The Next War in the Air: Civilian Fears of Aerial Bombardment in Britain, 1908-1941

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Brett Holman, ‘The Next War in the Air: Civilian Fears of Aerial Bombardment in Britain, 1908-1941’ (2009), PhD thesis, University of Melbourne. Revised and published as The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (Farnham and Burlington, Ashgate, 2014). All rights reserved. PDF format.

Abstract: During the First World War, several writers began to argue that the main strategic risk to Britain was the possibility of a sudden, intense aerial bombardment of its cities, which would cause tremendous destruction and large numbers of casualties. The nation would be knocked-out of the war very quickly, in a matter of days or weeks, before it could fully realise its military potential. The theory of the knock-out blow solidified into a consensus during the 1920s and by the 1930s had almost become an orthodoxy, accepted by pacifists and militarists alike.

My thesis examines the concept of the knock-out blow as it was articulated in the public sphere, the reasons why it came to be so widely accepted in public life, and the way it shaped the responses of the British public to the great issues facing them in the 1930s: armaments and appeasement, war or peace. It mainly draws on published, but little examined, sources — books, journals, newspapers — produced in the period between 1908 (when aviation was first perceived as a threat to British security) and 1941 (when the Blitz ended, and it was obvious that no knock-out blow was coming). And it shows how, after having been taught to fear the bomber as the bringer of destruction to all they knew and held dear, the British people were instead taught to regard it as their best hope for victory.

14 thoughts on “The Next War in the Air: Civilian Fears of Aerial Bombardment in Britain, 1908-1941

  1. Thanks for this. I stumbled across it while researching the Swedish mystery airplane flap of the 1930s as part of a footnote to a bit I'm writing about the Swedish Ghost Rockets. I'm looking forward to getting a broader picture this afternoon once I'm finished footnoting and can settle down with my iPad for a read.

  2. Peter Garwood

    I try downloading the Scareship Age and get nothing but pages of indecipherable text.
    What am I doing wrong?

  3. I just tried a bit of experimentation, and attempting to download (clicking on the download button) the EPUB version without an EPUB reader on Firefox got the wall of junk text in a browser window. Downloading an EPUB reader, and trying again solved the problem. (Mac, Firefox).

  4. Post author

    Yes, it's quite possible there's no ebook reader software installed. Amazon makes some pretty slick, free Kindle software for MOBI, and there's Adobe Digital Editions for EPUB, also free. Of course there are others too.

  5. jerrywarriner

    The PDF version refused to download, so I downloaded the document as an EPUB. I found a converter on the Web at
    It worked beautifully.

    The Munich crisis is my favorite topic of the interwar years. I have more books, documents, documentaries and articles on that than almost any other subject from the period.
    I'm in Heaven! Thanks for providing this valuable information.

  6. Post author

    You're welcome. Sorry you had problems with the PDF (it downloads okay for me) but I'm glad you were able to find a workaround!

  7. Jenny Sloggett

    Thank you for making these article available. I look forward to the Next War in the Air. I am a PhD student with the University of Newcastle and my topic involves civil and military defence preparations in south-eastern Australia from 1935 to 1945 (NSW, Qld, Vic), particularly the involvement of state and local governments. The impact of the British example and British instructions for defence planning cannot be overestimated.

    Whilst I was in Melbourne last April for the 1942 Shadow of the War conference, I picked up a copy of At Home and Under Fire: air raids and culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz by Susan R Grayzel (Cambridge University Press, 2012). It make a useful supplement to Terence O'Brien's volume of the official history on civil defence in Great Britain because of its focus on popular literature and use of letters and diaries as sources.

  8. Post author

    That's a great topic. I read Kate Darian-Smith's book on Melbourne during the war a while back; Richard Waterhouse is also doing some interesting work on the panic in Australia after the fall of Singapore (which I mentioned here). I'd love to know more.

    I'm actually writing a review of Grayzel's book for a journal at the moment, or not writing as the case may be…

  9. Christopher

    What the article says about the psychological aspects of the scare is fascinating. It might be worthwhile to explore if this links to the paranoia about empire and the threats to the latter.

  10. Post author

    Interesting idea. Of course the danger to the Empire was always implicit in the question of the Navy, and sometimes explicit (particularly in the colonies themselves), but I can't think of any real imperial dimension to the airship panic. It was very much focused on the security of the British Isles themselves. Something to look out for, though -- thanks.

  11. Post author

    Glad you've found something useful here. South Wales was an epicentre of phantom airship sightings in both 1909 and 1913. It's hard to imagine that E. T. Willows isn't connected somehow, though it seems clear he wasn't actually present at the time, so I suspect inspiration more than anything else.

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