England awake!

This post is an exercise in -- well, I'm not sure if there's a name for it, but I found some medium-resolution images on eBay of a pamphlet printed by the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League in 1934. (The seller says 1933, but all other evidence I have on this group is from 1934; the first meeting was held in June 1934.) Some examples may exist in archives, but certainly it's a very rare item, which might explain the US$899.00 asking price. Dedicated scholar though I am, that's somewhat above what I'm willing to pay! Luckily, I don't have to, because I can reconstruct nearly all the text by zooming in, zooming out, and some judicious squinting.

The tone is set by the front of the pamphlet:

Hands Off Britain Air Defence League

'England awake!', he demands angrily/defiantly. I don't know if he's anybody in particular, or was just some guy chosen because he resembled the target demographic.

The threat of air attack is outlined on the outside of the pamphlet. (The battleship is the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, an American war prize, which was sunk by Billy Mitchell and co. in 1921 in order to demonstrate that the age of seapower was over.) It's fairly extreme knock-out blow stuff, claiming that London can be wiped out in a matter of hours.

Hands Off Britain Air Defence League

Why Wait for a bomber to leave Berlin at 4 o'clock and wipe out London at 8?

One of the world's largest battleships sinking in 6 seconds after being bombed. [...]

The result of ONE bomb dropped on a house near London during the War.


Inside is a more detailed explanation of how bombing has come along since 1918 and some more slogans, including the proposed solution: to build a big fleet of bombers to 'smash the foreign hornets in their nests'.

Hands Off Britain Air Defence League

The Peril is Yours!


  • England was in no real peril during the war. Our sea power counted then and we had the biggest fleet afloat.
  • Today what matters most is mastery of the air. We have lost that mastery.
  • The latest battleship cost £4,500,000. The bigger the ship, the bigger the target. The great German ship Ostfriesland, thought to be unsinkable, was sunk in six seconds by a bomb from the air.
  • In the war no single ship escorted by aircraft was sunk by submarine.
  • Mr. Baldwin says: "The bomber will get through any defence you can visualise today." Sir Philip Sassoon says: "There is no effective defence against air attack."
  • Remember: no single German aeroplane, which dropped bombs near London, was shot down during the War.
  • Recollect: that the biggest bomb dropped on London during the War weighed only 500 lb. and killed 12 people.
  • Bombs are being manufactured weighing 4,000 lb.
  • In the last war a rifle carried three miles and and a gun under thirty. The range of projectiles now is the distance an airman can travel with bombs.
  • A bomber can leave the Continent with two tons of explosives and drop bombs 1,500 miles away from his base.
  • He can leave Berlin at 4 o'clock, reach London at 8 and wipe out the heart of the Empire in a few moments.
  • Our main aircraft factories are clustered around London and all our depots along the Southern coast.
  • Germany has 10,000 gliding pilots; England only 78. England has only 78 aerodromes against 1,000 planned by France.

CREATE A NEW WINGED ARMY of long-range British bombers to smash the foreign hornets in their nests.

Join the "Hands Off Britain" Air Defence League
St. Stephen's House, Westminster, S.W.1


Conducted by
Campaign Secretary:

I DESIRE to associate myself with this movement
and enclose herewith £
as a donation towards the funds.



Hands Off Britain Air Defence League,
St. Stephen's House, Westminster,
London, S.W.1.
(Telephone: WHITEHALL [...])

I must admit I had some help from Nowell (Charles) Smith, formerly an Oxford classics don, latterly the headmaster of Sherborne and co-author (with James Clerk Maxwell Garnett) of The Dawn of World-order: An Introduction to the Study of the League of Nations. In July 1934, he received what is clearly the same pamphlet in the post, and was moved to write a letter about it to the Spectator (20 July 1934, p. 88). Nowell Smith helpfully lists the names of the people involved in the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League -- otherwise I'd have had no hope of working them out!

The "Conductor", Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, was an interesting chap: a long-serving Conservative MP, a commander of RNAS armoured cars during the First World War and, if Time is to be believed, a philo-Semitic fascist! He founded a blue-shirted group called the Sentinels of Empire, vehemently anti-Communist. I suspect Time over-estimated the degree of his fascism, or else his significance: he supposedly addressed a meeting of 20,000 of his Blueshirts in 1931, and in 1934 he was said to rival Oswald Mosley as an 'organizer of British fascists', yet he barely figures in histories of British fascism. It seems that in 1926, Locker-Lampson did hold some joint public meetings with the British Fascists, and in 1931 he met Alfred Rosenberg when the latter visited London. But in 1934 he supported a bill to prohibit the wearing of political uniforms, and later helped to put Arnold Leese in the dock. It seems likely that Locker-Lampson did flirt with fascism, but the increasingly anti-Semitic tendencies of fascism in Britain repelled him. Or perhaps the Sentinels of Empire were just a conservative group which emulated the style of fascism, all the rage at the time.

Of the others, Sir George Colthurst owned some 31000 acres and lived at Blarney Castle, so I suppose he was a good choice for treasurer. C. Cooley I have no information on. And Lord Waleran (to whom, according to Nowell Smith, the donations were to be sent; seems he was the chairman) seems to have had an undistinguished career up until this point (still, he was not yet 30). An advertisement in The Times of 29 June 1934, p. 12, lists the names of others who spoke at the inaugural meeting:1 the Duchess of Atholl, MP, Admiral Sir Murray Sueter, MP, P. J. Hannon, MP, Everard Gates -- and songs sung by Harold Williams and Flora Woodman!2 The Duchess of Atholl later went to Spain to observe the effects of bombing on civilians; Sueter had played an important role in the early RNAS and the defence of London during the war, and was very outspoken on matters of air defence.3 Hannon was involved in all the big Edwardian patriotic leagues -- Navy League, National Service League, Tariff Reform League -- as well as the National Aerial Defence Association, which only lasted a few years. All of these were Tory MPs, or would be one day (Gates was elected in a 1940 by-election with a massive 97% majority, against a BUF candidate). Hands Off was clearly a rather right-wing group, then.4

What influence did the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League have? Not much, I suspect: they seem to have vanished after mid-1934. (They did claim to have pressured the government into supporting sport gliding.) But then, not many of the various leagues related to air warfare seem to have achieved much in the 1930s, at least not in public: the Air League, the National League of Airmen, the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League, the Air Raid Defence League. The British just weren't joiners, so mass organisations were out; and the extremist political views of many of these groups probably didn't endear them to the government -- certainly not to Nowell Smith, who thought HOBADL's leaflet 'hysterical propaganda'. The ARDL might have been the most influential of all these groups: it was more high-powered than the others (founded by Sir Arthur Salter and Sir Ralph Wedgwood; see the impressive list of supporters in The Times, 7 February 1939, p. 16), more focused (ARP), less partisan; but it was formed only after Munich so didn't have much time to gain traction. If I get time (ha!), I hope to do a spot of archival research into some of these organisations while I'm in the UK, which will help me to understand their activities both in public and in private.

Anyway, now you know all I do about the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League.

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  1. This ad is very interesting in itself -- it's clearly designed to look like an article reporting on the meeting. So it's not an unbiased account, but does presumably accurately reflect the League's concerns. Perhaps most intriguing is Locker Lampson's suggestion that the future British air force be used to enforce world peace: 'if the League of Nations lacked a police force, then let this new national striking force be accorded that international sanction. (Applause.)' []
  2. Locker-Lampson did like music: he wrote an anthem for the Sentinels of Empire, or rather set words to music composed for the film High Treason -- which curiously enough was based on a play written by another airminded right-wing (former) MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing. []
  3. Sueter also gave a speech to the Sentinels of Empire, according to Time. []
  4. Philip Noel Baker -- who also quotes this pamphlet -- thought so, too, since he claimed it shared the politics of the Aeroplane, a reference to editor C. G. Grey's notoriously far-right views, though I don't think he was as quite as extreme, or at least as obvious, as he later became. Challenge to Death (London: Constable, 1934), 199. []

14 thoughts on “England awake!

  1. CK

    That's terrific Brett. Did they have target demographics back then? ("Great! We've really sewn up the angry old bastard market")

  2. Post author

    Never underestimate the angry old bastard market, particularly the AB segment of it! Very motivated. It would be most inconvenient to have one's club blown to smithereens, after all -- where would one go to read the Thunderer?

    More seriously, I think it supports the idea that Locker-Lampson was not a fascist, or at least not a very good one. Where's the projection of youth and virility? That guy looks like a fully paid-up member of the Old Gang!

  3. CK

    "England has only 78 aerodromes against 1,000 planned by France."

    All the same it was good of him to alert everyone to the French Peril. Lot of good those airfields did them.

    Just looking at the blather, it looks very much like the line that other lone voices - most notably Churchill - were taking at the time.

    He doesn't really look like he'd fit into the Cliveden Set.

  4. Winston Churchill and airmindedness is a topic you'd better blog. After all, he was a very early adopter of aviation, taking flying lessons while he was in the cabinet before WW1 until PM Asquith ordered him to stop after an unfortunate crash. Then there was the RNAS experience, the first long-range air raids, the first air-to-shipping activity, the offer to take over air defence..

    He was in favour of the Smuts report as Minister of Munitions, was then asked to shut down the RAF as Secretary for War and Air but quietly kiboshed the idea, invented the air control mission..propagandised for bomber building, and finished up in the 50s arguing for the ultimate consequence of knockout blow thinking, a superpower entente.

    Then there's all the WW2 flying around in various planes in his zip-up pyjamas. And his longstanding spooky pal Archibald Sinclair, who he met at Farnborough while learning to fly.

    One could also inquire into why, all this considered, he was slow to pick out the air threat to shipping. And comment on what an arse he looked wearing an Air Commodore's uniform!

  5. Chris Williams

    I always thought that the development of air control tactics pre-dated the Cairo conference. Could be wrong, though, and I've not got Omissi to hand.

    OTOH, sez Terraine, WSC railed in both wars against what he saw as the excessive logistical requirements of air warfare, as opposed to those of tanks. Which he'd persuaded the RNAS to invent...

    I think that a lot of Churchill's airmindedness (including his attitude to shipping at the time that he controlled a navy but hardly any air force), as well as his attitude to anything he was put in charge of, can be better explained as the operations of a Hussar officer on the make. There are patterns. He might have wanted to send Bomber Command to Berlin, but he also wanted to send the RN into the Baltic. And he sent the Canadians to Dieppe.

    Like the Wright brothers, Churchill is inherently unlikely: if you put him in a novel it would be panned as ludicrous.

  6. Jakob

    Alex: In what way was Sinclair spooky? I know he was secretary of state for air, but beyond that, nothing.

    On shipping and airpower: Did Churchill have anything to do with the decision to give the cavity magnetron to Bomber Command rather than Coastal Command first, thereby ensuring that sets could be shot down over the Reich rather than hunting U-Boote in the Atlantic? I seem to remember Len Deighton writing about this, but could never find any corroborating evidence.

    Chris Williams:
    The pattern being to charge at the enemy whilst looking good on a horse?

    P.S. I love the design of the page with the Ostfriesland; pity about the clunky typography on the cover, and the pedestrian look of the inside.

  7. Post author

    I think Chris has got it pegged. I don't know that Churchill had any special insight into the value of aviation: it's more that he liked its offensive nature. He certainly wasn't universally admired by the fraternity of flight: P. R. C. Groves was very critical of Churchill's tenure as Air Minister: he accepted the Trenchard memorandum and decided that civil aviation must 'fly by itself', both disastrous decisions by Groves' lights. And there remained the suspicion that he'd been given the dual jobs of War and Air in order to preside over the dismantling of the latter.

    When I started working on this topic, I thought Churchill would feature more prominently in my thesis than he has so far. Which I would have been happy about, as I've long had an interest in him. But he just isn't all that important to my story: he didn't write books about airpower (or many articles), he didn't have any special expertise on the subject, he didn't join the various aviation ginger groups (even the parliamentary one, as far as I know), his interest in the topic waxed and waned. The major exception is of course in the 1930s, with his speeches on German air rearmament, but even there he was just one (loud, granted!) voice among many. That may change when I get to look at some really pro-rearmament papers like the Daily Mail. But the Saturday Review was just as gung-ho and it didn't pay particular attention to Churchill on the issue. Of course, part of the reason that he was in the wilderness was that few on his own side of politics trusted him ...

    Churchill is certainly important to the bigger picture of aviation in Britain, as Alex notes, but mainly for his actions while in government. While that's only tangentially of relevance to me, surely there's room for somebody to write a book on it! And yeah, maybe even a blog post, but enthusiasm, inspiration and/or serendipity has to strike first :)

    PS I'd also like to know what was spooky about Sinclair!

  8. Well, he acted as WSC's right hand with the secret services, especially in the immediate post-WW1 period of intervention in Russia, dirty tricks in Ireland, and strike breaking in the UK..

    More broadly, Winston was a terrible geek - he could never resist technology in any form. Roll him 60 to 80 years forward and he would probably have been constantly in trouble for spreading scandal about his rivals on the Chartwell blog.

  9. Post author

    Oh, as to the identity of the Angry Old Man: the obvious suggestion (so obvious I didn't think of it while writing the post) is that it's Locker-Lampson himself. He doesn't seem to have been a shy, retiring type, so I can see him plastering his picture all over the place. I can't find a contemporary photo -- the best I could do was this, presumably taken during the war (so about 15-20 years earlier). He was born in 1880 so would have been about 54 when the pamphlet was issued. What do you think? I think it could be well be him. They've both got a big mouth on them, but Locker-Lampson has a prominent cleft chin, whereas Angry Old Man doesn't seem to (though it could be masked by shadows).

  10. CK

    Judging from the nose and the mouth I reckon it's him. Also note that it looks like they've touched up the furrows on the brow. They look like Nordic fjords.

  11. I'm a classical musician and recently took out a volume from the Cambridge University Library, containing music I needed to consult. Once home I found it included the song "On Guard" - "Written and Composed specially for the Patriotic Campaign associated with Commander Locker Lampson." - words by Harold Begbie, music by WH Squire and sung (the copy says) by Dame Clara Butt. It is dated 1927, and on the back cover are a few words about the "Sentinels of Empire":-
    This non-partisan Association has recently been launched by commander Locker Lampson to coimbat communism throughtout the Empire and to promote the immediate policy of "Hands off Britain." [More along these lines, then] the motto of the movement is "Fear God, Fear Nought" - which unsurprisingly is the catchphrase of the chorus of the song. The "Hands off Britain" campaign was already at St Stephen's House, Westminster. Intrigued by all this I've just googled "Sentinels of Empire" and come up with your site. Thought you might be interested......

  12. Post author

    Thanks, Richard! That's very interesting. It supports the idea that Locker-Lampson and the Sentinels were more anti-Bolshevist than pro-fascist (and it was easy enough to think the two were identical in the 1920s). And also interesting that 'Hands Off Britain' was Locker-Lampson's thing well before the Air Defence League came along. Presumably he felt it was a winning slogan.

    Coincidentally, I came across an article about Locker-Lampson today, from June 1938. Not only was he extremely harsh about both Fascism and Nazism (the latter were `half-wits and degenerates', but he also believed that whoever the Soviet Union allied with in the next war would win it (partly because of its huge air force). So he'd come some way from his anti-Bolshevism too.

  13. Keith Thompson

    Arnold Leese, pre-war leader of the Imperial Fascist League, referred to Locker-Lampson as a dedication in one of his books as "Jew Lover in Chief"
    Regarding Noel Pemberton-Billing. Only a few days ago (20th February 2009) I attended a commemoration service at South Fambridge, Essex, which was held to unveil a granite plinth marking the site of Britain's first aerodrome - which was founded, owned and operated by Noel Pemberton-Billing. he also founded the Supermarine factory at Southampton which later produced the Spitfire.
    The Air League of the British Empire was very significant and its youth wing was later taken over by the government to become the Air training Corps. This was and still is a pre-service organisation.

  14. Post author

    Thanks for the info about the P-B memorial; I found an article about it here:


    That Leese called Locker-Lampson that is interesting, but doesn't really tell us much: Leese was so rabidly anti-Semitic that he can't have met many people who lived down to his low standards.

    I dispute that the Air League was 'very significant' -- it was in constant danger of being supplanted by other groups, and its secretary occasionally had to write in to newspapers to remind the editor that it still existed. The Air Defence Cadet Corps was the one undeniable achievement of the pre-war Air League, but I don't think it's accurate to call it the Air League youth wing -- it was and I think always was intended to be a separate organisation, albeit one which was administered by the Air League. The Skybird League fits the bill better, which I've discussed elsewhere.

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