Civil defence

Sphere, 12 December 1936, 496

After the drama of 1934, 'the bomber will always get through' appears less frequently in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in 1935 (though still at about twice the level than in 1932 or 1933). But it is still mostly being used in a very political way. This is not surprising, with the general election contested in November to a significant extent on issues of collective security and national defence. In fact, it was most often used by the Labour Party to argue against the National Government's rearmament policy -- which must have irritated Stanley Baldwin, now prime minister again, no end.
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Junkers A.35b

So if there were no mystery aeroplanes over Berlin on 23 June 1933, and nobody who even saw any mystery aeroplanes, why did the German government and press say otherwise? There are three-ish reasons, that I can see.

The first is the most obvious. It was strongly implied in the original English-language reports that the whole affair was fabricated in order to justify revising the Versailles ban on German military aviation. For example, it was reported that as a 'sequel' to the raid, 'the Nazi Government is to claim equality in the air at the disarmament discussions' in Geneva.1 Hermann Göring, in his capacity as 'Commissioner of Air', or air minister -- and also Prussian minister-president, though not yet commander of the Luftwaffe, since that didn't formally exist until 1935 -- told a British press representative that:

We are denied military aeroplanes under the Versailles Treaty. I am prepared to renounce bombing and aggressive machines of all kinds, but we must have defence aeroplanes. There is not a single machine in all Germany that we could have sent aloft yesterday. The incident shows how defenceless Germany is. Communist machines might come over at any time from Czechoslovakia or Poland. It is grotesque that a great Power, in the heart of Central Europe, should be so defenceless.2

This rather gave the game away. How convenient that the supposed injustice of the Versailles ban on aviation be so clearly demonstrated so soon after the Nazi seizure of power, and by such a conveniently nebulous bogey as Communist air forces in Czechoslovakia or Poland (neither exactly known as bastions of Soviet influence).
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  1. Northern Whig (Belfast), 26 June 1933, 7. []
  2. Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1933, 12. []


As long-time (and very patient) readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by the historical evidence for what I term air panics. Most obviously this includes phantom airship and mystery aeroplane panics, but also rearmament panics, Zeppelin base panics, red balloon panics... anything and everything which provides evidence for what the British people thought and felt about the danger of aviation.

Perhaps the best-known example of an air panic is the exodus from London in September 1938 at the peak of the Sudeten crisis. Supposedly some 150,000 middle or upper class people fled west in anticipation of a German air attack.1 Such a large movement of people represents impressive evidence for the reality of a fear of a knock-out blow from the air. But I've never looked into this in any detail, and nor, as far as I know, has anyone else. So we don't know much about what actually happened during the 1938 exodus, or why.

The 1938 exodus was not, of course, unique. (People had trekked out to the countryside to avoid air raids in the First World War.) It wasn't the only one in the British Empire. (There was one in Australia.) In fact, it wasn't even the biggest. As I was surprised to learn from reading Srinath Raghavan's India's War, numerous spontaneous evacuations due to the fear of air raids took place in India in 1941 and 1942.2 Admittedly this was during wartime, but some of these panics took place before Japan entered the war, and others from places that were never even threatened by air attack.
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  1. Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1950), 31. []
  2. Srinath Raghavan, India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945 (Penguin, 2017). []

1 Comment

One of the advantages of studying wartime airship panics, like the one in January 1915, is the relative abundance of private archives, diaries, letters and interviews for the 1914-1918 period which have been collected and catalogued. This makes it theoretically possible to compare the press view and the official view with the view from below, a rare combination in this line of work. Actually finding relevant private sources is rather hit and miss, partly because of the general lack of digitisation, partly because of the vagaries of memory and experience, of what seemed important to record or query. But because of the writer (or interviewer) is by definition concerned with wartime experiences, they are rather more likely to discuss scares and panics, spies and Zeppelins than would be the case for a purely peacetime context.

So what is there? Actually, let's start with what there isn't. One of the best-known civilian diarists of the First World War is the Reverend Andrew Clark, who was the parish priest at Great Leighs in Essex. He recorded a vivid account of how the war affected his village, and in particular took a keen interest in rumours of all kinds. As it happens, Great Leighs is only about 7 or 8 miles from Chelmsford, which was the centre of the 'Day of Dupes' rumours on 3 January 1915. And what did the Reverend Clark have to say about this? Nothing whatsoever! There is no entry for that date, and the following day has only some unrelated comments about Territorials and HMS Formidable. This is surprising, to say the least; the Chelmsford rumours reached London within an hour or so at the most, so it's hard to understand why they wouldn't have made it to neighbouring Great Leighs as well, at least within a day or two. However, on 5 January Clark does mention that he was 'still in grip of influenza', and it seems to have struck him on 3 January or so, so perhaps that explains it.1 But it could also be that the Day of Dupes was a victim of Clark's editor, who after all had to cut a lot: there are 92 volumes, 12 by March 1915, with 3 million words in total, compared with less than 300 pages in the published edition. So maybe a trip to the Bodleian is in order.
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  1. James Munson (ed.), Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19 (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1985), 41. []


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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I've been awarded a small grant by the University of New England to fund research into 'Popular perceptions of the German threat in Britain, 1914-1918'. I'm very fortunate to have received this and very grateful. The basic idea is this:

This project will investigate the British public's reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, including invasion, air raids, and espionage. Broadly speaking, the anticipation of such attacks before 1914 has received occasional attention over the last few decades. However, the way these fears actually developed during the war itself is less well understood. From scattered evidence it is known that they included trekking to safe areas, spontaneous organisation of civil defence measures such as the occupation of Tube stations as air raid shelters, and anti-German riots, but no comprehensive study has been carried out, with the recent and partial exception of invasion fears in south-east England in 1914. These fears are important for several reasons. Firstly, because they played a role in strengthening or weakening popular support for the war. Secondly, because they played a role in the retention in Britain of substantial military, naval and aerial forces which could have been deployed on the Western Front and elsewhere. Thirdly, because during the 1920s and 1930s, memories of air raids by Zeppelin and Gotha bombers led to an exaggerated fear of bombing which in turn had significant psychological, political and military consequences.

This is designed to be a standalone project (i.e. and an article), but it's also designed to support my longer-term mystery aircraft research by establishing a sort of baseline for the effect and extent of other forms of scares. How I (tentatively) plan do this is as follows:

  1. Using a combination of distant and close reading techniques, survey the British wartime press to identify periods when fear was likely at its highest, which will likely include the period after the fall of Antwerp, October 1914; the battlecruiser and Zeppelin raids in December 1914-January 1915, the first London air raids in May 1915, the height of the Zeppelin raids in the winter of 1915-6; the daylight Gotha raids in the summer of 1917; the night Gotha raids in the winter of 1918; and the German spring offensives of 1918. This can be done via the Internet using digitised newspaper archives such as the British Newspaper Archive and Gale NewsVault, which between them give good coverage of national and provincial daily newspapers.
  2. The core of the research will be undertaken in London:
    I. 1 week research at the National Archives to examine the official understanding of public fears and responses to particular incidents such as riots and trekking.
    II. 2 weeks at the Imperial War Museum to survey diaries from relevant places and periods to ascertain privately held and expressed reactions to the German threat.
    III. 1 week in a provincial archive in a threatened area such as Hull or Norwich as a check of the predominant London bias of many sources, to gauge local government understanding of and responses to the German threat.
  3. Analysis of data and followup research, if necessary.

This is significant for a number of reasons. First, it's the first time I've won any substantial research funding. Second, it will be the first time I've moved outside aviation history to any real degree (even if I will still be mostly doing aviation history). And third, while my last research trip to the UK may not have been completely successful, I will be going back for more.


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. []


Hamish Blair, 1957

I may be the only person now living to have read all three of Hamish Blair's novels, published in 1930 and 1931 -- I'm certainly the only person on LibraryThing to own any at all.1 I wish I could say that the rest of you are missing out, but you're really not: they are tedious as fiction and barely more interesting as future war fiction, which is the reason I bought them. Read consecutively, however, I can at least say that his writing did improve somewhat over the three books. And his first novel, 1957 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1930), is a rare example of future colonial war fiction, and an even rarer example of future colonial air war fiction. So it's worth looking at for that reason alone.
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  1. The author of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry about Blair perhaps excepted, though the (admittedly brief) plot descriptions are misleading in two cases. []


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

Washington Post, 2 June 1918, SM1

New York waited for an air raid in June 1918. For thirteen nights from 4 June, much of the city was blacked out to avoid giving German pilots any assistance in locating targets to bomb. The New York Times reported the following day that:

Electric signs and all lights, except street lamps and lights in dwellings, were out in this city last night in compliance with orders issued by Police Commissioner Enright at the suggestion of the War Department, as a precaution against a possible attack by aircraft from a German submarine. A system for signalling by sirens in case the approach of aircraft should be detected was devised by the police and signal officers yesterday to warn persons to get under cover.1

While coastal and anti-aircraft batteries readied their guns, aviators went up to check the effectiveness of the blackout, resulting in its extension. After the third night, it was reported that

The lower part of the city was in almost complete darkness, the number of street lights being reduced and those that burned being dimmer. Every downtown skyscraper was almost entirely dark, the shades in the rooms which were lighted being drawn.2

City officials met to discuss other civil defence measures, including air raid sirens and shelters. A particular concern was the evacuation of skyscrapers during business hours:

It was pointed out that in case of such a raid in the daytime the danger of loss of life from panic in swarming down the stairs and into elevators would be greater than the danger of bomb explosions.3

It was decided that the best thing to do would be to designate certain floors as evacuation points. These plans were probably not put into effect, however, as the last night of blackout was 16 June; on 17 June all police precincts were ordered to 'Resume normal lighting throughout the city until further orders'.4 There was evidently some embarrassment now, as the War Department and the New York Police Department each claimed that the blackout was the other's idea. In any event, the exercise doesn't seem to have been repeated.
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  1. New York Times, 5 June 1918, 1. See also Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 431. []
  2. New York Times, 7 June 1918, 2. []
  3. Ibid., 15 June 1918, 6. []
  4. Ibid., 18 June 1918, 24. []

What was the response to the Canterbury Baedeker raids? There was actually surprisingly little direct comment in the British press, but the major theme was to reaffirm that British raids on German cities were not reprisals but attacks on legitimate targets; whereas German raids on British cities were not even reprisals but merely spite. In a leading article, the Times, said of the RAF's attack on Cologne that 'the airmen who demolished military targets hard by were able, by German admission, to spare the cathedral', whereas

The authors of the so-called 'reprisal' raid on Canterbury, having for its sole objective the destruction of historic buildings of great beauty, stand self-condemned.1

Similarly, in the opinion of the Western Daily Press:

While it is easy to perceive a poetic justice in what Germany is now going through, it is not for the purpose of exacting vengeance that the mammoth raids of the R.A.F. are being conducted. Unlike the Germans, who make targets of our cathedrals, we are not interested in destroying the antiquities of the Reich. But we are interested in the centres of German war production, and it against these that the heaviest onslaughts will be directed.2

For the Gloucester Journal, while Bomber Command's attacks are indeed the 'fulfilment of the open warning, long since given, that every ton of bombs dropped on Britain shall be returned in ten-fold measure to the Hun', they 'are much more than mere reprisals [...] They are part, an integral and essential part, of the vital battle of supplies, by which the ultimate issue of the war will be decided'.3 The Bishop of London, Geoffrey Fisher, speaking before the London Diocesan Conference, thought the RAF's raids justified:

Canterbury and Cologne had each in its own country a very special place in religious life and sentiment. Canterbury had no military significance; Cologne, as a centre of war industries, had, and its destruction on a large scale was legitimate and a legitimate cause for satisfaction.

At least William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, while also not doubting that the RAF's attacks were legitimate -- here speaking specifically of Lübeck and Rostock -- added that 'proper satisfaction must always be accompanied by distress of soul at the misery and suffering inflicted thereby upon thousands of homes'.4
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  1. The Times, 3 June 1942, 5. []
  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 3 June 1942, 3. []
  3. Gloucester Journal, 6 June 1942, 6. []
  4. The Times, 9 June 1942, 2. []