IWM Q48951

For my twelfth (and last?) contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I spoke about what was undoubtedly the most important battle to take place in late April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres in Flanders. The reason why this was so important is because it opened with the first successful, large-scale poison gas attack in the history of warfare (the first unsuccessful attack had been at the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front at the end of January). I looked how the particular gas used by the Germans, chlorine, worked in chemical, biological and military terms, the role played by Fritz Haber in developing it, the shattering effect it had on the French lines, and the unreadiness of the German army to do much to exploit its success. I also noted briefly the prewar laws against the use of poison gas and its subsequent career in the war and after, including in the present Syrian civil war.

Image source: Imperial War Museum.


I'd forgotten that today was the 70th anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, but luckily the producers of Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 Live remembered. I spoke to presenter Dotun Adebayo and fellow historian Raymond Sun this afternoon (just before 5am Greenwich Mean Time), and for the next 29 days you can listen to our conversation here (the recording is the whole programme, 4 hours long, so skip to about 3:47:15).



Today I made my ninth contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, talking about U-boats (AKA 'the Zeppelins of the sea') and their advantages and disadvantages in warfare. More specifically, I spoke about the German declaration on 4 February 1915 of unlimited submarine warfare in the seas around Britain, switching from their previous Kleinkrieg strategy of targeting warships in order to reduce the British surface superiority (U-9, above, sank three armoured cruisers in one engagement alone). I put this into the context of erosion of international law with the British imposition of a North Sea blockade the previous November, as well as the increasing readiness to attack civilian targets directly, as evidenced by the naval bombardment of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby in December and the aerial bombardment of Norfolk in January.

Image source:


Aircraft recognition poster, c. 1914

Back to back Roads to War! This week's topic is the most airminded yet: the first German air raids on Britain. I had to cheat slightly to fit them in, as technically I'm supposed to talk about the centenary events in the week leading up to the broadcast date, i.e 23 December, but the first German bomb didn't fall on British soil until 24 December. However, if you count bombs falling pointlessly into the sea off Dover pier then 21 December 1914 was the date of the first German air raid on Britain. That's not exactly exciting, so I also talked about the slightly more interesting Christmas Eve raid (which famously destroyed a Dover cabbage patch) and the even slightly more interesting Christmas Day raid (which led to the first aerial combat in British skies). Even so, that wasn't enough to fill up 15 minutes, so I also talked about the fear of aerial attack and (of course) phantom airships, including one over Hartlepool the second night after the bombardment which led to a rumour that the Germans were back and this time had landed, and hence to a minor exodus as people fled to the relative safety of Middlesbrough.

Image source: Online Bicycle Museum (!) Note the injunction for members of the public in country districts to report hostile aircraft to the authorities.

Weekly Mail, 22 May 1909, 7

Chatting to Andrew Gray the other day, I realised that I'd never got around to posting about a small discovery I'd made about one of the most sensational sightings from the 1909 phantom airship scare. This is the claim by a Welsh showman named Lethbridge that he had actually seen an airship on the ground, seen its crew, seen them board the airship and take off. Here's how I summarised this incident when I postblogged 20 May 1909, quoting from the London Standard (and ultimately the Cardiff Evening Express):

a travelling Punch-and-Judy salesman by the name of Lethbridge was walking back home from Senghenydd to Cardiff over Caerphilly Mountain. At about 11pm [on 19 May 1909] he saw an airship which had landed on the mountain, and its crew. At least, that seems to be the implication of the interview he gave to the Cardiff Evening Express yesterday.

At the mountain's peak, he saw 'a long, tube-shaped affair lying on the grass on the roadside, with two men busily engaged with something near by'. The men wore 'big, heavy, fur coats, and fur caps fitting tightly over their heads'. When he got within twenty yards 'they jumped up and jabbered furiously to each other in a strange lingo -- Welsh, or something else; it was certainly not English'. They picked up something from the ground, and the object started to rise into the air. The men then 'jumped into a kind of little carriage suspended from it', with wheels. Once it had cleared some telegraph lines, it turned on two lights and headed towards Cardiff.

...continue reading


I received this request for assistance from Jean Dewaerheid, a Belgian writer who is working with Peter Haas and Pierre-Antoine Courouble to track down wooden bomb eyewitnesses:

Three authors (from Belgium, Germany and France) have been working for years on a bizarre subject: the dropping of dummy wooden bombs on wooden airplanes.

In order to deceive the Allies during the Second World War, the Germans built fake airfields on the continent, often with runways and sometimes with buildings, but always with fake wooden planes, called "Attrappen". Strange stories can be heard in which allied airplanes made fun of them by dropping wooden bombs on which they had sometimes painted remarks like "Wood for Wood".

...continue reading

1 Comment


A common complaint1 about this blog is that it doesn't feature nearly enough pictures of airships. So here's one, a 27-metre long non-rigid which belonged to Henry Spencer, scion of a remarkably airminded family (sixteen aeronauts across four generations). Indeed, he built it with his brothers. The photograph was taken on 16 February 1909 and apparently shows the first ever powered flight from Hendon aerodrome, though neither Spencer nor his airship are mentioned in David Oliver's Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1994).

But much more interesting than the airship itself, it must be said, is what it was used for. The clue is the slogan emblazoned on the side of the envelope: 'VOTES FOR WOMEN'. Spencer had hired his airship out as a propaganda platform to Muriel Matters, an Australian-born suffragette who was very active in the Women's Freedom League (a non-violent breakaway from the better-known WPSU). Matters had won some publicity the previous year by chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons. Her airship flight was also designed to make Parliament take notice of the suffragist cause: the new session was opening that very day and it was her intention to fly over Westminster and drop Votes For Women leaflets on it. In the end Spencer and Matters didn't make it there, having been blown off course into a tree in Coulsden, well to the south. Three decades later, Matters herself gave a wonderful account of her flight to the BBC, which can be heard online here. (Ignore the photo there, which is of the Army airship Baby.)

The photograph above is from a scrapbook belonging to an American women's suffrage organisation, so the message did travel quite some distance, albeit to a receptive audience; I couldn't find any mention of Matters' flight in a quick search of the British press. It took nearly a decade for the WFL's demand to be partially fulfilled. And it's nice to see that the part Matters played in using airpower for progressive causes is still remembered in her native South Australia.

  1. From me. 


[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Folk physics (or naive physics -- there's also folk biology, folk psychology, and so on) is the term used in philosophy and psychology to describe the way we all intuitively understand the physical world to work. It's very often at odds with scientific physics (unsurprisingly or else there'd be no need for the latter). For example, we all know that in order for something to move, there has to be some force moving it. If you stop pushing a box across the floor, it will stop moving; if a car's engine stops working, the car will slow down and stop too. That's folk physics. Scientific physics disagrees: force causes acceleration, not velocity; in the absence of any other forces, once an object is set in motion it will keep moving forever. Of course it's that caveat which is responsible for the different conclusions of folk physics and scientific physics in this case: friction with the ground exerts a force on the box and the car and so robs them of their momentum. Folk physics works well enough for us in our everyday lives but would be disastrously misleading in, say, trying to dock a spacecraft to a space station.

I wonder if it's useful to apply this demarcation to military strategy? There have been attempts to formalise principles of strategy, of course, though trying to sciencise (yes, I just made that up) them by making them rigid formulae is not necessarily fruitful. Strategy has always been an art much more than a science, and as such is pretty intuitive itself. But certainly there can be (and probably usually is) a gap between what military leaders do and why they do it, and what everyone else, particularly civilians, understand them to be doing. This gap creates a space for folk strategy to exist.
...continue reading


Der Spiegel has a lengthy article based upon a new book by historians Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer called Soldaten (no English version yet, unfortunately). It's based on the transcripts of secret recordings made of the conversations of German POWs captured by British and American forces in the Second World War. They would have talked about many things, but the article focuses on the war crimes which the soldiers, sailors and airmen discuss quite candidly among themselves, as perhaps they never did again in their lives. It's quite horrifying reading. But as far as the German army is concerned, the details of the war crimes committed in the East and elsewhere, while shocking, aren't all that new. It's more unusual to see evidence of the war crimes carried out by the men of the Luftwaffe. I've extracted those particular transcripts from the article.
...continue reading


This is a BBC interview with Group Captain Robert Lister, recorded in 1980, about his experiences as a junior officer in 20 Squadron on the North-West Frontier. He transferred there in 1935, and flew Audaxes in air control operations against Waziri tribespeople, sometimes in support of the Army, sometimes independently. He candidly notes that the 250-lb bombs were the ones which would be used against villages, but also that leaflets were invariably dropped beforehand, warning of an imminent attack.

But the clip isn't just Lister talking; it's Lister talking over his own cinefilm footage from 1935! Both from the ground and from the air, bombing and strafing Waziri villages. Also to be seen are the detonation of an improvised explosive device planted in the landing strip by the rebels, and one of the goolie chits affixed to the side of every Audax, to be used in the event of a forced landing. Fascinating stuff.

Thanks to Marc Wiggam for the lead.