Monthly Archives: August 2013


Christy Campbell. Target London: Under Attack from the V-Weapons During WWII. London: Little, Brown, 2012. A popular (and in this case, cheap) account of the V-1 and V-2 campaigns with a nicely over-the-top cover illustration. As the title suggests, it does concentrate on London, but Antwerp's ordeal also receives some attention.

Hugh Dolan. Gallipoli Air War: The Unknown Story of the Fight for the Skies over Gallipoli. Sydney: Macmillan, 2013. On the one hand, it's good to see an Australian book about Gallipoli which isn't yet another Anzac story; and any book which cites Frederick Sykes (commander of the RNAS during the campaign) on the back cover and figures him prominently in the index gets bonus points from me. But if you're interested in Sykes you need to read Eric Ash's Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution (1999), but it's not cited here. And while it's clear from the bibliography that extensive archival research has been undertaken in both the UK and Australia, unfortunately there are no endnotes, which limits its scholarly usefulness.

John Keegan. The Face of Battle. London: Penguin, 1978. Don't tell anyone, but I've never read it.

Mark Mazower. Governing the World: The History of an Idea. London: Penguin, 2013. The subtitle is a bit misleading, I feel: except in the early part of the book which deals with the nineteenth century, it's not an intellectual history of world government proposals so much as a history of practical internationalism -- the Hague conferences, the League of Nations, and especially the United Nations and the proliferation of international bodies since 1945. Not that this isn't interesting or useful, but I'd like to know about the dreamers, too.

N. A. M. Rodger, ed. Naval Power in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. While obviously not intended to form a coherent approach to the topic, there's at least one chapter on most of the major navies. A couple of the chapters are particularly aviation-related: Michael Simpson's on airpower and seapower in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, and Eric Groves' on the Royal Navy's air-sea strategy east of Suez in the early 1960s. Something for everyone (for very small values of everyone).


The Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918 had its parallel in New Zealand, where there were even fewer real aeroplanes to confuse the issue: no military aviation at all and just two privately-owned flying schools. Here I'll track how the scare was reported in the press (repeating myself, somewhat) from the start of 1918 up until late March/early April, when there seems to be a qualitative change in the coverage; in following posts I'll examine later press responses as well as the archival evidence.

The earliest sighting I've found reported in 1918 actually took place on the last day of 1917, at Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island, where

A number of local residents are emphatic in saying they observed an aeroplane flying from the direction of Oropi on Monday evening [31 December 1917] at 9 30 o'clock. A party of four ladies, just after leaving the Methodist Church, and when opposite Mr Carmichael's residence in Devonport Road, noticed brilliant lights in the sky and a little later distinctly observed the wings of an aeroplane. The machine was travelling at a rapid rate and followed a course on the eastern side of the harbour, disappearing from view to the northward. It was flying at a great height. The members of the party are positive that the object was an aeroplane.1

There weren't any more mystery aeroplanes for a full two months, until 1 March. Then, at Tahuna, a suburb of Nelson at the north end of the South Island, a woman who had been out for an early-morning swim reported that 'on looking out to sea she saw two seaplanes quite distinctly. They were flying together near the surface of the water, and then separated, one going in the direction of the eastern hills', eventually being lost in the clouds.2 She was described as 'rather diffident about telling the story', but also as 'so positive as to what she had seen that she spoke to the press 'in order to ascertain if the planes had been seen by anyone else'.3 An earlier rumour 'that a seaplane had been seen in the Sounds' had been laughed off.4

A week later at Christchurch (also on the South Island, about 250km away but on the other side of the Southern Alps),

What appeared to be an aeroplane with lights was seen by several people in the city yesterday evening [5 March 1918] between 7 o'clock and 7.15. It seemed to be travelling in a south-westerly direction, at a rate estimated at something like 20 miles an hour, and was at a considerable height. To some, at first sight, it looked like a planet, but its fairly rapid movement dispelled that idea. Others surmised that it was a fire balloon, but to other observers it looked like an aircraft under control.5

After seeming 'to pass along the edge of a dark bank of cloud in the southern sky' it was lost to sight.6 The Sockburn flying school was contacted but disclaimed responsibility.7 This report prompted a letter to the Press, signed 'Leestonian', asking if anyone else had seen 'a well-lighted aeroplane late at night south-west of Christchurch? Repeatedly, during the moonlight cloudless nights lately, the members of our household have watched this visitor, and towards morning apparently as far south as the Ninety-mile beach it was seen distinctly'.8 On 11 March, it was reported that 'For several evenings, about 7.30 o'clock, a bright light has come from the east, starting near Sumner, and going rapidly west [...] On Friday night [8 March 1918] it appeared between 7.15 and 7.30, passed over the southern part of the city at a great height, and gradually disappeared in banks of western cloud'.9 However, by now scepticism had set in, as it was said that fire balloons were 'evidently' the cause: 'There appears to be no doubt that the liberation of fire balloons recently has given rise to tales of mysterious aeroplanes'.10 The reports were met with amusement in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, where the Observer's 'They Say' column (a mixture of jokes, gossip and commentary) reported that 'Mysterious aeroplanes have been seen flying over Christchurch. Travellers from the south report that Christchurch is importing a brand of whisky warranted to create Zeppelins, let alone Gothas'.11
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  1. Bay of Plenty Times (Tauranga), 4 January 1918, 2

  2. Colonist (Nelson), 2 March 1918, 4

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Press (Christchurch), 6 March 1918, 6

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 8 March 1918, 7. I'm not sure which 'Ninety-mile beach' this is -- it's obviously not the famous one at the northern tip of the North Island. 

  9. Auckland Star, 11 March 1918, 4

  10. Ibid. 

  11. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 16 March 1918, 7

John Horne, ed. A Companion to World War I. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. A collection of essays by an international group of experts who provide a comprehensive overview of the war: origins, strategy, combat, the home fronts, memory, and so on. In many cases the essays are written by exactly who you'd expect, and want. The chapter on the air war gives rise to mixed feelings, however. It's by John H. Morrow, Jr., the author of The Great War in the Air (1993), which twenty years after publication is a classic and still the best general survey available. So the obvious choice, then. Except that he's largely moved on from aviation history since the mid-1990s, and the citations in his chapter reflect this. So maybe not the obvious choice, then. Except that I'm struggling to think of many essential works on airpower in the First World War that he's missed out on. From my own narrow interests, probably only Biddle's Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (2002), and maybe fellow contributor Susan Grayzel's At Home and Under Fire (2012), though only parts of these deal with 1914-1918. Maybe the real problem, then, is that not enough historians picked up where Morrow left off.


One of the most intriguing things to emerge from my post-blogging of the Blitz a few years ago (but which sadly didn't make it into my Blitz article) was the notion of reprisals after notice, that is to say, of publishing a list of German cities which would be bombed intensively until the Luftwaffe ceased attacking British cities. This attracted some support from newspaper columnists and the public as a middle way between humanitarian restraint and all-out reprisals, and I've suggested that 'it was strategy from below, folk strategy', since it was 'not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war'.

But it was part of the official private discourse on the bombing war. On 11 September 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Charles Portal, wrote to the Air Staff proposing that twenty German towns be warned by radio that they were targets, with one to be bombed after each indiscriminate Luftwaffe raid on London. Other options for attacking German civilians were canvassed, for example that they be bombed without any no warning.1 Peter Gray notes that on that same day the War Cabinet discussed the same proposal:

Discussion followed on a suggestion that we should threaten Germany with reprisals by bombing any one of twenty German towns (to be named) if the indiscriminate bombing of London continued.2

The decision was that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, 'consider the question of reprisals at some future date', but that 'for the present our bomber force should continue to be used to attack military targets'.3
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  1. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4. 

  2. The National Archives, CAB 65/9/9, W. M. (40) 247, War Cabinet conclusions, 11 September 1940. See Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 171. 

  3. CAB 65/9/9. 


Colin Dobinson. Building Radar: Forging Britain's Early Warning Chain, 1935-1945. London: Methuen, 2010. Looks like a useful complement to David Zimmerman's Britain's Shield (2001). This covers the scientific and institutional side of the British development of radar in detail too (and adds some texture to the role of death ray desire), but is more concerned than is Zimmerman with the operational and technical side of the programme, as well as with the physical survival of radar sites (since the book is part of an English Heritage series).

Stuart Hylton. Reporting the Blitz: News from the Home Front Communities. Stroud: History Press, 2012. A thematic exploration of the non-London Blitz as seen through the provincial press: the black-out, evacuation, anti-gas drills, entertainment, war aims, and even air raids. Some chapters stray outside the Blitz, for example one on attitudes towards Britain's allies (mostly meaning the Soviet Union and the United States, though at least Canada gets a mention). Well-illustrated with relevant newspaper advertisements.


My peer-reviewed article, 'Dreaming war: airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', has now been published in the latest issue of History Australia, which can be found here. This is the abstract:

Numerous false sightings of mysterious aeroplanes, thought to be German and hostile, were reported by ordinary people around Australia in the Autumn of 1918. These reports were investigated by defence authorities, who initiated a maximum effort to find the merchant raiders presumed to be the source of the aeroplanes. The scare is interpreted in the context of reports that a German seaplane had flown over Sydney in 1917; fears that the German offensive in France would lead to an Allied defeat; wartime paranoia about German subversion; and the growth of negative airmindedness thanks to the wartime press.

As I've previously discussed, this is my first mystery aircraft article, and hopefully not my last!

I'm also self-archiving the version originally submitted to History Australia, that is, before it was peer-reviewed. This can be downloaded for free from here. I don't normally like to do this, since the text usually changes significantly after peer-review. That is indeed the case here: I swapped the introduction with the following section, the graphics have been redone, and there are some other smaller, but important, changes. But, per my contributor agreement with History Australia, this is only version I am allowed to self-archive. Because this mystery aeroplane scare is virtually unknown, I'd like to make the information and ideas in the article widely available, even if not necessarily in the form that I would like. Otherwise, if you aren't a member of the Australian Historical Association or don't have institutional access to History Australia, the final, peer-reviewed (and better!) version should be open-access in 2015.

A. O. Pollard. Epic Deeds of the RAF. London and Melbourne: Hutchinson and Co., 1940. Pollard, a VC winner and former RAF pilot, was mostly known for his crime thrillers (some of them airminded) but occasionally turned his hand to non-fiction. This is a fairly generic account of the first year of the Second World War in the air; the last chapter takes the story up to 15 September 1940 and so Pollard is confident enough to declare victory in the Battle of Britain. The style is exactly what you'd expect from the title.

Robert Tombs and Emile Chabal, eds. Britain and France in Two World Wars: Truth, Myth and Memory. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. France is too often neglected in Anglocentric accounts of the world wars so it's good to have a bit of balance. An impressive list of contributors of the likes of Jay Winter, Elizabeth Greenhalgh and Gary Sheffield look at the military relationship between France and Britain as well as the ways they have remembered their shared experiences of warfare in the decades since 1945. However, it would have been interesting to have some chapters on the interwar period, given that the relationship soured so quickly after 1918, yet remained of critical importance to both countries as they both prepared for and tried to avoid fighting side by side again against Germany.



In between conferencing and researching, I managed to fit in some sightseeing in Wellington. It really was only a day or two, and sometimes the weather was somewhat inclement, but I did see some of the main attractions. Above is a detail of the portico of the beautiful Wellington Railway Station, which opened in 1937. I must admit to only using it for the conveniently-located supermarket inside.
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