A large biplane Gotha bomber seen from below

This is a continuation, of sorts, of my series of posts critiquing the recent trend of describing the air raids on Britain in the First World War as the 'First Blitz'. I've separated it out because, although it is about the best-known book to use that phrase in its title – Neil Hanson's First Blitz (2008) – my concerns aren't about that usage, but are about the book itself.1 To be clear, I'm not saying this is a bad book; in fact I am broadly in sympathy with his account and I really like some aspects of it (the chapter entitled 'Londoners unnerved' is a terrific account of what I call the Gotha shock). But it is a book that should be used carefully. And as I'm seeing it cited fairly widely (including by academic historians, not excluding me!) I think it's worth putting those concerns out there, particularly since it was not reviewed in any academic publication, as far as I can see.

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  1. Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008). []

German propaganda poster with a vibrant and striking image depicting swarms of British aircraft bombing an industrial site to illustrate the following quote, by British Labour Leader Johnston Hicks [sic], which appeared in the 'Daily Telegraph' on January 3rd 1918: 'One must bomb the Rhineland industrial regions with one hundred aircraft day after day, until the treatment has had its effect!’

In the previous post, I discussed some of my objections to the idea that the air raids on Britain in the FIrst World were the 'First Blitz'. I don't think my arguments were completely persuasive, even to myself (which is why I decided to work through them in public like this). But I ended by saying I had another concern, and this one I think carries more weight. However, it's not really about the First World War at all, but the Second. And it's this: the Blitz is too British.

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Borough of Ramsgate ... Public meeting ... To consider recommendations to the responsible authorities for the more adequate protection of the coast against hostile aircraft. T. S. Chayney, Mayor. 26th March 1916.

I admit the term 'First Blitz' is a convenient label for the air raids on Britain in the First World War, both as a shorthand and because there really were many similarities with the later Blitz. But nevertheless, I don't really like it, and I'm avoiding it in my own book on the topic. Why?

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Gotha bomber over Tower Hamlets, seen from above

You might think that the first Blitz was the Blitz, i.e. the German bombing of British cities in 1940-1941, at the time was understood as a form of blitzkrieg, which was then shortened to 'blitz' or 'Blitz'. Of course, that doesn't mean a blitz couldn't be retrospectively recognised, and indeed it was soon applied, for example, to earlier events such as the 'Rotterdam Blitz' on 14 May 1940.1 Much more recently, there has been a vogue for the term among historians writing on the German air raids on British cities in 1914-1918, variously the 'First Blitz', the 'Zeppelin Blitz' or the 'Forgotten Blitz'. Check it out:

  • Andrew P. Hyde, The First Blitz: The German Air Campaign against Britain 1917–1918 (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2002).
  • Neil Faulkner and Nadia Durrani, In Search of the Zeppelin War: The Archaeology of the First Blitz (Stroud: Tempus, 2008).
  • Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008).
  • Ian Castle, The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War (Oxford: Osprey, 2015).
  • Neil Storey, Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War (Stroud: History Press, 2015).
  • Ian Castle, Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914–1915 (Barnsley: Frontline, 2018).
  • Ian Castle, The First Blitz in 100 Objects (Philadelphia: Frontline Books, 2019).
  • Ian Castle, Zeppelin Inferno: The Forgotten Blitz 1916 (Philadelphia: Frontline, 2022).((There's also a journal article: Paul Fantom, ‘Zeppelins over the Black Country: The Midlands’ first blitz’, Midland History 39, no. 2 (2014): 236–254.))

Even discounting the fact that four of those books are from the one author, this is starting to look like a consensus.2

And why not? Many aspects of the 1940-41 raids were prefigured in 1914-18, from the bleeding obvious stuff (aircraft flying over and dropping bombs on British cities), to the ways in which the British government responded to this threat (air defence, civil defence, air offence), to the ideal emotional response on the part of civilians (British pluck, the Blitz spirit). And I can tell you from personal experience how annoying it gets to keep writing some cumbersome variation on 'the German raids on Britain in 1914-18' or 'the First World War air raids' or 'the Zeppelin and Gotha offensive', etc!

But as you can probably guess, despite my longing for a convenient shorthand I'm not fully sold on the First Blitz.3 This is partly because of the ways in which the British experience of bombing in 1914-18 was significantly different to that in 1940-41. It's also because I think that one of the key works on the above list -– the most popular one, Neil Hanson's First Blitz -- is quite problematic. But I'm not sure how sensible my objections are: analogies don't have to be exact to be useful, after all. So I'm going to post through my confusion and work out if I should learn to stop worrying and love the First Blitz.

Image source: Fredette, The Sky on Fire.

  1. In fact the term 'blitz' in the sense of air raids does seem to have slightly preceded the Blitz proper, judging from BNA, but only by a few days or weeks. []
  2. Compare with the other 'first' contender, the 'First Battle of Britain'. There's only one book I know of with this in the title: Raymond H. Fredette, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918 and the Birth of the Royal Air Force (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). As that was first published more than half a century ago, it doesn't seem like it's going to catch on. []
  3. It's not in the working title of my next book, currently Home Fires Burning: Britain's First War from the Air, 1914–1918, though admittedly this is not entirely stable from draft to draft! []

John Llewellyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow

John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rees was born on 7 May 1911, got his pilot's license on 4 July 1934, and was killed in a flying accident on 5 August 1940. Those bare life events hardly stand out among the airminded young men of his generation. But as well as flying, Rees wrote (albeit as John Llewelyn Rhys). His two novels, The Flying Shadow (1936) and The World Owes Me a Living (1939), and a handful of short stories, collected as England is My Village (1941), are suffused with -- drenched in, might be a better phrase -- a love of flying in all its pleasures and perils. It's because of this that he bears some comparison as the English-language equivalent of the slightly older Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Certainly, passages like these are rare in contemporary British aviation writing:

Below, the clouds were flat as beaten snow, dazzling white in the brilliant sunshine, undisturbed except for the shadow of the Moth which slid easily, silently, over their even surface. For scores of miles there was no movement, nothing but the sunny emptiness of the sky and the hard, white floor of the clouds, the enormous silence pricked by the stutter of the engine. For the hundredth time the beauty of such a scene hooded his mind, the sense of overwhelming desolation intensifying his realization of individuality. Nothing in the world, he thought, was as lonely as this, no scene so static in beauty, so expansive in monotony.((John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 39.))

Or:

We flew on for hour after hour, seeing nothing of the earth but the peaks of mountains standing up through the clouds, the only other moving thing our shadow which raced silently beneath us, following every curve of the clouds with effortless grace. Above was the dome of heaven, a nightmare blue except for the blazing ball of the sun, no trace of cloud to break its pitiless emptiness. The one sound in our ears was the roar of the engines mingling with airscrew thrash. We were alone, racing through a dead world.((John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 237.))

These convey beautifully a sense of the sublime nature of flight, its awesome majesty and terror, intensified at every point by the ever-present possibility of death (possibly a little exaggerated; surely Rhys sensed the 'inarticulate lust for the blinding novelty of a crash' among readers just as much as spectators).((Rhys, England is My Village, 122.))

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Ferris Bueller in his dressing gown with the meme text "YOU'RE STILL HERE? IT'S OVER. GO TO BLUESKY"

After 14 years and 7 months, I've deleted all of my Twitter/X accounts.

The best place to find me now (other than here!) is Bluesky:

But you can also find me on Mastodon:

NB: the code for my bots can be found on Github: trovebot-mastodon2 and ttaships.

Twitter has been both fun and useful for me. I don't know if it's going to survive, but it's getting much less fun, it's getting much less useful, and it's definitely getting much too fascist. I'm sorry to lose touch with the people I've made friends with there over the years, but I hope to see them elsewhere. And I'm not at all sorry now to be gone from Twitter.