The superweapon and the Anglo-American imagination — II

In June 1935, the Daily Express ran a story about three 'secret British air devices'. The source was a story in the Chicago Tribune by that paper's London correspondent, John Steele:

The devices are declared to be a new "mirage" smoke screen, a new seventeen-foot long anti-aircraft rifle, and a robot airplane which, controlled by wireless, can charge an enemy formation. 1.

The bare descriptions perhaps don't sound so improbable, but the details ... well, judge for yourself. 'Mirage' was composed of different coloured smokes which created a decoy townscape:

"Brick red, yellow, grey, brown, and black smoke fumes, spreading across the landscape horizontally at different heights from the ground, or, as in the case of the black smoke, rising vertically in columns, create a complete illusion of houses, factory chimney stacks, streets, rivers, and gardens. 2

This level of detail and control over smoke seems improbable to me. But supposedly Mirage had been tested in exercises, and had completely fooled some RAF bombers which had been ordered to 'bomb' Croydon; instead they dropped their bombs twenty miles away on open fields!

How about the AA rifle? According to Steele, it was 17 feet long, had a range of 20,000 feet and fired cartridges weighing 39 ounces (2.4 pounds). Again, this isn't too implausible, on the face of it. But wait:

It is precisely like a giant Lee-Enfield with similar sighting apparatus.

"There is an artificial shoulder for the rifle made of rubber, while the rifleman lies on a small platform above the weapon and takes sight. No human frame could support the recoil. 2

It doesn't sound like any AA gun I've heard of, but I suppose it could be a garbled description of some predecessor to the 3.75 inch QF. It's a bizarre mental image though; and iron sights wouldn't be much use at 20,000 feet.

As for the robotic Drake:

This airplane, rising above a bombing squadron flying in formation, can keep up a perpetual hail of machine-gun fire, the firing being done automatically under remote control.

"The robot can be heavily loaded with high explosive and from below made to charge like a bull into a formation, and then be exploded by wireless.

"The explosives, projecting inflammable bullets, would fire the [fuel] tanks of the enemy, or even, if close enough, turn the enemy turtle. 2

No robot fighter aircraft like this existed in 1935 (although the the DH.82B Queen Bee, a radio-controlled variant of the Tiger Moth, was in use by then as a target tug, and became public around then). It does sound something like Ram, a project under development by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s but which was cancelled in 1930. Ram was briefly under reconsideration in 1935, due to advances in radio technology, but nothing came of it. 3

My point here is not so much that these secret weapons didn't exist (though clearly that's what I do think), but that the British press was not interested in the possibility that they did: the Express was the only national daily which relayed the Tribune report (well, nearly all: there are a couple I haven't been able to check). This was only a few months after the existence of the German air force was revealed and the government announced a trebling of the RAF's strength at home in order to maintain air parity. Why was there so little interest in claims that British ingenuity was coming up with clever responses to the bomber threat?

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  1. Daily Express, 14 June 1935, 8[]
  2. Ibid.[][][]
  3. See John Farquharson, 'Britain and the flying bomb: the research programme between the two World Wars', War in History 13 (2006), 363-79.[]

12 thoughts on “The superweapon and the Anglo-American imagination — II

  1. Erik Lund

    The Queen Bees not only existed, but they get inside the "British antiaircraft fire control=bad" narrative, since the story is that the initial Queen Bee trials showed that the interwar AA fire control didn't work. Then when you try to wrap your mind around this you suddenlly discover a branch of history that needs control theory. Just when you thought you'd left simple harmonic motion behind you....
    Anyway, the narrative here strikes me as very similar to the disappearance of the "Parliamentary Air Garden Party" of June, 1939, when a select group of MPs were taken out and shown all the Gee Whiz stuff the RAF had been working on. It wasn't quite what it could have been, beacause the Stirling prototype was pranged, but it was probably a big deal to spectators, what with all the "mystery ships" (Botha, Beaufort, Gloster F.9/37, first Spitfires with CSU screws) flying about. The thing is, it just disappears from the history of the leadup to War, even as a potential explanation for the German Air Ministry's similar show for Hitler in the next month, which is given a somewhat prominent place in the historiography.
    I come back to my hair brained theory that there _is_ something significant to the Tom Swift narrative (I keep using that word, but, heck, this is just an Internet comment), and something significant about the fact that it systematically skips British developments. The "matter of Britain" excludes technological innovation a priori, not because the British didn't innovate, but, because technological innovation was too important to the British economy for social criticism to concede it!

  2. Post author

    The “matter of Britain” excludes technological innovation a priori, not because the British didn’t innovate, but, because technological innovation was too important to the British economy for social criticism to concede it!

    Again, I'm less interested in historiographical debates than contemporary attitudes. But they're probably related anyway: the British before the war didn't think of themselves of inventive, or at least didn't trust in technological solutions to national problems. Probably a bit of 'two cultures' in there too.

  3. Chris Williams

    Or was it that the technological solutions were concentrated elsewhere: in control systems and institution-building (CFS, Link Trainer) rather than in the gosh-wow weapons systems at the sharp end. If you're engaging the right target at the right time, then what you're doing it with doesn't matter too much.

    The (perhaps too large role?) attributed to OR afterwards by prominent and charimatic ex-civilians would have served to strengthen this tendency's significance in the historiography.

    Note that this is the exact opposite of the German pre-occupation. Lovely planes, lotsa secret weapons, half-decent control systems, lousy institutions.

  4. Al'.

    Bret Holman; 'My point here is not so much that these secret weapons didn’t exist (though clearly that’s what I do think), but that the British press was not interested in the possibility that they did'.
    Actually, this - apparent - attitude doesn't surprise me in the least. I'm sure the press were personally interested, and they knew readers would have been interested to read about it too. At that time, however, most adults had had recent involvement with the military and the wheels of war, even if only on the home-front. The wartime 'Careless talk costs lives' just articulated what was pretty much ingrained anyway. People knew Germany was on the rise. They just gave a knowing look and carried on. Even without specific actions such as 'D' notices, people of that time were more socially cohesive than today. There wasn't much of an internal threat either. Many of the members of the press would also have relied on sources in the establishment and perhaps been concerned at highlighting what might be very sensitive projects.
    People were also aware that there was a long tradition of the military playing-around with odd-ball ideas, many, if not most of which turned out to be as daft as the people who came-up with then.
    One other thing. I seem to recall that there had been many rumours of all sorts of 'wonder-weapons' during the Great war. 'Death-Rays' and beams that could stop an aircrafts engine from thousands of feet below etc. These sorts of concepts had possibly become associated with the science-fiction of the time. In an era when most people were still struggling with basic practicalities as the world clawed it’s way out of the depression, perhaps they preferred what seemed to be more realistic concepts to toy with.
    Perhaps the apparent lack of interest of the British press of the time reflects some or all of these things.

  5. Erik Lund

    There is a mystery here. There were clearly many British "secret super weapons" that could have been mentioned in the press. For example, _Flight_ published details of the Napier Sabre (February 1938; I think that there is a fuller description in 1939, but it doesn't show up when I search the online archives) in 1938. Why not the Vulture, Griffon, Centaurus and Deerhound? The best explanation for this is self-censorship for fear of incurring Air Ministry displeasure.
    By contrast, in August of 1939, _The Aeroplane_ published a cartoon pretty clearly indicating that the Air Ministery had received proposals for jet turbine and turboprop engines. (With the inference that they had been rejected in favour of "complicated" prop engines, to be sure.) Shortly afterwards, C. G. Grey abruptly retired from the editorial chair after the magazine was bought by another chain. This is hardly surprising, since Grey was a Fascist sympathiser, but was the cartoon, or any number of other discretions, the last straw or a nothing-to-lose gesture? It is interesting that a similar relationship between a "responsible" and an "adventurous" aviation trade magazine emerged in the United States, with _Aviation_ and _Aero Digest_. By the middle of the war years, USAAF-supplied photograhs and publicity material had disappeared from _Aero Digest_, so one can see what kind of leverage, above and beyond simple censorship, an aviation ministry could bring to bear.
    the thing is that "foreign" press is only foreign in origins. The Chain Home radar system was described in _Aero Digest_ for April, 1938. The author defends breaching British secrecy by pointing to an earlier article in the New York Herald Tribune that I have not sought out, and pointing to the Air Estimates as the ultimate source. Since the British press didn't pick up the story, maybe no Britons knew. Except, of course, that I read this tidbit in the archives of the University of Toronto, so us colonials were au courant, at least. And I have difficulty imagining some GPO censor blacking out the relevant pages of _Aero Digest_ subscription numbers arriving in Britain, either.
    And the constraints seem to some extent artificial. The Short Stirling was described in the American press months before it was announced in Britain. _Flight_, usually very conscious about its "official" status, for a change, seems to complain in a veiled way about government policy when it was required to publish cropped pictures of the Boulton Paul Defiant (9 February 1939) that omit the gun barrels. The secret, presumably, is that it has a 4-gun, as opposed to 2-gun turret. This was retroactively confirmed (make of the effects of hindsight what you will) in a chatty way in the 18/01/40 number (p. 53), which recalls how the picture showing the four guns in all their glory was recalled from the British press after a round of calls from the Air Ministry, only to appear in all its glory in _Luftwehr._
    You can complain about the unreasonableness of bureacracy here if you like. I still think tht there is a need for some kind of sociological mode of inquiry. God thing that is precisely what our host is doing!

  6. Post author

    I think "sociological mode of inquiry" is somewhat ambitious, it's more half-arsed speculation! But what you're saying about the magazines is sort of where I'm coming from, except my perceptions are based more on the mainstream press and books. Little interest in secret weapons, or even ideas for secret weapons in these. Novels are somewhat different, but not as much as you might expect (and the bias is towards offence, not defence). Censorship may be part of all this (is there a list of issued D-notices anywhere?) as indeed is self-censorship (as with Mrs Simpson). I can certainly see air correspondents of the major newspapers being susceptible to the latter, particularly since they needed to preserve their access to the RAF and Air Ministry to keep their jobs. But I do think it runs deeper than that ... somehow!

    What Erik says about radar is interesting. I've kept an eye out for early (pre-1941) descriptions of something like radar in published sources, and there aren't any unambiguous ones that I've come across in Britain. Some which could be garbled versions. But radar was not entirely secret -- the Normandie, launched in 1935, had an early radar system for detecting icebergs. Two and two could have been put together, even by non-experts, but wasn't ... On the other hand, some secrets did get out. Queen Bee was one.


    In fact, interest in death rays persisted into the interwar period, as I've discussed here before, and constitutes a big exception to my line of argument here. The Air Ministry was bombarded with death ray proposals from amateur inventors, and it was in an effort to debunk them finally that the value of radio detection was realised. Even after than there was occasional tinkering with the idea (I'm reading RV Rones at the moment, who in the late 1930s looked at some claims that Germany was developing death rays). So that's something else to be explained.

    Another thing is perhaps the "secret" aspect shouldn't be too emphasised. The press had little faith in air defence generally (AA, fighters) until at least 1939. Today we point out that at the time of the Sudeten crisis the RAF had few 'modern' fighters in Britain. But the press didn't know or didn't care -- they neither said "we have no fighters!" or "Fighter Command will save us!", they just ignored the topic of being of no consequence. It's as if they'd internalised "the bomber will always get through".

  7. Just found my photos of the only de Havilland Queen Bee fuselage and controller restored to original configuration at the de Havilland Heritage Centre. I'll put them up on my blog once I've found time to scan them in.

    It's a neat bit of very scary kit!

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