Civil 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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Walter Bayes, The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station During a London Air Raid (1918)

Last night I had my first full-on anxiety dream about nuclear war since the 1980s. As ICBM trails arced across the blue sky overhead, I ran for the safety of a nearby shelter -- and confirmed that the Third World War had started by getting out my phone to check my social media feeds.

Of course, I'm quite safe here in Australia. It's not my home town which is being shelled by Russian artillery, not my family which is being killed in Putin's unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. The risk of escalation is not non-zero, but would be increased dramatically if the calls from some quarters for a no-fly zone -- in some ways, an ad hoc kind of international air force -- were heeded. But, despite the dreams of liberal militarists, airpower is not a bloodless panacea; air war always has been real war. It's not a cheap way to avoid fighting. Fortunately everybody with a direct say in the matter seems to be well aware that a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine would be a very bad idea indeed. So, I probably should be able to sleep easier than I am. But there's a very interwar kind of trauma involved in reliving an existential fear all over again. We've all been here before, again.

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[Edited version of an oral summary of 'Mutual aid in an air-raid? Community civil defence in Britain, 1914-18’, International Society for First World War Studies Virtual Conference 2021: Technology, online, 16-18 September 2021.]

The first thing to note is that the German air raids on Britain of the First World War were much smaller in scale than those of the Second World War: they killed 1100 people compared with 43000. They are significant, however, precisely because they were the British people’s first war from the air, and so informed expectations, and preparations, for the next one. And in terms of civil defence, nearly every major aspect of the air raids on Britain in the Second World War was first encountered in the First World War.

But the air raids of the First World War are also important because of their emotional effects, the way that people responded to the entirely novel experiences, and spectacles, of air raids: fear, terror, even panic, but also anger, calm, excitement, boredom, curiosity, complacency. Again these emotions informed behaviour in air raids. These emotional responses could themselves, it was thought, be dangerous. Panic could be contagious. Curiosity might lead people to endanger themselves. Anger might result in the diversion of military resources from the front or even endanger the government politically. So these air raid emotions had to be managed.

Graphic, 5 February 1916, 8

It was largely left up to the press and other moral actors to define 'corrrect' emotional behaviour during air raids. An emotional regime centred on the idea of ‘British pluck’ or stoicism valorised the mastery of emotions during air raids as a particularly British trait. This prefiguring of the 'Blitz spirit' was opposed, of course, to the Germans, who were thought to be cowardly, both as bombers and bombed. Fear and panic, when it did occur in Britain, was at first excused, but increasingly as the war went on, excised from 'Britishness' altogether, through transference onto the Jewish or 'alien' minority.

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Sydney Mail, 8 June 1938, 9

A cloud of smoke billows up from a building during a low level bombing attack carried out by biplanes. The First World War? Air control in the Middle East? Fascist bombers over Spain, or Japanese bombers over China? No, it's an air raid carried out by the RAF against Nottingham on 15 May 1938.

Of course it wasn't a real air raid: it was a mock one, something I wrote about recently in the collection edited by Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber, Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain. The photos above and below were published in the British and Australian press, and I wish I'd known about them earlier because they're great illustrations of the topic and I might have been able to include them in my chapter.

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Articles with 'air raid' per issue, 1914-1918 (BNA)

In my previous post I looked at the first appearances of the phrase 'air raid' and related words in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). Of course, just because these phrases had been coined by somebody, or even used in a newspaper, it doesn't mean they were widely understood -- they might have taken a long time to catch on, or even be reinvented independently. So, in order to get a truer sense of how widespread these phrases were, we need to look at some n-grams.

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Sphere, 3 April 1915, 8

The term 'air raid' has been around a long time. Not since the first air raid, or even the first air raid of the twentieth century, but from not long after that. The first definite use in the British Newspaper Archive is in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, during the 1913 phantom airship panic, as it happens (bold emphases are mine throughout):

The War Office were about to offer a substantial prize for the best aeroplane engine. They had already obtained an anti-airship gun of wonderful efficiency, and progress had been made in solving the problem of defending this country against foreign air raids.1

It was still vanishingly rare, though, and only became popular during the First World War. This happened very quickly. The Dundee Courier (quoting the Daily Express) used 'air raid' on 12 August 1914, though clearly more with a sense of reconnaissance rather than bombing:

Daring air raids have revealed all the German positions and movements.2

More obviously in the familiar sense is the next appearance in BNA, in a Western Gazette headline on 28 August 1914 for an attempted Zeppelin attack on Antwerp:

August 26th. IT is officially stated that the Zeppelin airship attempted last night to repeat its raid upon the city. Measures were taken to defeat the attempt, which the Zeppelin then abandoned.3

After this point 'air raid' began to be used very widely. (The image above is from the Sphere and shows 'Shells bursting round a Zeppelin during the air raid on Paris on March 20'.)4

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  1. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 20 March 1913, 7. []
  2. Courier (Dundee), 12 August 1914, 1. []
  3. Western Gazette (Yeovil), 28 August 1914, 4. []
  4. Sphere, 4 April 1915, 8. []

The previous post ended with this photo, and another very similar one, which Getty Images dates to 17 October 1917 with the caption 'Moses Shackman, centre, with members of the Jewish East End Shelter Corps. Their hats are labelled in Yiddish and English':

Raid Shelter Corps, 1917

As I noted, the hatbands actually say (in English, at least), 'RAID SHELTER CORPS'. This turns out to be a somewhat mysterious organisation, but I think I've managed to track it down.

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Hither Green air raid shelter, September 1917

Recently, Alexandra Churchill tweeted a photo of an air raid shelter in London in 1917:

She's absolutely right, and I'll eventually come back to this, sort of; but Rob Langham made a slightly different point which I want to follow up first:

Indeed, in my experience it is very rare indeed to find images of any raid shelters from the First World War. This, of course, is largely because they were far less common than in the Second World War, when the expected scale of attack was much larger and the time of preparation much longer, leading to many shelters being built in streets, schools and private homes from the late 1930s onwards -- and that's even before you get to the millions of backyard Anderson shelters. Quite a number of these still survive, just through sheer prevalance. By contrast, there's one First World War survivor at Woodbridge in Suffolk (c. 1915), and not much else.1 So it is useful to have some photographic evidence, too.

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  1. The Historic England page for the Woodbridge shelter says it is 'one of only two purpose-built First World War air raid shelters known to survive in England', but rather unhelpfully doesn't actually say where the other one is. It might be at the Great Wakering Old School in Essex, according to a site which is currently offline. Update: Ian Castle pointed out that the 'other' surviving shelter is probably the one at Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire (built in 1916). []


Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber (eds), Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain

I've got a chapter entitled 'Spectre and spectacle: mock air raids as aerial theatre in interwar Britain' in a new Palgrave Macmillan collection just out, Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain, edited by Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber. Here's the abstract:

This chapter argues that aerial theatre, in the form of annual air displays at Hendon and on Empire Air Day, was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) to generate a sensationally modern image of technological sublimity through violent spectacles of aerial warfare, including the performance of mock air raids. This was amplified by a second, incidental kind of aerial theatre, performed as part of Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) exercises and air raid precautions (ARP) drills in the form of mock air raids on British cities. These attracted curious and even excited audiences, conscious that they might be seeing previews of their own deaths. In combining spectre and spectacle, the RAF’s mock air raids underscore the ambivalent nature of airmindedness in interwar Britain.

It's my third article pushing the aerial theatre concept, and it builds on both of its predecessors ('The militarisation of aerial theatre' and 'The meaning of Hendon'). Here I narrow my focus specifically to mock battles, particularly those portraying air raids on civilian targets. But I also widen things out by drawing a distinction between what I call formal aerial theatre, meaning the sorts of air displays I usually write about such as the RAF Display (Hendon) and Empire Air Day, and incidental aerial theatre, in this case mainly meaning the annual ADGB exercises from 1927 onwards, as well as, beginning in 1936, ARP drills. 'Incidental', because while the point of these exercises was to determine the effectiveness of air and civil defences, they also involved RAF aircraft carrying out simulated attacks on actual urban targets in a very public and spectacular fashion. Those living in and around these targets were exposed to this aerial theatre whether they wanted to be or not. In fact, many people came out to watch these exercises as entertainment: in 1928, for example, 'omnibuses took parties of sightseers to the hills around London' to watch their city get theoretically pounded to rubble.1 Which I found quite fascinating, and so I wrote a chapter about it!
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  1. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 14 August 1928, 5. []


Sydney, c1941

In the Second World War, Japanese aircraft carried out over one hundred air raids on Australia, the most deadly of which, by far, were the first Darwin raid on 19 February 1942, which killed 236 people, and the raid on Broome on 6 March, which killed 88. The major population centres further south were never bombed, mainly because they were much further south. (The only other town of any sized attacked from the air, in three very small raids in July, was Townsville, 1350km north of Brisbane.) But after the fall of Singapore on 15 February, there was certainly an expectation of attacks, if not invasion. One indication of this is the civil defence schemes from the early years of the war that were beefed up and put into action now. All those things that Australians had learned about in the news from the 1940-41 Blitz -- blackouts, shelters, air raid wardens -- now became familiar here, if on a smaller scale. (Though the blackout was usually more of a brownout.) We don't know what would have happened had the southern cities been hit by air raids, but we can guess at how things would have started, based on behaviour during false air raid alarms which occurred early in the war with Japan.
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