This photo purportedly shows a British military aeroplane dropping leaflets on the streets of Coventry in early December 1917. I suspect it's a fake, a composite, or else it's a bit odd that nobody seems to have noticed all that horsepower roaring just overhead.1 But the event it shows did happen. According to the Daily Mirror,
A considerable number of aeroplanes flew over Coventry yesterday [2 December 1917] at low altitudes, distributing a quantity of literature pointing out the necessity for an increase in aeroplane production.2
A local paper, the Midland Daily Telegraph, provided more detail:
Throughout Sunday a fleet of aeroplanes hovered the city distributing profuse showers of handbills pointing out the vital need for an increase in aeroplane production [...] The doings of the aviators were watched with great interest, and there were frequently exciting scrambles amongst the crowds for the messages which came floating into the streets and gardens of the city.3
So, what was going on?
As I discussed in a previous post, the arrival of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 suddenly made the Aerial League of the British Empire's foray into wartime propaganda films irrelevant. Yet the bizarre coincidence that the film happened to give a prominent place to the time and date of the Armistice suggested the possibility that the League's investment might be recouped by somehow marketing Eleven, Eleven, Eleven as a novelty. The sole mention of the film in the British press, in the Preston Herald in December 1918, was pretty clearly planted with a friendly journalist in an attempt to do just that.1
This summary of an unreleased and untitled film is from the 'Grave and Gay' column of the Preston Herald for 7 December 1918:
In this film a man dreams that England is under German rule, and various scenes are shown depicting the organised brutality of the Boche. But, in the dream, there is a movement to throw off the German rule. The head of the movement is a chemist and inventor who has discovered a new force. Secret meetings are held in his underground laboratory, on the walls of which is a huge placard with the words, 'Eleven, Eleven, Eleven!' It is decided that the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is to be the hour of the successful uprising and of England's freedom.1
A couple of things make this interesting, or at least unusual. One is that 'These scenes had all been actually photographed long before the armistice', and so the prominence of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the plot was both 'very remarkable and beyond the possibility of dispute'.2 The other is that the film was produced by the Aerial League of the British Empire, which seems hard to explain, given the apparent lack of any aerial theme at all. So what was going on here?
In an earlier series of posts I discussed Australia's first airship, the White Australia, which flew in 1914. It turns out that there was an earlier Australian airship, of a sort: the Airem Scarem. Indeed, according to a 1907 newspaper advertisement it was the 'First Airship below the line' (equator, presumably). From the above photo, taken in 1908, Airem Scarem was a trim little vessel, though the envelope is a bit on the small side and the propulsion system, which seems to consist of no engine and two tiny propellors fore and aft, hardly seems adequate. Fortunately the Airem Scarem was assisted in its flights by being suspended from a cable -- which has been crudely whited-out from the above photo -- because it wasn't a real airship at all but rather an amusement park ride, at Wonderland City in Tamarama, a beachside suburb of Sydney.
Here in Australia, yesterday, the first Sunday in June, was Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The occasion was marked with ceremonies in most state capitals. The major event, at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, spanned the whole weekend and included a flypast by a RAAF Hornet and a wreathlaying ceremony, which remarkably is claimed to be the third-most attended commemoration at the AWM, after Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.
I recently learned that Adelaide has a suburb called Hendon. Naturally, I wondered if there was a connection to the Hendon, the most important site for aerial theatre in Britain both before and after the First World War. And the answer is: yes!
In the rather enjoyable Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes spends most of his time discussing the history of ballooning in Britain, France, and the United States. However, he does briefly talk about the first balloon flights in Australia:
In 1858 the British balloon the Australian made some startling flights over Melbourne and Sydney. There was a late-summer ascent in March from Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, in which a basketful of local dignitaries sailed over the Botanical Gardens in bright moonlight, with a magical sight of the festival fireworks far below. But, attempting to land at Battam's Swamp, they found themselves in a working-class district, and the balloon basket was seized by a violent crowd. Amid vocal democratic objections to such 'superior' transport, the distinguished guests were forced to escape by jettisoning champagne bottles, picnic hampers, several bags of sand ballast, and finally throwing off a few hardy objectors still clinging to the sides of the basket.1
I'd never heard about this 19th century aerial riot, or near-riot, in my home town. However, Holmes doesn't cite any sources; and while something like this did happen, when compared with contemporary press reports his account appears to be deficient in several respects.
After reading Bill Fanning's Death Rays and the Popular Media, I looked at a murky 1937 claim of an official British death ray, supposedly on the authority of Sir Thomas 'Caligula's horse' Inskip, Minister for Defence Co-ordination. That turned out to be not quite what happened. But I was also intrigued by something else Bill said, in the context of other press stories of Air Ministry interest in death ray inventions:
The government made such announcements about 'invisible walls' and 'rays' for two reasons. One was to reassure the public that Britain was safe from air attack in the event of another general European war, the other, according to a press release in July 1945, a deception to cover the real work going on with radar.1
The reason why this intrigues me is that I've long wondered why the British government didn't make more of an effort to promote confidence in Britain's air defences in the late 1930s. Firstly, Britain's air defences were stronger. On Inskip's recommendation the RAF's rearmament priorities from 1938 onwards had been rebalanced to favour fighters more, and the extension of the Chain Home radar system around the coast began in 1939. Secondly, regardless of the actual ability of Fighter Command to intercept and repel enemy bombers, even the mere belief that it could do so would be valuable, given that fear of bombing was in itself thought to be one of the greatest dangers. In my book, I suggested that a greater confidence in air defence was responsible for a scepticism about the knock-out blow from the air in 1938-39, though without really being able to prove this directly.2 Perhaps the death ray debate can shed light on this.
The latest issue of the British Journal for Military History is out, and with it my peer-reviewed article 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914':
This article explores the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, so persistently that they were repeatedly investigated by both the police and the military. They were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of an enemy within. They also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasingly obvious likelihood of a long, total war.
As I've explained previously, BJMH is an open access journal, meaning that anyone and everyone can read my article for free, and even reuse it (CC BY-NC-ND). Not that I imagine it's going to have much of an impact at all, but in an age when many people are busy constructing a Muslim enemy within out of sharia, halal, and their own shadows, it's better than nothing.
Image source: British Journal for Military History.
I wrote about the strange, sad story of A. D. Harvey back in 2013. He is an independent PhD historian who has published a number of books and articles across a wide variety of topics, including my own field of airpower history, though his best known work is probably Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945. But as Eric Naiman revealed in a long Times Literary Supplement article, Harvey has also fabricated (falsified, faked) sources in their entirety. In one case (writing as Stephanie Harvey) he made up a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky which he published in a scholarly article supported by citations that led to sources which he had also made up. The two never met in reality, or rather there's no other evidence that they did; which is the point, because Harvey's claim was beginning to work its way into the scholarship on Dickens, in particular. He has admitted to all this and much more (he has published under a variety of pseudonyms, often citing and commenting on his own work) but the invented Dickens-Dostoevsky meeting alone is enough to put Harvey beyond the pale as far as the historical profession goes.
Or at least it should be. The strange thing is that he is still getting published:
The World of the Georgians is a special publication produced by BBC History Magazine, a well-known popular history magazine (I've even written for them). Harvey has an article in it titled '"My brilliant career'". The magazine's copyright date is 2016, long after his exposure. Surely he is not the only person qualified to write a popular article on Pitt the Younger; BBC History Magazine should find a better historian.