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Australia is currently experiencing a bushfire season of unprecedented extent and intensity. (See Bodie Ashton's viral thread for some idea of the scale, bearing in mind that it was written a few days ago. Above is a satellite image from 3 January 2020 of the eastern part of Victoria and south-eastern NSW; Melbourne itself is so far largely unaffected, apart from some smoke haze.) Our firefighters -- extraordinarily, nearly all volunteers -- need support, and I'm contributing to that by taking part in the Twitter campaign #AuthorsForFireys. Reply to the following tweet (you do need to be on Twitter for this) with your proposed donation to the Country Fire Authority, the main Victorian firefighting organisation, and if yours is the highest I'll give you a copy of the hardcover edition of my book. It would currently cost you AUD252 if you ordered direct from the publisher, so this is a chance to get it at a much more reasonable price while helping a good cause.

The rules are here -- the link for donations is here. International donors are welcome (I'll cover the postage to anywhere in the world), though that might be hard as unfortunately the CFA doesn't seem to have any way to donate online, only through bank transfers/cheques/money orders. If that's a problem, get in touch and we'll work something out.
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So, after a month of reposts, my celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary is nearly over. All that remains is the surprise which I promised, which is (no surprise!) the PhD thesis I submitted way back in 2009, for which I was subsequently awarded my PhD -- after all, Airminded began life as a PhD blog. This thesis formed the basis for my book published in 2014, but they are different works. While there is of course substantial overlap between them, the book has been substantially revised and updated from the thesis, and in places completely rewritten. So the book is much better, but the thesis is a lot cheaper, because it's free. I'm aware that there are people who are interested in my book but can't afford the asking price (or find it in a library), so the thesis is the next best thing. I actually should have put it online as soon as it was passed, so that it could be read and cited, but I was worried that publishers wouldn't be interested in it. But I now think that fear is greatly exaggerated -- much like the knock-out blow from the air itself!

You can download my PhD thesis from the Downloads page or directly from here.


I'm very pleased to be able to say that I have signed a book contract with Ashgate Publishing. This contract has two key components: firstly, that I will revise my PhD thesis for publication as a book; and secondly, that Ashgate will publish said book so that people can read it. A thesis is not a book: there's much which needs be changed to make the text accessible to an wider audience. And apart from updating and revising the text, I may be making some structural changes and/or introducing some new material. It will probably be published in 2013 (apocalypse permitting, of course). Ashgate have a great record in academic history (soon to be enhanced by the publication of Gavin Robinson's book) so this is a Very Good Thing.

I don't anticipate that my blogging will fall off dramatically (at least until the deadline looms!), so I hope that you all will continue to stop by!

Edit: I should have at least mentioned the book's proposed title: The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941.


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
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  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. []


Part of my PhD thesis involved conceptualising the various forms of defence against aerial bombardment put forward during the thirty-odd years before the Second World War: things like anti-aircraft guns, air-raid shelters, an international air force, and so on. Something I didn't include was what we might call spiritual air defence. Partly because I didn't come across much like that in my sources, and probably partly because of my own rationalistic bent. This may have been unfortunate.

What do I mean by spiritual air defence? Here's what got me thinking about it: Padre Pio, Italy's flying monk. (Technically, bilocating, but that doesn't scan as well.) Here's a sober, historical account by Claudia Baldoli:

With the intensification of bombing after the armistice in September 1943, a rumour spread across Italy that God had granted Padre Pio could fly and intercept the enemy's bombs [...] it seemed plausible that Padre Pio could fly and intercept the enemy's bombs. With the exception of Foggia, which was repeatedly bombed between May and September 1943, the area of Apulia where he lived in Gargano received no raids, and this convinced many that the rumour must be true. For decades after 1944, the supporters of his case for beatification were even able to find RAF pilots who were willing to confirm that it was indeed an apparition of a flying apparition of a flying Padre Pio which had stared at them so directly that they abandoned the mission and returned to their bases without dropping bombs.1

As might be expected, there are a number of accounts on the web which add more details but somehow don't add plausibility. One of the better ones is an article by Malcolm Day from the September 2002 Fortean Times. This doesn't mention the rumours circulating among the Italian population, only to the claims (or claims of claims) made by Allied pilots:

In their approach to the town [San Giovanni], several pilots reported seeing an apparition in the sky in the form of a monk with upheld hands. They also described some sort of 'force-field' that prevented them flying over the target rendering them unable to drop their bombs.

Supposedly this happened repeatedly, and was verified by 'Bernardo Rosini, general of the Aeronautica Italiana, and part of the United Air Command at the time' (presumably this means the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force, which flew on the Allied side, though not over Italian soil) and an unnamed 'US Commanding General'. Some posts on the ArmyAirForces forum provide some further (albeit conflicting) details, suggesting that the first raid took place on 16 July 1943, carried out by 5th Bombardment Wing, XII Bomber Command. An example of an eye-witness account (though written more than half a century after the event) can also be found there:

I almost killed Padre Pio.....the enclosed flight record of bombing raids, shows that Villa San Giovanni was scheduled to be wiped out with 150,000 pounds of bombs. Allied Intelligence had information (erroneous) that German troops had occupied the hospital, friary and town of San Giovanni. Two minutes from dropping the bombs, the Colonel in the lead aircraft saw an apparition of a Monk, 30,000 feet tall, and broke off the bomb-run and proceeded to the secondary target. The Colonel was a Protestant, and when he was later shown a photo of Padre Pio said that was the apparition.

A 30,000-foot tall monk would certainly seem enough to scare off anyone, but I am worried that more reliable accounts are not available. In any case, I'm more interested in the wartime rumours than the postwar stories which, as Baldoli notes, were used to argue for Pio's beatification. (I guess it helped: he was beatified in 1999 and canonised in 2002.)
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  1. Claudia Baldoli, 'Religion and bombing in Italy, 1940-1945', in Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp and Richard Overy, eds, Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011), 147. []


A tweet from William J. Turkel alerted me to the possibility of using 18th century-style fonts in LaTeX. The most noticeable difference from modern typesetting is the long s, but there are different ligatures too. There are a number of ways to do it but the easiest way is with the inbuilt Kepler Fonts package. (The Fell Types are far prettier, but look difficult, or at least tedious, to install. Font management is one of LaTeX's biggest weaknesses.) Just insert the following in your preamble and you're done:


Well, almost. This simply replaces every s with a long s, which is not right. Most importantly, long s is generally not used at the end of a word, so you need to replace these with 's='. Here's what the first paragraph of my thesis looks like when done this way:

I wish I'd known about this before submitting it.


Shirley Jacobs writes to inform me that the W E Johns Appreciation Society now has a website. It's clearly quite an active group -- there's a magazine, Biggles Flies Again, published twice a year, and regular meetings with the next in Derby on 24 October. Via the site, one can keep up with W. E. Johns, Biggles, Worrals et al in the press, or explore the wider world of Bigglesiana on the web. (Which introduced me to a site devoted to Popular Flying, a magazine edited by Johns which featured articles by a number of airpower writers familar to me, such as J. M. Spaight, E. Colston Shepherd, Arch Whitehouse and Nigel Tangye.)

At one point I had managed to work in a brief reference to Biggles in my thesis, but sadly had to cut it for reasons of space. So here's what I was going to say!

And even Biggles, the flying adventurer whose popularity with boys dates from this period, got into the act [of popularising the knock-out blow theory] in Biggles and the Black Peril (published 1935), foiling German plans to set up navigational beacons on the English coast in preparation for a sudden and massive air attack.1

  1. W. E. Johns, Biggles and the Black Peril (London: Red Fox, 2004 [1935]). []


So, the thesis is done, if not dusted. What do I do now?

The first thing to do is to earn a living. That's now sorted, at least for the next few months; I'm doing a bit more IT work and, more interestingly, some sessional tutoring for the Arts Faculty. I last did that in 2006, so it's useful to be able to burnish my teaching credentials. The two subjects I'm tutoring are called Total War in Europe: World War One and From Homer to Hollywood. I'm enjoying both very much so far. Total War in Europe is of course right up my alley: this week in tutes we discussed militarism before 1914, and next week we'll be looking at the July Crisis. It's hard to make that material uninteresting, but I'm the man for the job. From Homer to Hollywood is an interdisciplinary breadth subject (for those familiar with the terminology of the Melbourne Model) for first year students, which examines representations of war in a variety of poems, novels, plays, paintings and films. We've started off with the Iliad and The Song of Roland; later we'll get to do War and Peace, Guernica and the film Gallipoli, among many other things. It's a bit outside my comfort zone in terms of approach (more litcrit than historical) but I'm learning a lot and enjoying teaching the first years.

Then there's the career. It's not exactly a good time to be looking for academic jobs (when is it ever), but I'm going to give it a bash. I need to publish though, and if I can get, say, two papers in the pipeline this year, that will help with that. I've got plenty of ideas, but as yet little inclination to get stuck into writing again. That will have to change! There's also the thesis-to-book process to begin, assuming it isn't roundly rubbished by the examiners, of course.

Finally, there's blogging. I do intend to keep writing at Airminded, although I'm not really sure what I'll have to say -- the problem with a research blog is that when you're not doing research, you're probably not going to be blogging that much either! That is something I'll have to cope with though, as I've just been made a member of Cliopatria, in place of the now-defunct Revise and Dissent. It's an honour but one which I'll have to work at justifying.


Primary sources

Some more navel-gazingpost-thesis analysis. Above is a plot of the number of primary sources (1908-1941) I cite by date of publication. (Published sources only, excluding newspaper articles -- of which there are a lot -- and government documents. Also, it's not just airpower stuff, though it mostly is.) I actually have no idea if it's a lot or not, and I'm sure there are some selection effects in there. But, although I've certainly not attempted any sort of statistical analysis (nor will I!), I think some features of the plot reflect real features of the airpower literature of period, at least as it relates to the bombing of civilians.

Firstly, there's a substantial increase in the number of sources in the 1930s, particularly from 1934 when there is a big peak. I argue in the thesis that this was only partly and indirectly due to the obvious reason (the arrival of Hitler in 1933). The more important reason was the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, which ran between 1932 and 1934 (actually it went longer, but was dead in the water when Germany walked out). This roused airpower writers -- whether pro- or anti-disarmament -- to action, and gave them a reason to explain to the public the effects of bombing on cities. The slight rise from the late 1920s is also due to the conference, I think, or rather the optimistic Locarno-era preparations for it. The big peak in 1927 is a bit odd, though. Let's call that an outlier.

The other two noticeable peaks are in 1909 and 1938. The first was very early in the public's awareness of flight. That really started in 1908, but the possible defence implications came to the fore in 1909 -- the founding of the Aerial League of the British Empire, the first phantom airship panic, the publication of the first serious books on the topic. And of course the dreadnought panic -- it was a peak year for Anglo-German rivalry. The 1938 peak was the culmination of the building concern over the previous decade. What the plot doesn't show is that, unlike previous years, it was largely sceptical, based on evidence from the Spanish Civil War. The Sudeten crisis that September showed that the fear of the knock-out blow still had a strong grip on the public and the press. But afterwards there's a sharp decline in interest, which I maintain is real.

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