Air defence


Daily Mail, 13 February 1913, 5

The Aeroplane today suggests that 'The visits of the various "scare-ships" have evidently not been without salutary effect', if they have given rise to the present Aerial Navigation Bill (p. 162). The Daily Mail would tend to agree, but hopes for more. It devotes both its first leading article and nearly a column's worth of articles on the opposite page to the bill and to the mystery airship danger (much of which are reprinted in the Dublin Irish Independent, p. 6, and the Dundee Evening Telegraph, p. 4). To take the Mail's reportage first (p. 5; above):

The Government has awakened to the fact that foreign airships have several times recently appeared over England. The result is that a Government Bill is now being rushed through Parliament to meet the danger.

The operative word here is 'rushed'. The bill was introduced into the House of Commons only on Friday (according to the Mail, but Hansard says Saturday; the text seems to have been published on Friday), but

will be the law of the land before many days have passed. Read for the second time on Monday, its remaining stages in the Commons were passed in a single session. During Tuesday's session it was, in the terse language of the orders of the day, considered in Committee, and reported, without amendment; read the third time, and passed. The Bill will be taken in the House of Lords early next week.

There was practically no discussion in the Commons. The proceedings took place after midnight in the sessions both of Monday and Tuesday [...] Thus a Bill of considerable importance to national defence has been hurried through with hardly a word of discussion. The Opposition were asked, and agreed, not to delay the Bill in any way.

Colonel Seely is reported to have told the Commons that the bill 'is not aimed at the aircraft of any foreign Power, but rather at preventing mischievous persons -- possibly from over-sea [sic] -- from hovering over places where there are combustible stores, to the great inconvenience of the people of this country'. This would not seem to explain the haste with which it has been conducted through to the Lords, unless the scareships are taken in account:

The reasons for this urgency are to be found in the frequent reports published in The Daily Mail, of the appearance of unknown airships over various parts of England.

(Though in fact the reports have not been nearly so frequent in the Mail as they have been in the Standard or the Express.) There then follows a summary of the Sheerness incident from last October (which was thoroughly investigated by the Mail) and eight sentences from yesterday's Times on the more recent airship visits and their presumably unfriendly purpose. The Mail then concludes by revealing that

It is understood that the 'sky guns' for firing at aircraft for which contracts were given some time ago will be stationed round the coast for the purpose of carrying out the new regulations.

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Yorkshire Post, 5 May 1942, 1

Some good news from Burma, or at least less bad than usual. The Yorkshire Post reports that, although still retreating, Allied forces 'have successfully evaded the enemy attempt to cut them off in the Mandalay area' (1). The British have been divided from the Chinese, however, with the former retreating up the Chindwin and the latter up the Irrawaddy. The paper's military correspondent gives credit to General Alexander's 'skilful manœuvring' in avoiding encirclement, but also praises the 'valour' of Chinese soldiers after the fall of Lashio, who 'got across the path of the [Japanese] armoured brigade and even drove its tanks back with losses' and thereby gave the British time to make good their retreat. But the task is before Alexander now, 'one of the hardest ever set before a commander', to retire northwest without being engaged by the Japanese, to link up again with Chinese forces in the north, and 'to avoid being driven on India'. The Manchester Guardian's first leading article today admits that 'Japan's campaign in Burma is now almost won', at least 'the fine delaying actions fought by our troops have given India a previous four months for making ready' (4).
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Daily Express, 2 May 1942, 1

All the newspapers today carry news of the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in Salzburg; only the Daily Express leads with it. Its angle is that there is 'STRONG evidence' that the two dictators agreed that Italy would sent 'a large part' of its army to Russia, while Germany would send 'thousands' of its soldiers to Italy (1). Two possible explanations are given for this apparently contrary strategy: 'A coming extension of the Mediterranean Front', or 'to prevent any chance of armed insurrection by the Italian Army'. The Italian people are said to be 'thoroughly discontented with their acutely depressed conditions' and so Mussolini has given his prefects 'supreme powers to deal with "possible future difficulties of an urgent nature"' (his own words), and the Gestapo is now in control of the Italian police. Where Morley Richards, the author of this piece, gets his information from is not clear; none of the other papers make the same claims. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the meeting are rather 'mysterious'; the Yorkshire Press asks why Japan apparently was not represented and was not mentioned in the final communique -- even though the only public reference to the meeting beforehand was a garbled one in a Tokyo newspaper (1).
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Daily Mirror, 29 April 1942, 1

The situation in Burma is getting worse, as the Daily Mirror (above, 1) and most other papers note in their lead stories.

The whole length of the vital Lashio-Mandalay railway is in grave danger as five Japanese divisions, totalling 100,000 men, supported by panzers and bombers, are storming the southern edge of the Upper Burma plateau.

With Japanese ground forces only 110 miles away, Lashio itself is being evacuated of civilians and supplies; it is burning following a raid by twenty-seven Japanese bombers (eleven of their escorts were shot down by the Allied defenders). Writing in the Daily Express, 'Military Reporter' Morley Richards writes (4) that 'The Battle for the Burma Road seems at the point of being lost':

If the Japanese reach Lashio and subsequently force the British north of Mandalay they will have achieved one of their major strategical objects: the temporary isolation of China.

The omens are not good: dispatches from the American Volunteer Group, for example, are coming from Kunming, indicating that its headquarters (and presumably the bulk of its aircraft) has moved back north into China.
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Yorkshire Post, 27 April 1942, 1

Just at the moment, this war seems mainly to be an air war. The main news today is that Rostock has been bombed for the third night in a row. In addition Stirling bombers carried out a low-level raid on the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia, and six targets in northern France were were attacked by bombers with strong fighter escorts. As the Yorkshire Post reports on its front page:

ROSTOCK has become symbolic of our new air offensive. On Saturday night and yesterday morning the harbour and aircraft works were attacked for the third successive night, by a strong force of bombers, with great results. That was not all. The famous Skoda armament works in Czechoslovakia were the target for the R.A.F. on an all-round flight of 1,400 miles.

Yesterday more attacking flights crossed the Channel for various destinations in this great opening of the Allied offensive.

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Future schemes of air defence


During the last years of the Great War, sound detectors played an increasingly important part in the air defences of all the belligerents. Since those days they have undergone great development. Here the emperor of Japan is inspecting the huge trumpet-like detectors that work in conjunction with the anti-aircraft guns (seen right)

This last in a series on 'Things of tomorrow' draws upon Boyd Cable, 'Future schemes of air defence', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 310-6. (There was a seventh in the series, but by another author and on a non-military subject, that of stratospheric flight.) The previous posts looked at 'Death from the skies', 'The doom of cities', 'New horrors of air attack', 'If war should come' and 'When war does come: terrifying effects of gas attacks'.
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In 1910, two Army officers, Second Lieutenant Bowle-Evans and Lieutenant Cammell independently put forward a new idea for an anti-aircraft weapon: the vortex ring gun.

In principal, it involved the formation of a vortex in the air, by the firing of an explosive charge inside a conical 'gun' which, if it were pointed upwards, would propel the vortex towards the intended airborne target on which, it was suggested, the violent air movement within the vortex would have a sufficiently destructive effect. Some practical support for the theory was provided firstly by a Dr Pernter of Germany who had some years earlier carried out some experimental firings which were said to have torn apart birds and other objects, and secondly by the farmers of a large region ranging from Hungary to northern Italy, who appeared to use such guns routinely in the belief that they could disperse hailstorms.1

These proposals seem to have been made to the War Office; in any case a year later the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, was corresponding on the subject with Sir Oliver Lodge, the eminent physicist. Lodge told Haldane that 'I really think the thing is worth a trial', but although he proposed acquiring a vortex ring gun from Piedmont for testing purposes it's unclear whether this ever happened.

The idea of using a vortex ring gun for air defence was aired in public at an Aeronautical Society lecture given on 3 December 1913 by Captain C. M. Waterlow, Royal Engineers, on the topic of the 'The coming airship'. In a discussion of the potential for aerial combat between aeroplanes and airships, Waterlow thought the former would be disadvantaged because of its inferior weight-carrying capacity: the airship could afford to be much better armed. This is perhaps not surprising since he was himself an airship pilot. When it came to the weapons which would be used, he suggested vortex rings:

The question of a suitable weapon had hardly been considered, but he would remark that there were great possibilities in the use of vortex rings, such as had been used in France in connection with vineyards. To show the destructive effects that they can produce, he stated that when fired horizontally they were capable of breaking up a wooden fence at a distance of 100 yards.2

The basic principle behind vortex ring guns is quite sound: a smoke ring is a common form of vortex ring, and toy vortex guns can bought or even made at home. Practical uses are a bit more dubious. The use of vortex ring guns (or hail cannon) to disperse hailstorms has a long history but little scientific evidence to back it up. More recently, militaries have looked at vortex ring guns as non-lethal weapons, to knock people down, but they don't seem to be able to do this even over a distance as short as 30 metres.
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  1. Malcolm Hall, From Balloon to Boxkite: The Royal Engineers and Early British Aeronautics (Stroud: Amberley, 2010), 204. 

  2. '"The coming airship"', Flight, 13 December 1913, 1362


I have been very remiss in not noting until now the posting of Military History Carnival #30 at Cliopatria. It's a good one, as usual. The post I found most interesting this time is at Bring the Heat, Bring the Stupid (as it was last time, actually) on the US Linebacker II bombing offensive against North Vietnam in December 1972. It strikes me that this was really the last Second World War-style strategic bombing campaign fought by a major power, at least in terms of having to fight through determined air defences. These included fighters and anti-aircraft (in the form of missiles rather than guns), though with the latter much the most dangerous -- to the USAF's surprise and loss. The US lost 16 of the 207 B-52s it deployed in the eleven-day campaign -- 8 out of 99 on one night alone -- which was an unsustainable casualty rate, especially when you consider that the factories back home weren't churning out plentiful replacements as they had done in the Second World War. Still, the USAF successfully adapted to the threat (or North Vietnam started running out of SAMs, take your pick): by the last few days it was running out of targets but no longer out of aircraft. Compare with Desert Storm less than two decades later, when (despite some scary moments) the Coalition as a whole lost only 42 aircraft to enemy action in over 100,000 sorties.

And speaking of Cliopatria, I must note with regret its passing. I was a member at the end of its 8.5 years, an opportunity of which I definitely did not make best use. My thanks go to Ralph Luker for affording me that wasted opportunity, but much more for making Cliopatria one of the few history blogs to even try to link the disparate elements of the historioblogosphere together. I hope he enjoys the copious amounts of free time his blogging retirement will doubtless free up!


Darwin, 19 February 1942

Thirteen days ago, it was the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin, the first and most devastating Japanese air raid on Australia. In fact, there were two air raids on 19 February 1942: one from the same carrier task force which had attacked Pearl Harbor a little over two months previously, and another later in the day by land-based bombers from recently-occupied airfields in the Netherlands East Indies. Around 250 people were killed, mostly from the military since two-thirds of its pre-war population of 5800 had already been evacuated. Ten ships were sunk, including an American destroyer, the USS Peary. The RAAF station was hard hit too. Electricity and water services were cut (though soon restored); port and oil facilities severely damaged (shown above).

Despite Darwin's status as Australia's northern gateway (it was a prewar QANTAS staging post on the Singapore route) it was poorly defended. There were few anti-aircraft guns, no radars, and only two RAAF squadrons, one of general purpose Wirraways and the other of Hudson light bombers. Only the accidental presence of a squadron of American P-40s returning from an abortive flight to Timor allowed any sort of defence to be mounted in the air. Of the ten P-40s, five were out of fuel and had to land; four were shot down; one claimed two Val dive bombers. Anti-aircraft accounted for another Val and two Zeroes. Wing Commander Archibald Tindal was killed manning a Lewis gun against the enemy; RAAF Tindal is named after him.
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Death from the skies

The images in this post are from Boyd Cable, 'Death from the skies', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 20-4 (see below).

The article itself is a short story describing an air raid in the next war. I won't summarise it in detail, but it argues for the futility of both air defence and civil defence. The RAF's interceptors never even encounter the enemy bombers (in part because they are stealthy thanks to their silenced engines, only 20% as loud as normal aircraft engines). Though the populace has been drilled well and resists panic, at least at first, they are too vulnerable. A first wave of bombers uses high explosives to block the streets with rubble, making it impossible for fire engines to pass; the second drops incendiaries which set the city ablaze and, crucially, force civilians out of their shelters; and the final wave drops poison gas, which starts killing the now-exposed people on the streets. Now the panic starts and the mob flees, their suffering increased by strafing raiders. The RAF now has its chance, but the city is doomed...

"Proof enough of what we've said so long," growled the one [Air Staff officer]. "Defence as such is a wash-out. Attack is the only useful form of defence."

"If we can hit them harder and faster and oftener than they can hit us, we win," said the other. "We can do it, too, if we have more bombers -- men and machines -- than they have."

"Yes -- if," said the other wearily. "That's what we were arguing as far back as the first R.A.F. expansion scheme in -- what was it -- 1935 and '6, wasn't it?"

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