Nuclear, biological, chemical

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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Globe, 3 December 1912, 15

A great image found by @100YearsAgoLive of 'bombing by wireless' in 1921:

The question of aerial armaments will be discussed at the Washington Conference, and it is as well for us, while hoping for the best results from the conclave of the nations, to realise some of the terrifying developments in aerial warfare to which scientists are devoting attention. Shown here is a flying bomb, fitted with small wings and a motor, which can be steered by wireless so as to drop on the desired objective. One has only to remember the work done by wireless-controlled boats in the War, to realise in the flying bomb a terrible weapon, the construction of which, at all costs, must be avoided.((Globe (London), 3 December 1921, 15.))

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Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, 23 January 1941

Mark Clapson. The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City Since 1911. London: University of Westminster Press, 2019,

Open access has had its travails, but one welcome recent development, particularly in the UK, seems to be the rise of open access monographs and textbooks. An example of the former is Gabriel Moshenska's Material Cultures of Childhood in Second World War Britain, a historical anthropology which focuses largely on the material culture of air raids, and is the product of many years of research brought out by a respected academic publisher. You can buy a physical copy at the usual moderate prices, or if you'd rather pay nothing you can read it online or download the ebook. Brilliant!

Another example of this trend, and the subject of this review, is Mark Clapson's The Blitz Companion, which again can be purchased in physical format (this time at an actually moderate price), or read online or downloaded for free, from here (and it's on JSTOR too). This is more of a textbook aimed at undergraduates, though upper secondary students would also profit from it, and postgraduates might find it a useful introduction to the topic. And it's a big topic: the title suggests that it's going to be about the British experience of bombing during the Second World War, but in fact it covers a whole century (and counting) and much of Western Europe beyond Britain, as well as extended discussions of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Indeed, Clapson sees 'Blitz' as a transnational phenomenon, hence the title (though this could have used a bit more unpacking, and I'd put it in lower-case when using it in this sense).
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On the evening of 23 June 1933, Berlin was raided by mysterious aeroplanes of unknown origin:

A number of aeroplanes, which were described as being of unidentified foreign origin, are reported to have flown over the working-class areas of the city yesterday evening, and dropped leaflets and pamphlets, in which the Government was attacked. Upon scout aeroplanes ascending the visiting 'planes disappeared.1

Little information was given about the leaflets themselves, except that they were 'insulting [to] the Government in an incredible manner'.2 But that government -- the Nazi government, which had been in power for just under six months -- was quick to profess alarm:

the newspapers have been ordered to publish a police communique on the front page, accompanied by a statement by an official that the air raid emphasises Germany's helplessness in defending herself against attacks from the air. 'In this raid only papers were dropped; next time it may be gas bombs,' it is stated.

The foreign press was immediately suspicious:

It now appears, however, not only that no one saw the air raiders, but no one has even seen the Anti-Hitlerite leaflets that were supposed to have been scattered from the 'planes. The authorities at Weimar state that the raiders flew there also, and that hand-bills were found on the roof of the police headquarters. The authorities in Berlin say that copies of the leaflets fell on the various ministries.3

As a British journalist commented acidly, 'apparently the machines flew at such a height that they were invisible, except to a few official eyes'.4 Even then, according to the 'air police at the Tempelhof Aerodrome (Berlin's Croydon) [...] nothing was known of such a raid'.5 And checks 'at various Continental aerodromes have failed to reveal any information of a 'plane having left to fly over Berlin'.6 The Evening News pointed out that

Not a single newspaper referred to the curious fact that nobody saw this fleet of aeroplanes anywhere on its way from some unstated frontier to Berlin, and nobody took the trouble to ascertain in which direction the aeroplanes went off after passing Berlin.

Although the newspapers were unanimous in saying that the machines were of a type unknown in Germany, and that they were seen by several experts, not a single particular about the points of difference in construction was given.7

In the judgment of International Information (published by the Labour and Socialist International), the incident was a 'faked scare':

The whole swindle recalls only too clearly the fire in the Reichstag and the fable that French aeroplanes appeared over Nuremberg before the German declaration of war in the war of 1914-1918.8

It's difficult to disagree.9 These aeroplanes not only never existed, nobody ever even seems to have thought they existed. They were not just phantom aeroplanes, then: they were phantom phantoms, concocted by the Nazi government and promoted by the German press. But to what end? I'll answer that question in a following post.

UPDATE: I found some more details of the supposed 'handbill air-raid':

Reports from Berlin state that the three planes, which were said to be double-deckers, of a type unknown to Germany, flew over the city on Friday afternoon, hurling down thousands of handbills, which contained abusive matter concerning the Hitler Government.

The weather was cloudy and the planes kept to a height of 10,000 feet and more. They were seen over Cottbus earlier in the afternoon, and later over Mannheim, going from the east to the west.

Similar machines were also reported over Thuringia and the Palatinate. Handbills similar to those dropped over Berlin were distributed over Weimar.10

  1. Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1933, 12. []
  2. Gloucester Echo (Cheltenham Spa), 24 June 1933, 1. []
  3. Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1933, 12. []
  4. Northern Whig (Belfast), 26 June 1933, 7. []
  5. Belfast Telegraph, 24 June 1933, 11. []
  6. Liverpool Echo, 24 June 1933, 8. []
  7. Quoted in Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette, 26 August 1933, 11. []
  8. Quoted in Daily Standard (Brisbane), 22 August 1933, 10. []
  9. Even though the Reichstag fire probably wasn't a 'Reichstag fire'. []
  10. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 26 June 1933, 1. []

A bit of aerial theatre from Dan Todman's (excellent) Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941:

Newton Abbot, Devon, February 1941. The town is holding its War Weapons Week to promote the National Savings movement. It has been set the aim of increasing savings by £100,000 during seven days. To publicize the event, local organizers arrange a fly-over by RAF bombers from a nearby airbase. They drop 10,000 advertising leaflets, with instructions about how to take part in the savings drive. Each is headlined 'THIS MIGHT HAVE BEEN A BOMB'. Whether this is a plea or a threat, it works: Newton Abbot smashes its target, with £216,000 invested by the time the War Weapons Week ends.1

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a picture of one of these leaflets, or evidence of their use elsewhere in Britain, but the same phrase was used in other leaflets dropped on Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, in the very same month, by a member of the local aero club as publicity for War Savings Certificates:

War Savings Certificates leaflet

The leaflets dropped on Newton Abbot may have been something similar, though the message here is obviously slightly different ('help destroy Hitler's murderous bombers ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC') -- and would be different again when dropped on Reedsburg, Wisconsin, in January 1944 by the Civil Air Patrol ('Join the Womens' Army Corps') and when dropped on Los Angeles in December 1951, again by the Civil Air Patrol ('These could have been REAL BOMBS! EVEN A-BOMBS!') A little bit of aerial theatre travelling a long way.

  1. Daniel Todman, Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 603. The source is given as TNA, NSC 7/78, 'War Weapons Weeks: Items of Special Interest'. []


Sputnik I

After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.

I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!

Image source: NASA.


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.


Tu-95 Bear

Every so often, Vladimir Putin gets annoyed with NATO and engages in a bit of sabre-rattling, sending a few Tu-95 Bear bombers on long-range flights off the coast of Portugal or Canada in order to remind them that Russia is not to be taken lightly (I happened to be at a conference at a RAF base shortly after these flights resumed, and it had certainly caught the attention of the air force officers there). In many ways, the Tu-95 is the equivalent of the American B-52: they are both strategic bombers, which first flew in 1952 yet are expected to remain in service into the 2040s. Remarkably, though, the Tu-95 is not a jet, it's a turboprop. That makes it seem like a charming old relic of a bygone age; and maybe it is, but it's a nuclear-capable one. Which is precisely why interceptors are scrambled whenever these bombers appear off the coast and why reports of the interceptions soon appear in the media, which in turn is why Russia keeps doing it. Earlier this week, two Tu-95s were sent down the English Channel, as far as Cornwall, apparently in response to British concerns about Russian involvement in Ukraine and the Baltics. Lately, these flights are becoming so frequent as to almost be routine: the RAF carried out four times as many interceptions in 2014 as in 2013; another English Channel flyby took place three weeks before the latest one.
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While looking for other things in the National Archives today, I came across a proposed 'aerial attack on Germany's next grain crop' in a War Council meeting held at 10 Downing Street on 24 February 1915.1

It was actually two proposed attacks. Mervyn O'Gorman, a civilian engineer who was in charge of the Royal Aircraft Factory, wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, to suggest burning out the German harvest from the air:

Suppose we have crowds of aeroplanes, which I think we shall by August, say. Then if we drop thousands of little discs of gun-cotton, self-igniting by being painted over with Greek fire (a solution of phosphorus and sulphur in carbon bisulphide).

If these discs were planted on dry or nearly dry corn and hay I incline to the belief that very large destruction might with favourable winds be done, and they could not fully retaliate on us, since our food is seaborne, nor on Russia because of the great distances.2

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  1. The National Archives [TNA], CAB 22/1/15, 'Secretary's Notes of a Meeting of a War Council held at 10, Downing Street, February 24, 1915', 1. []
  2. Ibid., 7. []


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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