Sphere (London), 26 April 1947, 99

There have been many big bangs. One particularly important one is the 'Big Bang' in which the Universe began, according to current cosmological understanding, approximately 13.8 billion years ago. This was not a bang at all, in the sense of an explosion, because there was nothing to explode into -- rather it was space itself which was expanding, as it has continued to do for 13.8 billion years. Why, then, do we use this evocative but misleading name for what is arguably the most important event to have ever taken place? It was famously coined by cosmologist Fred Hoyle in a BBC Third Programme broadcast on 28 March 1949 to describe the expanding universe concept, then the main competing theory to one he helped develop, the (now-discredited) steady-state (or continuous creation) theory (emphasis added):

We now come to the question of applying the observational tests to earlier theories. These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past. It now turns out that in some respect or other all such theories are in conflict with the observational requirements.1

The term 'big bang' stuck -- or it least it did from the 1970s -- and it now stands for the entire cosmological theory of which it is just one part.2

But why did Hoyle choose that particular phrase, 'big bang'? On one level it is simply catchy, evocative and onomatopoeic. Hoyle himself said later that 'I was constantly striving over the radio -- where I had no visual aids, nothing except the spoken word -- for visual images [...] And that seemed to be one way of distinguishing between the steady-state and the explosive big bang'.3

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  1. Fred Hoyle, script, March 1949; in Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition. Apparently reprinted in Listener, 7 April 1949, but I haven't seen this. []
  2. Helge Kragh, ‘Big Bang: the etymology of a name’, Astronomy & Geophysics 54, no. 2 (2013): 2.28-2.30. []
  3. Quoted in ibid., 2.29. Kragh argues, I think persuasively, that Hoyle did not intend 'big bang' to be derisive, as is often said. []

Articles with 'air raid' per issue, 1913-1946 (BNA)

The time has finally come to address the claim I've made in the title of this series of posts, that the air raid somehow vanished. Why did I say that, and what does it mean? Well, look at the plot above. Previously I looked at how often 'air raid' (and related phrases) appeared per issue in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in each month across the First World War. The above plot, now, is how often 'air raid' appeared per issue in each year from the start of the First World War (when 'air raid' was first used) until the end of the Second. Now you can see that the first peak in 'air raid''s popularity came in 1917, at an average of 0.8 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA; and that this was followed by a second, much bigger peak in 1940 of 5.2 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA. All of which makes sense.

What's more surprising is what happened in between. From 1921 to 1934, the phrase 'air raid' almost completely disappears from BNA. At the lowest point, 1929, the average number of mentions per issue was just 0.026, or one in about 38. In other words, if you read 38 issues you might expect to read the phrase 'air raid' once, which is more than six weeks of reading a daily. If you want some absolute figures, 'air raid' appears 609 times in the 23054 issues contained in BNA for 1929. So 'air raid' was not a phrase you were at all likely to see in a newspaper in the 1920s and early 1930s.

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Victory Through Air Power (1943)

Back in the depths of last winter (and the great Melbourne pandemic lockdown of 2020) I had great fun as the co-host for the Historians at the Movies Australia (#HATMAus) livetweet of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'm going to be doing it again, this time along with James Kightly and Daniel J. Leahy as a special #HATMAus-Aviation Cultures co-presentation of the 1943 Disney film Victory Through Air Power, based on Alexander de Seversky's book of the same name. It's a wonderful example of both wartime and airpower propaganda, and I hope you'll join me for it. If you need more convincing, just before the main feature we'll be giving the 1950 Australian short Flight Plan the same treatment. If you need even more convincing, it's all free (you don't need to buy a conference ticket -- though please feel free to do so! -- and the movies are publicly available.) It starts at 7pm, Friday, 26 March 2021, on Twitter; the details and links are all here. See you there!

Image source: Victory Through Air Power (1943).


Sydney, c1941

In the Second World War, Japanese aircraft carried out over one hundred air raids on Australia, the most deadly of which, by far, were the first Darwin raid on 19 February 1942, which killed 236 people, and the raid on Broome on 6 March, which killed 88. The major population centres further south were never bombed, mainly because they were much further south. (The only other town of any sized attacked from the air, in three very small raids in July, was Townsville, 1350km north of Brisbane.) But after the fall of Singapore on 15 February, there was certainly an expectation of attacks, if not invasion. One indication of this is the civil defence schemes from the early years of the war that were beefed up and put into action now. All those things that Australians had learned about in the news from the 1940-41 Blitz -- blackouts, shelters, air raid wardens -- now became familiar here, if on a smaller scale. (Though the blackout was usually more of a brownout.) We don't know what would have happened had the southern cities been hit by air raids, but we can guess at how things would have started, based on behaviour during false air raid alarms which occurred early in the war with Japan.
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Sunday Post, 12 May 1935, 14

I recently came across a few more examples from 1920s and 1930s newspapers of the 'Red Baron' being used in reference to Manfred von Richthofen, which I suggested undermined my argument that, in essence, we call him that because of Snoopy. But instead of shrugging my shoulders I decided to get my data on and dig into some numbers. And they confirm my original conclusion: that Richthofen was not called the Red Baron during his lifetime, and it's only from the 1960s on that it became almost impossible to call him anything else.
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In the previous post I looked at Nigel Biggar's use of the Berlin Airlift and Richard Hillary in his paean to the RAF. Now I will look at his other argument in Providence, that 'In the past 100 years then, the Royal Air Force has made a vital contribution to the military defense of the West'. By this he means the Battle of Britain, of course:

The early phases of the battle saw mere handfuls of fighters throw themselves against hundreds of German bombers. Without their victory, Hitler's military would have probably overwhelmed Britain's resistance, and America’s subsequent struggle would have been immeasurably more difficult. Fighting for Europe from England proved hazardous enough in 1944; trying to retake it from the far side of the Atlantic would have been almost impossible. Hence Winston Churchill's famous remark, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Again, it's easy to quibble (Fighter Command was hardly down to 'mere handfuls' of aircraft, for example, and whether Britain could have been successfull invaded is extremely doubtful), but I absolutely agree that the British victory was a Good Thing.
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Kim Wagner pointed out an article in Providence ('A journal of Christianity & American foreign policy') by Nigel Biggar, entitled 'Thank God for the Royal Air Force!'. Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, has attained some notoriety for his 'Ethics and Empire' research project, which seeks

  1. to trawl the history of ethical critiques of ‘empire’;
  2. to test the critiques against the historical facts of empire; and thereby
  3. to garner possible ethical resources for contemporary deployment

in order

  1. to develop a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire;
  2. and so to enable a morally sophisticated negotiation of contemporary issues such as military intervention for humanitarian purposes in culturally foreign states, the cohesion of multicultural societies, and settling imperial pasts

That's according to Biggar's website. According to his critics (i.e. scholars of empire and colonialism), this

'balance sheet' approach to empire is rooted in the self-serving justifications of imperial administrators, attempting to balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits. It has long since lost its scholarly legitimacy, as research has instead moved to trace the actions which occurred in the name of empire in their complexity through time.

An opinion piece written by Biggar for The Times was headlined -- whether he approved or not -- 'Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history'.
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Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, 23 January 1941

Mark Clapson. The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City Since 1911. London: University of Westminster Press, 2019, https://doi.org/10.16997/book26.

Open access has had its travails, but one welcome recent development, particularly in the UK, seems to be the rise of open access monographs and textbooks. An example of the former is Gabriel Moshenska's Material Cultures of Childhood in Second World War Britain, a historical anthropology which focuses largely on the material culture of air raids, and is the product of many years of research brought out by a respected academic publisher. You can buy a physical copy at the usual moderate prices, or if you'd rather pay nothing you can read it online or download the ebook. Brilliant!

Another example of this trend, and the subject of this review, is Mark Clapson's The Blitz Companion, which again can be purchased in physical format (this time at an actually moderate price), or read online or downloaded for free, from here (and it's on JSTOR too). This is more of a textbook aimed at undergraduates, though upper secondary students would also profit from it, and postgraduates might find it a useful introduction to the topic. And it's a big topic: the title suggests that it's going to be about the British experience of bombing during the Second World War, but in fact it covers a whole century (and counting) and much of Western Europe beyond Britain, as well as extended discussions of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Indeed, Clapson sees 'Blitz' as a transnational phenomenon, hence the title (though this could have used a bit more unpacking, and I'd put it in lower-case when using it in this sense).
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Distracted boyfriend mem

The man: Stanley Baldwin. The place: the House of Commons. The date: 10 November 1932. The quote:

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through [...] The only defence is in offence, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.1

I use this quotation all the time in my scholarly writing: in my book, in four peer-reviewed articles, and in two forthcoming publications (as well as a bunch of times on Airminded). It's just such a perfect encapsulation of the knock-out blow theory, and from such a prominent British politician too, that I find it impossible to resist. (To be fair, I'm hardly alone.) The only competitor for my affections is by B. H. Liddell Hart:

Imagine for a moment London, Manchester, Birmingham, and half a dozen other great centres simultaneously attacked, the business localities and Fleet Street wrecked, Whitehall a heap of ruins, the slum districts maddened into the impulse to break loose and maraud, the railways cut, factories destroyed. Would not the general will to resist vanish, and what use would be the still determined fraction of the nation, without organization and central direction?2

Which is more vivid, but not as succinct, and doesn't get across that the consequence of the apparent impossibility of air defence is the logic of mutually assured destruction. And so I always come back to Baldwin. I have used the Liddell Hart quote in my book and in one forthcoming publication, but always as well as 'the bomber will always get through', never instead of it. Baldwin is just too quotable.
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  1. Stanley Baldwin, speech, 10 November 1932, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, vol. 270, col. 632. []
  2. B. H. Liddell Hart, Paris, or the Future of War (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925), 47. []