Air defence

Borough of Ramsgate ... Public meeting ... To consider recommendations to the responsible authorities for the more adequate protection of the coast against hostile aircraft. T. S. Chayney, Mayor. 26th March 1916.

I admit the term 'First Blitz' is a convenient label for the air raids on Britain in the First World War, both as a shorthand and because there really were many similarities with the later Blitz. But nevertheless, I don't really like it, and I'm avoiding it in my own book on the topic. Why?

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Pearson's Weekly (London), 28 January 1909, 615

In September 1909, rather late in Invasion's run, an article appeared in Pearson's Weekly explaining not only some of the pyrotechnical mechanics behind the spectacle, but also the underlying airpower theory. Because it was not merely an popular entertainment and a commercial one at that, but a response to the question 'Invasion by aeroplane, is it possible?'((Pearson's Weekly (London), 9 September 1909, 204.))

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Post balloon, Paris, 1870

This is the story of the world's first aerial combat. It is not a true story.

It is 30 September, 1870. Revolutionary Paris is under siege by Prussian forces. But it has a secret weapon: Nadar. Nadar is famed as a photographer, a writer, and—more importantly here—an aeronaut. He has taken the lead in organising communication with the outside world by balloon; the first left a week earlier and sailed defiantly over the heads of the beseigers, landing safely 60 miles away with 125kg of letters from the beseiged. Three more balloons escaped within the week.
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Sphere, 12 December 1936, 496

After the drama of 1934, 'the bomber will always get through' appears less frequently in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in 1935 (though still at about twice the level than in 1932 or 1933). But it is still mostly being used in a very political way. This is not surprising, with the general election contested in November to a significant extent on issues of collective security and national defence. In fact, it was most often used by the Labour Party to argue against the National Government's rearmament policy -- which must have irritated Stanley Baldwin, now prime minister again, no end.
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The first real air raid on Australia was against Darwin on 19 February 1942. I don't know when the first fake air raid on Australia was, but there was one against Melbourne on 14 October 1929:

An aerial attack was made on Melbourne to-day by a group of seagull [sic] machines, which had been sent up from the aircraft carrier, Albatross. Overcoming opposition from a fleet of land 'planes, the raiders dropped several bombs, scoring vital hits, according to the attackers. The attack was part of air force exercises. The Albatross was outside the Heads, when the Seagull machines were depatched [sic], and three of these machines managed to reach the city, in spite of the efforts of 'planes from Point Cook aerodrome.1

A more detailed (but harder to read) account reveals that that Albatross, representing a 'hostile seaplane carrier' outside Port Phillip Heads, launched a force of six Supermarine Seagulls and one Wackett Widgeon, which was sighted by a defending Supermarine Southampton off Brighton. The attackers were intercepted by aircraft from Point Cook, but

three broke through and flew over Melbourne from the direction of Port Melbourne, circling over Victoria Barracks and turning back to sea from a point presumably above Princes Bridge.2

A later newspaper report suggested that 'Under war conditions, the city would have suffered many casualties'.3 The official result of the exercise does not seem to have been published in the press, but it seems like it might have been fudged in favour of the defenders:

Bringing 1929 to a close, Albatross took part in a combined RAN-RAAF exercise in Port Phillip Bay in October. The point of this exercise was to test the carrier in making an air raid, along with assessing the efficiency of RAAF cooperation with Navy in repelling a seaborne air attack. According to reports on the exercise, the defence against the carrier attack was only successful because scouting Southamptons set off from Point Cook, without orders, some time before warning was actually received of approaching enemy aircraft. In fact, as noted by the CO of No. 1 FTS, aerial patrols had failed to sight the approaching naval force. Strikes had then been mounted against these ships off Frankston, involving Moths (representing single-seat fighters) and Wapitis. One RAAF pilot whose part in the scheme entailed simply flying over the Melbourne dock area probably summed up the feelings of many of those involved when he noted in his log-book that the exercise was 'A farce—nothing done or to see'.4.

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  1. Townsville Daily Bulletin, 16 October 1929, 4. []
  2. Herald (Melbourne), 14 October 1929, 1. []
  3. The Call (Perth), 25 October 1929, 1. []
  4. C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother: the Royal Australian Air Force 1921-39 (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991), 218. []


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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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. []


The novelist William Le Queux is famous, or rather infamous, for beating the drum of the German invasion and spy threat before the Great War. But what did he do during the war? Unsurprisingly, he did much the same thing. On 28 February 1915, for example, The People published an article by Le Queux entitled 'HOTBEDS OF ALIEN ENEMIES AND SPIES IN THE HEART OF THE METROPOLIS. THE SCANDAL OF THE ALIEN ENEMY AND SPY IN OUR MIDST. HOME OFFICE TURN A BLIND EYE TO TREASON-MONGERS AND TRAITORS'.1 This was not a work of fiction, but rather a supposedly factual expose of 'the alien enemy in our very midst [which] will be read with amazement and disgust'.2 The disturbing revelations were the result of Le Queux's intrepid forays into the 'nests of Germans who, unchecked by the authorities, vilify Britain and openly pray for her downfall', right in the heart of darkness, i.e. 'the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court-rd. and Soho'.2 For example, he claimed to have sat in on a conversation (apparently posing as an Italian –– the mind boggles) between two men and a woman in a house on Tottenham Street:

They laughed the British Government to scorn, and declared that certain Ministers were Germany's friends. 'We shall win,' declared one of the men. 'The British Army will never re-enter Belgium. We have some surprises there for them, just as we have here in England when our Zeppelins come. All is prepared, and, at a given signal, these English fools will wake up with a start. We already have our hand upon these vermin here, and it will not be long before the Eagle will show its claws. Happily, the fools are asleep. We are not! We know every night what is happening. Tonight, at eight o'clock, there were five German aeroplanes between Dunkirk and Dover. But they are not coming to England.'

'How do you know that?' I asked, instantly interested.

The round-faced man, a typical Prussian, only smiled mysteriously behind his glasses, and refused to satisfy my curiosity.2

Le Queux, of course, was able to verify that there were indeed five German aeroplanes near Dunkirk that night, and further that information was reaching the German spies in London on a nightly basis. And if more evidence was required, there was much more:

Everywhere I went, both around Tottenham Court-rd. and in Soho, I heard the same vile abuse of England, the same wild enthusiasm over German victories, the same blind, unshaken confidence in the German power to eventually crush us, and the same declaration that the bombardment of London from the air is only a matter of days, and that it will be the signal for terrible havoc and destruction to be worked in all our great cities by the army of secret agents who are 'lying low' awaiting the signal to strike, and thus produce a panic.2

And so on. The point was, of course, to rouse the Home Office from its slumber, to force it to place 'the whole matter of enemy aliens and espionage [...] under the control of a central board with absolute power to crush it out, and so protect the State from a deadly peril which has permeated into every walk of our national life'.2
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  1. The National Archives [TNA], MEPO 3/243: clipping from The People (London), 28 February 1915. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] [] []


Heinkel 111s

For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...

Image source: Wikimedia.

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Zeppelin L3

For my eighth contribution to The Road to War on ABC New England, I spoke about the first Zeppelin raid on Britain, on the night of 19 January 1915; certainly more consequential than the first air raid on Britain as it actually killed people in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn in Norfolk. I talked about the Zeppelins themselves (including L3, above), why everyone assumed they would be used to bomb Britain, why they were not used at first, and why they finally were used nearly six months into the war. I also talked a little about the response to the raids, including the rumours which sprang up afterwards about German spies driving around in motor cars during the raid guiding the Zeppelins to their targets.

For more from me on this topic you could also check out this article by Shane Croucher in the International Business Times.

Image source: Love Great Yarmouth.