Daily Express, 2 May 1942, 1

All the newspapers today carry news of the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in Salzburg; only the Daily Express leads with it. Its angle is that there is 'STRONG evidence' that the two dictators agreed that Italy would sent 'a large part' of its army to Russia, while Germany would send 'thousands' of its soldiers to Italy (1). Two possible explanations are given for this apparently contrary strategy: 'A coming extension of the Mediterranean Front', or 'to prevent any chance of armed insurrection by the Italian Army'. The Italian people are said to be 'thoroughly discontented with their acutely depressed conditions' and so Mussolini has given his prefects 'supreme powers to deal with "possible future difficulties of an urgent nature"' (his own words), and the Gestapo is now in control of the Italian police. Where Morley Richards, the author of this piece, gets his information from is not clear; none of the other papers make the same claims. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the meeting are rather 'mysterious'; the Yorkshire Press asks why Japan apparently was not represented and was not mentioned in the final communique -- even though the only public reference to the meeting beforehand was a garbled one in a Tokyo newspaper (1).
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The Times, 30 April 1942, 4

Most newspapers in my sample today lead with the further grim news from Burma (the Japanese army has now reached the suburbs of Lashio) but The Times chooses to go with the latest Bomber Command raids on Kiel and, for the second night running, Trondheim, both the locations of key German warships (4):

The heavier force was directed against the strongly defended naval base of Kiel, where the Scharnhorst is believed to still be in dock after her dash from Brest. The Tirpitz, Scheer, and Prinz Eugen are thought to be based on Trondheim, while a cruiser of the Hipper class has been in the locality, though she may not be there now.

These latter ships are 'a definite threat to our communications with north Russia and in the Atlantic'. While 'the Air Ministry makes no definite claim to have damaged the ships', in the case of Trondheim stronger than usual explosions were heard on the Swedish frontier, which suggests 'a bomb must have hit some explosive target; the explosion of even the biggest bomb could not in itself have caused such an effect'.
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Daily Mirror, 29 April 1942, 1

The situation in Burma is getting worse, as the Daily Mirror (above, 1) and most other papers note in their lead stories.

The whole length of the vital Lashio-Mandalay railway is in grave danger as five Japanese divisions, totalling 100,000 men, supported by panzers and bombers, are storming the southern edge of the Upper Burma plateau.

With Japanese ground forces only 110 miles away, Lashio itself is being evacuated of civilians and supplies; it is burning following a raid by twenty-seven Japanese bombers (eleven of their escorts were shot down by the Allied defenders). Writing in the Daily Express, 'Military Reporter' Morley Richards writes (4) that 'The Battle for the Burma Road seems at the point of being lost':

If the Japanese reach Lashio and subsequently force the British north of Mandalay they will have achieved one of their major strategical objects: the temporary isolation of China.

The omens are not good: dispatches from the American Volunteer Group, for example, are coming from Kunming, indicating that its headquarters (and presumably the bulk of its aircraft) has moved back north into China.
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Yorkshire Post, 28 April 1942, 1

The Yorkshire Post, (above, 1), again leads with Rostock, which has been bombed by the RAF for the fourth consecutive night. The city 'is a heap of smouldering ruins, crushed by nearly 800 tons of British bombs. Its population is fleeing in panic. Its war production has ceased':

PHOTOGRAPHS taken after the third night's raid show swarms of people flocking towards the battered station to join crowds already waiting there for trains to take them away from what Berlin describes as 'terror raids.'

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Yorkshire Post, 27 April 1942, 1

Just at the moment, this war seems mainly to be an air war. The main news today is that Rostock has been bombed for the third night in a row. In addition Stirling bombers carried out a low-level raid on the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia, and six targets in northern France were were attacked by bombers with strong fighter escorts. As the Yorkshire Post reports on its front page:

ROSTOCK has become symbolic of our new air offensive. On Saturday night and yesterday morning the harbour and aircraft works were attacked for the third successive night, by a strong force of bombers, with great results. That was not all. The famous Skoda armament works in Czechoslovakia were the target for the R.A.F. on an all-round flight of 1,400 miles.

Yesterday more attacking flights crossed the Channel for various destinations in this great opening of the Allied offensive.

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An article of mine has been accepted for publication in the September 2012 issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History, to be entitled '"Bomb back, and bomb hard": debating reprisals during the Blitz'. I'm very pleased with this for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's been a while since I last had an article pass peer-review (and not for lack of trying either). Things were starting to look a bit lean; but now I'll have something published each year since finishing my PhD, which is not too bad a rate. Secondly, it was an invited submission for a special issue resulting from the AAEH conference in Perth last year. That's nice because it's an honour to be asked (I'll have more details on the other AAEH articles when the publication date comes around), but also because the humanities conferences are rarely published (unlike in the sciences, though there conference proceedings are not usually peer-reviewed as this one is) so it's rare to get a publication out of a talk so directly.

Finally, I think this shows the way ahead for me, assuming I continue in my current mode as an independent (slash alt-ac) historian. That is, in part, through Airminded. The initial inspiration for my AAEH paper came through post-blogging the Blitz; I worked through much of the evidence and issues here in a series of posts on various aspects of the reprisals debate. Then I presented the paper in Perth; and now I'll have an article in AJPH. Without the goal of a PhD (or a grant) to drive towards, having a process like this seems like a good way of keeping some focus and producing publishable research -- rather than just ambling along with the blog and drifting into unseriousness. Of course, there will always be unserious ambling here, and the drift will probably happen eventually; but if I can repeat this process a few times (i.e. posts to paper to article) I can hopefully keep myself at least theoretically employable for a few years more. And in fact I've already started on the next iteration, the topic of which is probably easy to guess for those paying attention! Watch this space.

Flight, 25 June 1936, c

In June 1936, Flight published a short story entitled 'If, 193--? A conjectural story'. It's interesting as an example of an air force view of the next war. That is, for the RAF it goes pretty much according to plan: the enemy's attempt at a knock-out blow against Britain fails, whereas the RAF plays a key part in Britain's victory. The author and illustrator, H. F. King, was only 21 or so when this story was published; in July 1940 he became a pilot officer in the RAF, and after 1945 wrote a number of books about aeroplanes (including a couple of entries in the authoritative Putnam series). I don't know what his relationship to the RAF was at this point, but he seems to have been pretty well-informed. Or perhaps he just read his Flight cover to cover every week.

The situation is as follows:

Through indefensible aggression Eurland had secured a number of Continental bases, the nearest being not more 400 miles distant from the English coast. It was apparent that the enemy intended to push his way toward the coast and to acquire additional aerodromes from which to operate all manner of aircraft, including his short-range fighters.1

One of the few characters in the story, a planespotting young ship's engineer (perhaps modelled on the author himself) muses that it was 'Funny to be thinking about war with Eurland, of all countries. Still, there was no accounting for the machinations of the politicians'.2 The reader should NOT identify this 'Eurland' with any real Germany, as an editorial comment makes clear. Did I say 'Germany'? Sorry, I meant 'country'.

THIS story is not intended as a forecast. Indeed, any mention of politics, foreign countries or exact period have purposely been omitted. Rather it is intended to tell something of what might be expected should Great Britain be attacked from the air after her Royal Air Force has been made stronger than it is to-day.2

This last sentence gives the game away: the story is an argument for the continuation of RAF rearmament (i.e. the one triggered by German rearmament), which had begun only a year or so earlier. King has a paragraph on how expansion has fared by the fateful year of 193-:

Some of the fighter units were still flying the Gauntlet. More were using the four-gun Gladiator and the improved Fury. The Hawker monoplane was just beginning to percolate into the Service and threatened to turn all fighter tactics topsy-turvy. We had scores of Blenheims, Battles, and Wellesleys, in addition to the obsolescent Hinds and Ansons. Our heavy bombers included the Heyford and Hendon (both due for replacement), the Whitley, and various types of more modern design.2

'None of these' latter, King remarks, 'bore any trace of the slackening in the pace of bomber development during 1933, when the British Government recommended restrictions on the all-up weight of bombing aircraft', presumably referring to Britain's proposals at the World Disarmament Conference.2
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  1. Flight, 25 June 1936, c. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] []


Sir Kingsley Wood and a Blenheim Mk I

I'm sure everybody has a favourite story about Sir Kingsley Wood. Mine is the one from when he was Air Minister at the start of the Second World War, and he refused to bomb Germany on the grounds that it would damage private property. As A. J. P. Taylor tells it:

Kingsley Wood, secretary for air, met a proposal to set fire to German forests with the agonized cry: 'Are you aware it is private property? Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next.'1

It's a great anecdote which perfectly sums up the dithering nature of Chamberlain's government during the Bore War, unable or unwilling to fight a total war (it took Churchill to do that), and it's understandable why it appears in so many books and websites. Piers Brendon includes it in a discussion of the weak men Chamberlain surrounded himself with; Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott in The Appeasers.2 And fair enough; Wood is one of Cato's Guilty Men, after all. The only problem is that it's not clear if it's actually true; or, even if it is true and Wood did say it, whether it accurately reflects British bombing policy before May 1940.
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  1. A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 [1965]), 459. []
  2. Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 522; Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, The Appeasers (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), 319. []


Since my AAEH talk is in four days, I'd better start actually putting the pieces I've scattered over this blog together into something (ideally) coherent which can be presented in 20 minutes (with 10 for questions). So here's a stab at a plan:

  1. First thing is to explain what I'm talking about: the public debate about reprisal bombing of German cities during (and for) the Blitz, especially September and October 1940. A definition of reprisals would be useful here; here's a contemporary one from A. L. Goodhart, What Acts of War are Justifiable? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), 25:

    The essence of reprisals is that if one belligerent deliberately violates the accepted rules of warfare then the other belligerent, for the sake of protecting himself, may resort by way of retaliation to measures which, in ordinary circumstances, would be illegal.

    That's a legal definition; it excludes the desire for mere revenge as illegitimate, but of course this was an important motivation for many.

  2. Next comes the problem: I will discuss the existing historiography on the reprisals debate, showing that the consensus is that the British people did not demand reprisals, and those who did weren't the ones who were bombed. (Only Mark Connelly differs on this point to any substantial degree.) I think this is wrong; in fact the desire for reprisals predominated at least among those who cared enough to voice their opinion, and possibly among the population as a whole, if only slightly.
  3. Now on to the first of the important bits: the shape of the reprisals debate. I'll discuss the two major axes of opinion: morality and effectiveness, and give some examples. I'll also point to an important subset of the reprisals demand, reprisals after notice. And I will show that the near-universal assumption was that Bomber Command was capable of carrying out precise and devastating air raids.
  4. The second of the important bits: assessing how popular the demand for reprisals actually was. Here I will discuss the BIPO opinion poll data, letters to the editor, and hearsay, setting these in the context of the editorial positions of the newspapers concerned. These lines of evidence all point towards public opinion being in favour of reprisals.
  5. Now to explain it all, largely in terms of pre-war ideas (which wartime reporting had done little to change by this point), with reference to the previous war, the knock-out blow theory, the bomber will always get through and air control. Essentially, the pre-war belief in the power of the bomber was the reason why there was a debate about reprisals at all; if it had been realised just how weak Bomber Command really was the question would not have arisen.
  6. Finally, to sum up: overall the British people, I believe, did want reprisal bombing during the Blitz. Any questions?

Another source of information about public opinion on reprisals during the Blitz is hearsay -- what people reported that other people thought. This can give us an insight into contemporary judgements of the public mood. But, as with letters to the editor, hearsay is highly problematic too. It's only possible to get a good grasp on what other people think if you mix with them and talk to them (the 'everyone is complaining about how difficult it is to find servants this year' problem). So the insights may apply only to fairly narrow sections of the community. More dangerously, it's a common rhetorical trick to claim that what you think is what 'everyone' thinks, that what you're saying is what 'everyone' is saying. So as with letters to the editor, I find such claims more persuasive when they go against the grain, when someone admits that they are going against the majority. But if the overall picture points one way, that has evidentiary value too.
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