Bulldog Drummond and aero-chemical warfare

Given that it climaxes on board an airship which is carrying a devastating new chemical weapon, Sapper's fourth Bulldog Drummond novel The Final Count (1926) is somewhat disappointing from an airminded point of view. The poison gas is not intended for use against a city, or to terrorise an enemy, but to cover up a boringly mundane (if large-scale) theft.

But there is still much of interest. Hovering in the background of The Final Count is the threat of warfare, especially aero-chemical warfare. George Simmers noted some time back that this novel seems to present an unusually early example of the feeling that the Great War had been futile. That's my impression too, from a slightly different angle. The events described in the novel take place in 1927 (i.e. the near future of the time of publication in 1926), and Europe seems to be on the brink of war again. That's at odds with my impression of the mid-1920s, certainly after the Locarno treaties of 1925; it's not that there were no tensions between nations, but there was little feeling that war was likely any time soon. Perhaps Sapper needed to exaggerate the possibility of conflict in order to find employment for Drummond and his band of merry vigilantes, preferably against the Bolshevik menace.

The poison mentioned above was originally developed near the end of the Great War by Robin Gaunt, a British chemist serving in the British army. It's actually a liquid (as was mustard 'gas') which causes instantaneous (and very painful) death if applied under the skin. This made it impractical as a battlefield weapon, because the intended victims would need to already have some minor cuts to allow the poison to get in. There is also the problem of how to spray a liquid over a large area. The plan put forward was to use tanks for this purpose (a la J. F. C. Fuller in The Reformation of War).

The Armistice fortunately made this unnecessary. But by 1924 the world is on the edge of ruin again:

Six years later found Europe an armed camp with every nation snarling at every other nation. Scientific soldiers gave lectures in which they stated their ideas of the next war: civilised human beings talked glibly of raining down myriads of germs on huge cities. It was horrible -- incredible: man had called in science to aid him in destroying his fellowmen, and science had obeyed him -- at a price. It was a price which had not been contemplated: it was a case of another Frankenstein's monster. Man had now to obey science, not science man: he had created a thing which he could not control.1

Gaunt comes up with the idea of 'inventing a weapon so frightful that its mere existence would control the situation. The bare fact that it was there would act as the presence of a headmaster in a room full of small boys'.2 The intention is that a world policeman would threaten its use against potential or actual aggressors. He meets an Australian (!) millionaire who also hates war, having lost two sons at Gallipoli, and who agrees to fund his researches. Gaunt manages to improve his gas by combining it with a blister agent which will rupture the skin and allow the poison to penetrate it. Only a few drops are needed to kill. The problem of deployment is also solved:

The tank scheme, however effective it might have been when a war was actually raging, was clearly an impossibility in such circumstances as I contemplated [wrote Gaunt]. Something far more sudden, far more mobile was essential.

Aeroplanes had great disadvantages. Their lifting power was limited: they were unable to hover: they were noisy.

And then there came to my mind the so-called silent raid on London during the war when a fleet of Zeppelins drifted down-wind over the capital with their engines shut off. Was that the solution?

There were disadvantages there too. First and foremost -- vulnerability. Silent raids by night were not my idea of the function of a world policeman. But by day an airship is a comparatively easy thing to hit; and once hit she comes down in flames.

The solution to that was obvious: helium. Instead of hydrogen she would be filled with the non-inflammable gas helium.3

Gaunt's benefactor buys an airship from Germany; the idea is to present the completed weapons system to the War Office (no mention of the Air Ministry!) and spring the whole scheme on the world as a fait accompli. But Bulldog Drummond's arch-nemesis Carl Peterson intervenes, and the airship is diverted from its noble purpose ...

The idea of a 'world policeman' here might relate to proposals for an international air force which were beginning to percolate at the time. But there's an important distinction: in Gaunt's vision, the death-dealing airships would not be at the service of the international community (the League of Nations is pointedly labelled useless) but instead would be wielded a great power which could be trusted to use them responsibly, i.e. Britain (possibly in concert with the United States and the other English-speaking nations). So this is more a revived pax Britannica, air-based rather than sea-based. The idea of scientists developing a terrible new weapon in order to end war is also suggestive of such novels as W. Holt-White's The Man Who Stole the Earth (1909).

The prospective use of airships as an offensive weapon (and the parallel denigration of aeroplanes for the same purpose) is unusual for a story written after the First World War. Sapper gives their combustibility as the main reason for their unsuitability, which is why he fills his with helium. (Also for important plot reasons.) This strikes me as both backwards and, er, forwards. The combustibility of hydrogen was certainly a problem, as the Hindenburg discovered in 1937. And helium was starting to be used in airships: the USS Shenandoah, built in 1923, was the first to use it. But inflammability was hardly the only reason why airships were no longer thought of as bombers. Being filled with helium didn't stop the Shenandoah from being ripped apart in a storm.

Similarly, Sapper misunderstands the nature of the so-called 'silent raid' of the night of 19 October 1917. This was a big Zeppelin raid which encountered heavy winds when the eleven airships crossed England's east coast. They were driven hard by the wind across the country and even into France; in all five were destroyed, four due to the weather, one by anti-aircraft fire. Accounts differ as to why the raid was 'silent': it may have been because the high wind dispersed the sound of the Zeppelin engines, or it might have been because London's AA defences held fire as L45 flew overhead, figuring that fog hid the city's location and that there was no need to let the Germans know where they were. According to Sapper, however, the silent raid was an intentional tactic in which the Zeppelins switched their engines off, effectively sneaking up on their target. Before radar, when sound location was one of the primary means of detecting enemy bombers, this was indeed a worrying possibility (which the Italians were later accused of making a reality over Barcelona). But Sapper seems not to have realised that the silent raid was an utter disaster for the airship raiders. He might at that have shared in a popular misconception, but accurate accounts of the silent raid were already available, for example in Joseph Morris' The German Air Raids on Britain, 1914-1918 (1925).

So Sapper -- real name H. C. McNeile, a decorated ex-Royal Engineer -- was not particularly well-informed about aerial warfare. He probably picked up his ideas about airships from incomplete reports of the Great War air raids and reading about the Burney and Imperial Airship Schemes in the mid-1920s. Well, not everyone could be an aviation expert. But equally, few readers would have noticed or cared -- his books certainly sold well enough, and The Final Count perhaps helped to sustain the image of the airship as a bomber. But if so, it left few traces that I can find.

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  1. Sapper, The Final Count (London and Melbourne: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1985 [1926]), 148. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., 149. []

2 thoughts on “Bulldog Drummond and aero-chemical warfare

  1. Erik Lund

    Wait. H. C. McNeile was born in 1888, commissioned in 1907, and retired in 1919 as a Lieutenant-Colonel (RE)? I think he found his calling when he became a fictioneer.....
    I also await the onslaught of enraged zeppelin enthusiasts who will point out that _Hindenburg_ was supposedly brought low by the rocket fuel painted on it rather than by its hydrogen load.

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