Burn or blight

While looking for other things in the National Archives today, I came across a proposed 'aerial attack on Germany's next grain crop' in a War Council meeting held at 10 Downing Street on 24 February 1915.1

It was actually two proposed attacks. Mervyn O'Gorman, a civilian engineer who was in charge of the Royal Aircraft Factory, wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, to suggest burning out the German harvest from the air:

Suppose we have crowds of aeroplanes, which I think we shall by August, say. Then if we drop thousands of little discs of gun-cotton, self-igniting by being painted over with Greek fire (a solution of phosphorus and sulphur in carbon bisulphide).

If these discs were planted on dry or nearly dry corn and hay I incline to the belief that very large destruction might with favourable winds be done, and they could not fully retaliate on us, since our food is seaborne, nor on Russia because of the great distances.2

O'Gorman seems to have been basing all this on not much evidence at all, but he was even more wishfully enthusiastic about the psychological aspect of his plan:

My idea is that we not only proceed to make ready to do it, but also that you tell some gasbag as a great secret that we are going to do it. The reason for this -- viz., letting the secret out -- is that the political pressure of such news getting into Germany might be a decisive factor in their funking holding out. They might then down their rations yet more, and so gradually produce popular unrest at a date earlier than their crop!

The great thing is to treat the plan as absolutely certain of success, and the complete destruction of all corn and hay as definitely and finally certain, and to let this leak out (like the Russians in England).3

Hankey didn't stress this side of things, though, at least not as far as the printed summary is concerned (and as CID secretary he was the one who actually wrote the summary). He did also, however, put forward his own variant which had occurred to him at the same time, which was 'to distribute a "blight" over the growing crops, which would spread through the length and breadth of Germany'.4 He argued that

this proposal involved no cruelty comparable with that involved in sinking ships indiscriminately by submarines. It was merely a means of putting pressure on the enemy in support of our sea power. If the enemy Government chose to starve the civil population, the cruelty was his and not ours.5

David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in favour; Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, thought that burning crops was fine but 'drew the line at sowing a blight, which was analogous to poisoning food'.6 Lloyd George countered that there was no such analogy; a blight 'merely deteriorated the crop'.7 A. J. Balfour (present in his capacity as a senior member of the Opposition and a former prime minister) suggested that nothing should be done 'unless the provocation was very great', but in the meantime the details of the plan should be thoroughly worked out.8 This was what was concluded; further reports were produced but the idea seems to have been dropped after late 1915.9

There are a few straws in the wind (as it were) here. The proposal is reminiscent of ideas in this war about Zeppelins dropping plague on British ports and in the next war about using incendiaries to set German forests on fire, and there's an enthusiasm, even at this very early stage, for using airpower to strike at the enemy directly, where other methods could not reach or would at least time a long time to do so. Indeed, it seems mostly to be seen as an extension of Britain's traditional use of seapower to impose a blockade. But questions of ethics, or at least perception, seem to have troubled Churchill and Balfour, with the latter stressing the need for provocation from the Germans first (what kind is not specified, but the beginning of U-boat attacks on British commerce was evidently not enough, as this topic was discussed at the same meeting). O'Gorman was apparently alone in thinking the psychological effects more important than the actual physical effects, but this too was to become a beguiling idea for airpower advocates between the wars.

  1. The National Archives [TNA], CAB 22/1/15, 'Secretary's Notes of a Meeting of a War Council held at 10, Downing Street, February 24, 1915', 1. 

  2. Ibid., 7. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid., 1. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid., 2. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. TNA, CAB 42/2/16, M. P. A. Hankey, G. Herbert Fowler and Mervyn O'Gorman, 'Proposed Devastation of the Enemy's Crops', 1 April 1915; TNA, CAB 42/3/32, M. P. A. Hankey, 'Proposed Devastation of the Enemy's Crops: Reports of a Conference', 28 September 1915. I haven't looked at either of these, but they are discussed in Alexander B. Downes, Targeting Civilians in War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 277. 

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3 thoughts on “Burn or blight

  1. Stephen Cullen

    Wasn't this actually done by the RAF during the Second World War? I seem to remember an article that, in part, covered the use of these type of phosperous based, disc incendiaries in the Journal of Contemporary History in the mid-1990s. One of the very unpleasant elements of it were the number of children being burnt as a result of picking them up.

  2. Post author


    Arguably it wouldn't have made much difference, as propaganda machines on both sides were in full gear, accusing the enemy of crimes against humanity while excusing all actions of their own side.


    Yes, Bomber Command tried to burn German crops and forests in autumn 1940, using an incendiary device called 'razzle' (essentially the plan Sir Kingsley Wood gets unfairly laughed at for protesting). I should have noted that in the post, so thanks for pointing it out.

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