Cabinet War Rooms

One week I'm looking out over London's skyline from the top of St Paul's, the next I'm exploring underneath its streets, at the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. But this post is only about the latter, as no photography is allowed in the Museum. That's OK: while the museum was most interesting and very well done (and seemingly a magnet for American tourists), the Cabinet War Rooms -- the underground bunker complex from where, in large part, the British war effort was directed during the Second World War -- were why I was there. Everything was closed down and mothballed after V-J day, and at least some areas remained as they were during the war, until it was opened up again in the early 1980s; others have been restored more heavily (or turned into cafes!)

Above is the entrance, in King Charles Street, just off Horse Guards Road (and just a block away from Downing Street). It's next to HM Treasury, though during the war the building seems to have been the Office of Works. On the one hand, the sandbagged entrance with machine gun slit is nicely evocative of a wartime sentry pillbox. On the other, it's all fake: the real wartime entrance to the bunker was through adjacent government buildings. Plus several of the "sandbags" have been torn by some malcontent and it's looking a bit tatty!

...continue reading

Alan Kramer. Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. The barbarisation of warfare from the Balkan wars onward, including the targeting of civilians. This looks the goods (and a worthy successor to the book he co-authored with John Horne, German Atrocities, 1914), though oddly there's only a little on bombing. Not that I'm complaining, mind ...

Peter Stansky. The First Day of the Blitz: September 7, 1940. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. From the blurb, 'Much of the future of Britain was determined in the first twelve hours of bombing' -- the Blitz spirit was just the start of a social revolution. Hmmm, that's a big claim, but not necessarily an incorrect one: it'll be interesting to see if he can pull it off.

19 Comments

Model plane

Here's something a bit different. It's a paper model aeroplane which I made from a design published on 30 June 1934 in "Boys and Girls", the weekly children's supplement to the Daily Mail. The claim is made there that it glides, but sadly all mine does is stall and then enter a tailspin ... but perhaps somebody taking greater care in making the model will have greater success! A PDF of the plan can be downloaded from here (size 1.4 Mb) and then printed out onto an A4-sized sheet of paper, if anyone wants to try it. The only other materials needed are a thin, stiff piece of card (for backing), glue, a match (for the wheel axle), a pin (for the propeller), tissue paper or something similar (to weight the nose, in the event that the model is actually airworthy). And scissors. The instructions are in the PDF; here are some tips based on my own experience:

  • It does make it a lot easier if you fold where appropriate before you assemble the model!
  • Take especial care to score along the lines on the rear fuselage section, as otherwise it will be out of shape and the tail assembly won't sit straight.
  • There's no need to make the left and right tabs on the forward underside of the fuselage overlap precisely, as the "fuselage closing strip" is then going to be too wide for the fuselage at the front and will spoil the aeroplane's clean lines.

I think the original was in colour, but the microfilm I printed it from was not, so unfortunately it's a little drab. The colours could be worked out from the roundel and added with a paint program -- or even just coloured in on the paper -- but that would require more energy than I was prepared to expend :)

"Boys and Girls" would often include an aviation-related cartoon or story -- in fact, one of the regular strips followed the adventures of Phil and Fifi, the "flying twins" -- but this edition was chock-full of airminded goodness. The Whisker Pets see an aeroplane and decide to make their own (hilarity ensues); a stork-powered air show entertains the inhabitants of Treasure Island ('I like being an airwoman', says Penelope the parrot); two panels list "Famous flyers' great flights" (including some not so famous now, such as the non-stop flight of Codos and Rossi from New York to Syria in 1933); and on the Pet & Hobby Page, Teddy Tail provides some hints on how to make airworthy model aircraft -- which I clearly should have read before making mine! This was obviously intended to coincide with the annual RAF Pageant held at Hendon on the very same day, a hugely popular air show: 200,000 attended that year, a record crowd -- despite the best efforts of pacifist demonstrators outside the front gates.

This being the Daily Mail, there was probably another agenda besides getting plane-crazy youngsters to remind their parents to buy their favourite right-wing newspaper that Saturday: to make even more plane-crazy youngsters. The need to create an airminded youth was a common theme in the Rothermere press in the 1930s. For example, just two days earlier, Amy (Johnson) Mollison's regular aviation column had been entitled "Don’t discourage the young idea in flying",1 in reference to an Air Ministry ban on solo flying under the age of 17, after a 16-year old boy had been killed doing just that near Scarborough. And, near the end of the year, Lord Rothermere himself contributed an article called "Make the youth of England air-minded! Has Germany 10,000 aeroplanes?"2 -- the question explaining and justifying the demand.

The RAF roundels on the model aeroplane mark it out as a machine of war, not a pleasure craft or commercial aeroplane. So while I had fun making and trying to fly it, I was also replaying (in a very small way) the mobilisation of youth for the next air war. I wonder how many of the adolescent boys and girls who made it before me joined the RAF or the ATA when the prospect of war became reality, just five years later?


  1. Daily Mail, 28 June 1934, p. 4. 

  2. Daily Mail, 4 December 1934, p. 15. 

22 Comments

Or, at least, not very likely. In June 1922, the Daily Mail printed a two-column article under the headline "Our lost air power" (a title it used for just about all of its air-scare stuff that year).1 The author's name is not given, but is described as 'An Armament Expert', who until recently was on the 'Allied Commission to Germany'. The bulk of the article concerns two types of aerial bombs he inspected while overseeing German compliance with the disarmament clauses of the Versailles treaty.

The first was the elektron bomb. Though this sounds like it might be an exotic weapon based on the latest advances in atomic physics, it's actually just an incendiary, for setting cities ablaze. But this was something special. In contrast to the crude, and fairly ineffective, incendiaries used by the Germans against London during the war, the elektron burned so hotly that it could burn through armour plate, and what's more, once ignited it could not be extinguished. As it weighed less than pound and was only nine inches long, thousands could be carried per bomber (or airliner). The German High Command thought it had a war-winning weapon, since

A fleet of aeroplanes would carry sufficient to set all London alight, past any hope of saving.

But -- fortunately for London -- the war ended before sufficient numbers of elektron bombs were available to the German forces.

The other weapon revealed by An Armament Expert was a small globe, made of glass and only four inches across. Inside the globe was a dark brown liquid: an unspecified form of poison gas (mustard, I'd guess). When the globe is dropped from an aeroplane and hits the ground, the glass shatters and generates 'thousands of cubic feet of poisonous gas'. If used against London, the gas would permeate into cellars and tunnels, and lie in the streets for weeks.

One raid using such bombs would paralyse the very heart of our Empire, and bring a horrible death to most of London's citizens.

How horrible? Imagine:

That girl with the baby sitting opposite to you on the Tube -- can you see that girl rushing wildly and blindly away, pressing that same little mite's face to her breast in a hopeless attempt to shield it from the fumes? Can you see her face drawn in the most horrible of death agonies and the baby's lips covered with blood and mucus? A horrible description? A very horrible, yet very possible, fact.

Again, London was lucky to avoid being gassed during the war. This time, Germany had sufficient numbers of gas globes, but the 'Secret Service' knew this, and made it known to the Germans that Britain had them too, and would use them in large numbers against German cities if any fell on British soil.

Here we have an expert eyewitness describing two horrible new weapons, both of which were nearly used against civilians in the last war and which will certainly be used against civilians in the next war. So what's the problem? Simply that one of these existed and the other is -- I believe -- made up!
...continue reading


  1. Daily Mail, 20 June 1922, pp. 9-10. All quotes taken from this article unless otherwise specified. 

15 Comments

Beaufighter TF.X

One of the archives I visited during the second half of my time in London was the Archive Collection at the RAF Museum. Sadly the material I turned up, though interesting, was not overall of much relevance for my thesis. So I couldn't justify spending a second day there. But, on the bright side, the archives closed at 5pm and the museum itself at 6pm -- so I was able to able to use that hour to whiz through and have a look at the Fighter Hall, which I'd missed on my first visit.

Above is a Bristol Beaufighter TF.X torpedo bomber (well, the TF stands for torpedo fighter but that's a bit of an oxymoron, isn't it). A very versatile and heavily-armed machine, which according to the museum's sign was called the "whispering death" by the Japanese -- but Wikipedia says this is probably a propaganda legend. In front is a cannon (I assume from a Beaufighter), with a few shells in the magazine. Those things are big.
...continue reading

3 Comments

Welcome to Military History Carnival 7!

Wars and battles

Let's start at the sharp end of military history: actual combat. To Flanders Fields, 1917 reflects upon the huge scale of the Passchendaele campaign on the Western Front, and how its misery was shared between Germany, Britain and its Empire. The Battlefield Biker leads us through a failed assault against American Indian tribes -- though a successful retreat -- by the US Army in the Washington Territory, in 1858. Naval hiring policies should probably discriminate against drunkards and rebels, or so I infer from Cardinal Wolsey's Today in History post on the Battle of the Kentish Knock in 1652. The previous year, on the other side of England, the Isles of Scilly were also under assault, as Mercurius Politicus narrates in a beautifully illustrated post. And, getting back to the Great War period, Great War Fiction examines a slightly different form of fighting -- a riot by Canadian troops waiting in Wales to be sent home.

Representations

The largest number of posts this month concern representations of war, in various forms. Errol Morris, the documentary maker (no, I didn't know he blogged either) delved deeply into the question of which of two photographs of a road, taken during the Crimean War, came first: the one with cannonballs on the road, or the one without. It seems like a trivial question, but in trying to answer it Morris illuminates the larger question of how historians know anything about the motives of people in the past. (See also Barista's thoughts on Morris's posts.) We don't have to speculate about the motives underlying Ian R. Richardson's fabulous photos taken at an archaeological dig near the site of the First World War, Messines: as Plugstreet tells us, he was trying to recreate the feel of the haunting scenes captured by the great Australian war photographer, Frank Hurley.

Frog in a Well: China examines some pro-Japanese cartoons produced in China in the 1930s -- some well after incidents like the Rape of Nanking, which one would naively expect to have cooled Chinese feelings towards Japan. A Soviet Poster A Day (yes, really!) tells us the story behind a World War Two poster about a famous Soviet sniper, entitled "That's the way to shoot -- every shell is a foe". Or, as one of the commenters suggests, "One shot, one kill."

History Survey recommends four movies about the Second World War, in four different languages; while a Polish blog, Historia i Media (fortunately for me, the post is in English) wonders what the historical value might be of a brand new castle, complete with electricity and modern plumbing.

Memory

UKNIWM blogged about the opening of a major new British war memorial, at Alrewas in Staffordshire. It's unique in that it is devoted to all those military personnel who been killed in the service of their country since the end of the Second World War. As Andrew Keating points out, another novel feature is the space for 16,000 or so extra names, reserved for future deaths.

The purpose of war memorials is to ensure that future generations "never forget". But in some places, people have never been allowed to remember: Clioaudio points us to a documentary aired by al-Jazeera on the problems Spain still has in confronting the brutal legacy of the Civil War. And there are those who remember, because they were there, but have never had their memories recorded: War in the Mediterranean stresses the urgency of getting veterans to recount their stories before it is too late.

Historiography

For want of a better word. Quite possibly the only review of Michael Howard's new book, Liberation or Catastrophe?, to mention Lyotard is that by Investigation of a Dog -- but I'm sold! Civil Warriors has an example of a gendered reading of the letters of a minor Confederate general, but make sure you read the whole of the introductory paragraph first. Actually, reading the first paragraph last (like I did) might be even more fun. More serious is Civil War Memory's report on a lecture by Peter Carmichael on the intellectual roots of two major interpretations of Robert E. Lee (pro-Lee, moralising and "Victorian" vs anti-Lee, revisionist and "modernist"), and why they will never see eye to eye. And Blog Them Out of the Stone Age discusses an article by Richard Betts which questions (but ultimately affirms) the very idea of strategy, and how this might be useful in teaching military history.

Fun and games

War, or at least military history, is not always grim. As evidence, I offer two posts on Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Popcorn & chain mail rightfully mocks the recent movie 300 (which allegedly has something to do with Thermopylae), while the skwib uncovers the lost PowerPoint slides of the battle of Salamis. Coming Anarchy points out that, contrary to many computer games and movies, most pre-modern armies did not use uniforms, making it difficult to tell friend from foe. American Presidents Blog examines the not-so-illustrious sporting career of a future Supreme Allied Commander Europe and US President. And Osprey Publishing Blog reveals what is possibly the least inspiring eve-of-battle speech ever uttered. Well, it probably wasn't funny then, but it is now!

Included in this classification

I couldn't cram these into the above categories, which anyway are completely arbitrary. So, in no particular order: behind AotW looks at a Stetson who fell at Antietam, and traces his family connection to a more famous bearer of that name (think hats). Early Modern Whale looks at a book by Joseph Swetnam, author of The schoole of the noble and worthy science of defence and The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Inconstant Women (sadly, it's the former which is under discussion here). Quid plura? relates an incident in 1945 when a young American chaplain took the initiative to help save some of Germany's past. Thoughts on Military History uncovers a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the history of modern artillery. And bringing up the rear, The DC Traveler recommends an amphibious tour of the US capital's streets and waterways by DUKW -- though they have these in London too, and I have to say I wasn't tempted when I was there recently!

That's all for this edition of the Military History Carnival. I hope you've enjoyed reading it, as I've enjoyed writing it! (Even though it's a singularly non-airminded carnival this time around ...) Thanks to everyone who contributed suggestions.

The next Military History Carnival will be hosted by Gary Smailes on 7 November. Please send him suggestions at garysmailes at gmail dot com or use the form.

25 Comments

Today is the 95th anniversary of the Sheerness Incident. Sheerness is a town at the mouth of the Medway, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. For several centuries, it was a dockyard for the Royal Navy (the Nore Mutiny took place nearby in 1797). In 1912, Sheerness was an important part of Britain's naval defences, helping to guard the Thames Estuary -- and hence London -- against a possible German invasion.

On Monday, 14 October 1912, between about 6.30pm and 7pm, many people in Sheerness and in Queenborough, two miles to the south, heard a sound like an aeroplane engine coming from the skies overhead. Sunset was shortly after 6pm, and so it was rapidly getting dark. Some witnesses -- including a Royal Navy lieutenant -- believed they could also make out a red light, and possibly a searchlight, passing to and fro over the town. It was assumed by some townsfolk that the pilot was from the Royal Naval Aerial Service station at nearby Eastchurch, where there was a flight training school;1 perhaps the pilot was in trouble. The aerodrome was alerted by telephone, and flares were lit in an effort to guide the aircraft in. But although the engine sounds were also heard at Eastchurch, nothing was seen. By about 7pm the sound, and the light, was no longer detectable.

Where did the sounds come from? Eastchurch had no aircraft up that night, so it wasn't from there. In fact, night flying was relatively rare at the time: Claude Grahame-White was the first to do it successfully in an aeroplane, in 1910. The world of British aviation in 1912 was a small one, and if a pilot had successfully undertaken a hazardous cross-country night flight it seems unlikely that it would have remained a secret. (An unsuccessful flight, of course, would have been even harder to miss!) Newspapers no longer reported on each and every flight, but weekly aviation magazines seem to have had notices of many of them. For example, Flight reported on flights at Eastchurch by nine different pilots during the week in question, though for 14 October itself only noted that 'Lieut. Briggs was out with passenger on Monday'.2 So it seems unlikely that any British pilot was flying that night over the Isle of Sheppey.
...continue reading


  1. Short Brothers was also based at Eastchurch at the time, though I've not seen this mentioned in reference to the Sheerness Incident. 

  2. Flight, 19 October 1912, p. 932

1 Comment

St Paul's Cathedral

One week after Westminster Abbey, I visited the other great London church, St Paul's Cathedral. They are very different in form and function. (They are alike in not allowing photography inside, so again I've only got exterior shots. I took some more on an earlier excursion.) Westminster Abbey is medieval and gothic. St Paul's is Renaissance and baroque, one of Christopher Wren's great churches, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.
...continue reading

The Invasion of 1910

I recently had the somewhat guilty pleasure of watching Flood, a film (from a novel) about the sudden devastation of London by a massive storm surge -- predicted by a scientist who had long been dismissed as a crank -- which swamps the Thames Barrier, submerges most of the city's landmarks, kills a couple of hundred thousand people and forces most of the rest to evacuate. An even bigger disaster is averted (just in the nick of time, as it happens) and Londoners are left to clean up the mess. All very timely, given the unusually high proportion of England which was under water earlier this year.

Disaster movies are a pretty venerable genre by now (there were at least three films about the Titanic made in the year after it sank). The subset which deals with destruction on the scale of a big city (or larger) -- as opposed to aeroplanes or skyscrapers -- is relatively small, and that concerned, like Flood, with the fate of London specifically is quite small indeed.1 No doubt this is because disaster movies are generally loaded with special effects and therefore are expensive, and as the US market for film is so huge, it makes more financial sense to destroy some American city rather than a British one. So there aren't all that many cinematic depictions of the end of London. But books are much cheaper to make, and in those London has been destroyed many times over.

I've been trying to think of the first time this happened. It's easy enough to find early references to the eventual ruin of London, such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), Richard Jefferies' After London (1885) (in which a neo-medieval adventurer seeks his fortunes amid the city's swampy remains), or Macaulay's New Zealander (1840).2 But those only show London long after its fall, and so, properly speaking, are post-apocalyptic. The actual destruction happens off stage; it is inevitable, something to accept rather than prevent. Other candidates might include science fiction stories like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913), wherein the Earth passes through a region of toxic ether, and Professor Challenger and companions take an eerie trip through dead London afterwards.3 Or H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), with its Martian tripods laying waste to the metropolis with their heat rays. Where else might we look?
...continue reading


  1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire springs to mind (rather oddly, since I haven't seen it); Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later too. There must be others though. 

  2. Not actually a novel, a story, a paragraph or even a sentence: merely a few clauses in a book review, referring to some future time 'when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.' But the image caught the imagination of many who read and spread it, to the point where it practically became a cliché. See David Skilton, "Tourists at the ruins of London: the metropolis and the struggle for empire", Cercles 17, 93-119. 

  3. Even if the ending is a huge cop-out.