The ashes of the air

I've written about connections between sport and war before. Here's another which I came across just last night, so perfectly timed that I can't resist posting it. It's from a book written in October 1941 or so by the pseudonymous Auspex, who is talking here about the RAF's sweeps over France that summer, which he claims were the first stage in the air offensive which will eventually lead to Britain's victory over Germany:

It began in mid-June. It was then that the Royal Air Force started their return match with the Luftwaffe in the series of tests for the ashes of the air. The first had been played on our home ground, in July-September, 1940. We won that match. We routed the German air force over and around this island, routed it decisively and without possibility of appeal. The next round was set on the enemy's ground. We went over and challenged him there.1

And again:

The test had started well; the honours of war clearly rested with us. It was continued in July and August. Gradually and surely, we may hope, we shall succeed in establishing ascendancy in the air over northern France and the Low Countries. But that will not be the end of the innings. Our fighters will only have broken the bowling, so to speak. It is the bombers which will have to make the decisive centuries.2

I hasten to add that I deplore the trivialisation of international conflict in this way. As someone once didn't observe of cricket, it isn't a matter of life and death -- it's more important than that.

This is a reference that a reader from a non-cricket-playing country might not pick up, and indeed some of my readers may not know what I'm on about either, so I'll briefly explain. The Ashes are a series of 5 day cricket matches ("tests") played every couple of years between England and Australia since 1882, when the upstart colonials thrashed their Imperial overlords at Lords in London. Overall, the honours are roughly even, with Australia slightly ahead, but in recent times Australia has dominated. Until the last series, that is, which England decisively won, hence the tremendous interest in the current series, which is on my tv screen right now.

There's an intense rivalry between the teams. It's usually (fairly) friendly, but at times has been bitter: in particular in Australia in 1932-3, the infamous "Bodyline" series, when the English bowlers deliberately aimed their balls at the body of the Australian batsmen, causing them to either defend and possibly give away a catch, or to take the blow on their body or head, possibly risking serious injury. Bodyline was devised to neutralise the extraordinary Don Bradman, as he was thought to be afraid of rising balls. It wasn't against the laws of cricket at that time, but in Australia it was (and is) seen as a cowardly and unsportsmanlike tactic. As the Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, said at the time, 'There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not.'

Now, after comparing the air war over Europe to the Ashes, Auspex goes on to discuss how Bomber Command will score those 'decisive centuries', by breaking the morale of German civilians:

The bombers’ assault on morale is not direct but is a by-product, as it were, of their attacks on military targets, industries and communications in the enemy country. We, at least, do not attack the civil population deliberately, and we are militarily as well as ethically right in not doing so. There are those who grow impatient with the policy of bombing only objectives, military or industrial, important for the maintenance of Germany's war effort. They would have us 'Bomb Berlin' all the time. Why should we handle the Huns so gingerly when they on their side attack our towns indiscriminately and slaughter our women and children? The short answer is that we are not handling the enemy with kid gloves; very far from it.3

Many examples German civilian casualties are given, drawn from Air Ministry bulletins. For example:

'In Bremen, in a series of raids, 1,000 people were killed and 7,000 injured.' In Hanover 'in one night 250 houses were destroyed and 500 seriously damaged. Two hundred and fifty people were killed. The housing estate at Kleefeld suffered heavily.'4

Such assiduous cataloguing of the suffering of German civilians tends to undercut the prior claiming of the moral high ground for Britain. (And compare with Bomber Harris's later forthrightness on the same topic.)

But it occurs to me that Bodyline itself is not a bad analogy for the strategy outlined here: a mixture of morale and physical attacks. Aim at the body (city); if it hits and causes an injury (kills civilians), that's not intentional but it is unavoidable and, truth be told, beneficial; if the flustered batsman nicks it down the leg-side and is caught (destroying factories, perhaps), that's also excellent; and the constant stream of balls on the body line will intimidate the batsmen (shake their morale), slow down their run rate (impair production) and maybe even a batting collapse (complete morale collapse, revolution, surrender -- the knock-out blow).

As Auspex said, this was a return match. So perhaps it could be said, to paraphrase Woodfull, that there were two teams out there, and neither of them was playing cricket.

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  1. Auspex, Victory in the Air (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1941), 211. []
  2. Ibid., 212-3. []
  3. Ibid., 213-4. []
  4. Ibid., 215. []

3 thoughts on “The ashes of the air

  1. There might be another Bodyline parallel, in terms of reportage and belief at a distant. From my memory of Douglas Jardine's biography, it was as much the barracking of the Australian fans during the previous Ashes series (so out of character with then restrained English crowds) which upset the English and encouraged English papers to report the Bodyline Tour in terms of Australian whinging rather than English gamesmanship.
    Can't quite believe that you managed not to mention Keith Miller in this context - were you trying to avoid the cliche?

  2. Since I assume Auspex is initially referring to the disastrous 'rhubarb' strategy, perhaps the whole thing is an analogy for English cricket. (Or whatever. Silly game, in which no-one even kicks the ball so much as once).

    Geoffrey Wheatcroft has some acerbic, and possibly relevant, comments to make about Englishness and cricket here.

  3. Post author


    No, I completely forgot it! For everyone playing at home, Keith Miller was another Australian cricketing great and Ashes stalwart, as well as a Mosquito pilot in the Second World War. When asked about on-field pressure, he replied that 'Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.'


    Silly game, in which no-one even kicks the ball so much as once

    That's one of the things I like about it -- we have four major codes of football in this country, and my tolerance for them ranges from limited to none whatsoever. But at least none of them is gridiron!

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