Ron Gretton, Geoff Matthews and James Kightly. Bristol Boxkites at Point Cook: Commemorating the Centenary of Australian Military Aviation 1914-2014. Werribee: Project 2014, 2014. In 1995 a group of volunteers decided to build a flying replica of the first Australian military aircraft, a Bristol Boxkite. It first flew late last year, and flew again at the Centenary of Military Aviation 2014 Air Show held at Point Cook just last week -- appropriately, since the centenary being marked is that of the first Australian military Boxkite flight, which took place at Point Cook in 1914. This is a handsome and well-illustrated volume covering the origins and history of the Boxkite, including that historic first flight, as well as the construction and first flight of the replica, now part of the RAAF Museum's collection. You can order a copy from the Boxkite 2014 website; I got one for free because James Kightly AKA JDK was part of the project, and asked me to do some research on how the first flights were reported in the Australian press.
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.
The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. ↩
The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. ↩
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. ↩
Ibid.[Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] ↩
The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. ↩
Richard Lamb. The Drift to War: 1922-1939. London: Bloomsbury, 1991. A narrative history, based on some archival research, of British diplomacy with respect to the German problem (there are only two or three chapters on period before Hitler, so don't be misled by the 1922 in the subtitle). Unsurprisingly unfavourable to Chamberlain, from the looks of it. A freeby.
I got back yesterday from a very successful trip to Singapore, where I attended The British Empire and the Great War: Colonial Societies/Cultural Responses conference, organised by Michael Walsh (Nanyang Technological University) and Andrekos Varneva (Flinders University). Since the conference was extensively livetweeted, I thought I'd forgo my usual post-conference report and instead Storify the #EmpireWW1 hashtag. While I've included tweets from the other livetweeters (Ashleigh Gilbertson, Jo Hawkins, Steve Marti, and Alexia Moncrieff), I've used only those about the sessions I actually attended myself. So it's still sort-of my view of the conference. There are keynotes by John MacKenzie, Hew Strachan (with bonus airpower), Tim Barringer, and Jay Winter; mystery aeroplanes, Zeppelins, air control, and the destruction of the Turkish 7th Army; various asides and interruptions; and Eric Bogle!
Antony Taylor. London's Burning: Pulp Fiction, the Politics of Terrorism, and the Destruction of the Capital in British Popular Culture, 1840-2005. London and New York: Continuum, 2005. A conference purchase, and an instant one for me after seeing the title. Oddly from my perspective, as far as I can tell it omits almost the entire corpus of knock-out blow fiction; but I think this is explained by the focus on stories about terrorism carried out by non-state actors. So aerial anarchists in fact do get some attention, and the Blitz of course factors as inspiration. But then, Hugh Addison's The Battle of London (1923) appears only as a red scare novel, which it certainly is; but the massive aerial bombardment which does the actual destruction is not mentioned. (Admittedly, it only gets a few sentences plus an illustration.) But that is just my perspective; there's plenty of value in this approach, which also enables the incorporation of fictional attacks by fascist and Islamic terrorists.
Peter Rees. Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2013. I must admit to hesitating over buying this, mainly because of the presence of the word 'heroes' in the title. But I understand that the author didn't have a say in the matter and is a bit embarrassed about it, so I relented. It's largely anecdotal in nature, being largely based on interviews and memoirs. Nothing wrong with that, but hopefully one of these days somebody will write a more analytic study of Australia and Bomber Command.
[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]
On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune's daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:
The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.
Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1
Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good -- at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate's anonymous astrologer.
Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 15 February 1915, 6. ↩
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.
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.
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!