Reprisals

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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
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  1. Possibly through the offices of E. Jerome Dyer, in effect the film's producer; his name turns up in the Preston press quite frequently in connection with the Vegetable Products Committee which was active there. 

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A ham-bone

An early contribution to the list of strange things dropped from the air in wartime was made by the crew of L13, a German naval Zeppelin under the command of Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy. During a raid on London on the night of 8 September 1915, they dropped bombs from Bloomsbury to the City which killed 20 people and caused more than £200,000 worth of damage. But they also dropped the above object by parachute on Wrotham Park in Barnet. It's a ham-bone.

Clearly, though, it's no ordinary ham-bone. It's carved with a drawing of a Zeppelin dropping a bomb (perhaps L13's 300kg one, the largest one ever used so far in war) on the head of a sad man, along with an inscription reading 'Edwart [sic] Grey' on one side and 'was fang ich armer Teufel an?', the title and first line of an old German soldier's song: 'what's a poor devil to do?' Sir Edward Grey, at this point still Foreign Secretary as he had been when Britain declared war on Germany, would no doubt have been very sad indeed had a bomb (or even a ham-bone) hit him on the head; but the real reason for the tears running down his cheeks is given on the other side (not shown here), where it is written 'Zum Andenken an das ausgehungerte Deutschland', 'A souvenir from starving Germany'. The point was presumably to show that the naval blockade of Germany was not having the desired effect; but perhaps also to justify Zeppelin raids as reprisals for the attempt to starve the German people.

In any case, the ham-bone would appear to be an unofficial piece of propaganda devised by the Zeppelin's crew. Any effect it might have had would have been limited as it does not appear to have been mentioned in the wartime press, and whether Sir Edward himself got to hear of it is probably also doubtful. I don't know where it ended up, but thankfully the Intelligence Section, General Headquarters, Home Forces included the above photograph in a 1918 summary of the Zeppelin raids of August and September 1915 (The National Archives, AIR 1/2319/223/30/2). And here it is at last for the whole world to see!

When the present is too painful to think about, there is always the past to retreat into.

Japanese planes forced down an airliner which was flying from Hong Kong to Wuchow to-day [24 August 1938], and, it is reported, machine-gunned the passengers.

Of 18 people in the plane it is believed that 15 have either been killed or drowned, as the machine, which landed on the Macao River, sank.

The pilot, named Woods, and a Chinese passenger, both of whom were wounded, have arrived at Macao, the Portuguese province at the mouth of the Canton River.

Woods said that after he had landed the machine on the west side of the river, four of the 12 Japanese planes that had forced it down, dived and machine-gunned the helpless passengers.1

Well, there's no respite there.

The turbulent Mohmand tribes who have been gathering ominously on the North-West Frontier of India under incitement by Congress Party and communist agitators to strike a blow at the British administration, failed to heed the warnings to disperse contained in leaflets dropped by aeroplanes which flew over the tribal country in the vicinity of the border, and to-day [9 March 1932] they incurred the penalty stated in the warnings, when scores of their villages were bombed by Royal Air Force 'planes from Risalpur and Kohat. Several villages were wrecked and set on fire, Tribesmen hidden on the mountain tops turned fierce rifle fire on the 'planes, which replied with machine guns.

The bombing will continue until the raiders return to their mountain fortresses. One section of the tribesmen, which was threatening the approaches to the remote British outpost at Chitral is reported to have dispersed.2

No respite there either.

When the airmail leaves Parafield for Perth tomorrow mornining [sic] it will carry a highly-bred Nawab with it -- Higham Nawab of Warncourt, a six-weeks-old Persion [sic] kitten, dusty black in color, and about nine inches long.

The Nawab comes from a distinguished family. He was bred by Miss A. E. Jarmyn, of Prospect. His mother is Higham Gipsy, a litter sister to Higham Roulette, a South Australian grand champion Persian. The Nawab will go to Perth in a specially light matchwood box, and he will be in the care of the pilot of the mail plane.

He has been sold to Miss A. G. Cohen, of Buckingham Hill, Western Australia, who will call for him when the mail plane arrives.

Miss Jarmyn thinks that the Nawab will not be airsick because he is so small. She will give him a good breakfast before he goes, to make him comfortable and sleepy.3

That will do! Except – this is on the same page:

News, 11 November 1932, 8

Mr. Baldwin stressed the probable horrors of aerial warfare. The greatest fear among ordinary people of all nations, he said, was fear of the air. It was well for the man in the street to understand that no power could protect him from air-bombing. The only defence in aerial warfare was to kill more people than the enemy killed.4

There's no escaping the present, or the past.


  1. Argus (Melbourne), 25 August 1938, 1

  2. Western Mail (Perth), 17 March 1932, 34

  3. News (Adelaide), 11 November 1932, 8

  4. Ibid

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A year has passed since my article on the debate in Britain over whether to bomb German civilians in reprisal for the Blitz was published. Under the Australian Journal of Politics and History's self-archiving policy I can now upload my own copy of the final, peer-reviewed text for anyone to read for free. So here it is. And here is the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasizing positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

AJPH's attitude to self-archiving is more generous than some journals I could name. Or at least it was -- its RoMEO entry doesn't seem to suggest 12 months as a standard embargo period, if I'm reading it right, but (maybe) 24. There's nothing I can see about it on AJPH's website either, so maybe it has got worse in the meantime. Hopefully not. In any case, my agreement says what it says.

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One of the most intriguing things to emerge from my post-blogging of the Blitz a few years ago (but which sadly didn't make it into my Blitz article) was the notion of reprisals after notice, that is to say, of publishing a list of German cities which would be bombed intensively until the Luftwaffe ceased attacking British cities. This attracted some support from newspaper columnists and the public as a middle way between humanitarian restraint and all-out reprisals, and I've suggested that 'it was strategy from below, folk strategy', since it was 'not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war'.

But it was part of the official private discourse on the bombing war. On 11 September 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Charles Portal, wrote to the Air Staff proposing that twenty German towns be warned by radio that they were targets, with one to be bombed after each indiscriminate Luftwaffe raid on London. Other options for attacking German civilians were canvassed, for example that they be bombed without any no warning.1 Peter Gray notes that on that same day the War Cabinet discussed the same proposal:

Discussion followed on a suggestion that we should threaten Germany with reprisals by bombing any one of twenty German towns (to be named) if the indiscriminate bombing of London continued.2

The decision was that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, 'consider the question of reprisals at some future date', but that 'for the present our bomber force should continue to be used to attack military targets'.3
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  1. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4. 

  2. The National Archives, CAB 65/9/9, W. M. (40) 247, War Cabinet conclusions, 11 September 1940. See Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 171. 

  3. CAB 65/9/9. 

Quite some time ago I promised to write more about J. M. Spaight's Volcano Island (published in 1943 but written late in 1942). I probably should do that at some point. Such as now.

Here I want to look at what he has to say about area bombing. He quite unapologetically uses this phrase, even calling one section 'The legitimacy of area bombing'.1 Given the opprobrium which now attaches to the term, it is a little startling to see it used in a defence of British bombing policy. It does seems to have been used more descriptively during the war, at least at first. The very earliest use I've been able to find was in the British press in December 1940, and referred to the resumption of German 'Blitz' tactics:

The return to mass raiding was not carried out on anything like the 'Coventrating' manner -- there was no attempt at area bombing of the different London districts, all of which had their share at varying periods of the night.2

However, 'area bombing' here apparently refers not to merely indiscriminate bombing (which the Gloucestershire Echo's headline asserts the Germans have admitted to). Instead it is concentrated in both time and space, as at Coventry (hence 'Coventration'), which actually describes what Bomber Command later tried to (and often did) achieve quite well. This might be an isolated example; the term doesn't seem to start cropping up again until late 1942, just about when Spaight was writing: in September the Devon and Exeter Gazette noted that 'The R.A.F. will continue its "area bombing" by night, while the famous Flying Fortresses will take up the attack by day with precision bombing'.3 By March 1943, Richard Stokes MP could ask in the House of Commons if 'instructions have been given to British airmen to engage in area bombing rather than limit their attention to purely military targets?' (only to be told by Sir Archibald Sinclair that 'The targets of Bomber Command are always military, but night bombing of military objectives necessarily involves bombing the area in which they are situated').4
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  1. J. M. Spaight, Volcano Island (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943), 67. 

  2. Gloucestershire Echo, 9 December 1940, 4

  3. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 25 September 1942, 4

  4. HC Deb, 31 March 1943, vol. 388, col. 155

5 Comments

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

The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that 'Hamas' goal is to kill civilians'; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming 'In Children's Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!' This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that 'German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked' by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.
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  1. Listener, 19 September 1940, 404. 

  2. Ibid. 

What was the response to the Canterbury Baedeker raids? There was actually surprisingly little direct comment in the British press, but the major theme was to reaffirm that British raids on German cities were not reprisals but attacks on legitimate targets; whereas German raids on British cities were not even reprisals but merely spite. In a leading article, the Times, said of the RAF's attack on Cologne that 'the airmen who demolished military targets hard by were able, by German admission, to spare the cathedral', whereas

The authors of the so-called 'reprisal' raid on Canterbury, having for its sole objective the destruction of historic buildings of great beauty, stand self-condemned.1

Similarly, in the opinion of the Western Daily Press:

While it is easy to perceive a poetic justice in what Germany is now going through, it is not for the purpose of exacting vengeance that the mammoth raids of the R.A.F. are being conducted. Unlike the Germans, who make targets of our cathedrals, we are not interested in destroying the antiquities of the Reich. But we are interested in the centres of German war production, and it against these that the heaviest onslaughts will be directed.2

For the Gloucester Journal, while Bomber Command's attacks are indeed the 'fulfilment of the open warning, long since given, that every ton of bombs dropped on Britain shall be returned in ten-fold measure to the Hun', they 'are much more than mere reprisals [...] They are part, an integral and essential part, of the vital battle of supplies, by which the ultimate issue of the war will be decided'.3 The Bishop of London, Geoffrey Fisher, speaking before the London Diocesan Conference, thought the RAF's raids justified:

Canterbury and Cologne had each in its own country a very special place in religious life and sentiment. Canterbury had no military significance; Cologne, as a centre of war industries, had, and its destruction on a large scale was legitimate and a legitimate cause for satisfaction.

At least William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, while also not doubting that the RAF's attacks were legitimate -- here speaking specifically of Lübeck and Rostock -- added that 'proper satisfaction must always be accompanied by distress of soul at the misery and suffering inflicted thereby upon thousands of homes'.4
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  1. The Times, 3 June 1942, 5. 

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 3 June 1942, 3. 

  3. Gloucester Journal, 6 June 1942, 6. 

  4. The Times, 9 June 1942, 2. 

2 Comments

Recentlyish, someone called dedonarrival left the following comment here on a post about the British demand for reprisal bombing of Germany in return for the Blitz:

Such gross ignorance. Google: British terror bombing and note when it started and when Germany retaliated with its twin engined medium bombers and range limited fighter escort .

I don't know who dedonarrival is; and they apparently never returned to read the responses. Not that they deserved much of one. But I thought I'd do what they suggested and Google British terror bombing to see what came up. Actually, most results refer to terror bombing of, rather than by, Britain, particularly the 7/7 attacks. So I added dedonarrival to the search terms to see if they had discussed this topic before, and it turns out that they (or someone with the same pseudonym) had. I found a comment on a New Statesman article about Hiroshima as a war crime which reads, in part:

2. 'It may be Inconvenient History but England rather than Germany initiated the murderous slaughter of bombing civilians thus bringing about retaliation. Chamberlain conceded that it was "absolutely contrary to International law." The Peoples' War, Angus Calder. London, Jonathan Cape, 1969.*

'Hitler only undertook the bombing of British civilian targets reluctantly three months after the RAF had commenced bombing German civilian targets. Hitler would have been willing at any time to stop the slaughter. Hitler was genuinely anxious to reach with Britain an agreement confining the action of aircraft to battle zones J.M. Spaight, CB, CBE, Principal
Secretary to the Air Ministry,
Bombing Vindicated.

'The inhabitants of Coventry, for example, continued to imagine that their sufferings were due to the innate villainy of Adolf Hitler without a suspicion that a decision, splendid or otherwise, of the British War Cabinet, was the decisive factor in the case.' F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism, p. 169.

Advice: mentioning such facts while grandads in the vicinity generally proves inexpedient.

Assuming it's the same dedonarrival, it at least shows where they are coming from; and makes some sort of argument which can be examined and critiqued. Moreover, as I'll come to later these quotes can be found elsewhere on the Internet being used for the same purpose, so they're worth treating seriously. Except for the fact that they're mostly bogus.
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As with the Lübeck and Rostock raids over a month earlier, the RAF's thousand bomber raid on Cologne on 30 May 1942 triggered reprisal attacks by the Luftwaffe (though in far smaller numbers than Bomber Command was able to muster). Another round of Baedeker raids, in other words. This time, however, there was only one target, Canterbury, the site of the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, bombed on the nights 31 May, 2 and 6 June. In fact, in this period some towns received even heavier raids than Canterbury, such as Southampton and Poole, but are not usually considered part of the Baedeker Blitz, nor were they given then same publicity at the time. The reason for this is presumably that whatever their heritage value those places were also quite clearly valid military targets, whereas Canterbury equally clearly was not. And the Germans didn't claim they were 'a reprisal for the terrorist attack carried out by the British Air Force on the inner city of Cologne', as they did in Canterbury's case.1

So here I'll look at the press reports of the Canterbury raids. One of the first was in the Derby Evening Telegraph on 1 June, which reported that 'CANTERBURY IS HUNS' TARGET':

No doubt the Cathedral, the Mother Church of England, was one of the enemy's chief objectives, but it is not proposed to assist the Germans by giving any information as to whether damage was caused to it or not.2

But since the article went on to describe 'One of the town's churches' as a 'burned out ruin', spire crashing into the ruins and all, it's possible that some readers drew the wrong conclusion and feared the worst. The morning papers the following day still weren't commenting on the cathedral's fate, in fact they largely avoided admitting that it existed at all (though they did mention that the Archbishop was safe, which would seem to imply the existence of his cathedral). Instead, the Daily Mirror focused on the human aspects of the raid, leading with the 75-year old woman said to have a 'spirit [...] typical of the Canterbury people':

She had been buried seven hours beneath 14 feet of debris, but she walked out. While soldiers were digging to free her she called out, 'I could do with a cup of tea, boys.'3

There were of course those who were not so lucky, including the town clerk, G. W. Marks, who was rescued from the ruins of his house alive but died in hospital. (Marks, who was Canterbury's ARP controller, was remembered in the West Country as he had been the chief assistant town clerk in Bristol.)4 Even though the raiding force was only about 25 aircraft, the Daily Express's report indicates fairly heavy damage:

In Canterbury a number of people were killed and injured, scores of homes, two rest centres, two banks, a school, several inns wrecked or damaged.

But it went on to say that 'by nightfall all homeless had been clothed, fed and removed in coaches to private homes or rest centres in other areas'. Lord Monsell, the local civil defence commissioner, sounded pleased: 'The area's mutual aid scheme has worked well'.5 Incidentally, the raid caused the sirens to sound in some parts of London, only 'the second night warning in the capital in seven months'.6
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  1. The Times, 2 June 1942, 4. 

  2. Derby Evening Telegraph, 1 June 1942, 1. 

  3. Daily Mirror, 2 June 1942, 5. 

  4. Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald, 6 June 1942, 6. 

  5. Daily Express, 2 June 1942, 3. 

  6. Nottingham Evening Post, 1 June 1942, 1.