John Llewellyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow

John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rees was born on 7 May 1911, got his pilot's license on 4 July 1934, and was killed in a flying accident on 5 August 1940. Those bare life events hardly stand out among the airminded young men of his generation. But as well as flying, Rees wrote (albeit as John Llewelyn Rhys). His two novels, The Flying Shadow (1936) and The World Owes Me a Living (1939), and a handful of short stories, collected as England is My Village (1941), are suffused with -- drenched in, might be a better phrase -- a love of flying in all its pleasures and perils. It's because of this that he bears some comparison as the English-language equivalent of the slightly older Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Certainly, passages like these are rare in contemporary British aviation writing:

Below, the clouds were flat as beaten snow, dazzling white in the brilliant sunshine, undisturbed except for the shadow of the Moth which slid easily, silently, over their even surface. For scores of miles there was no movement, nothing but the sunny emptiness of the sky and the hard, white floor of the clouds, the enormous silence pricked by the stutter of the engine. For the hundredth time the beauty of such a scene hooded his mind, the sense of overwhelming desolation intensifying his realization of individuality. Nothing in the world, he thought, was as lonely as this, no scene so static in beauty, so expansive in monotony.1


We flew on for hour after hour, seeing nothing of the earth but the peaks of mountains standing up through the clouds, the only other moving thing our shadow which raced silently beneath us, following every curve of the clouds with effortless grace. Above was the dome of heaven, a nightmare blue except for the blazing ball of the sun, no trace of cloud to break its pitiless emptiness. The one sound in our ears was the roar of the engines mingling with airscrew thrash. We were alone, racing through a dead world.2

These convey beautifully a sense of the sublime nature of flight, its awesome majesty and terror, intensified at every point by the ever-present possibility of death (possibly a little exaggerated; surely Rhys sensed the 'inarticulate lust for the blinding novelty of a crash' among readers just as much as spectators).3

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  1. John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 39.[]
  2. John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 237.[]
  3. Rhys, England is My Village, 122.[]

Bystander, 17 August 1938, 277

After thirty-six (!) months, 'Spectre and spectacle: mock air raids as aerial theatre in interwar Britain', my chapter in Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber, eds., Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain, is now available for a free download under green open access (in this case, pre-copy editing). Here's the abstract:

This chapter argues that aerial theatre, in the form of annual air displays at Hendon and on Empire Air Day, was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) to generate a sensationally modern image of technological sublimity through violent spectacles of aerial warfare, including the performance of mock air raids. This was amplified by a second, incidental kind of aerial theatre, performed as part of Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) exercises and air raid precautions (ARP) drills in the form of mock air raids on British cities. These attracted curious and even excited audiences, conscious that they might be seeing previews of their own deaths. In combining spectre and spectacle, the RAF’s mock air raids underscore the ambivalent nature of airmindedness in interwar Britain.

You can read a bit more about what's in the chapter, or you can just go ahead and read the whole thing.

Image source: Bystander, 17 August 1938, 277.

John E. Gurdon, The Sky Trackers

This is the frontispiece illustration from John E. Gurdon, The Sky Trackers (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1931). Gurdon was an RFC ace (28 victories, all in Brisfits) and after the war took up writing aviation adventure stories so he could discharge a bankruptcy. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, noting that 'Columbus, setting out in a sailing ship to traverse an unknown world, had no greater possibility of adventure ahead of him than have the children of the aeroplane age', called The Sky Trackers 'a breathlessly exciting and a very well written yarn of detective work by aeroplane in the Far East, [which] will certainly get hold of anyone who reads it'.1

The painting itself is by S. Drigin, a Russian émigré who seems to have done quite a few aviation-themed illustrations in a career mainly spent working in the pulp and comic industries. The (non-crashing and burning) aeroplane is identified in the text as a 'Weare Wolf two-seater' ('low wing cantilever monoplane, 275 h.p. Typhoon engine, cruising speed 125 m.p.h., carries fuel for seven hours, climbs like a lift, and is as nippy as a dragon-fly').2 It looks to me to be somewhere between a Bernard 20 and a Bernard H.V. 120 (which was entered in the Schneider Trophy the year Sky Trackers was published), but I'm open to suggestions!

PS Thanks again to Bart Ziino for the book -- attending the AHA is getting to be almost worth it alone for the aviation treasures he finds for me!

  1. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 10 December 1931, 4.[]
  2. John E. Gurdon, The Sky Trackers (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1931), 3.[]

R.100, St Hubert airfield, Montreal, 1930

If you've ever read anything about the last great British rigid airships, built between 1924 and 1930 as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, you will almost certainly have come across a statement to the effect that R.100 was known as the 'capitalist' airship and R.101 as the 'socialist' airship. This was because the former was designed and built by Vickers and the latter by the Labour government (at least, it was conceived and flown under Labour; most of the construction was actually done under the Tories).

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Would you?

Croydon Airport booking hall, summer 1935

It's the summer of 1935.1 You're at Croydon Airport, waiting to board an Imperial Airways flight to Paris. But you were in a rush this morning, and you forgot to bring something to read. According to your Bradshaw's it's a flight of 2 hours and 15 minutes, and you don't particularly want to spend it looking out the window at the ground, so far beneath your feet. No matter, Croydon is fully up to date and has a news kiosk in the booking hall. You wander over to peruse the selection on offer, and this is what you see:

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  1. Late July or early August 1935, judging from the August Popular Flying on display. I can't quite make out the newspaper headlines but the themes (British troops? American naval policy?) could fit late July.[]


One thing we were curious to try with hota-time is to see whether the idea and the code could be applied beyond looking at London-Sydney travel times. And it can! Here is the output for Melbourne-Sydney travel times, in hours rather than days:

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950), Y axis = Hours (travel time) between Sydney and Melbourne. The data points are few before about 1910, there are some between 1910 and 1915 and then many more between 1920 and 1940. There is a trend towards lower values (faster travel) but it is not strong

Lots of data points, roughly the same as for the London-Sydney plot. It does look like there is some sort of trend over time, but it's pretty messy. So let's break it down a bit so we can see what's going on.

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Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about a software project Tim Sherratt and I were working on for Heritage of the Air called hota-time. Briefly, the idea was that hota-time would extract and then plot travel times between London and Sydney mentioned in Trove Newspaper headlines, as a quantitative way to gauge the qualitative impact that aviation had on Australian perceptions of distance -- or, to be more precise, travel time. We (Tim) wrote the code, proved the concept to our satisfaction, uploaded the project, and then didn't get around to writing it up for publication. Which we are now remedying… nearly four years later! (The writing, that is, not yet the publication.)

As part of this process, we've been cleaning up the data and trying some different visualisations. Here's one of the more interesting plots.

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950s), Y axis = Days (travel time) between Sydney and London. Indigo data (sea travel, predicted travel times) dominates from about 1880s to 1915, between 20 and 30 days without much trend. Dark red data (sea travel, actual travel times) is not common, mostly sits around 30 days. Yellow (air travel, actual travel times) shows up in the 1930s, declining from around 15-22 to 5 or less by the late 1940s. By far the most common data is teal (air travel, predicted), which thickly clusters from 1917 onwards, starting at around 5-12 days and declining to well under 5 by the early 1950s

This is an updated version of the first plot in the old post, but instead of just lumping all the data together, it is separated out by colour:

  • dark red: sea, present
  • indigo: sea, future
  • yellow: air, present
  • teal: air, future

That is, present travel times are those reported as actually having been achieved, whereas future travel times have not yet been achieved (usually because they are medium or long-term forecasts, but shorter-term schedule changes fall into this category too). So dark red + yellow tracks actual travel times between London and Sydney, while indigo + teal tracks predicted travel times. Or dark red + indigo tracks sea travel, while yellow + teal tracks air travel.

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History of the Second World War

It seems like only last week that I was spruiking a podcast appearance -- actually, it was last month, which is also not very long ago! This time it was on the History of the Second World War podcast with Wesley Livesay, chatting about the German air raids on Britain of the First World War (and how that affected British thinking and planning for the air raids of the Second World War).

Wesley is indefatigably thorough, or possibly thoroughly indefatigable: this was his 27th interview for this podcast, on top of 97 regular episodes, and he's still only in the interwar period! (This is after doing 295 podcast episodes on History of the Great War, too: clearly he knew what he was getting into.) So there is plenty more world war content to consume -- including another five episodes on interwar airpower, and an interview with Alan Allport on 1930s Britain -- and when you've finished with all that you can go read Wesley's sources.