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.
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.
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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.