PB and C3I

Air War and How to Wage It

Noel Pemberton Billing has received a bit of criticism around here, and mostly for good reason. He couldn't design a decent aeroplane for toffee, he peddled lurid conspiracy theories, he was a relentless self-promoter. But I don't think he was a complete fool. He clearly had a fertile imagination (overly so, Maud Allen would have said) and sometimes he was on the money. Take his ideas for Britain's air defence, as expounded in his 1916 pamphlet Air War: How to Wage It.

There were two major problems at the time. The first was that Zeppelins were raiding British cities and weren't being intercepted, despite the existence of a substantial home defence establishment. It wasn't that they couldn't be intercepted, but that they couldn't be intercepted consistently. (Shooting them down was another a problem, of course.) The problem was one of command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I, though you can add letters to taste). Information about incoming Zeppelins and their locations usually wasn't timely or accurate, making it hard for fighters to find them in the dark. And most squadrons were based near the coast, meaning that the enemy was usually past the defences by the time the alarm was raised.

The second problem was that because the targets of the raiders were difficult to determine -- and for that matter, the Zeppelin crews themselves often didn't know where they were and dropped their bombs almost at random -- as a precaution alerts had to be sounded and lights blacked-out over large areas of the country. This disrupted sleep and production far more than was necessary.

Air War and How to Wage It

So Pemberton Billing proposed dividing up the country (meaning England and Wales) into one hundred air defence districts (which seem to correspond to counties or other civil divisions), as shown in the map above. Each district has five sub-districts; for example the one covering East Yorkshire might look like the map below.

Air War and How to Wage It

Each sub-district would contain: a listening post, 100 feet high with sound detectors pointing east, west, north and south; a searchlight; an anti-aircraft gun; and one or two aeroplanes. But just as important to PB's scheme was the co-ordination between the centre, the districts and sub-districts.

PB presents a little vignette of how his system would work in practice. In Whitehall is the 'Commander-in-Chief, Air Defence'. He stands before a glass map of England and Wales. When intelligence from the North Sea (presumably from the fleet or trawlers) indicates that four Zeppelins are approaching the coast, he orders a 'Stand to Arms' signal to be sent to all districts via dedicated telegraph lines. This tells them to prepare for a raid. Next, a 'Darken' signal is sent to all coastal districts (only) ordering their commanders to instruct local police and power companies to institute a black-out. Then all districts wait.

More importantly, they listen. When one of the coastal sound detectors hears engine sounds, it informs the district headquarters, which in turn informs the C-in-C 'within ten seconds'. The C-in-C now knows where the Zeppelins are, and orders aircraft in that district and adjacent ones into the air to intercept them. At the same time, those districts are immediately ordered to darken; nearby districts are to darken more gradually. But in most of the country, life carries on as normal, and will continue to do so unless and until raiders actually approach. And 'so complete is the control from Whitehall, so perfect the system of intelligence, that in a moment, should other counties be threatened, the pressing of a button will put in operation the same offensive and defensive plans'.

The above has been written in narrative form in order to convey as simply as possible the principle of a system which, with the existing wireless, telegraphic, and telephonic facilities, could be established within a few weeks. It will be noticed that this plan of mine concentrates on central control, without which any system of aerial defence will prove illusory. Not only is the introduction of some such system imperative, if we are to meet the existing situation calmly, but effectively, but it is on such lines that we can eventually guarantee protection against attack from the air.

Whatever one thinks of the specifics of PB's air defence system, he has clearly grasped the importance of command, control, communications and intelligence. He even uses all of these terms, bar communications, but he has that covered too, with his 'wireless, telegraphic, and telephonic facilities'.

Air War came out in late February 1916, but evidently it was composed of articles previously published in the Daily Mail, the Referee and Reynolds. (It definitely has a 'cut-and-paste' feel to it.) At this time, authorities were still grasping for an effective response to the Zeppelins, which is why PB published his book and, indeed, why he was in between by-election campaigns in which he ran as independent. (He lost the first one, obviously, but won the second.) Eventually the RFC developed a barrage system which was less complex than PB's area-based defence, but it proved effective enough. Defence against the Gothas spurred on further developments, resulting in LADA, and by the 1930s the air defence of Britain was entrusted to an system not unlike PB's, though with bigger 'districts' (sectors) and more vertical organisation (AA, intelligence, fighters in separate organisations). PB's C-in-C even uses a plotting room not unlike that Dowding was to use in 1940, except with lights on a map to show which districts had raiders overhead, instead of WAAFs pushing counters around.

So, Pemberton Billing was not so dumb after all. And I haven't even mentioned his invention of iTunes in 1925 ...

Source: N. Pemberton-Billing, Air War: How to Wage It (London: Gale & Polden, 1916), 25-32.

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16 thoughts on “PB and C3I

  1. Chris Williams

    You swine, Holman - this has just knocked a giant hole in my 'Midland Railway invented the 999 system' thesis. On the other hand, you've got, like, evidence for it, and the Paget -> Ashmore link was the one that I was relying on waving to prove. Nice one

    It looks like my draft article for Technology and Culture is going to have to do back to the back of the filing cabinet, though.

  2. Erik Lund

    ‘within ten seconds’.
    Because it's important to be that specific.
    That said, didn't P.B. win the seat that included the aviation industrial park at Heston(?). I can't shake this idea, which I can't quite put my tongue around, of a certain kind of Tory voter, living in the suburbs, with an engineering education (or a taste for science fiction, really the same thing, right?) imagining a future of networks. There is a power grid network that powers all the mod cons, an electric rail network that takes him to work in his tasteful suburban factory drawing office, a national auto-road grid...
    In this sense, a defence command and control network is not only a logical extrapolation, but a currently fashionable way of imagining the world that he _wants_ to live in.

  3. Chris Williams

    It's not quite the network as we've come to think of it, though, with a whole grid of nodes. It's a guy in a room telling people what to do, far away.

  4. Post author


    I'm glad you asked :) Actually, I should have said the iTunes Store, though. For a time in the 1920s, PB lived here in Melbourne, where he started up a music phonograph manufacturing and import business, and a radio station (with the callsign 3PB, naturally). The bit which is like the iTunes Store is that people would listen to the dance music being played each night, and if they liked something, they could ring up the station and place an order for it, 'without the inconvenience of standing around Gramophone Saloons during the busy hours of the day, and frequently making a hurried selection, the purchase of which they might subsequently regret'. The record would be delivered the next day. Of course, what killed the whole idea was the size of contemporary iPods ...


    Sorry! But all this is is the cheapest sort of intellectual history, it's always easy to find antecedents of ideas. Showing that they actually had any influence is another matter entirely, and so the railways might still end up being more important for the evolution of air defence!

    And yes, Reynolds does seem like a strange place for him to be. Maybe his right-wing tendencies were unclear or undeveloped? Or maybe Reynolds had a particular interest in air defence?


    PB was elected for the county constituency of Hertford. I could be wrong but even today it looks a bit beyond the suburbs.

  5. Chris Williams

    Hertford may not be a suburb, but it is a commuter town as well as the county town. I know this because I spent the years 1972-c.1987 there. It's always (well, since 1843) had a train link to London, but until the 1920s this was via the Eastern Railway along the Lea Valley to Liverpool Street, so perhaps a bit too lower class for yr PBs of this world. The Northern Railway link - into Kings Cross via upmarket Cuffley and Enfield Chase - didn't arrive until 1924.

    ObKOB - Hertford's been attacked by zeppelin and by cruise (I think - some sources say ballistic) missile. Both before my time. It's also famous for WE 'Biggles' Johns.

  6. Erik Lund

    And the old de Havilland industrial park is the next stop Londonwards.
    I think.

  7. Chris Williams

    Kindasorta - it's at Hatfield, 10 miles away to the west along the A414.

  8. Post author

    And guess who picked up Hertford when PB resigned? Murray Sueter! Obviously a bit of a nexus in the aerospace-time continuum.

  9. Ian Evans

    And while we're at it, Cuffley is where the first Zeppelin (actually a Schutte-Lanz) was shot down. There is (or was in the '60s) a memorial tablet in the church.

  10. Note that the intermediate layers - the groups and sectors - whose autonomy gave the Dowding system much of its strength are missing. It's the Man in Whitehall par excellence. Interestingly, one hundred districts reporting directly to central government is basically the structure of the French government since the revolution. He's also cutting out any kind of locally based auftragstaktik; perhaps he should be considered a weird version of a French technocrat?

  11. Post author

    Sure, it wasn't a perfect scheme. If it had ever been tried it would have needed modification in the light of experience. Local commanders would have wanted as much independence as they could get, too.

  12. Beatrice Arthur

    chris williams. i am looking for an old and very dear/missed friend Chris Williams who (although orig from U.K.) lived in San Diego, California for a short spell in the 1980's. Might you be him?

    thanks heaps, Beatrice wheresmejumpa at gmail.com

  13. Chris Williams

    No - also, though I don't want to overly depress you, there's very little chance of you finding your Chris this way. There are 400,000 people called Williams in the UK.

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