Monthly Archives: March 2016

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In July I'll be at this year's Australian Historical Association conference, which is being hosted in Ballarat by Federation University Australia. I'm pushing my aerial theatre project along with a talk entitled 'The RAF versus the Wottnotts: Hendon's imaginary wars, 1920-1937':

The Royal Air Force (RAF) Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which large formations of military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying. These pageants were hugely popular among all classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands directly and millions more indirectly through newsreels and the press. Each pageant climaxed with an elaborate set piece in which a battle scenario with an imaginary enemy was acted out, for the entertainment and edification of the spectators. The enemies varied according to international context and the RAF's institutional interests: thinly-disguised Germans and Soviets, Arab tribes, modern-day pirates, and more abstract and industrialised targets. Paying close attention to these scenarios therefore reveals something of the RAF's conception of its own role in a environment constantly changing due to technology and politics. It reveals even more about what its leaders wanted the British public, and the world more generally, to understand about its role at a time when the lessons of the last war were being applied to the preparations for the next one.

But wait -- there's more! I'm speaking as part of a panel on the theme of 'Airmindedness: cultures of aviation'. Also on the panel are: Steve Campbell-Wright, speaking on 'The Role of Place in Remembering: Point Cook’s part in the Nation’s Identity'; Leigh Edmonds, on 'Gleaming modernity comes to Australia'; and Peter Hobbins, on 'Safer in the air? Australian apprehensions of aviation disasters'. I've never been part of a conference panel before; it's a great opportunity to make the case to the Australian historical community that aviation history is both interesting and important. Ad astra!

I walked into the local secondhand bookshop thinking I should try to buy something to support them; and of course then walked out with an armful, including:

P. M. S. Blackett. Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. London: Turnstile Press, 1948. Blackett was a bit of an overachiever: the Tizard Committee, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, director of operational research for the Admiralty, the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on antimatter, later MinTech. He even fought at Jutland. Here he grapples with the problem of nuclear weapons (he had been on the MAUD Committee which first investigated the feasibility of a fission weapon), starting with an analysis of the effects of strategic bombing in the late war (he was a sceptic, as he had been at the time) and ending with -- well, by his own admission, not very much by way of a solution, for which he blames the state of the world. Fair enough!

Nigel Calder. Nuclear Nightmares: An Investigation into Possible Wars. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979. The companion to a BBC documentary narrated by Peter Ustinov, of all people. The nuclear nightmares considered are: escalation, proliferation, decapitation, counterforce. So much for détente.

Martin Ceadel. Thinking About Peace and War. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A fairly persuasive attempt to classify peace movements on the basis of ideology, by one of the most influential British peace historians; but I do wish he'd come up with a less ugly formulation than 'pacific-ism' (sic) to differentiate absolute pacifists from those who accept that war is sometimes necessary.

I. F. Clarke. The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001. London: Book Club Associates, 1979. Clarke's other defining work on predictive fiction, this time on future histories more generally, as opposed to just the military ones. I don't know it as well as Voices Prophesying War, because the uni library had in storage and it was a pain to get out. So my eyes lit up when I found this.

The following article appeared on p. 4 of the 15 June 1914 issue of the Broken Hill (NSW), newspaper, the Barrier Miner:

AIRSHIPS AGAINST THE MAD MULLAH

Aden, Saturday.

Naval Lieutenants Boothby and Richard B. Davies are at Berbera, investigating the feasibility of utilising airships for the purpose of an expedition to subdue the Mad Mullah in the desert.

This is interesting for three reasons. The first reason is that it's a very early instance of the idea of air control, using airpower to subdue colonial unrest. The classic example of air control was in the Iraq mandate in the 1920s, which was inspired by the RAF's success in 1920 in helping to end the revolt in Somaliland of Abdullah Hassan (the 'Mad Mullah'), a revolt which had been causing the British grief since the last days of Victoria's reign. But this shows that air control was being contemplated in 1914, a full six years earlier. If the Great War hadn't intervened, Somaliland would probably have been the first operational use of British airpower -- and carried out by RNAS airships, too, not RFC aeroplanes.1

The second reason why it's interesting is that less than two months later, F. L. M. Boothby, now an RNAS squadron commander, was attached to the Vickers airship shed at Barrow-in-Furness, where the large rigid airship HMA 9 was under construction. At Barrow, Boothby was instrumental in fanning an airship panic at the start of the war, informing Whitehall of his theory that the Germans 'have a temporary base in the hills' nearby. It seems likely that in coming up with the idea of a forward aerodrome in Cumberland that he drew on his recent experience in planning forward aerodromes in Somaliland.

The third reason why it's interesting is because of the way that I found it, through Trove, the National Library of Australia's portal to many different kinds of information, including digitised newspapers. Actually, that's not all that interesting; I use Trove all the time. I've used it to uncover Australian mystery aircraft sightings, of course, but also the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla, the March to Freedom, blockbuster bombs, the Willunga Rifle Volunteers, even milk bars -- the list goes on. It's such a brilliant discovery tool that it's natural to turn to it when research a topic, sometimes even if that topic has nothing to do with Australia. The ease of use matters; while there are some good newspaper archive interfaces out there, the best have clearly been influenced by Trove itself; and they all could do a lot worse than to adopt Trove's front- and backends wholesale. It is quite simply one of the world's best digital history resources.

Which brings me to the real reason why this is interesting, not because of the article itself, but because I found it in the last Trove search I did before finding out that Trove's funding is being cut, in what is euphemistically described as an 'efficiency dividend' (if it was really a dividend, it would come after an increase in efficiency, not before a decrease in services). Jobs will be lost, 22 across the NLA. It's not going to be shut down; in the first instance it will stop aggregating some content. But that fantastic interface is useless without the content. And this is the thin end of the wedge; other major national cultural institutions (except for the Australian War Memorial, of course; and there's still lots of money for a new Anzac museum in France) are also receiving budget cuts. As many others have pointed out, there's a fundamental disconnect between the federal government's rhetoric praising innovation and technology, and the lack of support for an amazing Australian success story. It's not smart.

What can you do? Start with Tim Sherratt, then read the Conversation, like the Facebook page, follow the hashtag, sign the petition, or even write the senator.


  1. Further discussion in Flight, 19 June 1914, 641; Roy Irons, Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013), 170

Edward Bujak. Reckless Fellows: The Gentlemen of the Royal Flying Corps. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015. Much of our understanding of the airmen of the First World War has been dominated by the image of the knight of the air (or debunkings thereof); there hasn't been a lot of work done from a social and cultural perspective. This looks like an excellent corrective, tracking the change in the RFC from an often aristocratic elite to more technocratic and imperial force. There are chapters on training, observers, mechanics, and the Armistice. One chapter looks at Australian airmen, drawing partly on Michael Molkentin's work.

Ian Gardiner. The Flatpack Bombers: The Royal Navy and the Zeppelin Menace. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2009. As recommended on the Internet! A solid account of the early RNAS air strikes against Zeppelin bases, including the Friedrichshafen raid dreamed up by Pemberton Billing. I might have wished for more on the Admiralty's strategical thinking, but it's still worth it for the operational accounts.

Geoffrey Hawthorn. Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Perhaps the key theoretical justification for the study of counterfactual history, which -- despite the best efforts of some historians -- I think has value, if done carefully.

Rob Langham. Bloody Paralyser: The Giant Handley Page Bombers of the First World War. Fonthill Media, 2016. Speaking of counterfactuals, many an interwar airpower prophet sighed over the fact that the Handley Page V/1500 didn't get their chance to bomb Berlin before the Armistice and really show the world what bombers could do. On the one hand, the Super Handleys wouldn't have done all that much; on the other, the more ordinary Handley Pages that came before them did plenty, as Rob shows here.

M. Romanych and M. Rupp. 42cm 'Big Bertha' and German Siege Artillery of World War I. Oxford and New York: Osprey, 2013. Everything you always wanted to know about 42cm 'Big Bertha' and German siege artillery of World War I but were too afraid to ask.

Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, eds. Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2016. Oh hai!