Gotha bomber over Tower Hamlets, seen from above

You might think that the first Blitz was the Blitz, i.e. the German bombing of British cities in 1940-1941, at the time was understood as a form of blitzkrieg, which was then shortened to 'blitz' or 'Blitz'. Of course, that doesn't mean a blitz couldn't be retrospectively recognised, and indeed it was soon applied, for example, to earlier events such as the 'Rotterdam Blitz' on 14 May 1940.1 Much more recently, there has been a vogue for the term among historians writing on the German air raids on British cities in 1914-1918, variously the 'First Blitz', the 'Zeppelin Blitz' or the 'Forgotten Blitz'. Check it out:

  • Andrew P. Hyde, The First Blitz: The German Air Campaign against Britain 1917–1918 (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2002).
  • Neil Faulkner and Nadia Durrani, In Search of the Zeppelin War: The Archaeology of the First Blitz (Stroud: Tempus, 2008).
  • Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008).
  • Ian Castle, The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War (Oxford: Osprey, 2015).
  • Neil Storey, Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War (Stroud: History Press, 2015).
  • Ian Castle, Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914–1915 (Barnsley: Frontline, 2018).
  • Ian Castle, The First Blitz in 100 Objects (Philadelphia: Frontline Books, 2019).
  • Ian Castle, Zeppelin Inferno: The Forgotten Blitz 1916 (Philadelphia: Frontline, 2022).((There's also a journal article: Paul Fantom, ‘Zeppelins over the Black Country: The Midlands’ first blitz’, Midland History 39, no. 2 (2014): 236–254.))

Even discounting the fact that four of those books are from the one author, this is starting to look like a consensus.2

And why not? Many aspects of the 1940-41 raids were prefigured in 1914-18, from the bleeding obvious stuff (aircraft flying over and dropping bombs on British cities), to the ways in which the British government responded to this threat (air defence, civil defence, air offence), to the ideal emotional response on the part of civilians (British pluck, the Blitz spirit). And I can tell you from personal experience how annoying it gets to keep writing some cumbersome variation on 'the German raids on Britain in 1914-18' or 'the First World War air raids' or 'the Zeppelin and Gotha offensive', etc!

But as you can probably guess, despite my longing for a convenient shorthand I'm not fully sold on the First Blitz.3 This is partly because of the ways in which the British experience of bombing in 1914-18 was significantly different to that in 1940-41. It's also because I think that one of the key works on the above list -– the most popular one, Neil Hanson's First Blitz -- is quite problematic. But I'm not sure how sensible my objections are: analogies don't have to be exact to be useful, after all. So I'm going to post through my confusion and work out if I should learn to stop worrying and love the First Blitz.

Image source: Fredette, The Sky on Fire.

  1. In fact the term 'blitz' in the sense of air raids does seem to have slightly preceded the Blitz proper, judging from BNA, but only by a few days or weeks. []
  2. Compare with the other 'first' contender, the 'First Battle of Britain'. There's only one book I know of with this in the title: Raymond H. Fredette, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918 and the Birth of the Royal Air Force (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). As that was first published more than half a century ago, it doesn't seem like it's going to catch on. []
  3. It's not in the working title of my next book, currently Home Fires Burning: Britain's First War from the Air, 1914–1918, though admittedly this is not entirely stable from draft to draft! []

Thanet Advertiser, 29 April 1916, 5

The above facsimile letter was published in the Ramsgate Thanet Advertiser on 29 April 1916. It reads:

April 7th. The writer of the first 'German messages' has been absent from Ramsgate some time now, so the 'Alien’s post-card' is by another hand. If I did not fear prosecution for "failing to register an alien," I could give the police his address to find him, as he is due to return this Wedy. here. The enclosed I found in his overcoat pocket the night before the raid (after he left here on 18th ult.)
To the Editor.((Thanet Advertiser (Ramsgate), 29 April 1916, 5.))

The enclosure referred to was a second letter, 'another foreign missive, addressed to “Herr Chaney, Burgomeister von Ramsgate.” It states that the Zeppelins have a nightly victory and contains some abusive epithets'.((Ibid., 22 April 1916, 2.))

...continue reading

R.100, St Hubert airfield, Montreal, 1930

If you've ever read anything about the last great British rigid airships, built between 1924 and 1930 as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, you will almost certainly have come across a statement to the effect that R.100 was known as the 'capitalist' airship and R.101 as the 'socialist' airship. This was because the former was designed and built by Vickers and the latter by the Labour government (at least, it was conceived and flown under Labour; most of the construction was actually done under the Tories).

...continue reading


Would you?

Croydon Airport booking hall, summer 1935

It's the summer of 1935.((Late July or early August 1935, judging from the August Popular Flying on display. I can't quite make out the newspaper headlines but the themes (British troops? American naval policy?) could fit late July.)) You're at Croydon Airport, waiting to board an Imperial Airways flight to Paris. But you were in a rush this morning, and you forgot to bring something to read. According to your Bradshaw's it's a flight of 2 hours and 15 minutes, and you don't particularly want to spend it looking out the window at the ground, so far beneath your feet. No matter, Croydon is fully up to date and has a news kiosk in the booking hall. You wander over to peruse the selection on offer, and this is what you see:

...continue reading

Sphere, 1 March 1913, 223

'In the future, every historian will be relevant for 15 minutes', as somebody once said. Here's my 15 minutes, an interview with journalist Connor Echols for Responsible Statecraft on the parallels between the 1913 phantom airship panic and the 2023 spy balloon panic. As I've been busy with other things and have had to watch take after hot take flash by (most interestingly from my point of view was Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian invoking another interest of mine, balloon riots), I appreciated the opportunity to think about what I do think (if that makes sense!)

...continue reading


One thing we were curious to try with hota-time is to see whether the idea and the code could be applied beyond looking at London-Sydney travel times. And it can! Here is the output for Melbourne-Sydney travel times, in hours rather than days:

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950), Y axis = Hours (travel time) between Sydney and Melbourne. The data points are few before about 1910, there are some between 1910 and 1915 and then many more between 1920 and 1940. There is a trend towards lower values (faster travel) but it is not strong

Lots of data points, roughly the same as for the London-Sydney plot. It does look like there is some sort of trend over time, but it's pretty messy. So let's break it down a bit so we can see what's going on.

...continue reading


Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about a software project Tim Sherratt and I were working on for Heritage of the Air called hota-time. Briefly, the idea was that hota-time would extract and then plot travel times between London and Sydney mentioned in Trove Newspaper headlines, as a quantitative way to gauge the qualitative impact that aviation had on Australian perceptions of distance -- or, to be more precise, travel time. We (Tim) wrote the code, proved the concept to our satisfaction, uploaded the project, and then didn't get around to writing it up for publication. Which we are now remedying… nearly four years later! (The writing, that is, not yet the publication.)

As part of this process, we've been cleaning up the data and trying some different visualisations. Here's one of the more interesting plots.

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950s), Y axis = Days (travel time) between Sydney and London. Indigo data (sea travel, predicted travel times) dominates from about 1880s to 1915, between 20 and 30 days without much trend. Dark red data (sea travel, actual travel times) is not common, mostly sits around 30 days. Yellow (air travel, actual travel times) shows up in the 1930s, declining from around 15-22 to 5 or less by the late 1940s. By far the most common data is teal (air travel, predicted), which thickly clusters from 1917 onwards, starting at around 5-12 days and declining to well under 5 by the early 1950s

This is an updated version of the first plot in the old post, but instead of just lumping all the data together, it is separated out by colour:

  • dark red: sea, present
  • indigo: sea, future
  • yellow: air, present
  • teal: air, future

That is, present travel times are those reported as actually having been achieved, whereas future travel times have not yet been achieved (usually because they are medium or long-term forecasts, but shorter-term schedule changes fall into this category too). So dark red + yellow tracks actual travel times between London and Sydney, while indigo + teal tracks predicted travel times. Or dark red + indigo tracks sea travel, while yellow + teal tracks air travel.

...continue reading