Won’t somebody please think of the children?

One of my current tasks is to define an hypothesis. This is the question that I will be seeking to answer in my thesis, and so it's what my research will revolve around. It's not an easy thing to do. I know what I'd like to research, but you don't get a PhD for just reading a lot of books or whatever. There needs to be a point to your research: a why as well as a what. And I haven't really been getting to grips with that. Until very recently, that is - oddly enough the night before I had a meeting with both my supervisors! Funny how that happens.

What I think the thesis is about is the political uses of catastrophe (a word my supervisor came up with, which I rather like) - how the commonly-held fear of air attack was used by different groups and individuals for different ends. Because what strikes me as interesting is the way that for example, pacifists used exactly the same apocalyptic imagery of the knock-out blow as their ideological opponents, but used it for completely different purposes. So, to take just one example, virtually everyone agreed that the next war would see London in flames and tens or hundreds of thousands dead from bombs and gas within days or weeks. If you were a pacifist, this "proved" that international disarmament was an urgent necessity. But if you were a militarist (not necessarily the word I want, but it will do), then this "proved" that instead Britain needed lots of bombers of its own to act as a deterrent and/or reprisal force.

It's still not quite there. But this formulation allows me to talk about most of the things that interest me about my overall topic ... the relationship between fascism and aviation ... the strange hatred the Peace Pledge Union seems to have had for air-raid precautions ... the idea that airpower might provide a basis for world government ... all sorts of things. So I'm on the right track!

Now, if only I could finally settle on my exact chronological focus ...

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18 thoughts on “Won’t somebody please think of the children?

  1. Chris Williams

    If I were you, I'd take it up to the Battle of Britain or even the Blitz: after all, the fear of the 'knockout blow' appears to have been in play throughout the phony war.

    By the way, you might want to check out RM Douglas's _Feminist Freikorps_ which charts some of the strange career of Mary Allen, a leather-clad policewoman who ended up in the BUF's women's aviation squad.

    Can you have a chapter investigating the hypothesis that Ashmore's silly lawsuit about the balloon barrage stopped him from being a Dowding-esque national hero, and thus contributed to the forgetting of the sucess of air defence? I'd read it, even if nobody else did.

    But the killer question anyone's going to ask you about this thesis is: "What's wrong with _The Shadow of the Bomber_, then?", swiftly followed by "How is your stuff different from that?"

  2. phil

    What stands out for me is that despite the fears, there was no "knock out blow". The British suffered terribly from the German bombing campaign, but they didn't give in. The pro-bomber folks were wrong that bombers could either serve as a deterent or as an effective retaliatory weapon. Rather it was the fighters that were the decisive defensive weapon. The pacifists were wrong that disarmament was a realistic option: the Germans had their own ambitions and they were not going to be put off of it by the misguided idealism of the pacifists.

    The question I'm left with is: were there any Britons who had a more realistic assesment of the threat and who proposed increasing the strength of the fighter force? Did anybody listen to them? Did they have any impact?

  3. Brett Holman

    Post author


    That's exactly what I've been saying to my supervisor! But he is encouraging me to stop in 1939 or even earlier (ie early 1930s). He has some good points - it's a very different context, once the war started, and there are huge amounts of material that I'd have to go through which might not ultimately add much to my story. But I haven't let go of the idea yet ... The other question is where to start. Currently I've picked 1908, but a case can be made that between them Gollin and Paris covered the pre-war situation pretty well. But some of the themes I will be exploring have their roots in this period, and I am already pretty familiar with it, so it seems sensible to include it.

    Thanks for the reference on Allen. I know I've read about her before, but I can't for the life of me remember where! I thought it was Pugh's 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts', but she's only mentioned a few times. Griffiths' Fellow Travellers of the Right maybe? It's driving me batty!

    Sorry, I can't promise a chapter on Ashmore's lawsuit - not least because I'm not familar with it! Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule doesn't seem to mention it, or the other few references I've been able to check. What was the story there?

    Finally, I'd rather get those killer questions now, than in 3 years' time! I think I'm safe on this one, though. What my post probably didn't make clear is that I'm interested in the public sphere - airpower propaganda directed at the general public, from a broad range of sources. Bialer mostly looks at the internal government debates. The only works that might pose a threat are Powers and maybe Higham's The Military Intellectuals in Britain, but even then they neglect the various pressure groups like the Air League and the National League of Airmen, and a lot of other things besides. But if you can think of anything that does cover this public/propaganda angle, please let me know. And I'll go away and cry for a week ...

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Yes, indeed, despite the grim certainties of the pre-war period, both sides were wrong. There were certainly some dissenters. Powers describes the annual Air Estimates debates in Parliament, from 1919 through 1931, and there was the occasional voice raised in favour of fighter defences, or which claimed that civilian morale wouldn't break as easily as was assumed. It seems clear that such views were a minority, but I would certainly be interested to hear of counter-examples. (And there's also John Ferris' paper "Fighter defence before Fighter Command: the rise of strategic air defence in Great Britain, 1917-1934", Journal of Military History 63 (1999), 845-84, which argues that the RAF gave a higher priority to fighter defence before 1934 than is generally asserted. I haven't yet read it though.)

  5. Chris Williams

    [Oh Brett, I forgot to say: 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1.]

    Ashmore claimed that the War Inventions Board hadn't given him enough money to compensate him for his development of the apron barrage. Which seems pretty silly of him given that the apron barrage was pretty minor compared to the major innovation he implemented - the control system.

    By the way, my academic connection with all this starts from an attempt I made to answer the question "Where do real-time control systems for police come from?" The answer in the UK is the Midland Railway, via the BEF Railway Operating Department, the RFC (Ashmore), and the RAF (Trenchard).

    As for the propaganda issue, I think that you are safe - on the other hand, I'm not an expert on the research in this area, so I might be wrong. If I were you, I'd get in touch with Mike Paris and David Edgerton and ask them. There's a couple of other people I know who could also help but aren't googlable - email me if you want their details.

    By the way, has anyone done this kind of thing for the Antipodes? Aside from the interwar period, what about the great 'Russians are coming' scare in the late C19th that led to the formation of all those volunteer artillery companies?

  6. Interesting parallel: the PPU had its "strange hatred for air-raid precautions", and people like E.P. Thompson were viciously aggressive against civil defence in the 1970s/80s nuclear debate.

  7. Brett Holman

    Post author


    As historians, we should be striving to put the Ashes into their correct historical perspective. So I think the relevent statistic to contemplate is 30-27 :)

    It does seem silly of Ashmore ... though there's a note in Powers to the effect that he wasn't generous in sharing credit, which seems of a piece with what you are saying. But I'm surprised that a serving officer would have been paid extra for inventions, I would have thought that since he was taking the King's shilling, it should have been all part of the job?

    Interesting about the real-time police control systems ... so when Reg Hollis calls up CAD and says "Sierra Oscar, 171 receiving, over", that can be traced back to the German air raids on Britain in the First World War? Cool!

    I did think of asking the recognised experts in the field what they thought of my topic ... I wasn't sure of the etiquette though. As in, would they just think I was lazy for not finding out for myself? Afterall, they may well be reviewing my work at some future date ... no need to make a bad impression just yet!

    I am ashamed to say that I have no idea if somebody has done this sort of thing for my part of the world, as I am woefully ignorant of Australian history. Though I did read a book about the fear of the Russians in New Zealand, particularly on account of a journalistic hoax about a Russian warship that had anchored off Wellington or somewhere, demanding the colony's surrender. A few people who didn't realise that their leg was being pulled (the ship's name was Kaskowisky, harhar) packed up their belongings and headed for the hills. An early War of the Worlds-type (or phantom airship, even) thing.

  8. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Very interesting! I think there are also parallels with arguments made against "star wars" in the 1980s, that by making nuclear war less deadly (for one side anyway), it would actually make it more likely. So maybe it isn't so strange, maybe it is a logical outcome of certain viewpoints. By the way, I am basing my statement about the PPU on this summary of a letter from a PPU official (the middle one), I shouldn't read too much into one example at this stage. But it's certainly intriguing.

  9. Chris Williams

    I don't see why you shouldn't just ask, assuming that in doing so you can demonstrate that you've read all their stuff (and combed its bibliographies) and done a half-decent literature search as well. I'm assuming that you've checked out the IHR's Theses in Progress database.

    So why the CP's insistence in the late 1930s that Air Raid Precautions be stronger and more effective? Probably a spin-off from the Popular Front strategy.

  10. @Chris: I concur with regard to the Popular Front. I'd also suggest they saw it as a form of specifically working-class participation in the struggle, and maybe a means of reminding the masses of a fascist threat.

  11. Further, didn't someone offer a link regarding a British aviatrix/fascist called Allen that now seems to have disappeared. (Aviatrixes in the period under discussion would be an interesting field of study in themselves - flying and feminism as well as fascism..)

  12. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Quite possibly. The situation gets very complex, and the pacifism issue could cut across the left/right divide (exactly why a Popular Front could briefly seem conceivable, I suppose) - there were conservatives who called for disarmament as well as socialists who called for rearmament (in the 1930s, anyway). So I don't expect to find a unanimity of views even on the same side of politics. Also, I've mentioned this link before, where it is noted that there was much criticism from the left on the class divide in ARP measures - particularly since it was the workers who would be most at threat from bombing, living close to factories as they did (and working in them, of course).

  13. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Sorry about the disappearing comments, for some reason this theme shows only the last few comments by default, with a link to show them all (at the top of the comments listing). But that link wasn't working, so I updated the theme and now it seems ok. By way of apology I've installed an amazing plugin called Live Comment Preview which does just what the name says.

    Anyway, the aviatrix mentioned was Mary Allen, though I'm not sure if she actually flew herself? The Oxford DNB doesn't mention if she did. Another female fascist sympathiser with an interest in aviation was Lady Houston, owner of the Saturday Review, fan of Mussolini and Hitler, and patroness of the Schneider Cup team and the flight over Mt Everest in 1933. On the other side of the ledger, there were pacifist groups like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

  14. Chris Williams

    I've got a biography Lucy Houston somewhere - I think that the title is 'Lucy Houston'. If not, I'll let you know.

  15. Chris Williams

    Here we go: 'Lucy Houston, D.B.E.' by Warner Allen, who was her Managing Director. London, Constable, 1947. He takes on board the Hitler-loving, but presents her as a premature anti-Communist.

  16. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Ta! The State Library here has a copy, so I'll be sure to look it up at some point ... oh, and I've found another one with a similar title: J. Wentworth Day, Lady Houston, D.B.E: The Woman Who Won the War (London: Allan Wingate, 1958). I'm feeling dubious about that one already, for some reason ...

    I think I will do as you suggest and ask some experts about my topic/hypothesis ... but I will do some more reading and searching first! Thanks for your advice.

  17. Jason

    Hi Brett,

    I hope you don't mind me commenting even though I am not a historian.

    From my layman's standpoint, I like the "political uses of catastrophe" direction you've outlined in your post, perhaps because as a generalised concept it clearly remains topical right up to the present time.

    My suggestion to you is that it might also contain the seeds of an answer to your chronological question. If your thesis is focussed on the political uses of catastrophe - specifically, the catastrophe of an air-borne "knock-out blow" against Britain - then it seems to me that it would be most fruitful to focus on the period where fear of this catastrophe was in fact put to effective political use. I don't know what that period would be, but you probably do. Were mindsets so confirmed by 1935 that the catastrophe had ceased to be politically useful? If so, it's probably not worth going beyond then. If fear of the catastrophe continued to be a political tool until after the Blitz, then I think you could consider covering that period too. But my gut feeling is that a fear of a knockout blow would no longer have been something that politicians could manipulate by that time. (I guess that to some extent the key word is "manipulate"; political leaders may have reacted to actual bombing in a way that was still a response to the fear of catastrophe, but that would not always mean making "political use" of it. That aspect of your hypothesis might need a bit of work...)

    As I said, I'm not a historian, but as a general proposition I suspect that if you can nail down a hypothesis (and I like the way you're leaning) then the question of timing will narrow itself down for you.

    BTW I think the site looks good and enjoy checking in from time to time to see how you're going!

  18. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Fancy meeting you here! :)

    Thanks for the positive comments. Yes, it's good to have a topic which has more general applications, it can then feed into (and off of) other work and situations. On the other hand, I've never had a problem with pure research, knowledge for its own sake.

    About the period when the fear of the knock-out blow was put to political use - it seems to be all the way through the period I'm looking at. In 1913 there is agitation by conservatives for a large aerial fleet to defend against the Zeppelins ... in the late 1930s there are communists criticising the government's air-raid shelter policy as inadequate. I have less of a handle on the war period itself at the moment (would be interesting to know how the Soviet pact with Germany affected communist attitudes for ARP). But this is why I tend to think I need to go up to 1939, there's just too much interesting stuff going on! On 'mindsets' - they were confirmed in the sense that most people seemed to agree that the threat was dire (at least, most people who cared enough to comment on the subject), but they disagreed over what should be done about it. So there was always something to fight over.

    Yes, 'manipulate' (and 'political use') might not be quite the right term. For one thing it comes across as a bit cynical, whereas I don't think the fear of the bomber was usually being exploited like that. Far from it - politicians were as genuinely fearful as the public; probably more so! But even so, their responses to that fear were conditioned by their prior political beliefs - or sometimes, I believe, helped to form their political beliefs. Also, I should note that I won't be concentrating solely, or even mostly, on politicians as such. Ostensibly non-political writers on airpower had their own political agendas that interacted with their beliefs about air attack. I might write up an example of what I mean in another post.

    Anyway, thanks for dropping in, you are always welcome!

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