In the aftermath of the second German daylight Gotha raid on London, crowds watch as smoke pours from the roof of the Central Telegraph Office, struck by a 100 lb bomb, 7 July 1917

In my previous post, I discussed my concerns with the way sources are used in Neil Hanson's First Blitz.1 Here I turn to the problem of strategy, which goes more to the argument of the book. Again there are two parts to this, one broad and one narrow. I'll start with the broad.

Hanson's argument is that Germany, across almost the entire duration of the war, hoped, planned and attempted to destroy London through bombing, specifically by burning it out:

Air-dropped incendiary bombs would create firestorms engulfing entire districts of London, creating mass panic and popular unrest that would 'render it doubtful that the war can continue' and force the British Government to sue for peace.2

In other words, Germany was attempting to carry out a knock-out blow from the air against Britain – in 1915 or 1918 rather than 1940.

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  1. Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008). []
  2. Ibid., 7. []

A large biplane Gotha bomber seen from below

This is a continuation, of sorts, of my series of posts critiquing the recent trend of describing the air raids on Britain in the First World War as the 'First Blitz'. I've separated it out because, although it is about the best-known book to use that phrase in its title – Neil Hanson's First Blitz (2008) – my concerns aren't about that usage, but are about the book itself.1 To be clear, I'm not saying this is a bad book; in fact I am broadly in sympathy with his account and I really like some aspects of it (the chapter entitled 'Londoners unnerved' is a terrific account of what I call the Gotha shock). But it is a book that should be used carefully. And as I'm seeing it cited fairly widely (including by academic historians, not excluding me!) I think it's worth putting those concerns out there, particularly since it was not reviewed in any academic publication, as far as I can see.

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  1. Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008). []

John Llewellyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow

John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022).

John Llewelyn Rees was born on 7 May 1911, got his pilot's license on 4 July 1934, and was killed in a flying accident on 5 August 1940. Those bare life events hardly stand out among the airminded young men of his generation. But as well as flying, Rees wrote (albeit as John Llewelyn Rhys). His two novels, The Flying Shadow (1936) and The World Owes Me a Living (1939), and a handful of short stories, collected as England is My Village (1941), are suffused with -- drenched in, might be a better phrase -- a love of flying in all its pleasures and perils. It's because of this that he bears some comparison as the English-language equivalent of the slightly older Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Certainly, passages like these are rare in contemporary British aviation writing:

Below, the clouds were flat as beaten snow, dazzling white in the brilliant sunshine, undisturbed except for the shadow of the Moth which slid easily, silently, over their even surface. For scores of miles there was no movement, nothing but the sunny emptiness of the sky and the hard, white floor of the clouds, the enormous silence pricked by the stutter of the engine. For the hundredth time the beauty of such a scene hooded his mind, the sense of overwhelming desolation intensifying his realization of individuality. Nothing in the world, he thought, was as lonely as this, no scene so static in beauty, so expansive in monotony.((John Llewelyn Rhys, The Flying Shadow (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 39.))


We flew on for hour after hour, seeing nothing of the earth but the peaks of mountains standing up through the clouds, the only other moving thing our shadow which raced silently beneath us, following every curve of the clouds with effortless grace. Above was the dome of heaven, a nightmare blue except for the blazing ball of the sun, no trace of cloud to break its pitiless emptiness. The one sound in our ears was the roar of the engines mingling with airscrew thrash. We were alone, racing through a dead world.((John Llewelyn Rhys, England Is My Village and The World Owes Me a Living (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 237.))

These convey beautifully a sense of the sublime nature of flight, its awesome majesty and terror, intensified at every point by the ever-present possibility of death (possibly a little exaggerated; surely Rhys sensed the 'inarticulate lust for the blinding novelty of a crash' among readers just as much as spectators).((Rhys, England is My Village, 122.))

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