A comment from Melissa got me thinking about gender and the knock-out blow, which is admittedly not something I do very often. There are certainly a number of ways into this subject. The most obvious would be to look at the fact that airpower would bring war onto British soil for the first time since at least Culloden (ok, or since the Great War, if you want to be pedantic), thus threatening British women (and children) directly and on a large scale. Pointing this out was a powerful argument in favour of taking the threat of bombing seriously, and was widely deployed. So one could look at that construction. Or there's the gendered language which was occasionally used to describe aerial warfare, such as Trenchard's analogy of a football match, with victory going to the side which struck hardest and in their manly way made the defenders 'squeal' first. Very playing-fields-of-Eton.
Another way would be the simple one of looking at what men and women wrote about the knock-out blow, and how it might have differed in style, content and reception. Certainly most of the writers on the subject were men, which is to be expected since only men had experience of air combat and so could plausibly present themselves as experts. But, particularly from the 1930s, a number of women writers did venture their opinions on the coming era of air war, generally from the pacifist viewpoint: H. M. Swanwick, Barbra Donington (with her husband, Robert), Sarah Campion, and of course Vera Brittain. (A notable non-pacifist, was the famous aviatrix Amy Johnson who wrote for the bellicose Daily Mail in the mid-1930s.) However, male writers could be dismissive of their arguments in highly gendered terms, when they bothered to note them at all. For example, W. Horsfall Carter wrote a pamphlet entitled Peace Through Police to rebut Swanwick's works Frankenstein and his Monster: Aviation for World Service and New Wars for Old (both 1934). He thought that her attack on the idea of an international air force had 'all the misdirected fervour of a militant suffragette' and referred to her as a 'sentimentalist'. 1
All honour to the pacifists whose consuming idealism and "conscience" impels them to denounce war and all its works. But when the heart is stronger than the head the result is a peace babel totally ineffective for the realistic business of peacemaking. 2
Read: don't you worry your pretty little head about it, let us hard-headed menfolk sort things out!
But there was one woman who was not so easily dismissed, for she wrote the most influential attack upon the very idea of the overwhelming superiority of the bomber to be written in the interwar period. The Great Delusion: A Study of Aircraft in Peace and War was published in 1927, inspired at least one book-length rebuttal (Murray F. Sueter's Airmen or Noahs: Fair Play for our Airmen; The Great "Neon" Air Myth Exposed, 1928), and was still being cited as a prime example of airpower scepticism over a decade later. Its author was pseudonymous. Who was Neon? 3
Actually, that isn't really a mystery at all. If you believe the British Library's catalogue, Neon was the pseudonym of Marion W. Acworth. Aside from the fact that I have no idea how the British Library knows this, this isn't immediately helpful, for this is not a name which otherwise appears in the annals of aviation, pacifism, strategy or anything else that I'm aware of. It doesn't appear in the Times or the Oxford DNB. The only clue from this is that she shared her surname with a fairly well-known writer on strategy, the former submariner Captain Bernard Acworth. David Edgerton notes the similarity of their somewhat unusual surnames, and also that Bernard cited Neon's book. 4 Can we go further than this? Was there a connection between Bernard Acworth and Marion Acworth?
In fact, there is contemporary, though circumstantial, evidence that there was -- indeed, that Bernard actually wrote The Great Delusion, or at least had a hand (or two) in its writing. J. M. Spaight, in Air Power and the Next War summarises Neon's arguments in The Great Delusion and then immediately, and with uncharacteristic sarcasm, turns to Bernard Acworth where he writes that:
The mantle of "Neon" descended miraculously on Captain Bernard Acworth, whose book [The Navy and the Next War, 1934] was again a determined attack upon the air arm and all its works and a glorification of sea power [...] 5
This is a pretty broad hint that any similarity between Neon and Bernard is not coincidental!
Another piece of circumstantial evidence comes, oddly enough, from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has put many documents of historical interest online. In a letter sent on 12 January 1928 to Stanley Bruce, the Prime Minister, his liaison in London R. G. Casey wrote:
If you happen by chance to have read a book called 'The Great Delusion' by Neon, which was published about a year ago, you may be interested to know that I hear confidentially that it was by a Mrs. Acworth, who has a brother-in-law in the Admiralty who is suspected (by the Air people) of having loaded her gun. It was, as you may remember, a violent attack on the Air Service and an implied boost for the Admiralty. It created considerable stir at the time.
So, maybe they were related by marriage?
Thanks to the magic of digitisation, I've now got a bit more information. It turns out that Marion was the wife of Joseph John Acworth, a chemist and developer of certain photographic processes. His obituary appeared in the Journal of the Chemical Society and provides a few details about her:
In his technical work, he was very capably assisted by his wife, who, as Miss Marion Whiteford Stevenson, had taken the Associateship course at the Royal College of Science and received her diploma (A.R.C.Sc.) in physics in 1893. She was the third woman to earn the Associateship, and the first in physics. 6
So, it appears that here we have our Marion Whiteford Acworth. She was clearly an intelligent, educated and technically-minded person. And 'neon', one of the noble gases, makes some sense for a scientist's pseudonym. Still, is she a likely candidate for the author of a diatribe against the aeroplane?
Let's turn aside from Marion for a moment, and look at Bernard Acworth. If he was Marion's brother-in-law, then Joseph would have been his brother. But this doesn't work. Bernard's 1937 Who's Who entry says that he was born in 1885 and that his father was the Rev. Herbert Sumner Acworth. That must be this genealogist's Herbert Sumner Acworth, born 1845, with a son Bernard born 1885. But if the Reverend was born in 1845, then he can't be the father of Joseph, born in 1853, according to his obituary. They could be brothers, at best. 7 So, perhaps Marion was Bernard's aunt by marriage.
Now (and we're nearly there, I promise), if Bernard did write The Great Delusion, he presumably chose not to publish it under his own name because he was still in the Navy. I'm not sure when exactly he retired, unfortunately, but he was in it for at least 24 years, so he can't have left it any earlier than the mid-1920s. And he started producing the first of a steady stream of books (at least one a year up to 1940, bar 1931) in 1929. That suggests that it was shortly before then that he lay down his sword and picked up his pen. Which fits with Neon's known publications in 1927 and 1928.
In his later writings, Bernard was apparently always a navy man, a sceptic of airpower and a controversialist by nature. This all fits with the style and content of The Great Delusion. In fact, his first book (under his own name, at least) sounds like it has some overlap with Neon's: This Bondage: A Study of the "Migration" of Birds, Insects, and Aircraft, with Some Reflections on "Evolution" and Relativity (1929). According to Robin Higham, it contained an attack on the RAF (to the point of 'hatred') and on airships in particular. 8 And according to my notes on The Great Delusion, the first nine chapters (out of fourteen!) are about 'airships and how useless they are'. Even more intriguing, I notice that the first chapter is about air currents (as relating to flight), and Bernard published a letter on this subject in the Times on 15 August 1930, p. 8. All circumstantial, but all pointing only one way.
But even if Bernard published a book under a pseudonym while still in the service, as many officers did, what, then, did Marion have to do with The Great Delusion? Here follows complete supposition. The drafts of Neon's book were evidently substantially complete by the start of 1927, because the preface (by Arthur Pollen, the inventor of a sophisticated naval fire control system) is dated 8 and 18 January 1927. And Joseph Acworth died on 3 January 1927. So, here's my best guess: that Bernard put The Great Delusion under his newly-widowed aunt's (pseudonymous) name, in order to earn her a bit of much-needed cash? Or maybe he was just especially paranoid about having the book traced back to him and so used his aunt for an extra layer of plausible deniability?
Well, far from exploring the subversion of gender norms in airpower literature by way of Marion Acworth, it's seems I've ended up reinforcing them by way of her possible nephew Bernard Acworth! That is, Neon was probably Bernard Acworth, not Marion Acworth. Let the word go forth.
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- W. Horsfall Carter, Peace Through Police (London: New Commonwealth, 1934), 6.
- Ibid., 3.
- She also wrote at least one article: Neon, "The future of aerial transport", Atlantic Monthly, January 1928, also in a sceptical vein.
- David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 319. He also gives Neon's full name as 'Marion Whitford Acworth', but I think this is a typo -- see below.
- J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Next War (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1938), 50.
- "Joseph John Acworth", Journal of the Chemical Society (1927), 960.
- Herbert and his siblings are listed on a page about the village of Rothley in Leicestershire, but as that information is drawn from the 1851 census, it can't tell us anything about a possible brother born in 1853.
- Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain: 1918-1939 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981 ), 61.