So, who was behind the drop of propaganda leaflets on the striking workers at Coventry in December 1917? Most of the press accounts in fact avoid identifying the aeroplanes involved or who was flying them. At least one, however, says they were 'military pilots' and this seems likely. While civilian flying didn't stop entirely during the war, it was restricted and there were simply far more military aircraft around at this stage of the war. Radford aerodrome nearby was used for testing; it was originally owned by Daimler but at some point came under military control as No. 1 Aircraft Acceptance Park. So this could be where the leaflet-droppers came from, one way or another. But whoever the pilots were, presumably they were acting on somebody's orders. Whose?
The Globe's language is elliptical and gives the impression that a civil servant exceeded their authority:
It transpired that a Government official utilised the Government Press to produce a leaflet of humorous character for distribution among strikers, and the Ministry of Munitions is now charged with scattering from an aeroplane, for the benefit of the munition workers at Coventry, copies of a certain article. 1
The account in the Sheffield Independent could be read as an unofficial action, or as something more official:
While we looked upon the strike as a blunder or something worse, we look upon official buffoonery of this kind as the manifestation of the spirit which has done as much harm to the national cause on one side as the extremist views of others have done on the other side. 2
Firmer details eventually emerged as the result of questions asked in the House of Commons by William Anderson, an antiwar ILPer who was the Labour MP for Sheffield Attercliffe. On 31 January 1918, he asked the Under-Secretary of State for War, James Macpherson,
whether he has now received a Report as to the circumstances in which aeroplanes circled over Coventry and dropped leaflets containing an article which had appeared in a London newspaper; who authorised these proceedings and who paid for the leaflets; and whether the use of Government aeroplanes for this purpose was sanctioned by the War Office? 3
The distribution of these leaflets from aeroplanes was made at the suggestion in his private capacity of an officer serving in London who is also member of this House. He paid for the leaflets at his sole expense, the newspaper making no contribution to the cost. The use of Government aeroplanes was authorised by the authorities of the Royal Flying Corps, but special flights were not made for the purpose. They were distributed during a testing trip. 4
Evidently Anderson was not satisfied with this answer, because on 5 February he tried again, asking Macpherson:
whether he will give the name of the Member of this House who in his private capacity suggested the scattering of leaflets from Government aeroplanes over Coventry during the recent industrial trouble; whether he is aware that the use of aeroplanes for this purpose, together with the character of the leaflets, has been much resented; and whether it is the intention of the Government to continue the sanction of the use of aeroplanes for purposes of this kind? 5
Macpherson responded that he was not aware of any such resentment, and hoped that was the end of the matter. But Anderson pressed again for the name of the MP, and was finally told that it was the Member for Harwich, Major H. K. Newton, a Conservative. Newton was the Deputy Assistant Director of Supplies and Transport for Eastern Command. 6 It may have been his idea, and perhaps 'supplies and transport' gave him some connection with the events at Coventry; but Coventry, being in Warwickshire, wasn't within the Eastern Command area, so it's not clear how or for that matter why he got involved.
Another possible connection is Boyd Cable, the author of The Times article dropped on the workers at Coventry. As I noted previously, Cable was actually Captain Ernest Andrew Ewart, an RFC officer. But even though he gets a couple of pages in the sixth volume of H. A. Jones's official history, Ewart wasn't an airman. Originally with the Royal Field Artillery, from 1915 he had worked on propaganda for the Ministry of Munitions 'to create in the mind of the worker understanding and sympathy which made for a greater output'. 7 By the later stages of the war, however, he was in the Aircraft Production Department's Propaganda Branch. 8 From February 1917 he had been specifically tasked 'to study the conditions of air fighting with a view to spreading propaganda among the workers in the aircraft industry', by means of lectures with lantern slides of photographs made at the front. 4 Following this, he wrote 'a series of letters written from the front to give information to factories about the operations of their products', such as
the 'Handley Page' letter which told of some stirring incident in which this type of aeroplane was concerned, said a word or two about the importance of night-bombing, and concluded with a neatly expressed hope that the Handley Page workers were doing their utmost to increase output. 9
So far, this fits in with the article Ewart wrote (as Cable) for The Times, which is exactly that sort of thing. But there are hints that it didn't stop there. Ewart was in charge of a range of propaganda activities that were 'extended' in early 1918, such as paintings of aircraft in combat, distributed as prints to the factories where they were made, and small illustrations on workers' pay envelopes. 10 None of these involved anything as dubious as leaflet drops, but Jones concludes this section with a curious statement:
These belated war-time efforts to give the worker some appreciation of the importance of his personal contribution towards winning the war were good so far as they went, and tribute must be paid to the foresight of the Ministry of Munitions, and to the practical imagination of Colonel E. A. Ewart. Those who love truth do not care for propaganda because they are suspicious of its tendentious qualities. It may be that the propagandist can never tell the whole truth, but it is clear that, in the long run, the closer he gets to what is true the more successful he will be. The examples of which we have written have the merit that they told of actual happenings and that care was taken to ensure accuracy of detail. A nation goes to war to impose its will upon another nation. In this conflict of wills, propaganda, whether or not we approve of this method of making war, is certain to become a major weapon. 11
This seems a bit over the top for lantern slides and little pictures on envelopes, so it seems to me that Jones is hinting that Ewart's 'practical imagination' had been used for something more, well, imaginative.
I think there's still a little more to say on this subject, so I'll say it in one more post.
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- Globe (London), 17 December 1917, 6.
- Sheffield Independent, 20 December 1917, 4.
- HC Deb, 31 January 1918, vol. 101, col. 1765W.
- Ibid., 5 February 1918, vol. 101, col. 2080.
- Monthly Army List, December 1917, 19.
- H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, vol. 6 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), 87.
- Flight, 13 June 1918, 639.
- Jones, The War in the Air, 88.
- Ibid., 88-89.
- Ibid., 89.