[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

Xmas Office Party

An interesting Flickr set of photographs evidently taken in the south of England in the last year of the Second World War was recently posted to a WWII mailing list I'm on. Many show aircraft of various types; others are of people and places. The photographer is unknown but judging from the content was in the US Army Air Forces, stationed at RAF Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire.

I've picked out a few interesting aircraft shots: some are aesthetically pleasing, some show unusual types, and one shows something I'd never come across before. But first is one of a person, perhaps the most intriguing. It shows an unidentified, uniformed woman on a bed: the negative is labelled 'Xmas Office Party 1 75w bulb overhead f2 25th sec 02' which says much, but not enough: we are drawn into speculation. Perhaps she has something, or someone, on her mind; perhaps she's just tired and had a bit too much to drink. It's unlikely that we'll ever know, but then that's what intrigues.
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Dellschau 1969

The art of Charles Dellschau has been receiving some attention lately, thanks to the recent publication of a book about his work. Dellschau, who produced thousands of strange and wonderful watercolours, drawings and collages in Houston, Texas, between about 1899 and 1922, is significant as an early outsider artist, but he is mainly of interest to me for two things. Firstly, his subject matter: his artwork is filled with strange flying machines (balloons? airships? aeroplanes?) intermingled with press clippings about aviation. Secondly, his overarching narrative: that his artwork records the activities of the Sonora Aero Club, a secret group of airminded inventors who actually created and flew the aircraft he depicted in California in the mid-nineteenth century. This is a beguiling idea, and some of Dellschau's admirers have tried to find out whether it is actually true (such as Pete Navarro, who is largely responsible for rescuing Dellschau's work). The Atlantic describes it as 'The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed', as though we should be surprised if it had not. But it seems abundantly clear to me that we can in fact say that it pretty much definitely never existed. There is no evidence for the Sonora Aero Club that does not appear in Dellschau's artwork, but plenty against it elsewhere in the historical record.
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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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While searching for images to illustrate my Wartime article, I came across this German propaganda poster from 1918. It ultimately didn't make the cut but I think it's very interesting. The seaplane soaring into the top left of the poster is a Friedrichshafen FF.33; in fact it is the very one which scouted for the raider Wolf during its voyage into Australasian waters in 1917, Wölfchen ('Little wolf' or rather 'Wolf's cub'). But what about the two people in the lower right, cowering in fear before the swooping aeroplane? They appear to be stereotypical and somewhat racist images of Africans, or possibly Papuans. I suspect the latter. The Wolf came close to Africa twice, near the Cape of Good Hope on both its outbound and inbound legs, but it also sailed past Rabaul after preying on Allied shipping in the South Pacific. Rabaul would have had more resonance for Germans than South Africa, because it had been the capital of German New Guinea until 1914, when the Australians occupied the colony. So perhaps this poster should be seen as suggesting to the German public that Wolf's visit was a token of Germany's continuing claims in New Guinea and would soon return to reclaim its imperial possessions. And that it had reminded the natives who their real masters were.

But the poster had a more overt purpose, indicated by the text at the bottom: to advertise the Deutsche Luftkriegsbeute Ausstellung, or 'German air war booty exhibition', held in Munich sometime in 1918 (after February, when Wolf returned to Germany, and before November, presumably) along with associated military concerts. Presumably these were primarily propaganda exercises to rally the home front, but they may also have been used to raise funds for the war effort. However, I haven't been able to find much information about the exhibition, other than this poster and the rather striking ones below. (Apparently a pocket guide is still extant.)
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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

I recently came across what appear to be two bad books from what are two good publishers. There's nothing particularly unusual about that -- these things happen, a lot of books get published on military history and they can't all be good. But it turns out that the author of these books is even more questionable than the content. I worry that, having got this far and established a track record, he will be able keep convincing publishers to look favourably upon his work.

The author in question is Frank Joseph, and the books are Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy's Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011) -- the publisher's pages can be found here and here. I must admit to not having read them, so this is not a review. But enough is available on Google Books, here and here, to cast serious doubts upon Joseph's reliability, and these doubts are amply confirmed by reviews available elsewhere, for example by Richard Carrier in Global War Studies. I'll focus on Mussolini's War, though The Axis Air Forces appears to be pretty bad too -- I'll just mention here the blunt, unsupported claim from that an American experimental VTOL aircraft of the 1950s, the Convair XFY, 'had been built from Campini's original plans' (p. 31) for the Caproni Campini Ca.183bis, a planned 'futuristic Italian interceptor' with 'a highly innovative vertical takeoff and landing design' (p. 30). The only trouble is that, as far as I can tell, the XFY owed nothing to any Italian aircraft (though it did to a German one, the unbuilt Focke-Wulf Triebflügel), and the Ca.183bis was not a VTOL design at all, but a high-altitude interceptor of relatively conventional configuration (albeit with a Campini compressor, making it a crude jet). The only somewhat unusual feature they had in common seems to have been contra-rotating propellers, but they weren't actually all that rare. But on to Mussolini's War.
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VH-UXG, courtesy Phil Vabre

Very sad news today. On Monday, VH-UXG, a De Havilland DH.84 Dragon owned and flown by Des Porter, went missing on a flight from Monto to Caboolture in Queensland. A distress call and an emergency beacon were heard briefly, but then nothing more was known until today, when VH-UXG's wreckage was found in rugged terrain north of Borumba Dam. Unfortunately, all six on board were killed: Des and Kathleen Porter, Carol and John Dawson, Janice and Les D'evlin. My sympathies go out to their family and friends for their tragic loss.

The aeroplane itself is also a loss, if nowhere near as tragic a one. The Dragon, along with its successor the Dragon Rapide, is perhaps the classic 1930s small commuter airliner, designed for flying feeder routes between regional airports and metropolitan centres. Before Monday, there were apparently only eight Dragon survivors worldwide -- not four, as reported in the media -- of which six, remarkably, were still flying; now there are only seven and five respectively. (One of the seven is here in Melbourne at the RAAF Museum, tucked away in the back of one of the hangars.)

As can be seen from the photo above (taken from here, with the kind permission of Phil Vabre), VH-UXG was a beautiful aeroplane and had been lovingly restored. It was built in 1934 and flew in Britain for a couple of years as G-ACRF for Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Ltd before being sold in 1936 to Aircrafts Pty Ltd, a Queensland airline and charter service, and then in 1948 to Queensland Flying Services. It had been sold again, this time into individual ownership, by the time it crashed and was written off at Archerfield in April 1954, and it was this wreckage which Porter eventually restored. Incredibly, his father was the owner and pilot of VH-UXG in that crash, and just a few months later was killed in another Dragon crash along with Des's older brother; Des himself survived. Parts of that aeroplane were apparently incorporated into VH-UXG's tail. (This is what I've pieced together from several online sources; again the media reports differ somewhat, saying that VH-UXG was the actual aeroplane Des's father and brother were killed in. I welcome any corrections.)

This raises the question of whether we should be flying such near-unique and near-irreplaceable vintage aeroplanes at all. I think we should. These machines were not designed to sit in museums, but to soar in the sky. That's their proper context, or at least part of it, and we can better understand them, and the people who built, flew and watched them, by trying to use them as authentic a manner as possible. That entails risk, but risk was and is inherently a part of flying. Statistically, this means we will eventually lose all flightworthy vintage aircraft to accidents (though we are still adding new ones to the list and there is a surprising amount that can be done with wreckage), but we'll at least still have the museum-bound survivors. One day even those will crumble into dust and rust. But that is the fate of all things. We can't pretend otherwise, so we should make use of what we've got while we've got it.

Some more lovely photos of VH-UXG, including when it was new, can be found here, here and here.


NAA: A1194, 19.03/6255

This is from a document issued by the Air Council in October 1918, 'Identification marks on all aircraft', FS Publication 89. I think it's available from the National Archives in London as AIR 10/128 and AIR 10/129, but I found it in the National Archives of Australia as NAA: A1194, 19.03/6255, and because I paid to have it digitised you can see it on their website. It portrays the national identification markings for every country from America (a red, blue and white roundel) to Turkey (a black square inside a white square). I'm not sure how germane it is to the mystery aircraft scare earlier in the year: it probably wouldn't even have arrived in Australia before the Armistice. But it did follow a series of official determinations in the autumn about how to recognise German aircraft and, indeed, how to recognise aircraft at all.
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The Lebaudy-built Patrie, seen above, was France's first military airship. A descendent of the Jaune, in 1906 and 1907 it carried out a number of successful proving and publicity flights, including one where it carried the prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, over Paris. Afterwards it was moved to its operational base near the fortress of Verdun. Due to a mechanical failure during a subsequent flight it had to ground in the open, far from the safety of its hangar. A gale blew up, and even one hundred and eighty soldiers were unable to hold the stricken airship down. At 8pm on 30 November 1907, the Patrie floated off into the distance, fortunately sans crew.
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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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Le Jaune airship, 1903

Paris, 20 November 1903: the ghostly form of an airship floats past an equally ghostly Eiffel Tower, before a very solid crowd of completely entranced spectators. It is Le Jaune, 'The Yellow', the first of the successful Lebaudy series of French semi-rigid airships.

The source of this photograph is a postcard sent to me by JDK (cheers!) I couldn't find a copy online so decided to post it here. There is, however, a very similar photograph on the Air & Space Magazine site which must have been taken just moments before and from almost exactly the same angle. It's also much clearer if you like that sort of thing.