What could be more American than football, cheerleaders, and country music? According to Hank Williams Jr in 1989 [edit: more like 1996 -- thanks, Robert Farley], only football, cheerleaders, country music, and air strikes on US national monuments (which magically transform them into symbols associated with football):
These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!
It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?
Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.
This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)
While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?
These are the readings:
Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.
Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.
Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, https://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.
Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.
S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.
Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).
Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).
Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.
There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.
Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...
So, I bought so many books in the UK that I had to post some of them home to myself; here are some of them. You might ask why I didn't just note down the names of all these books and order them when I got back to Australia, but such a self-evidently absurd question wouldn't merit a response.
A to Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs. Sevenoaks: Geographers' A-Z Map Company, 2008 [c. 1938]. As I've said before, I do like a good facsimile edition. This one is of the first edition of the standard London A-Z street directory, including maps of Theatreland, Cinemaland, shopping centres and parking places. It's not quite Melways, but few street directories are.
Peter Adey. Air: Nature and Culture. London: Reaktion Books, 2014. A typically wide-ranging (and also lavishly illustrated) work taking something we generally take for granted and dissecting its meaning in science, art, literature and history, from life to pollution to disease to (of course) war. Lots of unexpected things here, including a big shoutout for Airminded. Thanks, Peter, and for the free copy too!
Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas, eds. The Home Front in Britain: Images, Myths and Forgotten Experiences since 1914. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. While in the UK I kept an eye out for books on the British home front in the First World War, since that's what I was there to research, but despite the centenary there don't appear to be many yet (at least, if you care about references). This is one that I did pick up; it has a number of chapters which should be useful, particularly the first one by Andrews on ideals of domesticity (in terms of the Second World War, Gillian Mawson's on Guernsey evacuees caught my eye).
Greg Baughen. Blueprint for Victory: Britain's First World War Blitzkrieg Air Force. Fonthill: 2014. The title is a bit silly but this looks like a sober analysis based on some substantial archival research, though it's not quite as original as the blurb would have you believe. Baughen argues that the British military before 1914 was much more committed to airpower than is often assumed, and also that the success of close air support by 1918 was neglected in favour of strategic bombing and an independent air force.
Harold Balfour. Wings over Westminster. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1973. Balfour was an RFC fighter ace during the First World War, Under-Secretary of State for Air during the Second, and an airminded Conservative MP for much of the time between (he gets three mentions in my book); these are his memoirs. 'Thank God for Munich', he says (p. 111); and I say thanks to Andrew Gray for the copy!
David Clarke. Britain's X-traordinary Files. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Drawn largely from official records (and published in collaboration with the National Archives), this takes in many surprising topics, including the Angel of Mons, Grindell Matthews' death ray, phantom helicopters and mysterious aircraft disappearances, just to name a few. I would have liked to see some scareships in there too, though!
Gerard DeGroot. Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War I. London: Vintage Books, 2014. Another of the better home front histories. In fact DeGroot has already written one of the best around, Blighty (1996); but this update is almost an entirely new book, intended to be much more accessible to a general public and with very little in common with its predecessor. It's much more of a social history than a political or economic one.
Michael Diamond. Victorian Sensation: Or the Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Anthem Press, 2004. Not only fun, but hopefully useful for me in terms of thinking about aerial spectacle and the public consumption of the same. It draws heavily on the press, impressively so given that it was published long before things like the British Newspaper Archive was around; but it's disappointing to find that the many newspaper citations don't include page numbers. Why treat your sources (and your readers) with such disrespect?
Alexander C. T. Geppert. Fleeting Cities: Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siècle Europe. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Again, this should be useful for me, as it could be argued that the great expositions and exhibitions, as nationalistic celebrations of technology and power in the guise of mass entertainment, paved the way for the Hendon pageants (and London Defended was actually part of the British Empire Exhibition, which gets a chapter here). Interestingly one of Geppert's other research interests is what he calls astroculture, something like airmindedness but for space.
Ian Hall. Alnwick in the Great War. Alnwick: Wanney Books, 2014. As with the home front in general, there seems to be a lack of regional histories of the First World War so far. This one, about Alnwick in Northumberland, is a slender pamphlet (just 40 pages) which doesn't cite many sources, but is clearly based on some great primary sources, including plans by the local authorities in Northumberland for what to when the Germans invaded and the effect of Zeppelin raids.
Hendon: The Royal Air Force Pageants, 1920 to 1939. Strike Force Entertainment, 2011. I've had my eye on this for a while, but again it's particularly useful for my aerial theatre non-project. A DVD compilation of newsreels about the Hendon pageants (which finished in 1937, not 1939, so I assume this also covers Empire Air Day). I haven't watched it yet but it seems like it is drawn from everything but British Pathé, which is fine since the latter is easily available on the web.
Robin Higham and Mark Parillo, eds. The Influence of Airpower upon History: Statesmanship, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy since 1903. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Airpower: what is it good for? Quite a bit, even if its decisiveness has been and continues to be greatly exaggerated by many. There are chapters here on the effect of airpower in the 1930s on French (Patrick Facon) and German diplomacy (Richard Muller), as well as on the bomber in Russian (David Jones) and European (John Morrow) strategic thought more generally up to the 1940s.
Cecil Lewis. Sagittarius Rising. London: Frontline Books, 2009 . Like Balfour a decorated ace, but he went down a different path after the war, helping to found what became the BBC, winning an Oscar for adapting Pygmalion, becoming a follower of the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff, and writing one of the all-time classic aviation memoirs, which I haven't read. So I'll fix that.
Michael Locicero, Ross Mahoney and Stuart Mitchell, eds. A Military Transformed? Adaptation and Innovation in the British Military, 1792-1945. Solihull: Helion & Company, 2014. The contributors to this collection are emerging British military historians, but that doesn't mean they are unfamiliar to me as I know many of them from their blogs and/or tweets, including two of the editors, Ross Mahoney and Stuart Mitchell. They've put together a very polished book; in airpower terms the key contributions are James Pugh on naval and military aviation doctrine before 1914, Ross himself on air support after Dieppe, and Richard Hammond on air-sea cooperation in the Mediterranean, but everything else looks interesting too!
Annika Mombauer, ed. The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and Military Documents. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013. A big fat book of primary sources (contextualised by Mombauer) relating to the origins of the First World War, which would have been useful last trimester when I was teaching this...
Andrew Renwick. RAF Hendon: The Birthplace of Aerial Power. Manchester: Crécy Publishing, 2012. A light but nicely illustrated history of Hendon in its various incarnations, from aerial showground to wartime factory and back again, ultimately of course becoming (more or less) the RAF Museum of today.
John Stevenson and Chris Cook. The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression. 3rd edition. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2010. A topic which seems almost marginalised in our view of Britain in the 1930s now -- or maybe that's just me, since this book has gone through three editions since 1977.
Adam Tooze. The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931. London: Allen Lane, 2014. By contrast this topic can hardly be said to have been marginalised, yet by all accounts this is a terrific new interpretation of the attempts to sustain world peace after the First World War, and particularly of the important role played by the United States (yes, it declined to join the League of Nations, but that's not the end of the story) and the question of whether Versailles made another war inevitable (no, which is correct).
Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War. London: The Bodley Head, 2014. Finally, another substantial home front/local history of the First World War. And as the title suggests, Zeppelins feature!
[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]
Previously I argued that two books by Frank Joseph, 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), were at the very least bad history and, in the case of Mussolini's War at least, possibly apologies for fascism as well. I also promised that I'd take a closer look at Joseph himself. It turns out that military history is only one of his interests, and that he is better known as a pseudoarchaeologist and a former neo-Nazi.
It took a little bit of detective work to piece this together, but only a little. It's in the author biographies supplied by his publishers. Praeger's author biography of Joseph says that
Frank Joseph is professor of world archaeology with Japan's Savant Institute, and recipient of the Midwest Epigraphic Society's Victor Moseley Award. His published works include more than 20 books in as many foreign editions, such as Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy's Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 193545.
Helion's biography is more extensive (Mussolini's War, 312):
A member of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and a scuba diver since 1962, Joseph has participated in underwater archaeological expeditions in the Bahamas, Yucatan, the Canary Islands, the Aegean, and Polynesia. A frequent guest speaker across the United States, he has lectured in Britain, Slovenia, and throughout Japan, where he was made 'Professor of World Archaeology' by Kyushu's Savant Society. Before the close of the past century, Japanese national television broadcast two different programs about his work.
In 1998, he received the Victor Moseley Award for his work on behalf of cultural diffusionist archaeology from Ohio's Midwest Epigraphic Society (Columbus). He also received 1999's Burrow's Cave Society Award, and his work has additionally commended by the Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation (Marquette, Michigan).
At first blush this perhaps doesn't sound so bad. The Oriental Institute is perfectly respectable, of course, though becoming a member requires nothing more than paying an annual fee. The 'Savant Institute' has very little web presence, at least in English, but it appears to have something to do with archaeology (Nobuhiro Yoshida, 'President of Japan Petroglyph Society and Professor at the Savant Institute & Japan Academic Center', spoke at the 2005 conference of the American Rock Art Research Association). The Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation exists 'To collect and preserve evidence of ancient civilizations in North America, and the Great Lakes region in particular, in a manner that supports their study by amateur and professional scholars and to educate the public about the significance'. The Midwestern Epigraphic Society 'researches the ancient migrations of mankind to the Americas, especially Pre-Columbian and particularly to the Midwest US, as revealed by cultural similarities, archaic writing, ancient world history and evidence found by modern science'.
When I started my PhD, I hoped to examine fictional representations of aerial bombardment in plays as well as in novels, newspapers and other written sources, but had to abandon this intention because I found very few which discussed the next war in the air in any detail. There are a few where it appears in the background, such as Karel Čapek's Power and Glory (1938), which is much more about poison gas than aerial warfare. The threat of bombing is more important in Wings Over Europe (1928), written by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne, though this is more of a throwback to older narratives of the world being held to ransom by a league of scientists which possesses the ultimatum weapon (in this case the Guild of United Brain Workers has atomic bombs in aeroplanes circling the world's capitals) rather than owing anything to contemporary airpower theory.
But, as I found with cinematic representations, there were some plays about the knock-out blow. One such is Night Sky, which premiered at London's prestigious Savoy Theatre on 6 January 1937 under the direction of Maurice Elvey.1 The producer was Clifford Whitley; the playwright was L. du Garde Peach, better known (at least to some) as the author of Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History (1963).
It's been more than two weeks since I've posted anything on my current mystery aeroplane research, but it's not because I haven't been working on it. In fact it is coming along pretty well. There are still some frustrating gaps in my understanding of the archival records, but the writing is coming along. I've written up the section about the aeroplane scare, and next I'll be doing the section on the German threat, as depicted above in a 1918 (?) poster by Norman Lindsay. So here's something about that.
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. ), 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?"
Brian Madison Jones. Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961. (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011).
I found Brian Jones's Abolishing the Taboo interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the subject matter: the Cold War fear of nuclear war was the successor to the interwar fear of strategic bombing. Secondly, it's the book version of a PhD dissertation, which is something I'll be tackling myself.
The Eisenhower presidency (1953-61) was when the United States created its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, rising from the roughly 800 warheads inherited from Truman to over 18,000 by the time Kennedy came into office: as Jones notes, even after recent disarmament measures this number has never since fallen below the level when Eisenhower came into power.1 So this was the critical period when we (meaning the world) had to learn how to live with the Bomb. Jones's intention is to explain how and why this happened, through a focus on Eiseinhower's attempts to make nuclear technology normal: that is, as just another way of making the United States stronger and safer. Speaking as a non-specialist in this area, I think he largely succeeds in this. But I do have some criticisms.
Brian Madison Jones, Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011), 122. ↩
The fourth RAF Pageant took place on Saturday, 30 June 1923. The 'turn of the afternoon', as in the previous year, was 'another little Eastern drama, based on actual happenings during the War'.1 Once more the Wottnotts were the enemy, and once more the co-operation of air and ground forces was the theme. The main difference with 1922 was that this time the RAF was coming to the aid of a besieged garrison:
On the centre of the "stage" one saw an impressive railway bridge and sundry buildings. The small military garrison protecting this post was suddenly attacked by our old friends (or enemies?), the Wottnott Arabs. The garrison, being outnumbered, W.T.'d for help, which, before you could say "Jack Robinson," appeared in the form of three Vickers troop carriers, escorted by five Sopwith "Snipes."2
A recent comment by J Campbell raised the question of whether Nevil Shute's 1949 novel No Highway was in fact a prediction of the De Havilland Comet airliner's metal fatigue problems, which led to two crashes ('hull losses', in industry parlance) in 1954. My response was that it seemed unlikely that Shute had any particular insider knowledge which could have led to such a prediction (made before the prototype had even flown) given that he had already been out of the aircraft manufacturing business for some years. (And if he did have reason to think that the Comet would have metal fatigue, why not warn de Havilland instead of writing a novel?) My own suggestion was that instead No Highway might have been loosely inspired by the R101 disaster back in 1930, a formative moment in Shute's life. Having read the novel now, I don't have any actual evidence for this, but there is an intriguing additional parallel which may have been overlooked (or not, I'm no Shute scholar).
In Shute's novel -- spoilers ahead -- the tailplane of the (fictional) Rutland Reindeer (seen above, from the 1951 film version No Highway In The Sky) is believed by an RAE scientist named Theodore Honey to be susceptible to metal fatigue. The story revolves around the efforts of Honey and Scott, his superior at Farnborough, to prove that an earlier Reindeer crash was due to metal fatigue and so ground the Reindeer fleet before disaster strikes. The obstacles include a slapdash investigation of the previous accident, entrenched interests at the Reindeer's manufacturer Rutland and its operator CATO, the (also fictional) Commonwealth Atlantic Transport Organisation, the novelty of Honey's fatigue theory (inspired by recent advances in nuclear physics!), and Honey's own diffident character and his eclectic interests, including pyramidology, British Israelism, the Second Coming (predicted for 1994), interplanetary rocket travel and spiritualism. Of which more in a moment.