Air defence


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'.3 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.4

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.5

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'.6
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  1. The National Archives [TNA], MEPO 3/243: clipping from The People (London), 28 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. 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.


A key element in any wargame is the scenario. It sets the boundaries in time and space of the simulation, as well as its initial conditions. For a historical wargame, a scenario might be the battle of Cannae, or the British and Canadian sectors at D-Day. Creating such scenarios involves researching orders of battle, contemporary maps, unit diaries, histories and so on. From this research flows the game map, units and the rules themselves. For a counterfactual and indeed retrofuturistic game of the knock-out blow such as I'm contemplating, there are by definition no historical events to draw upon. So where would I start?

One way is to just create a generic scenario, drawing on my own understanding of interwar airpower writing. The obvious one would be the classic knock-out blow scenario, with Germany launching a surprise attack on London, and a war lasting a few days. That has the advantage of being relatively unconstrained and easy to design, and fits in well with the microgame approach Philip Sabin recommends. And I may well do just that. But there's another way, which is to use some of the scenarios imagined during the interwar period itself.
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C. G. G. [C. G. Grey], 'A real aerial defence', Aeroplane, 12 June 1913, 670:

It has been brought to our attention -- it comes from the City, so it must be true -- that Britain has at last acquired a real means of enforcing the Aerial Navigation Act. It is alleged that a great inventor has persuaded the Secretary of State for War that he has an invention which, by means of Herzian [sic], or some similar waves -- vulgarly known as 'wireless' -- will cause the magneto ignition apparatus of all aircraft within a radius of seven miles to cease from functioning. In other words, the engines of all aircraft within range will be stopped, aeroplanes will be forced to land where they can, and dirigibles will be left at the mercy of the winds.

The account further states that the inventor has been allotted a piece of Government land in the neighbourhood of Folkestone, which is to be thoroughly surrounded by sentries to prevent foreign Powers who have neglected to provide themselves with City correspondents or copies of this journal from obtaining the slightest inkling of the fact that experiments are in progress.

This is a rather tongue-in-cheek account (if it's not clear from the quotation above, consider that Grey goes on to suggest that friendly aircraft be equipped with 'a clockwork or elastic drive' for backup -- and there's more where that came from), but it does sound like it derives from a real claim made by a City newspaper or newspaper correspondent, though it could just be a rumour current in financial circles. Even if Grey just made the whole story up, though, it's still a very early example of the idea of a death ray, at least in the sense, which became common from the 1920s, of an electromagnetic means of interfering with internal combustion engines at a distance. And it's in an air defence context, too. I know of no earlier such death rays, which of course means there are probably many.1

  1. H. G. Wells's 'Heat-Ray' from The War of the Worlds (1898) and George Griffith's 'death-rays' in The World Masters (1903) work differently, and weren't used against aircraft. 


I've written before about how the air defence problem seemed to inspire 'wildly creative' thinking in the early 20th century. Here are a couple more examples, submitted to the British government by members of the public, c. 1943 -- the one effectively a form of death ray, the other a (technically) non-lethal weapon:

One of the most popular discarded suggestions was that the atmosphere should be flooded with carborundum powder which would be sucked into the fascist aero-engines and chew them to pieces. It is difficult to convince people that there is an awful lot of atmosphere!

Another one was that they should spread throughout the atmosphere 'a gas' (unknown to the suggestor -- to be discovered by the chemist) which would congeal round the plane in flight, and when the crew baled out, would wrap itself around them so that they would arrive on the ground like chickens in gelatine. This was the solution of the paratroop problem!1

The desire of these would-be inventors to help defend the nation (and perhaps profit handsomely) exceeded their knowledge of science and engineering.

The author of the article from which the above quotation is taken was Ritchie Calder, a former journalist then doing propaganda work for the Political Warfare Executive. Maybe that's how he came to be writing about the contributions of British scientists to the war effort for an American publication, Popular Astronomy:

Their maximum accuracy is in the air, in spite of three-dimensional fighting. When one hears of a thousand-plane raid being packed into fifty-five minutes over a single town in Germany, one should remember not only the vast ground organization, the transport supplies, the loading of the bombs, the timing of the take-off and returns, but also the intensive work of the scientists behind the operation.2

But while Calder only deviates from such broad generalisations when poking fun at death rays and gelatin gases, this article does combine two things he was interested in: explaining science and defeating bombing. Before the war, Calder had been science editor for the News Chronicle; during the Blitz, he was a crusader for better post-raid welfare and shelter conditions. It's interesting that one of his sons, Nigel Calder, became a noted science journalist, while another, Angus Calder, became one of the most influential historians of the Blitz.

  1. Ritchie Calder, 'Science comes to Earth', Popular Astronomy 51 (1943), 346-7

  2. Ibid., 346. 

Judging from the report in the Western Gazette, Captain Faber, Conservative MP for Andover, evidently is not convinced by the letter he received from the Prime Minister downplaying the mystery airship visits, for in a speech to his constituents at Weyhill in Hampshire he invoked them as a counterargument to the War Minister's downplaying of airships in general (p. 11; above):

Turning to the question of airships, Captain Faber said that Germany and France were spending brains and millions of money on these ships, but whilst this was so, our incurable optimist said airships were of no use to us. Had we in this country a monopoly of brains? Were the airships lately over Sheerness and Grimsby of no use?

Faber ridiculed Colonel Seely's suggestion that 'he had a gun to defend these shores from airships':

Was he going to have a gun every half-mile all round England, Scotland, and Wales, ready loaded, with a man always there to shoot? For it must be remembered that an airship travelled at the rate of sixty miles an hour.

He claimed that German experiments had anyway shown that 'three hits from below made but little difference [...] If the wound was inflicted at the top of the airship, it would be different and dangerous'. As for Seely's idea that 'airships were no good at night, because they could not see',

Had he forgotten the bright lights of London and Liverpool, which were visible for many miles from above the earth, and the frightful consternation that would be caused by explosives dropped at night over any big town?

Faber also has some interesting information about one 'foreign airship' (presumably German, though why he doesn't say so is unclear) in particular, contained 'in a letter in his possession from an absolutely reliable source -- from a passenger in this very airship'. It 'covered 1,600 miles without a break in twenty-nine hours' just 'the other day', and is 'about half the length of the Mauretania, had a crew of twenty-eight officers and men, and cooking, dining, and sleeping rooms'. It also has advanced camouflage and navigational technology:

They could cover themselves at any moment with vapour cloud to stop dectection [sic]; they were always surrounded by prepared covering that prevent reflection, so that they could not be photographed; they carried maps that were unrolled by the steersman, showing all the country they travelled over. Goetz, the man who invented the Goetz lens, had contrived a patent which, with mirrors pointing downwards from either end, would record most accurately and minutely the survey of the country over which they passed. There were thirty-eight of these airships ready, and thirty on order. He gave these few details concerning foreign airships to open the eyes of the country to the menacing danger threatening us. (Cheers.)

The Gazette also carries a notice about the wreck of the Ersatz Z I over a week ago, noting that it was 'the "fly-by-night" monster airship which is supposed to have recently visited England and created a scare' (p. 5).

The word 'scareship' appears in an article in the Manchester Courier attacking complacency on the airship issue on the part of Liberals as a generic term rather than one referring to phantom airships specifically. The Radical press is accused of having

substituted the word scareship for airship, they regarded all our accurate information on airships capable of discharging tons of explosives as a figment of the imagination.

The Government is described as 'until recently, case-hardened sceptics to whom "airships" and "scareship" are synonymous terms', while Seely's bizarre idea about airships not being able to see anything if they can't be seen is described as 'This is precisely the sort of reason which appeals irresistibly to the people who confound an airship with a "scareship," but it is inexcusable levity in a Minister of War' (p. 7). The Courier's larger argument is that

Aerial navigation has passed from the realms of imagination. Germany, by her splendid enterprise, has so developed the airship that the countries of the world must alter their whole methods of defence. The war of the future will be fought in the air. Diplomacy or bartering between nations succeeds or fails in proportion to the defensive forces possessed by those nations. And the coming of the airship affects no other country so vitally as Great Britain.

What is needed is 'an Aerial Budget, with proper and adequate provision for our aerial needs', and what is needed for that is 'a great public agitation', and so the Courier calls upon 'the Aerial League, the Navy League, and those other bodies interested to press forward the campaign'.

Daily Herald, 14 February 1913, 6

Yesterday, the Daily Mail said that the Aerial Navigation Bill would be put before the Lords next week. In fact, as today's issue reveals, the bill already 'passed through all its stages in the House of Lords late last night' (p. 5). Moreover, 'all the regulations for the enforcement of the Government's Aerial Navigation Bill [...] have already been drawn up by the Home Office, with the assistance of War Office experts'.

In view of recent circumstances, everything has been hurried forward so that there will not be the least hitch or delay in enforcing the Act, which gives power to the authorities to shoot at sight at any aircraft coming from places outside the United Kingdom whose pilot fails to respond to certain signals. Pilots anxious to sail over our harbours and naval bases will be subject to the most stringent regulations.

The same article also discusses the mystery airships:

We are able to state that in the case of the airship which was reported by The Daily Mail to have been seen sailing above Sheerness on October 14, the authorities have satisfactory proof that this was not one of our own airships but one belonging to a foreign country.

The nature of this proof is not explained, nor is the identity of the airship its origin stated. No reference is made to the claim -- assumed to be officially inspired -- in The Times a month ago that there was reason to believe that the airship responsible was the German civilian airship Hansa. But it seems like this is new information, because that previous report also blamed Hansa for the Dover sighting, whereas the Mail says 'Nothing is certain in regard to the other reported flights'. However, given this 'conclusive proof of the visit of a foreign airship to Sheerness the other reports are naturally considered in a very grave light' (pp. 5-6).

The Mail further reports that, according to the War Office, 'special guns capable of firing at aircraft within a reasonable height are already mounted at various points round the coast' (p. 6). Again, yesterday it had merely said that this would happen at some unspecified point in the future. So things are speeding up.
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