David T. Courtwright. Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. Looking at the history of aviation as the expansion into a frontier is an interesting approach, especially in terms of the American experience, as examined here. But it's also a useful entry point to the key transition from the 'age of the pioneers' to the 'age of mass experience' (actually the main section of the book). As a bonus Courtwright also takes his argument up to the Space Age.

Apparently aviation has historically had some slight connection with the United States...

Dominick A. Pisano (ed.) The Airplane in American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. I've actually used this collection before, for Jill D. Snider's excellent chapter on the aerial bombardment of Tulsa in 1921, but there is much else here of value for me. In particular, Pisano's own chapter on 'The confrontation between utility and entertainment in aviation' highlights a key tension in aerial theatre.

Jenifer van Vleck. Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. A history of the American century through the lens of the spectacular growth through to the 1960s of Pan Am under Juan Trippe. Starts out with a chapter intriguingly called 'The Americanization of the airplane', which by implication might explain why I've been able to get away without paying too much attention to American aviation culture: for my period it wasn't so dominant as it became from the 1940s.

Prudence Black. Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2017. I've been fortunate to hear some presentations relating to Pru's ARC project on the history of Australian air hostesses, and it's fascinating stuff. Drawing partly on oral history interviews, she charts the changing roles and gender expectations of air hostesses from the rough days of the 1930s, through to the glamorous jetset era, up to the increasing professionalisation by the early 1980s.

Sue Rosen (ed). Scorched Earth: Australia's Secret Plan for Total War under Japanese Invasion in World War II. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2017. Largely a reproduction of a fascinating document from the NSW State Archives outlining civil preparations for a Japanese invasion, with some editorial contextualisation and some evocative illustrations. It's a fascinating plan for last-ditch resistance and resource denial, but you have to wonder how much would have been carried out in reality. (Luckily, that was never likely to be tested.) Review copy (not for Airminded).

David Stephens and Alison Broinowski (eds). The Honest History Book. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2017. The book of the website! A collection of essays arguing for the proposition that 'Australia is more than Anzac -- and always has been', half on putting Anzac in its place, the other half on what Anzac has hidden.

Richard Toye (ed.) Winston Churchill: Politics, Strategy and Statecraft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 'Not another Chuchill book!' I groaned on seeing this. But then I bought it, because it's got an essay by Richard Overy on 'Churchill and airpower' (plus a few other interesting things).


Owen Hatherley. The Ministry of Nostalgia. London and New York: Verso, 2017. Hatherley's misapprehension about the origins of Keep Calm and Carry On got me an article in The Conversation, so I figure I owe him a book sale. But I also suspect that he's on to something with his (much) larger argument about the memory of the Blitz (etc) as a form of austerity nostalgia.

Mathew Radcliffe. Kampong Australia: The RAAF at Butterworth. Sydney: NewSouth, 2017. Butterworth was a name I was familiar with growing up, but knew next to little about. For most of the Cold War, it was the RAAF's only permanent air base outside Australia, located in what is now northern Malaysia. The strategic purpose was to defend against communist and Indonesian threats, and RAAF Sabres, Mirages and other aircraft were stationed there from the 1950s through to the 1980s. But this book (based on a PhD) isn't really about that: it's much more a social history, about life in this far-off western enclave of military personnel and their families inside a foreign society at the end of an old empire and the start of a new nation. And I think it will be all the more interesting for it!


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.
...continue reading

  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. 


Brett Holman. The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. Yes, I'm one of those authors, the kind who buys the paperback edition of their own book, just to see what it looks like! At least I'll get some of that back in royalties...

Mike Milln. Wing Tips: The Story of the Royal Aero Club of South Australia. Book I: 1919-1941. Kent Town: Avonmore Books, 2011. This has lots of useful information about the founding of the RACSA and its activities in the interwar period, including the 1936 aerial pageant at Parafield -- which I'd discussed in a conference presentation a few days before I found this book, when it would have come in handy!

Nicholas Booth. Lucifer Rising: British Intelligence and the Occult in the Second World War. Stroud: History Press, 2016. The intersection of two potentially very dodgy topics, black magic and black propaganda; but I'm reassured by the author's statement that he doesn't believe in the occult (not sure where he stands on British intelligence...) and fairly extensive use of The National Archives. Everybody from Dennis Wheatley to Rudolf Hess is here; Aleister Crowley is listed in the index under his own name and as 'The Beast'!

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. Does what it says on the tin (as they say): provides a thorough, if not exhaustive, study of deaths rays in (mostly) British, American and Australian (go Trove!) newspapers, novels and films -- including claims of actual death rays. After the mid-1920s and popularisation by Grindell-Mathews and stories of French aircraft mysteriously losing power over Germany, the idea became so widely recognisable that it was used in contexts far removed from speculative literature.

Peter Gray. Air Warfare: History, Theory and Practice. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Relatively short but very well-referenced. Looks like it would be an excellent postgrad-level textbook (which is exactly what it was designed for).

Alistair Horne. Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. Horne's first book was published more than 60 years ago (!) but this is the first I've read. An engaging account of some key battles (Tsushima, Nomonhan, Moscow, Midway, Inchon and Dien Bien Phu), loosely connected by the knock-on effects of one battle on the next, and the theme of hubris.

Robert H. Kargon, Karen Fiss, Morris Low and Arthur P. Molella. World's Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, and Modernity 1937-1942. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. I think I ordered this because of the whole aerial theatre/technology as spectacle thing, but I'm not sure. Takes in Paris, Düsseldorf, New York, Tokyo (cancelled) and Rome (cancelled). Well-illustrated for an academic monograph.

Bernard Lowry. Pillboxes and Tank Traps. Oxford and New York: Shire Publications, 2014. A small book with lots of photos of British fortifications from the Second World War. Nicely produced but obviously just skims the surface.

Glen O'Hara. Britain and the Sea since 1600. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. A synthesis which combines a thematic (trade, migration, war, etc) and chronological approach very well. Made me think about what a Britain and the Air since 1900 might look like...

Francis Spufford. Red Plenty. London: Faber and Faber, 2011. Everybody but me has read this so it's probably time I caught up.


I wrote about the strange, sad story of A. D. Harvey back in 2013. He is an independent PhD historian who has published a number of books and articles across a wide variety of topics, including my own field of airpower history, though his best known work is probably Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945. But as Eric Naiman revealed in a long Times Literary Supplement article, Harvey has also fabricated (falsified, faked) sources in their entirety. In one case (writing as Stephanie Harvey) he made up a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky which he published in a scholarly article supported by citations that led to sources which he had also made up. The two never met in reality, or rather there's no other evidence that they did; which is the point, because Harvey's claim was beginning to work its way into the scholarship on Dickens, in particular. He has admitted to all this and much more (he has published under a variety of pseudonyms, often citing and commenting on his own work) but the invented Dickens-Dostoevsky meeting alone is enough to put Harvey beyond the pale as far as the historical profession goes.

Or at least it should be. The strange thing is that he is still getting published:

The World of the Georgians is a special publication produced by BBC History Magazine, a well-known popular history magazine (I've even written for them). Harvey has an article in it titled '"My brilliant career'". The magazine's copyright date is 2016, long after his exposure. Surely he is not the only person qualified to write a popular article on Pitt the Younger; BBC History Magazine should find a better historian.
...continue reading

1 Comment

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.
...continue reading

  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. 


Richard Griffiths. What Did You Do During the War? The Last Throes of the British Pro-Nazi Right, 1940-45. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017. Billed as a sequel to Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-9 (1983), which is one of my favourite history books. It is indeed pretty much a 'what did they do next?' for many of that book's shady characters. Unfortunately Griffiths doesn't seem to be as interested in the links between aviation/aviators and fascism as he was in Fellow Travellers; there's a chapter on the Master of Sempill, and people like A. V. Roe pop up here and there, but not much else. A chapter on the fascist infiltration of the peace movement doesn't seem to have much to say about the Duke of Bedford's involvement in the Bombing Restriction Committee. Still, looks like lots of fun.