Nuclear, biological, chemical

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

I learned something new from an article in the March 2013 issue of History Today:

Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1963, Israel was suddenly gripped by a curious mass panic. Sensational newspaper reports and radio announcements claimed that the country was threatened by enemy 'atom bombs', 'fatal microbes', 'poison gases', 'death rays' and a 'cobalt warhead' that could 'scatter radioactive particles over large areas'. Within hours, opinion in the entire country had been ignited. Parliamentary debates, everyday conversations, even songs and poems were all preoccupied obsessively with the same theme -- that Israel was confronted by the imminent threat of another Holocaust, less than two decades after the first.

The source of this supposedly dire foreign menace was not Iran, nor the Soviet Union, although superpower tension at this stage in the Cold War was certainly intense. The perceived threat instead emanated from Egypt, which over the past decade had been led by the supremely charismatic and populist military officer, 44-year-old President Gamal Abdul [sic] Nasser.

Several months before, in the early hours of July 21st, 1962 Nasser had stunned the world by successfully test-firing a number of rockets. Specially-invited contingents of foreign journalists and cameramen had been driven to a remote spot deep in the Egyptian desert, not far from the central Cairo-Alexandria highway. They watched as a massive explosion shook the ground and a white missile lifted itself from a camouflaged position, a short distance in front of them. As one American correspondent wrote: 'It pierced a long, white cloud and later, in plain view, slowly arched to the north towards the Mediterranean.' Over the next few hours three more launches were carried out in quick succession before the journalists returned home, amid scenes of jubilation from ecstatic crowds. The Egyptian public had heard the news when a special announcement, broadcast on a national public holiday, announced on government radio that Egypt had 'entered the missile age'.

Given my interests, this sounds like something I need to know more about; and as chance would have it, the author of the article, Roger Howard, has a book due out later this year which may provide more details (Operation Damocles: Israel's Secret War Against Hitler's Scientists, 1951-1967). According to Howard's article, the real reason for the scare was not so much the Egyptian rocket programme itself, but the involvement of many German scientists who had worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, such as the aerospace (and his expertise did span both air and space) engineer Eugen Sänger. In fact, Howard argues that it was to deflect attention from the recent exposure of Operation Damocles, the intimidation of Nasser's German scientists, that Mossad director Isser Harel briefed the Israeli press with a wholly exaggerated account of Egypt's offensive capabilities. As Howard shows, and as cooler heads argued at the time, the targeting problem had not been solved, meaning the chance of a rocket hitting anything important was remote, as 1967 proved. Nor did Egypt even have a WMD programme at this time, rockets aside. The scare subsided; Harel was discredited and soon resigned.

While I don't (and can't) dispute Howard's account, from my perspective I wonder if the fear of new technological perils might have played as important a role as the spectre of Nazi-Egyptian collaboration. There are parallels to be drawn forwards and backwards in time, in Israel and elsewhere. Israeli fears about nuclear weapons and missile threats from its neighbours resurfaced in 1981, 1990-1, the 2000s, and today. Only six months before the Israeli rocket scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. All those lurid weapons mentioned in the Israeli press in 1963 -- fatal microbes, poison gases, death rays, atom bombs, even cobalt warheads -- had been staples of scaremongers in other countries for years, in most cases decades. In Britain, similar press panics over the danger of air attack took place in 1913, 1922, 1935 and 1938. It would be strange if Israel in 1963 was immune to such fears.


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. []


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).
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  1. As it happens, a decade earlier Elvey had directed the film version of Noel Pemberton Billing's play, High Treason, which also featured the danger of aerial bombardment -- though as he was apparently the most prolific British film director ever we shouldn't read too much into this. []


Future schemes of air defence


During the last years of the Great War, sound detectors played an increasingly important part in the air defences of all the belligerents. Since those days they have undergone great development. Here the emperor of Japan is inspecting the huge trumpet-like detectors that work in conjunction with the anti-aircraft guns (seen right)

This last in a series on 'Things of tomorrow' draws upon Boyd Cable, 'Future schemes of air defence', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 310-6. (There was a seventh in the series, but by another author and on a non-military subject, that of stratospheric flight.) The previous posts looked at 'Death from the skies', 'The doom of cities', 'New horrors of air attack', 'If war should come' and 'When war does come: terrifying effects of gas attacks'.
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In 1910, two Army officers, Second Lieutenant Bowle-Evans and Lieutenant Cammell independently put forward a new idea for an anti-aircraft weapon: the vortex ring gun.

In principal, it involved the formation of a vortex in the air, by the firing of an explosive charge inside a conical 'gun' which, if it were pointed upwards, would propel the vortex towards the intended airborne target on which, it was suggested, the violent air movement within the vortex would have a sufficiently destructive effect. Some practical support for the theory was provided firstly by a Dr Pernter of Germany who had some years earlier carried out some experimental firings which were said to have torn apart birds and other objects, and secondly by the farmers of a large region ranging from Hungary to northern Italy, who appeared to use such guns routinely in the belief that they could disperse hailstorms.1

These proposals seem to have been made to the War Office; in any case a year later the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, was corresponding on the subject with Sir Oliver Lodge, the eminent physicist. Lodge told Haldane that 'I really think the thing is worth a trial', but although he proposed acquiring a vortex ring gun from Piedmont for testing purposes it's unclear whether this ever happened.

The idea of using a vortex ring gun for air defence was aired in public at an Aeronautical Society lecture given on 3 December 1913 by Captain C. M. Waterlow, Royal Engineers, on the topic of the 'The coming airship'. In a discussion of the potential for aerial combat between aeroplanes and airships, Waterlow thought the former would be disadvantaged because of its inferior weight-carrying capacity: the airship could afford to be much better armed. This is perhaps not surprising since he was himself an airship pilot. When it came to the weapons which would be used, he suggested vortex rings:

The question of a suitable weapon had hardly been considered, but he would remark that there were great possibilities in the use of vortex rings, such as had been used in France in connection with vineyards. To show the destructive effects that they can produce, he stated that when fired horizontally they were capable of breaking up a wooden fence at a distance of 100 yards.2

The basic principle behind vortex ring guns is quite sound: a smoke ring is a common form of vortex ring, and toy vortex guns can bought or even made at home. Practical uses are a bit more dubious. The use of vortex ring guns (or hail cannon) to disperse hailstorms has a long history but little scientific evidence to back it up. More recently, militaries have looked at vortex ring guns as non-lethal weapons, to knock people down, but they don't seem to be able to do this even over a distance as short as 30 metres.
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  1. Malcolm Hall, From Balloon to Boxkite: The Royal Engineers and Early British Aeronautics (Stroud: Amberley, 2010), 204. []
  2. '"The coming airship"', Flight, 13 December 1913, 1362. []


Essen, after 5/6 March 1943

Don Charlwood's No Moon Tonight has a reputation as one of the best Bomber Command memoirs. Charlwood was a Victorian who joined the RAAF in 1941, trained as a navigator in Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, and then flew in Halifaxes and Lancasters with 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. Having survived his tour of 30 ops in 1942 and 1943, he stayed in aviation after the war, albeit on the ground as a civil air traffic controller. No Moon Tonight was originally published in 1956 and was the first of more than a dozen books by Charlwood, some memoirs, some aviation history, some Victorian history. In 1986 he wrote that the book was 'kindly received both in Australia and Britain', and that 'letters from ex-aircrew men of various nationalities began to tell me I had not been alone in my response to the Bomber Command experience'.1 It's one aspect of that response I'm interested in here: his feelings about the morality of area bombing.
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  1. Don Charlwood, No Moon Tonight (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1991 [1956]), xi. []

When war does come


Of all the forms of gas used in the Great War, that which had the least disastrous consequences was "tear gas." Its effect was to inflict temporary blindness on those who came in contact with it. This pathetic row of figures show men temporarily blinded in that way on the Western Front in April, 1918. Affecting as this scene is, the results of the deadly gases of today would be infinitely worse.

Another batch of photographs of 'Things of tomorrow'. After 'Death from the skies', 'The doom of cities', 'New horrors of air attack', and 'If war should come', there followed (and note the shift from the indefinite to the definite) Boyd Cable, 'When war does come: terrifying effects of gas attacks', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 272-4.
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If war should come


Officers of the St. Johns Ambulance Brigade, who, in their black and white uniforms, are familiar and friendly figures to Londoners, are now preparing for the possibility that grim and terrible duties may one day fall to their lot. A number of them have recently received instruction in a hall beneath one of London's biggest blocks of flats in methods of first aid in the streets, in the use of shelters and airlocks and the gas-proofing of private premises. A group of them is here seen clothed from head to foot in anti-gas equipment

These photographs are from the fourth of a series of articles on the future of aerial warfare: Boyd Cable, 'If war should come', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 201-4. The preceding articles were 'Death from the skies', 'The doom of cities', and 'New horrors of air attack'.
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New horrors of air attack


In April, 1935, a Kentish Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross Society conducted an air raid rehearsal. Here Red Cross men wearing box respirators and anti-gas clothing are rescuing a woman caught by gas in the open. With a heavy concentration of the deadly gases that modern chemists have now evolved there is little chance she would survive for more than a few minutes.

These images are from Boyd Cable, 'New horrors of air attack', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 143-6, the third article in a series on 'Things of tomorrow', following on 'Death from the skies' and 'The doom of cities'.
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The doom of cities


Milan's wonderful cathedral is here shown under a rain of dummy bombs dropped by 80 aeroplanes during recent manoeuvres of the Italians. To make the display more impressive and to ascertain the results with more certainty, luminous "bombs" were used and fell in a fiery rain upon the city -- a dire portent of future terrors

The images in this post are from Boyd Cable, 'The doom of cities', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 96-8. It was Cable's second article in a series on 'Things of tomorrow'. The text doesn't actually connect with the illustrations very well. Cable's main point is given away in the title, that in the next war cities will be ruthlessly destroyed from the air, since 'the murderous slaughter of non-combatants' is the most effective way to force a nation to surrender. While he notes that some experts are sceptical of this (Captain Turner, late of Woolwich Arsenal, Lord Castlerosse, Frederick Handley Page), he argues that 'they are flatly contradicted both by the known facts of the last war and by the preparations which we know have been made in anticipation of the next great struggle'.

Today, and as far as we can see into the future, War first of all means Air War; and Air War spells, literally and actually, the "doom of cities."

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