Monthly Archives: June 2016

Garry Campion. The Battle of Britain, 1945-1965: The Air Ministry and the Few. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. The Battle as propaganda during the war (most of the book) and memory afterwards. Includes such topics as the 'battle of the barges' and Churchill's 'The Few' speech (Campion still thinks The Few referred to Fighter Command but he does refer to the discussions on this blog).

Isabel V. Hull. A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014. Given the prominent claims and counterclaims at the time, surprisingly few books have been written on the use and abuse of international law in the First World War. I'm especially interested in how Hull treats the topic of aerial bombardment, of course, but also in what she has to say about reprisals for same.

Paul Virilio. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London and New York: Verso, 1989. Part of my continuing, if intermittent, attempt to engage with theory. This is little over a hundred pages long and has lots of pictures -- how difficult can it be?

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The Australian airship of New Zealander Alban Roberts seems to have had only three outings, all in 1914. The first of these was a tethered test at the Sydney Agricultural Showground on 23 June, in which the envelope was filled with hydrogen, united with the nacelle, and 'dragged into an open space, to undergo its first trial flignt'.1 The test was successful, in that the airship rose 80 feet into the air while carrying a passenger (Mrs Roberts), as far as the tethers would allow. This was reassuring, since a recent storm had allowed air to enter the envelope, displacing some of the hydrogen and lessening its lifting power. The airship was also able to move forward under its own power, again with someone on board (Mr Roberts, this time). However, this was not a particularly impressive feat: despite the near-complete absence of wind, and despite having detached everything detachable in order to counteract the loss of hydrogen, it was able to move no faster than 'walking pace'.2 The airship also suffered some damage, when part of the nacelle collapsed under Colin Hall, Roberts' chief mechanic. As he was some 30 feet up at the time, he had to clutch at the tethers until the airship could be pulled back down. At least this spectacle 'provided a fund of excitement for the privileged onlookers'.3
...continue reading


  1. Maitland Daily Mercury, 24 June 1914, 5

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

Simon Bradley. The Railways: Nation, Network and People. London: Profile Books, 2015. A social history of the British railway. Trains ain't planes, but I've heard a lot of good things about this book.

Keith Lovegrove. Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet. London: Laurence King, 2013. A fun little book about 20th century airline design, from advertising to cutlery; but it's the cabin crew uniforms from the 1960s and 1970s that catch the eye. Terrifying.

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Barrier Miner, 6 July 1914, 3

Australia has never had much to do with airships. In recent decades you might be able to catch a glimpse of an advertising blimp or a camera drone. You have to go back many decades to find anything else, and what you do find didn't amount to much. There would have been airship bases in Melbourne and Perth by the late 1930s, if the R101 disaster hadn't brought down the Imperial Airship Scheme with it. Early recruitment for the Royal Australian Air Force included jobs for airship riggers, whose skills were never needed. In 1909, mystery airships were seen around Australia, but they were phantoms. And as far back as 1851, William Bland, a Sydney doctor, designed and patented an 'Atmotic Ship', supposedly capable of flying to London in a week and a half, but it was never built.

So here's another to add to the list, though it's a bit more successful than the others, since not only did it exist, as you can see in the photo above, but in 1914 it actually flew. It's the first, and I think the only, airship designed and built in Australia. Its creator was electrical engineer Alban Roberts (on the left in the photo), who was New Zealand-born and raised, but in the years before the First World War moved back and forth between there and Australia, Britain, and the United States.1 From 1909 he was in Britain working on wireless control of boats, subs, aeroplanes and airships. By 1912 -- after an interlude in America, during which he crashed an airship into the Atlantic while attempting to fly from New York to Philadelphia -- he had perfected a remotely-piloted dirigible well enough to demonstrate [in music halls], much as Raymond Phillips had already done before him. He publicly demonstrated this drone back home in Wellington in 1913, where it 'dropped a tiny bomb of confetti' on a marked spot.2

A few months later, he was across the Tasman in Sydney building his full-size airship, 'the first Australian constructed one [...] constructed as far as possible of Australian material and by Australian hands. The only part which was imported was the balloon section, which it was found could not be made in Australasia.'3

The 'Nacelle,' or framework which carries the engines and propellor is 48ft. by 2ft. 6in. Mr. Roberts does not regard his vessel as much more than a model. Its engine is 15-h.p., and its speed in calm weather is 16 miles an hour. 'I would have to treble my engine power,' says Mr. Roberts, 'to get another five miles an hour out of my little ship.'4

Indeed, the airship itself was not the point: it '"has the pull as a spectacle," said Mr. Roberts, "but the wireless is the big thing."'5

Still, Roberts seems to have had plans for his airship:

Later, the airship will take up its occupation as a pleasure craft. Passengers will then be able to sail gently over Sydney and about the harbour. The ship may also be used at night as an advertising hoarding.6

It took more than 70 years for airships to be used for advertising in Australian skies, and I don't think paying customers have ever been able to take dirigible joyflights here. But Roberts' airship did fly, as I will discuss in another post.

Image source: Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 6 July 1914, 3.


  1. See generally H. R. Everett, Unmanned Systems of World War II (MIT Press: 2015), 266-8

  2. Dominion (Wellington), 25 November 1913, 10

  3. Ibid., 7 July 1914, 8

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

Paul K. Saint-Amour. Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. One of those books that does that worthwhile thing of looking at familiar works in unfamiliar ways. For most readers that will probably mean Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but in my case it's more the airpower prophets I studied for my PhD/book. I'm not persuaded by the reading of L. E. O. Charlton's books about the knock-out blow in the 1930s as being a betrayal of the humanitarian conscience he displayed over civilian casualties of air control in the 1920s; for me, they are cut from the same cloth. But I look forward to reading Saint-Amour's analysis of Charlton anyway, and of other unexpected gems such as Getrude Bell's description of a Hendon-style mock combat put on by the RAF in Iraq in 1924!

Daniel Todman. Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941. Allen Lane, 2016. Just from reading Dan's (lamented) blog, Trench Fever, as well as his occasional comments here at Airminded over the years, I know that this is also going to be an original version of a supposedly familiar story. Even the periodisation is intriguing, and the second volume will complete the story up to Indian independence in 1947. As this one is more than 800 pages, I'd better get cracking...