International air force

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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Australian Air Squadrons Fund leaflet

This is the cover of a leaflet produced in 1916 by the Australian Air Squadrons Fund, the Australian arm of the Imperial Air Flotilla which raised funds around the British Empire for presentation 'battle-planes' for the Royal Flying Corps. My interest in it is not so much for its own sake, though I am struck by the slightly confusing promise that this aircraft 'will carry your name and message of sympathy and support over the heads of our troops into the enemy capitals', as well as the sadly forlorn hope that 'This is, please God, the only war in which we will be able to take part'. Rather, it's here as an example of the aviation records to be found in the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), which is being digitised and made freely available through Trove.
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Origin of the League of Nations

I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.

Image source: Wikimedia.


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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In my discussion of the ill-fated Sykes Memo, I noted that it included proposed force levels for the Dominion air forces, which I haven't seen discussed before. This is interesting because it came at an interesting moment. It's early December 1918, with the Empire was in the flush of victory and all things seeming possible (at least they did to Sykes, which is why he lost his job as Chief of the Air Staff). But it's before any of the Dominions had actually created their own independent air forces (SAAF: 1920; RAAF: 1921; RCAF: 1924; RNZAF: 1937 -- though those dates are inevitably contentious; see Pathfinder 114 for a RAAF perspective). Their decisions to do so inevitably reflected local concerns and conditions, but they also took advice from the RAF, as the Empire's 'mother' air force. So Sykes's proposals provides some insight into how the centre viewed the periphery in an airpower sense at this cusp between war and peace, and what advice he might have given the fledging air forces had he not been ejected from command of the RAF.

So, as before, I've tabulated the squadron numbers from the Sykes Memo in From Many Angles, and added some comments after.1
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  1. F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74. []

Here's something I didn't know before. In 1939, an Indian chemistry professor and Theosophist named D. D. Kanga edited a collection of articles entitled Where Theosophy and Science Meet: A Stimulus to Modern Thought.1 One of the articles was by Peter Freeman, who had been a Labour MP from Wales between 1929 and 1931 (and would be again from 1945 until his death in 1956). He had also been general secretary of the Welsh branch of the Theosophical Society since 1922. His contribution to Kanga's volume was entitled 'The practical application of Theosophy to politics and government'; I'm not sure when it was originally published, assuming it wasn't written specially for this volume, but it would probably be the early to mid-1930s.

Freeman's basic premise is that of Theosophy: that the universe and everything in it is evolving in accordance with what he calls '"the Plan"'.2 This applies to societies too, 'in the gradual civilization and progress of humanity towards its destined end -- the full realization of Universal Brotherhood'.3 But this process is helped along both by enlightened people (e.g. Theosophists) and by 'a body of super-men, the Masters [...] who, having passed through the many stages of life, are now competent to help and guide the affairs of the earth'.

These evolved men are known as the Great White Brotherhood, or the Inner Government of the World. All forms of government on earth are but pale reflections of their activities, nevertheless everyone can assist, in however humble a manner, in their mighty task of bringing about the perfection of all life.4

In this spirit, Freeman asked:

What are the immediate political steps that should be taken to secure World Peace and to establish the Brotherhood of Man?5

His answer was that 'a World Power acting on behalf of the League of Nations' was required, so that nations would feel secure and consent to disarmament.6
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  1. The British Library catalogue says 1938, but the preface is dated October 1939 and notes that war had broken out in Europe. []
  2. Peter Freeman, 'The practical application of Theosophy to politics and government', in D. D. Kanga, ed., Where Theosophy and Science Meet: A Stimulus to Modern Thought (Adyar: Adyar Library Association, 1939), 130. []
  3. Ibid., 130 []
  4. Ibid., 130. []
  5. Ibid., 134 []
  6. Ibid., 134. []


A comment by Gavin Robinson over at Thoughts on Military History reminded me that I've been a bit slack with self-archiving. This is the policy some academic journals have which allows authors to upload copies of their articles to their own websites, with certain caveats. For SAGE journals the policy is that you can

At any time, circulate or post on any repository or website the version of the article that you submitted to the journal (i.e. the version before peer-review) or an abstract of the article.

Which I did do for my first peer-reviewed article, 'World police for world peace: British internationalism and the threat of a knock-out blow from the air, 1919-1945' which appeared in War in History, a SAGE journal, in 2010. That version is only slightly different from the one which was accepted for publication, so I was quite happy to make it available for download.

But I'd forgotten that SAGE's policy also allows you to

At least 12 months after publication, post on any non-commercial* repository or website* the version of your article that was accepted for publication.

Since 'World police for world peace' was published in July 2010 I could have put the accepted, peer-reviewed version up five months ago. Well, I've now rectified this omission: that version is now available for download. Of course, that doesn't have the same pagination as the published article, which has also been copyedited; so the absolute, definitive version is the one available from War in History itself.

Is self-archiving worth the trouble? I think so. Since August last year (when I installed a proper download counter) 'World police for world peace' has been downloaded by 26 different people, from Thailand to the UK. While that's not an earth-shattering number, these are presumably people who are interested enough to download and (hopefully) read my research on the international air force concept, but don't have access to or can't afford the journal's version. That is to say, they probably wouldn't have read my article in any form, if it hadn't been available for free. I don't know how many people have ever read the official version, but 26 sounds like a reasonably substantial fraction. So self-archiving is helping to get my research out there.

As it happens, my second article, 'The air panic of 1935: British press opinion between disarmament and rearmament', was also published by SAGE (in the Journal of Contemporary History) which means the same policy applies. I didn't put up the submitted version because it was radically different from the accepted version. But when the first anniversary of its publication comes around in April, I'll be self-archiving that one too.


Glasgow Herald, 15 March 1941, 5

The war news today is much closer to home for the Glasgow Herald than usual. A big air raid last night on 'a Central district of Scotland' (5) is vividly described, as though the reporter had witnessed it: readers would know for themselves just how far away it was.

One Nazi 'plane which appeared to be heading for home was spotted by searchlights, and immediately there was a road of gunfire as battery after battery opened up and poured shells into the apex of the searchlights.

The crackle of bursting shells followed a maze of flashes. When the gunfire stopped and the 'plane emerged from the barrage one of its engines could be heard misfiring. The 'plane seemed to be in difficulties and gradually losing height.

On the ground, civil defence workers 'toiled side by side with firemen after bombs scored a direct hit on a tenement building':

As rescue workers struggled to break down the massive barriers of broken stone and secure the safety of those feared trapped in the debris the fire-fighters poured a continuous stream of water to keep down the creeping flames.

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Glasgow Herald, 14 March 1941, 5

The big news today is that the latest Italian offensive against Greek forces in the Tepelini sector has been a disaster. War correspondents estimate 10,000 Italian casualties, including 2000 dead; yet 'it was stated in authoritative circles in London yesterday that the Italians do not appear to have made any perceptible progress' (5). This is despite (perhaps there's a hint of because of) Mussolini's presence at the front lines over the last few days, 'leading or encouraging the Italian troops'. Greek spirits are understandably high. Looking at the bigger picture in the Mediterranean, the Herald's military correspondent suggests that the Germans

are not over-anxious to commit their forces to an attack on Greece while Russia is dissatisfied. Turkey threatens to become actively hostile, and Yugoslavia is, at least, very restless.

The reported presence of three German divisions (or elements thereof) in Tripoli is puzzling. It will certainly bolster Italian morale in Libya after recent defeats there.

It is not likely that an offensive against the Army of the Nile is planned. But it may well be necessary in German interests to safeguard a buffer between British troops and those of the French African Empire.

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