Big Ben

As part of a discussion about the worldwide syncronisation of time, Yuval Noah Harari writes:

During World War Two, BBC News was broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe. Each news programme opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour -- the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe. When the British Secret Service discovered this, they replaced the live broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock. 1

I'd never heard this story before. Harari doesn't provide any sources. Is it true?
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  1. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), 354.[]

For Anzac Day, I had a chat about the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 with (the near-legendary himself) Phillip Adams on ABC Radio National's Late Night Live programme. You can listen to it here. I enjoyed the experience, though I was a bit nervy myself at times and I didn't manage to get across the massive (relative to resources) air and search for German raiders and/or bases along the Victorian coast, and its probable significance for the origins of the RAAF. Next time!

Keep Calm and friends

Earlier this week I had my first article published in The Conversation, on the actual original context for the Keep Calm And Carry On poster, as opposed to the assumed original context. The Conversation is a great platform for academics to get their work and ideas out to the public, and to provide expert analysis of what is happening in the world. It's largely funded by universities and only academics, researchers or PhD students can write for it; it has a slick writing and reading interface and even actual editors who will commission articles and actively work with authors to improve them, particularly in terms of accessibility to a general audience. (There's no payment for writing, but academics are used to that.) The Conversation started out in Australia, but it has since branched out to the UK, the US, France and Africa. Here in Australia, at least, it feeds into other forms of media: everything is Creative Commons licensed, to encourage wide republication on other news sites, and three radio stations lined up interviews: I spoke to Genevieve Jacobs on 666 ABC Canberra on Wednesday (for a few days, you should be able to listen on the replay at about 1:28:44), Ali Clarke on 891 ABC Adelaide (ditto at about 37:07), and I will be speaking to Sean Britten on 2SER (Sydney) next Wednesday.

I won't go into any detail about the article itself, in part because it's a reworking of a post I wrote here at Airminded earlier this year. But I will post a bigger version of a graphic I stitched together to show Keep Calm alongside the other two posters designed by the Ministry of Information at the same time, and (unlike Keep Calm) actually displayed to the public on a large scale. It was inspired by a similar comparison which for some reason had green and blue posters as well as red. I couldn't find unambiguous evidence that these colours were used, whereas red definitely was, so I put together this version which might be of use to somebody.

The Conversation is not your usual media website, so if you're an academic and you've got something to say, why not pitch an idea?


The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all. 1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.)
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  1. Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too.[]


Heinkel 111s

For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...

Image source: Wikimedia.

Origin of the League of Nations

I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.

Image source: Wikimedia.


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.


In my eleventh contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I took another look at how the economic war at sea was working out. My particular focus this week was the sinking of the Dutch freighter Medea (above), the first neutral casualty of Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign. I also discussed the difficult position of the Netherlands as it continued to trade with both sides while trying to keep out of the war that was all around it, and the way that Medea's sinking led to fears of a German invasion -- which in turn threatened Churchill's plans for the Dardanelles. As usual, there's some aviation in here too, particularly German air attacks on merchant ships in the North Sea.

Image source: The Great War Blog.

SMS Dresden before scuttling

For my tenth contribution to the Road to War series on ABC New England today, I discussed how the mutual naval blockades between Britain and Germany were becoming more total. In this week in 1915, Britain extended its blockade of Germany; the German unrestricted submarine blockade began to sink greater numbers of ships, including one of the British blockaders; Germany acknowledged that it would have to pay the United States for sinking one of its merchant ships; and, off the Chilean island of Más a Tierra, the British intercepted the German raider SMS Dresden (above, just before its scuttling). So there was a lot going on in the economic war at sea.

Image source: Wikimedia.