Monthly Archives: March 2014

Michele Haapamaki. The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014. Michele may be better known to some of you as the Idle Historian, at her blog or on Twitter. She's also now a published author, and I've been looking forward to getting my hands on this, having been privileged to read both a late draft and the PhD thesis from which it has been considerably expanded. And also because the topic and, to some extent, the approach is quite similar to my own forthcoming book. But the result is very different to my book, and in some ways better -- or at least more likely to appeal to a wider audience, both academic and general. We both, in broad terms, look at cultural and intellectual responses to the threat of aerial bombardment in Britain in the early twentieth century. But where I try to be comprehensive, Michele goes deep, focusing on one particular response, ARP or civil defence, which takes up only one chapter (and sundry sections) in my book. This might sound like I'm saying The Coming of the Aerial War is narrow, but it's not: quite the opposite, in fact. Michele not only grounds her discussion firmly in the literature and politics of the period, but she also connects it to broader debates about British history and identity going on today, for example in the chapters on civil liberties and on Britishness, which is why I think readers who perhaps aren't quite as obsessed with bombs and bombers as some of us are will get a lot out of it. And it's elegantly written, too. In conclusion, if you find that you have to choose between buying my book or buying Michele's, then your assumptions are invalid: you need to buy them both!


Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead and Alison J. Williams, eds. From Above: War, Violence and Verticality. London: Hurst & Company, 2013. A collection of essays on the aerial view and how it has changed war. While there is a lot of historical detail in here, most of the contributors to this volume are geographers, rather than historians. (Which is fine, depending on how they use the history.) One of the exceptions is Priya Satia's piece on the invention of aerial surveillance by the RAF in the Iraq Mandate (incidentally, illustrated with photographs of air control in action as seen on this blog). Other essays which look particularly interesting include James Robinson on 'airmindedness and camouflaging of Britain's oil installations, 1936-9' (admittedly, any use of the word airmindedness is going to draw me in...), affect theory and morale bombing (Ben Anderson), the invention of aerial photomosaic mapping as applied modernism (Paul Saint-Armour), and 'the balloon prospect' (Caren Kaplan).

Alexander C. T. Geppert, ed. Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Astroculture, which is a term coined by Geppert in this context, 'comprises a heterogeneous array of images and artifacts, media and practices that all aim to ascribe meaning to outer space while stirring both the individual and the collective imagination' (8). It also has obvious parallels, continuities and overlaps with airmindedness. Indeed, while aviation doesn't feature prominently in this book I can see some connections with my own interests: for example, in Geppert's insistence that for astroculture science fiction and science fact are complementary, not contradictory (in my book, I argue the same with respect to the knock-out blow theory); in the interest of the contributors in UFOs, including an essay by Pierre Lagrange on sociology and ghost rockets (a transitional point in the evolution of UFOs from mystery aircraft to extraterrestrial spacecraft), and the participation of Guillaume de Syon, who I know of as the author of Zeppelin! (2002) but here writes on space travel in French-language comic strips. Other topics include the Tunguska event (Claudia Schmölders), Space: 1999 (Henry Keazor), Arthur C. Clarke (Thore Bjørnvig), von Neumann machines and SETI (Gonzalo Munévar), the Pioneer plaques (William Macauley), East Germany and von Braun (Michael Neufeld), changing science fictional uses of Mars (Rainer Eisfeld), and space and imagination (Stephen Dick, author of the brilliant The Biological Universe).

Alastair Gordon. Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. The author is an architectural critic, so the focus is largely on airport terminals and to a lesser extent airport design generally. Most of the book concentrates on the pre-1970 period; in fact there's a gratifyingly chunky chapter on the pre-1930. Lots of great contemporary illustrations, including architectural sketches of never-built airports, but I'm also going to complain here that they are too small and and a bit murky, and also that they tend towards showing off the architecture rather than how they were actually used. But I suppose that goes with this territory.

David Seed, ed. Future Wars: The Anticipations and the Fears. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012. Though it's not described as such, this is almost a posthumous festschrift for I. F. Clarke: it's published by the same press that brought out most of his histories of the wars to come, it opens with his 'Future-war fiction: the first main phase, 1871-1900' and ends with a checklist of his writing. In between there are essays on On the Beach (Brian Baker), John Wyndham (David Ketterer), Iain M. Banks (Patricia Kerslake), (again!) changing science fictional uses of Mars (Robert Crossley), and the uses of future-war fiction in modelling risk after 9/11 (Michael Matin).

Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray, eds. Changing War: The British Army, the Hundred Days Campaign, and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, 1918. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Yet another edited collection. As the title suggests, this has essays on relatively uninteresting things to do with the British Army in 1918, if you like that sort of thing, as well as three on aspects of close air support in the same period (David Jordan, Simon Coningham, Alistair McCluskey), two on the origins of the RAF (Gray, Christopher Luck), and one on the role of aviation logistics (Peter Dye).

Dietmar Süss. Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Review copy (not for Airminded). I'm looking forward to reading this comparative study of the experiences of the British and German people under aerial bombardment. It's very much from the ground view, not the aerial one: there are chapters on such thing as shelter life, religion, morale, the postwar memory and debates, and the prewar imagination of bombing; topics covered include children at war, rumour, just war, mourning, and reconstruction. I think there's still room for an analytical history of the Blitz, but this weighs in at nearly 550 pages, excluding endnotes, etc; so half of that amounts to a reasonable-sized book on the bombing of Britain, and in fact the comparative dimension should prove highly illuminating.


The Next War in the Air

My book, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941, is getting closer to being real. In June, in just three months, it will be in the bookstores. Soon the indexing will be undertaken. Yesterday I made the final corrections to the text, and shortly I'll receive the page proofs from Ashgate, for last-minute error checking. And it has a draft cover design! Which I must say I am rather pleased with.
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Getty Images has just announced an embed function, which makes it possible to very easily use images from their collections in blogs and other social media, while simultaneously maintaining Getty Images' rights and -- this is the really nice bit -- avoiding the use of unsightly watermarks. This is rightly being greeted with enthusiasm (though not so much by photographers), and I'll try to use it myself where possible. Even a quick search turns up many great historical images, some familiar, most not. (Basic tip -- to filter out stock photos, restrict your search to editorial images.)

But there are problems, too. Above is an example of a embed from Getty Images. It's from a lithograph by W. Walton of Day & Haghe, lithographers to the Queen, depicting 'Ariel, the first carriage of the Aerial Transit Company', and printed on 26 March 1843 by Ackermann & Co., Strand, London. But the only part of all that which is given in the Getty Images metadata is the title; the rest came from the Library of Congress's copy, which moreover has no usage restrictions at all (since it's long out of copyright) and shows the uncropped lithograph (admittedly, probably less desirable for a blog post). The only other information offered by Getty Images is that the date it was created was 1 January 1900, which is ludicrously incorrect.

We can't expect Getty Images to thoroughly research every image they hold, and an aeroplane flying over Egypt in the mid-19th century is kind of weird to begin with. But the problem of poor or incorrect Getty Images metadata is actually quite common.
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Ron Gretton, Geoff Matthews and James Kightly. Bristol Boxkites at Point Cook: Commemorating the Centenary of Australian Military Aviation 1914-2014. Werribee: Project 2014, 2014. In 1995 a group of volunteers decided to build a flying replica of the first Australian military aircraft, a Bristol Boxkite. It first flew late last year, and flew again at the Centenary of Military Aviation 2014 Air Show held at Point Cook just last week -- appropriately, since the centenary being marked is that of the first Australian military Boxkite flight, which took place at Point Cook in 1914. This is a handsome and well-illustrated volume covering the origins and history of the Boxkite, including that historic first flight, as well as the construction and first flight of the replica, now part of the RAAF Museum's collection. You can order a copy from the Boxkite 2014 website; I got one for free because James Kightly AKA JDK was part of the project, and asked me to do some research on how the first flights were reported in the Australian press.


Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.
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  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. [Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10.