1930s

Walter Nessler, Premonition

Walter Nessler called this painting Premonition. A premonition of what? It's clearly London, judging from St Paul's, the double deckers, and so on, but it's an unsettling version. Everything is jumbled together and smothered by blood-red clouds. But apart perhaps from the ominous sky, the only direct evidence of what's wrong with this picture is the surreal image of the giant gas mask on top of the building being constructed (or deconstructed). Nessler was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and painted Premonition in 1937, the same year that his former countrymen bombed Guernica, a known inspiration for artistic protests against aerial bombardment. Clearly we may take this as his certainty -- a premonition suggests a supernatural inevitability -- that his new home was going to suffer a similar fate to the cities of Spain. (Although back in 2005 there was some journalistic silliness over the fact that two of the buses display the numbers 77 -- 7/7 -- and 30 -- the route of the bus blown up in Tavistock Square.)
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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.
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  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. 

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John T Collins, Aerial Pageant

A drawing by an Australian, John T. Collins, perhaps as a student exercise. Unlike in Britain, there was no dominant 'aerial pageant' here but rather many local ones, so it seems like a generic advertisement. It's dated to 1932 or 1933, but assuming the context is Australian then those would be Hawker Demons and it would be more like 1935 or 1936, when they entered RAAF service and represented the latest thing in aerial warfare down under.

Image source: State Library of Victoria.

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Because it's the holidays, I'm reading Bill Fanning's Death Rays and the Popular Media, which proves that there are far more death ray stories out there than I'd ever dreamed, from many countries and by many more hands. Some of these death rays were purely fictional, but many others were supposedly grounded in fact. It's clear that death rays were a thing: the idea recurred so many times in so many places that it suggests that it became part of the zeitgeist, at least from the mid-1920s up until the Second World War.

One particularly interesting death ray claim was attributed to the Minister for Defence Co-ordination Sir Thomas Inskip, infamously but unfairly likened by Cato to Caligula's horse. On this occasion, Inskip is said to have

openly informed the House of Commons in August 1937 that British scientists were at work on a new weapon that would completely protect the island [of Great Britain] and its civilian population from any air attacks. According to Inskip: 'The scientists who are working on the ray are convinced that within a very few years, provided they can work unhindered, they will reach protective perfection' and that this new power will mean that 'no air fleet could invade the country; no ship could land a man; no army could march.'1

This is a bold claim, but the summary is somewhat misleading, it should be said: Inskip did not say what he is quoted as saying here, and in fact he never mentioned a 'ray' in any sense at all.
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  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), 107-8. 

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NAA: A2023, A38/2/147/677

I ended the previous post in this series with the tease:

In a final post, I will discuss what [Alban] Roberts called his airship, and what it might mean.

That was over two months ago! I think it's time to finally reveal the answer to this question.

According to Errol Martyn, who has written what must be the fullest account of Roberts' career, says that around the time of the airship's tethered test, it was 'patriotically named Australia 1'.1 He gives no source for this name and I couldn't find a reference to it in Trove or elsewhere. In fact, most of the press accounts don't call it anything other than 'the airship' or 'the dirigible'. But not all:

Mr A. J. Roberts's airship, the White Australia, left the Show Ground yesterday under its own gas [...]2

and

The trial flight of Mr A. J. Roberts' airship, White Australia, from the Sydney Showground, ended abruptly on Sunday afternoon.3

I find this extraordinary. Australia's first airship was named for a racist policy of ensuring an Australian nation free from non-Europeans. Why?
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  1. Errol W. Martyn, A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation Before the Great War, Volume 3: The Joe Hammond Story and Military Beginnings 1910-1914 (Upper Riccarton: Volplane Press, 2013), 98. 

  2. Sun (Sydney), 5 July 1914, 4

  3. Maitland Daily Mercury, 6 July 1914, 6

Keep Calm and friends

Earlier this week I had my first article published in The Conversation, on the actual original context for the Keep Calm And Carry On poster, as opposed to the assumed original context. The Conversation is a great platform for academics to get their work and ideas out to the public, and to provide expert analysis of what is happening in the world. It's largely funded by universities and only academics, researchers or PhD students can write for it; it has a slick writing and reading interface and even actual editors who will commission articles and actively work with authors to improve them, particularly in terms of accessibility to a general audience. (There's no payment for writing, but academics are used to that.) The Conversation started out in Australia, but it has since branched out to the UK, the US, France and Africa. Here in Australia, at least, it feeds into other forms of media: everything is Creative Commons licensed, to encourage wide republication on other news sites, and three radio stations lined up interviews: I spoke to Genevieve Jacobs on 666 ABC Canberra on Wednesday (for a few days, you should be able to listen on the replay at about 1:28:44), Ali Clarke on 891 ABC Adelaide (ditto at about 37:07), and I will be speaking to Sean Britten on 2SER (Sydney) next Wednesday.

I won't go into any detail about the article itself, in part because it's a reworking of a post I wrote here at Airminded earlier this year. But I will post a bigger version of a graphic I stitched together to show Keep Calm alongside the other two posters designed by the Ministry of Information at the same time, and (unlike Keep Calm) actually displayed to the public on a large scale. It was inspired by a similar comparison which for some reason had green and blue posters as well as red. I couldn't find unambiguous evidence that these colours were used, whereas red definitely was, so I put together this version which might be of use to somebody.

The Conversation is not your usual media website, so if you're an academic and you've got something to say, why not pitch an idea?

People are nice. At the AHA today, I bumped into Bart Ziino, who gave me a present: the sheet music for a 1939 ballad called 'Lords Of The Air'. I'd not heard of it before, though I've probably heard it before as it was played in several episodes of Dad's Army. You can listen to that version above; it's a somewhat different arrangement as it's for an orchestra, not the piano. Here are the lyrics:

The British Empire proudly stands
As in the days of old,
Our fathers fought o'er land and sea,
Their history is told
In our new battle-field, the sky,
Prepared to do or dare
Let this be our new battle-cry
'Britannia rules the air.'

England our island home,
Land of the free,
England unconquered yet
O'er land and sea,
Lord of the heav'ns above
Answer our prayer,
God keep Britannia’s sons
Lords of the air.

Source: Michael North and Davy Burnaby, 'Lords Of The Air' (Sydney: D. Davis & Co., 1939).

'Lords Of The Air' was described as one of the 'newest compositions' in early November 1939, so perhaps it was inspired by the Wilhelmshaven raid on the second day of the war, which achieved a propaganda victory if nothing else. 'Lords Of The Air' certainly captures that sense of wishful thinking and empty boasting; it perhaps aspires to be a 'Rule, Britannia!' for the air age. By the end of 1939 it does seem to have become the most successful of several collaborations by Michael North (music) and Davy Burnaby (words), often being sung alongside better-remembered songs as 'There'll Always Be An England' (as recorded by Joe Loss and His Concert Orchestra, featuring Monte Rey) and 'We'll Meet Again'. My copy was printed for the Australasian market, and here too it was a popular choice for patriotic concerts and community singing, particularly during the period of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz (in fact, I suspect you could use its popularity as an index of concern about the progress of the air war in Europe).

So 'Lords Of The Air' turns out to be a nice little marker of patriotic airmindedness from the start of the Second World War. Thanks, Bart!

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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!

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Keep Calm and Carry On

The Guardian has published a very interesting piece by Owen Hatherley on the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' phenomenon, an extract from his new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity. He persuasively locates the poster within the context of an 'austerity nostalgia [...] a yearning for the kind of public modernism that, rightly or wrongly, was seen to have characterised the period from the 1930s to the early 1970s; it could just as easily exemplify a more straightforwardly conservative longing for security and stability in hard times'. I'm not British, but from the outside this seems like a plausible explanation for the renewed interest in the Blitz spirit in recent times.
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The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all.1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.)
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  1. Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too.