare in a wargame, and hence many choices to be made about the maps, the counters, and most importantly the rules. How do this? While I have a reasonable amount of experience playing wargames, I have none designing them. One thing Sabin suggests is starting with an existing game on a related topic, and adapting it to suit or at least borrowing useful elements. Now, as far as I know, there aren't any other wargames simulating the knock-out blow, or for that matter strategic aerial warfare in the interwar period.1 So three realistic options come to mind. One is to start with a game set in the First World War, and project it forward. I have a couple of these: The First Battle of Britain and Airships at War 1916-1918. The second is to start with a game set in the Second World War, and project it backwards. Again, I have a few to work with here, including RAF and The Burning Blue. These approaches both have the advantage of the games being at appropriate scales, and of simulating the sorts of dynamics and tradeoffs inherent in aerial warfare. They have the disadvantage, of course, of being based on historical reality rather than contemporary imagination. The third option, then, is start with a game simulating nuclear warfare, since in many ways that's closer to the anticipated effects of the knock-out blow than was actual aerial warfare of the period. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a few such games, such as the Warplan: Dropshot/First Strike series and Fail Safe. Unfortunately I don't have any of these, though perhaps unsurprisingly I have been meaning to change that. These, of course, would be at a completely different scale to aerial warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, though that may not actually be too much of a problem at the strategic level.

It all depends on what aspects of the knock-out blow I want to simulate. I'll think through some of those choices in another post.


  1. There are some alternate history wargames out there, but in my experience they tend to either stick fairly closely to the real history, such as Case Green, or else tend to be fairly fantastic dieselpunk scenarios, Crimson Skies-style (or Aeronef for the steampunk crowd, and let's not forget the roleplaying equivalent, Forgotten Futures). I did find an interesting discussion on Interbellum about the wargaming potential of H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which is not too far off the mark; but that seems to be for miniature gaming. See also this, on the same blog.