Aerial theatre

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.

A bit of aerial theatre from Dan Todman's (excellent) Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941:

Newton Abbot, Devon, February 1941. The town is holding its War Weapons Week to promote the National Savings movement. It has been set the aim of increasing savings by £100,000 during seven days. To publicize the event, local organizers arrange a fly-over by RAF bombers from a nearby airbase. They drop 10,000 advertising leaflets, with instructions about how to take part in the savings drive. Each is headlined 'THIS MIGHT HAVE BEEN A BOMB'. Whether this is a plea or a threat, it works: Newton Abbot smashes its target, with £216,000 invested by the time the War Weapons Week ends.1

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a picture of one of these leaflets, or evidence of their use elsewhere in Britain, but the same phrase was used in other leaflets dropped on Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, in the very same month, by a member of the local aero club as publicity for War Savings Certificates:

War Savings Certificates leaflet

The leaflets dropped on Newton Abbot may have been something similar, though the message here is obviously slightly different ('help destroy Hitler's murderous bombers ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC') -- and would be different again when dropped on Reedsburg, Wisconsin, in January 1944 by the Civil Air Patrol ('Join the Womens' Army Corps') and when dropped on Los Angeles in December 1951, again by the Civil Air Patrol ('These could have been REAL BOMBS! EVEN A-BOMBS!') A little bit of aerial theatre travelling a long way.


  1. Daniel Todman, Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 603. The source is given as TNA, NSC 7/78, 'War Weapons Weeks: Items of Special Interest'. 

1 Comment

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?
...continue reading


  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

6 Comments

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!

In December I'll be giving a talk at the Aviation Cultures Mk. II: Technology, Culture, Heritage conference at the University of Sydney, entitled 'Comparing Hendon: aerial theatre in context'. Here's the abstract:

The RAF Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying, climaxing 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. These pageants were hugely popular among all social classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands of people directly and many millions more indirectly through newsreels. Hendon was undoubtedly the most important British venue for staging aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to project images of future warfare, national power and technological prowess. However, the RAF Pageants were not unique. In this paper I will compare them with: equivalent forms of theatre employed by the British Army and the Royal Navy; similar forms of aerial theatre staged internationally, for example in Italy, the Soviet Union and Australia; and different kinds of aerial theatre used by the RAF itself, particularly Empire Air Day. This comparative approach will enable me to demonstrate the importance of Hendon and its influence, and to understand the relationship between the specific form of aerial theatre and the messages it conveyed about war, nation and technology.

This is the start of pulling together a few themes into something publishable. As part of the revision process for my 1913 phantom airships article, I decided to cut the section on the idea of the aerial theatre and to instead expand that into an article of its own. But instead of focusing narrowly on the Edwardian aerial theatre I'll think I'll take it into the interwar period and talk about the Hendon pageants instead, which were the subject of a series of posts I did ages ago. So it's time to take another look at Hendon, and presenting at Aviation Cultures Mk. II will be a part of that process.

I see that I neglected to post about Aviation Cultures Mk. I, which was held back in February, also at the University of Sydney. I think that was because I wasn't presenting anything original, just an overview of my research interests. It was an excellent one day interdisciplinary seminar involving mostly Australian researchers from the humanities and social sciences, as well representatives from the heritage sector. A highlight for me was Michael Molkentin's paper on pre-1914 military aviation in the Dominions, where he revealed the (unsurprisingly) naive entries submitted by the public for the Australian government's competition to design an effective military machine. Peter Hobbins (one of the organisers) spoke about his work on the pioneering Cotton Aerodynamic Anti-G Suit, the remains of which we got to see (it was developed at Sydney). So with Aviation Cultures Mk. I being such a success, the programme for Mk. II has expanded to cover two days. There are a lot of papers to look forward to, but here I will just mention those given by Leigh Edmonds, author of the (I think) only study of Australian airmindedness, who will speak on 'Australian aviation and society: the feedback loop', and two by commenters on this blog, Phil Vabre (with Roger Meyer) on 'How to make the uninteresting interesting: the Airways Museum as a case study', and James Kightly (AKA JDK) on 'Tested testers: re-learning to fly the Boxkite'. Should be fun!

5 Comments

I'm very pleased to announce that the Journal of British Studies has accepted my article, 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War', for publication. This is exciting for a number of reasons. Naturally, one reason is because it's another peer-reviewed article (number six, by my count). That's always good, and even more so when you're on the job market. And it's been a while since I last had an article accepted, and while I have one or two other things in the works the pipeline was starting to look dry. It's also great to get into JBS, as it's one of the more influential history journals. I've not published in an American journal before (JBS is published by the North American Conference on British Studies), so this puts my work before a new audience (though presumbly British historians in North America read British journals too, just as those in Australia do) -- though at the admittedly high price of submitting to an American English style guide.

It's also great because, of course, phantom airships are perhaps the most characteristically Airminded (as distinct from airminded) thing I do. I've been going on about them in one way or another for the entire millennium: on this blog, in my book, my PhD thesis, my 4th year thesis, one or even I think two undergraduate essays. But while the 1913 phantom airship panic does feature in my book, it only gets about a third of one chapter (alongside the 1922 and 1935 air panics), and is treated in a very formal manner -- it's not really a good place to refer to if you want to get a good overview of what was going on. The only other academic discussion, in Alfred Gollin's The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14, is disappointingly brief. So hopefully this can become a standard reference for the 1913 panic, in the same way that the articles by Gollin and by David Clarke are for the 1909 panic. (Gollin's article was published in Albion, which merged with JBS in 2005, another reason why it's nice for them to publish my sort-of sequel.) Not that it's my last word on the phantom airships; in fact now I can cite it and build on it in future work.

Per JBS's self-archive policies, the accepted version of the article is available for download; when the final revisions are in I'll update the upload. Those of you who have been paying attention will realise that it's a revised version of an article I put up last year under a slightly different title (when submitting it to a different journal, which obviously ended up rejecting it). Since the revisions were quite extensive (the referees gave very constructive and consistent advice), it's probably worth commenting on the major changes. Most noticeably, it's considerably shorter (though not quite short). That's no bad thing; it's nearly a third shorter (nearly 5000 words!) but retains everything essential -- all else being equal more people are more likely to read the whole thing now. The parts that were discarded or modified include most of the original frame, namely the Anglo-German antagonism and the aerial theatre. They're still there in some form, but I place much less weight on them. The original aerial theatre section, in particular, I think I'll expand into a separate article; there wasn't quite the space here to do it justice and it didn't quite work the way I wanted it to. The new frame is more aligned with my actual argument (i.e. it's what I should have done in the first place), placing the phantom airships in the context of prewar and wartime myths and panics, and arguing that they were the successor and culmination of prior spy, naval and invasion panics. This also enabled me to highlight the way that the idea of aerial bombardment that existed in 1913 did not dwell on the possibility of air raids on cities. Instead it appeared more likely that Germany would use its Zeppelins to attack British military and naval facilities. There are numerous other changes which I won't go into, but overall I think it's much better. Especially since it's going to be published!

2 Comments

S.55s over the Alps

This photograph purportedly shows a squadron of Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats over the Alps on 1 July 1933, during the second and last of the long-distance formation flights led by the Fascist air minister, Italo Balbo (hence 'balbo', briefly in vogue to describe a large formation of aircraft), Rome to Chicago and back. These flights were (and were intended to be) a powerful and spectacular display the reach and power of Italian aviation, repeated and enhanced through images such as this, and therefore a prime example of what I call aerial theatre.
...continue reading

6 Comments

At 10:45am on 25 April 2015, a RAAF Hornet (possibly a Super Hornet) flew 500 feet over my house. Ordinarily my response to something like this would be: COOL. But this day was a bit different, because it was, of course, Anzac Day; and not just any Anzac Day, but the long-anticipated centenary of the Australian and New Zealand invasion of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Anzac Day is now the most important day in the national calendar, eclipsing Australia Day, 26 January, the anniversary of white settlement and the official national day, as well as Remembrance Day, 11 November, the anniversary of the end of the Great War and the other major day in the Australian calendar which commemorates war. Why? The Australian War Memorial (AWM) puts it like this:

Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.

But the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland probably gets closer to its real significance for Australians:

one day in the year has involved the whole of Australia in solemn ceremonies of remembrance, gratitude and national pride for all our men and women who have fought and died in all wars. That day is ANZAC Day -- 25 April.

Every nation must, sooner or later, come for the first time to a supreme test of quality; and the result of that test will hearten or dishearten those who come afterwards. For the fledgling nation of Australia that first supreme test was at Gallipoli.

This is what Anzac Day is really about: 'The Gallipoli landing was in an important sense the birth of our nation. Certainly it was the coming of age', as prime minister Tony Abbott said, not entirely consistently, a few weeks ago. A century ago, many would have shared his sentiments, too. But a generation later, the patriotism and militarism embodied in that viewpoint had begun to seem old-fashioned, even dangerous, after another world war and a new cold war; and after another generation, with the original Anzacs fading away, it seemed like Anzac Day would too. (I barely remember Anzac Day from when I was a kid, which seems bizarre to me now given its present prominence and my own war obsession.) That has changed utterly: an incredible 128,000 people turned up to the dawn service in Canberra, about a third of the population (though no doubt many were from out of town: the AWM is the central site for Australia's memory of its wars).
...continue reading

6 Comments

Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.

The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.

The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.

9 Comments

With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).
...continue reading