Truth was a British political newspaper first published in 1877, founded by Henry Labouchère, a sometime Liberal MP. By the 1930s it was infamous as a scurrilous and often libellous pro-appeasement and often anti-semitic rag; in the Edwardian period it was still Liberal in inclination. At the end of May 1909 it issued no. 1581 of its many reader 'puzzles' on the topic of the recent phantom airship panic -- actually a satirical poetry competition:

One of the most engrossing topics of the past week has been the nocturnal manoeuvrings of the mysterious, but now happily exploded, German airship -- or, as it has been happily christened, 'Scare ship' -- which has been so vigorously exploited by a certain class of imaginative journalists that any number of people's legs seem to have been effectively pulled thereby. The topic is certainly one that lends itself to humorous treatment in verse, and I now present it to my numerous poets to see what they can make of it. That is to say, I offer herewith the usual Prize of Two Guineas for THE BEST ORIGINAL POEM, OF A HUMOROUS, BURLESQUE, OR MOCK-HEROIC CHARACTER, DEALING WITH THE MYSTERIOUS GERMAN BOGEY-AIRSHIP WHICH CAUSED SUCH A PANIC, LAST WEEK, IN THE BOSOMS OF OUR NERVOUS PATRIOTS.1

...continue reading

  1. Truth (London), 26 May 1909, 1301. []

WA Sportsman (Perth), 9 August 1918, 3

This poem took up about an eighth of page 3 of the 9 August 1918 edition of the Perth WA Sportsman, preaching revenge on Germany for its air raids on Britain (the last of which, until the next war at least, had just taken place). It's prefaced by a claim that 'the Allies expect to soon send air fleets to bomb Berlin', likely a reference to a statement made a week earlier by Major-General Sefton Brancker that 'It is certain that the British will be able to bomb Berlin next spring'. (A week after the Armistice it was being reported that RAF bombers were 'actually in readiness to visit Berlin' when the ceasefire came through.)
...continue reading


Illustrated London News, 1 March 1913, pp. IV-V

The Illustrated London News is not really a campaigning newspaper, but it has followed up last week's striking graphical depictions of the airship menace with this fantastic double-page drawing by Norman Wilkinson, RI, of a German aerial fleet on its way to bomb Britain (pp. IV-V; above). The title asks


The caption explains that the Aerial Navigation Act 'forbidding the passage of unauthorised air-craft over certain areas' was 'deemed advisable in view of the numerous reports current of late of strange air-ships manoeuvring by night over this country'.

The fact gives particular interest to this drawing, which represents the eastern sky of England as we may one day see it if the fears of some are realised. It shows an army of invading air-craft. In the middle is the main battle-squadron of air-ships with appliances for bomb-dropping; in the foreground and in the background are high-speed aeroplanes acting as the fleet scouts. Unless met by a stronger opposing force, such an army of air-craft could clear the way for the water-borne fleet of its country and so facilitate the landing of large bodies of troops. It may be remarked that from a height of a mile on a clear day a vision of ninety miles can be obtained.

The text in fact nowhere identifies where these invaders have come from, but airship no. 72 is flying what looks very much like a German war ensign.
...continue reading


Let's turn now to Tolkien's The Hobbit and Smaug's attack on Lake-town (Esgaroth).1 In my PhD thesis I identified six characteristics of the ideal theory of the knock-out blow from the air: it would be a surprise attack, on a large scale, which would strike at the interdependent structures and civilian morale of its targets, and would wreak massive destruction with great speed. In the 1920s and 1930s, fictional and non-fictional predictions of victory through airpower would usually feature four or five out of these six. As I'll now show, The Hobbit has four: surprise, morale, speed, destruction. Of course, Lake-town isn't a modern, industrial society, nor is Smaug a technologically advanced enemy nation, so the fit isn't going to be perfect. It doesn't need to be, though.

There being so many editions of The Hobbit, it seems a bit pointless to cite page numbers here, but all my quotes come from chapter XIV, 'Fire and Water'.2
...continue reading

  1. Cf. Janet Brennan Croft, War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Westport and London: Praeger, 2004), 112-3, for another analysis of military themes in this part of The Hobbit, suggesting that Bard's organisation of the defences is more suggestive of a modern infantry officer than a dark ages hero. []
  2. The actual copy I'm using is a 1984 edition I read as a boy, a hardcover with beautiful illustrations by Michael Hague. []


Death of Smaug by JRR Tolkien

Last year Alun Salt pointed out to me a proposal for a collection of essays on the theme of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and history, and asked if I'd thought about sending in something on ideas about airpower and the dragon Smaug. I hadn't, but immediately saw what he was on about! I did a little research, wrote up the proposal below (with a couple of small differences), and sent it in. Of course, it was rejected (or not accepted, same thing).
...continue reading

1 Comment

Sunday Express, 6 October 1940, 1

This photo appeared on the front page of the Sunday Express on 6 October 1940, a month into the Blitz. A caption explained, or rather asked:


This mystery poster has appeared in the streets of London.

It is about six feet high and ten or twelve feet across, and bears nothing to indicate its authorship. No one knows who is paying for it.1

In just nine words the poster presents a very simple argument in favour of the reprisal bombing of Germany:



By bombing Berlin, London would be saved from the Blitz. The German (or perhaps just the Nazi) bullies, being cowards, will not be able to take it as well as the British and so will crack first.
...continue reading

  1. Sunday Express, 6 October 1940, 1. Apparently a 'Mr. Beabie' admitted to the Sunday Dispatch that he was responsible, but I can't see the original text and I wonder if that should be 'Begbie'. Not that I know who he is either. []


Manchester Guardian, 30 December 1940, 5

President Roosevelt had one of his famous 'fireside chats' (i.e. over the radio) with the American people last night. This one would seem to deserve its lead-story status in the Manchester Guardian, as he firmly committed the United States to Britain's side in the war, even if not as a non-combatant but as the 'arsenal of democracy' (5), producing the weapons needed to beat Hitler. 'There can be no reasoning with incendiary bombs', Roosevelt said. If Britain fell, America would have to face the Nazis alone, and 'to survive in such a world of "brute force" the United States would have to become permanently a militaristic Power'. Early signs are that this is a popular policy; the isolationists are becoming, well, isolated.
...continue reading

Daily Mirror, 18 November 1940, 1

The Daily Mirror likes its headlines big and bold. The one above takes up two-thirds of the width of today's front page. The story is that Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio in the War Cabinet (and deputy leader of the Labour Party; interesting that he is not described as such in an ostensibly left-wing newspaper) has claimed that Germany is suffering from aerial bombardment more than Britain -- fifty times more, to be precise (though I'm not sure if that's just last week or over the whole war). Partly this is due to 'The R.A.F.'s mastery of night flying, which enables them to take off in weather which grounds the Germans'.

Mr. Greenwood, who spoke at Colchester, said the past week had been a bad one for the enemy. It had opened a new chapter in the war. "I myself have gained heart," he said. "I am satisfied of [sic] the result."

He said that serious as were the enemy attacks on such places as London, Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool, the R.A.F. had handed out greater punishment. "I am not concerned with the killing of people in Germany," he declared. "I am concerned with killing their power to strike at us."

On that subject of killing, the death toll at Coventry has now reached 250.
...continue reading


Daniel Swift. Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

This book is a very different way to approach the Allied bomber offensives of the Second World War. It is not a history of strategic bombing policy, nor is it a history of the machines used to carry it out, of the men who flew them, or the damage they did. While it is well-researched and has elements of all of these types of history, Bomber County is not really a history at all, but an account of a personal quest to understand the life and death of one airman, and more originally a plea for recognising the importance of the genre of bomber poetry.
...continue reading


Cecil Day Lewis, 'Bombers' (1938):

Through the vague morning, the heart preoccupied,
A deep in air buried grain of sound
Starts and grows, as yet unwarning --
The tremor of baited deepsea line.

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate, upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning,
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold.

Children look up, and the elms spring-garlanded
Tossing their heads and marked for the axe.
Gallant or woebegone, alike unlucky --
Earth shakes beneath us: we imagine loss.

Black as vermin, crawling in echelon
Beneath the cloud-floor, the bombers come:
The heavy angels, carrying harm in
Their wombs that ache to be rid of death.

This is the seed that grows for ruin,
The iron-embryo conceived in fear.
Soon or late its need must be answered
In fear delivered and screeching fire.

Choose between your child and this fatal embryo.
Shall your guilt bear arms, and the children you want
Be condemned to die by the powers you paid for
And haunt the houses you never built?

...continue reading