Monthly Archives: November 2013

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Pour la patrie

This must be about the strangest image to have ever appeared on this blog. How to explain it?

First of all, it was published in Review of Reviews, May 1913, 457, accompanying the second part of a two-part article by Count Zeppelin on 'The conquest of the air'. However, apart from the obvious aviation theme there's no obvious link to the text. The caption reads:

The Pictorial Postcard issued for sale on behalf of the Swiss National Aviation Fund.

I can't find much about the Swiss National Aviation Fund (which doubtless had a proper name in French and German -- there's a version of the postcard in the latter), apart from a solitary but simultaneous mention in Flight, 3 May 1913, 496:

Having arranged to fly at Aaran in the interest of the Swiss National Aviation Fund to which £16,000 has already been subscribed, Oscar Bider flew over from Berne on his Blériot tandem on the 22nd ult., in 45 mins.

This confirms what was already apparent from the name, that the Swiss National Aviation Fund was an effort to raise funds to buy aircraft, 'pour la Patrie', for the Fatherland, presumably for military purposes. (It seems to have been reissued during the First World War, in which Switzerland of course was neutral, but in need of aircraft more than ever.) Similar efforts were then underway in Britain and the Dominions, such as the Britannia Airship Committee and the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, and during the recent airship panic the Navy League had tried to get British municipalities to volunteer funds to buy aircraft for their own defence -- though I suspect none were as successful as the Swiss National Aviation Fund, if the report in Flight is correct.

All that may help explain the presence of this image in Review of Reviews, but it doesn't explain the image itself, a photograph of a sculpture, probably in clay, by the Italian Domenico Mastroianni. All I can offer is that the woman with the sword and the cross on her breast is Helvetia, the national personification of Switzerland. The grouping of her with the horses almost seems like a statue group; perhaps it is a reference to a well-known depiction, but I haven't been able to find it. Like Helvetia herself, the horses also seem to pull the image away from modernity into a classical past, which is contrary to how you'd expect such a radical new technology to be portrayed -- on the Italian side of the Alps, the even newer literary and artistic movement, Futurism, was filled with images of aviation precisely because it was such a break with the past. But perhaps that was the point of this image -- maybe by classicising the aeroplane and relating it to safe and familiar forms of patriotism and strength it reassured the viewer that the traditional virtues and mores would not be overturned along with transportation and warfare. It this context it might be noted that the British committees and leagues referred to earlier all had, in that typical Edwardian way, aristocratic patrons: Lord Desborough was president of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, for example. It's a more subtle way of giving the same assurance, that the social order will be upheld.

It's still a bizarre image, though. And it must be pointed out that 3 hp is woefully underpowered for an aeroplane, even in 1913.

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Karl Baedeker. Great Britain: Handbook for Travellers. Old House, 2013 [1937]. As I said, I'm a sucker for facsimile editions, and this one has many nice foldout maps. As the cover doesn't fail to tell you, this is the version supposedly used by the Luftwaffe to plan the Baedeker raids. At any rate, if you were time-travelling back to 1937 Britain and could only take one book, you could take this, but really it would be a waste of luggage allowance because you could buy it when you got there.

Daniel Pick. War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993. One of those books I've seen referenced many times but never seen. Looks at the increasing appetite for destruction from the 19th century through to the First World War -- Clausewitz, 1870, the Channel Tunnel all get a look-in. May get a bit psychohistorical at times.

David Reynolds. The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century. London: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Did somebody say 'upcoming centenary of the First World War'? Probably, since the centenary of the the First World War is upcoming. Reynolds usually works on the Second World War period, but that probably makes him a good choice for this contribution to the literature, a reflection upon the effects of the war on the rest of the century, in terms of big themes like war and peace (obviously), democracy, empire and so on.

C. G. G. [C. G. Grey], 'A real aerial defence', Aeroplane, 12 June 1913, 670:

It has been brought to our attention -- it comes from the City, so it must be true -- that Britain has at last acquired a real means of enforcing the Aerial Navigation Act. It is alleged that a great inventor has persuaded the Secretary of State for War that he has an invention which, by means of Herzian [sic], or some similar waves -- vulgarly known as 'wireless' -- will cause the magneto ignition apparatus of all aircraft within a radius of seven miles to cease from functioning. In other words, the engines of all aircraft within range will be stopped, aeroplanes will be forced to land where they can, and dirigibles will be left at the mercy of the winds.

The account further states that the inventor has been allotted a piece of Government land in the neighbourhood of Folkestone, which is to be thoroughly surrounded by sentries to prevent foreign Powers who have neglected to provide themselves with City correspondents or copies of this journal from obtaining the slightest inkling of the fact that experiments are in progress.

This is a rather tongue-in-cheek account (if it's not clear from the quotation above, consider that Grey goes on to suggest that friendly aircraft be equipped with 'a clockwork or elastic drive' for backup -- and there's more where that came from), but it does sound like it derives from a real claim made by a City newspaper or newspaper correspondent, though it could just be a rumour current in financial circles. Even if Grey just made the whole story up, though, it's still a very early example of the idea of a death ray, at least in the sense, which became common from the 1920s, of an electromagnetic means of interfering with internal combustion engines at a distance. And it's in an air defence context, too. I know of no earlier such death rays, which of course means there are probably many.1


  1. H. G. Wells's 'Heat-Ray' from The War of the Worlds (1898) and George Griffith's 'death-rays' in The World Masters (1903) work differently, and weren't used against aircraft. 

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Bradshaw's International Air Guide. Oxford and New York: Old House, 2013 [1934]. I'm a sucker for facsimile reproductions like this. Bradshaw's are best known for their compilations of [added: railway] timetables for the Continental traveller, but beginning in 1934 they did the same for air routes. You also get airport information, hotel advertisements, standard air travel rules and regulations (you couldn't take arms on board, for example, unless they were for 'hunting or sporting' and 'packed in such a manner as to cause no danger to persons or things', 159), and a nice pull-out map showing the world's air routes (which clearly reveals the Anglocentric nature of Bradshaw's: it doesn't show any North American or Australian routes because they didn't connect with flights out of Europe).

Robin Holmes. The Battle of Heligoland Bight 1939: The Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe's Baptism of Fire. London: Grub Street, 2009. The Battle of Heligoland Bight was a daylight raid on Wilhelmshaven on 18 December 1939 in which just over half the RAF force was lost, leading to the suspicion that the bomber might not always get through. This book focuses on the fortunes of one particular Wellington and its crew, but also takes in the wider story of the raid.

Richard Overy. The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. London: Allen Lane, 2013. This is a bit of a magnum opus. There are few people as well placed as Overy to write a deep summation of and reflection upon what we know now about strategic bombing in Europe in the Second World War (there's even a chapter on the Soviet experience), and by all accounts he has succeeded brilliantly. I've been waiting for this with some impatience and look forward to reading it (when I have a few weeks to spare -- with endnotes, it's just over 800 pages in length).

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I have previously outlined evidence from the New Zealand press for mystery aeroplane sightings in that country in 1918. I think it is clear that the reports, though not great in number, did amount to a scare. Apart from the claims themselves, and the associated talk of aerial or naval bombardment of New Zealand's major cities, there is also the following overt discussion, published in several papers in early April 1918:

Since the disclosure of the boast by an officer of a German raider than he had passed over Sydney in a seaplane, the authorities in New Zealand have had to cope with quite an epidemic of reports about mysterious seaplanes circling around the more remote parts of New Zealand. In every case careful investigation has to be made, and in every case the report has been found to be without foundation. Some of these reports have found their way into the newspapers, causing somewhat of a scare, and it is intended to prosecute under the War Regulations any person who in future circulates, without good cause, any such report likely to cause public harm. If New Zealanders see any more mysterious visitants in the sky, their best plan will be to carefully verify the sight, and quity [sic; quietly] inform the nearest police or defence officer, avoiding any public mention, for fear that it comes under the scope of the numerous possible offences against these comprehensive War Regulations.1

So this tells us that there were a considerable number of mystery aeroplane sightings, only a fraction of which made it into the press; that the government wanted reports to be made to the police or defence authorities, threatening prosecution if any public statements were made; and that the government took the reports seriously and investigated them. This is very similar to what happened in Australia at around this time (where censorship of mystery aeroplane sightings seems to have been imposed a couple of weeks later), which is promising, because in the National Archives of Australia I found a trove of intelligence files relating to mystery aeroplane scares. So I hoped to find something similar in Archives New Zealand. But I didn't. Here's what I did find.
...continue reading


  1. Auckland Star, 8 April 1918, 4

Picked up both of these at the Shrine of Remembrance, while visiting to see the new Bomber Command exhibition. Of which, more another day.

Don Charlwood. Journeys into Night. Warrandyte: Burgewood Books, 2013 [1991]. I discussed Charlwood's memoir of the war recently; this is a sort of collective memoir of the twenty men who formed his Empire Air Training Scheme class, three quarters of whom didn't survive the war. Charlwood himself made it, not only through the war, but until last year.

Bruce Scates with Alexandra McCosker, Keir Reeves, Rebecca Wheatley and Damien Williams. Anzac Journeys: Returning to the Battlefields of World War II. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2013. This is a history of the Australian memory of war, specifically in the form of pilgrimage to foreign battlefields, whether by veterans, family, or people without direct connections to war. Includes chapters on Bomber Command and Darwin.