Caligula’s horse’s death ray — II

After reading Bill Fanning's Death Rays and the Popular Media, I looked at a murky 1937 claim of an official British death ray, supposedly on the authority of Sir Thomas 'Caligula's horse' Inskip, Minister for Defence Co-ordination. That turned out to be not quite what happened. But I was also intrigued by something else Bill said, in the context of other press stories of Air Ministry interest in death ray inventions:

The government made such announcements about 'invisible walls' and 'rays' for two reasons. One was to reassure the public that Britain was safe from air attack in the event of another general European war, the other, according to a press release in July 1945, a deception to cover the real work going on with radar.1

The reason why this intrigues me is that I've long wondered why the British government didn't make more of an effort to promote confidence in Britain's air defences in the late 1930s. Firstly, Britain's air defences were stronger. On Inskip's recommendation the RAF's rearmament priorities from 1938 onwards had been rebalanced to favour fighters more, and the extension of the Chain Home radar system around the coast began in 1939. Secondly, regardless of the actual ability of Fighter Command to intercept and repel enemy bombers, even the mere belief that it could do so would be valuable, given that fear of bombing was in itself thought to be one of the greatest dangers. In my book, I suggested that a greater confidence in air defence was responsible for a scepticism about the knock-out blow from the air in 1938-39, though without really being able to prove this directly.2 Perhaps the death ray debate can shed light on this.

For example, the Devon and Exeter Gazette's London correspondent wrote that 'for most people', Inskip's statement 'merely indicated official faith in the efficiency of our augmented R.A.F. fighter squadrons, equipped with improved weapons, acting in association with greatly improved ground defence equipment of searchlights, rangefinders, and anti-aircraft batteries'.3 This shows that some people, at least, were aware of the improving air defence situation.

But the same article notes that 'in some quarters a far more romantic explanation is put forward', referring to 'the idea of an invisible beam that puts aircraft, or for that matter marine and land engines too, out of action'.4 It adds that 'There is nothing inherently impossible, or even improbable' about such ideas; in fact the discovery of such a ray 'would either make war impossible or ring the curtain down on human history'.5 So investment in conventional air defence doesn't preclude the possibility of unconventional air defence (though perhaps not too unconventional); the more defence the better. The Gazette didn't specify the 'quarters' where this speculation could be found, but some possibilities are easy to find. An article in Pearson's Weekly claimed that when Inskip 'suggested in the House of Commons that our scientists had invented a death ray which would make air raids impossible, many of us heaved a sigh of relief'.6

It's clear that, despite the ubiquity of the idea, there was also a lot of scepticism about death rays too. For example, E. R. Yarham wrote of 'rumours' of 'death ray machines which can bring bombers fluttering down out of the sky like shot birds, sink ships while still out of sight, and burn up armies, tanks, guns and food', but added that 'The truth is that such stories are all nonsense'.7 Pearson's consulted a number of eminent scientists at a British Asssociation for the Advancement of Science meeting, including Sir William Bragg, and realised that the weight of scientific opinion was against the possibility of a death ray.8

But what's also clear is that due to the rapid advance of science, few writers were willing to write off the possibility entirely. Yarham immediately qualified his statement that all death ray stories were nonsense with 'but they are not likely always to remain so, for in every country scientists are concentrating their energies on the problem of devising methods of rendering men and their armaments useless'.9 Pearson's was able to point to experiments with using 'short radio waves' to kill bacteria and insects, as well as lethal effects of radium on humans (although the claim that 'Broadcasting on the wavelength of certain diseases would spread these diseases' is rather more dubious).10 Science was rather wonderful (and clearly not well-understood), after all; who could say what it might be able to do one day?

Judging from this admittedly small sample, the very concept of death rays, as problematic as it was recognised to be, did make some people at least feel more confident about the possibility of effective air defence. So the association of Inskip's vague claims about new inventions with these pre-existing ideas of death rays, whether intentional or not, might have played a part in weakening the belief in the knock-out blow theory, which after all was predicated upon the bomber always getting through. And if so, it was just in time.

  1. William J. Fanning, Jr., Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2015), 108. 

  2. Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 74. 

  3. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 6 August 1937, 11

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 4 February 1938, 26. This article appears to have been originally published in the British press. 

  7. Telegraph (Brisbane), 7 May 1938, 18

  8. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 4 February 1938, 26. 

  9. Telegraph (Brisbane), 7 May 1938, 18. 

  10. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 4 February 1938, 26. 

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3 thoughts on “Caligula’s horse’s death ray — II

  1. Neil Datson

    To what extent should the government want people to be either anxious or relaxed about an anticipated threat? Striking the right balance is always going to be difficult. Get it wrong and people will become either paranoid or blase. And that assumes that the government has a realistic idea of how great the threat is, and how effective the nation's counter-measures are.

    I've long thought that one can't really understand Appeasement (with a capital A) without appreciating the dread of the bomber that permeated through British government and society in the 1930s. Perhaps that also ought to be turned the other way round: popular dread of the bomber was useful to a government that wanted the public's support for its foreign policy.

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  3. Post author

    You're right, there's a fine balance to be struck between optimism and complacency, and between concern and alarm. At this particular point in time, though, 1937/38, after Spain, China and (recently) Abyssinia, and rearmament begun but nowhere near complete, the balance was probably on the pessimistic side of things -- though I suppose that might be just the time to crank up the scaremongering a bit. I guess what's intriguing about this claim is in fact the timing: as Bill amply demonstrates there had been a long history of death ray claims in many countries for decades, but while the Air Ministry or the War Office had occasionally taken some interest in the idea before (most notably with Grindell Matthews himself), this seems to be the first time that reasonably serious commentators thought the government was dropping hints about its possession of such a device -- and it's right when even a false claim might have been useful in reassuring the public. Five years earlier, it probably would have just added to complacency; five years later would be too late...

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