Book Review – The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908–1941

Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber; 1908-1941. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. Figures. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 290 pp.

Reviewed by Stephen Moore, PhD candidate, Newcastle University

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With a voluminous historiography, any new study of strategic bombing struggles to contribute something original to the literature. Up until recently this would relate to the social and economic effects of bombing or their strategic consequences, but the AHRC project ‘Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945’, challenged this approach by placing emphasis on the political and cultural responses to bombing instead. This project prompted such significant works as Bombing, States and People in Western Europe in 2011 that was edited by Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp and Richard Overy, the translation of Dietmar Süss’s Death from the Skies in 2014 and Overy’s momentous The Bombing War in 2013. The reviewer should declare an interest here, as his Ph.D. supervisor (Baldoli) was one of the investigators on this project, but that does diminish the importance of the research.

An exciting development that followed these critical studies, although not necessarily influenced by them, has been a series of books examining the development of the theory of strategic bombing, and the influence of these theories on public opinion. While, Bombing the People (2013) by Thomas Hippler highlighted the immaturity of strategic bombing theory on the outbreak of the Second World War, the book has great merit for drawing together the ideas of Giulio Douhet, the Italian Air-Power theorist into one place for the first time in an English-language volume. In contrast, The Coming of the Aerial War (2014) by Michele Haapamaki largely failed to present a coherent argument for the relationship between British society and the fear of bombing.

In this book Brett Holman extends these themes by focussing on how the fear of a ‘knock-out blow’ developed during the 1920s and 30s in Great Britain, and argues that this assumed the status of a ‘myth’ (p. 25). As the Ph.D. thesis of the reviewer includes an analysis of the development and application of strategic bombing against the United Kingdom, this book introduced the possibility of an alternative viewpoint to those already explored.

A cursory examination of the book highlights an absence of illustrations, maps or appendices, but tables of relevant information are presented at appropriate points during the narrative. A cause for jubilation is the use of proper academic footnotes, preventing the frustration of constantly flicking to the end of the book to check a reference, although the reviewer would have accepted that in preference to the worryingly more widespread system of using a page number and a sentence fragment to identify these.

The introduction goes back beyond the history of aviation when the imagining of future wars could only envisage the use of contemporary weapons. The invention of the hot air balloon established the ‘habit’ of imagining the next war as something different, being driven by the increasing rate of technological change. As the popularity of flying grew, British people displayed ‘air-mindedness’ and Holman argues that this meant that war came to mean air war and air power the strategic bomber. Although the historiography covering the beliefs held by the military and government on strategic bombing between the wars is substantial, there is an absence of non-military ideas about aviation in the secondary literature. Holman contends that no matter how ‘mundane but expensive or unfeasible [or] imaginative’ (p. 18) these proposals were, by relegating them to footnotes the chance to understand the desperate fears generated by the next war are lost. The introduction chapter alone contains seventy-three references, an encouraging sign of what is to come. The book is divided into three parts. Part I describes the construction of the threat of the bomber, both real and fictional, in civilian literature. Part II explores how the threat of the bomber, ‘the knock-out blow’, was to be met. Part III then examines how the media deployed the threat of the bomber in times of national crisis.

In fictional terms, the most important early air power novel is identified as H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air. Earlier books describing bombardment of cities depicted these as something only outlaws would do, but Wells shows nations themselves threatening civilisation. Massive urban destruction and the collapse of society follow a global aerial war. Holman next cites an article by Claude Grahame-White and Harry Hawker in 1916 as the ‘first fully-fledged knock-out blow theory’ (p. 37). General P.R.C then popularised this idea in the early 1920s and it was elaborated by others to include the threat of poison gas and use of converted airliners. Sir Hugh Trenchard, the professional head of the Royal Air Force, is correctly portrayed as a late convert to strategic bombing and Douhet as practically unknown in Britain until the 1930s. A minor niggle for this reviewer is the reference to ‘Chief of the Air Staff’ (p. 6). The contemporary designation was ‘Chief of Air Staff’, which did not change until after the end of Trenchard’s period of service.[1] In contrast, the title of the RAF’s ‘Independent Force’ in 1918 is quoted correctly (p. 51). The widespread acceptance of the knock-out blow is shown to reach its height during the Sudeten crisis in September 1938. Following this, rearmament and the development of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) generated scepticism towards a successful knock-out blow. Resistance to aerial bombing during the Blitz was then converted into the belief that Britain could defeat Germany by bombing alone.

Part II of the book employs an interesting adaptation of the scheme used by David Omissi to explore the responses of indigenous societies to the threat of RAF air control policies. This also enables the book to consider solutions that were not used. From a psychological point of view, the fear of civilian panic during air raids naturally took precedence. It would not be until after the Blitz was over that this attitude would change. There is an interesting diversion into the left-wing belief that ARP could be used as a tool for a dictatorship. The growing debate on the removal of children and the elderly from target cities is noted, with a tantalising reference to the phenomenon of ‘trekking’ (temporary self-evacuation of the poorer population to the countryside following a bombing attack) originating during the First World War. Once ARP ceased to be a theoretical concept, the first obsession with gas attacks is well covered together with the gradual conversion to the air raid shelter. The position of J.B.S. Haldane, the Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War Group and their influence on the deep shelter debate is well covered, including the elaborate plans for the Finsbury deep shelter project.

As well as passive defence, active methods of resistance are also examined. Holman demonstrates that the major air power theorists advocated a counter-offensive as the logical response to the knock-out blow. Air defence is shown to have been given little credibility in the public debate due to the perceived immunity of German attackers during the First World War. It was only when evidence from Spain demonstrated the effectiveness of fighters against bombers that these attitudes began to change. Although counter-bombing remained the central policy throughout the interwar years, the use of a British knock-out blow remained unlikely due to a reluctance to start another war. The debate was therefore focussed on the utilisation of the RAF bomber force for deterrence or counter-offensive once any war started. The attempts to outlaw bombing by international treaty and the debate surrounding these efforts due to the general revulsion towards war during the 1920s are well covered. The debate surrounding an international air force is notable, together with reasons why those prospects diminished at the end of the 1930s.

The structure of the book alters to discourage easy reading as Part III progresses. While the organisation of Parts I and II is chronological and linear, this is not replicated for Part III, which introduces repetition in the opinion of this reviewer. Chapter 7 shows no sign of what is to come, with an examination of the influence of the press on public opinion. There is then a review of the historical invasion panics during the nineteenth century with France and with Germany during the Edwardian period. Holman also identifies the periods of ‘air panics’ when the German air menace was a potent threat, and the ‘British people learned to fear the bomber’ (p. 186). From Chapter 8 onwards, however, the narrative is fragmented into threats, responses and resolution. This fractures the chronology between the discussions of the air panics, although there is a return to a chronological analysis in the final section. Even where a single incident is examined, such as the Sudeten crisis in 1938, the splitting of the analysis for the increased awareness of ARP, for example, leads to unnecessary duplication. The identification of ‘Republican’ Italian bombers during the Spanish Civil War points towards careless proofreading (p. 204). Repetition continues throughout the rest of the book, and while this detracts from the reading experience, there is no denying the quality of the analysis. The author could quite reasonably argue that he already has his Ph.D. while the reviewer does not, so what does he know?

History, of course, shows that the London Blitz in 1940 moved from crisis to a bearable fact of life, with deficiencies in shelter conditions and assistance being progressively resolved. Three weeks of intensive bombing did not lead to a knock-out blow. The perceived influence of air power on future wars had been extrapolated from limited evidence during the First World War, as the threat of the bomber was first constructed by air power writers.

Despite certain misgivings, this book forms a valuable addition to the historiography of strategic bombing. The extensive footnotes will prompt widespread and in some cases further esoteric reading. The generation of self-righteous left-wingers who vilified Bomber Command aircrews for doing their duty would do well to read this book to understand the attitudes towards bombing at the end of the 1930s. On the outbreak of war both the public and authorities feared and expected an apocalyptic bombing attack. They also accepted that such attacks would be directed primarily at civilian targets. The surprise was that when attacks began they had taken so long and with public attitudes developed over twenty years there was never any doubt that bombing would be reciprocated. With a terrible cover price of £75-00, however, as with many academic studies, this book is unlikely to find its way onto the bookshelves of many historians, with most copies residing within university libraries.

You can download a copy of this review here: Stephen Moore – The Next War in the Air.

Citation: Stephen Moore, ‘Review of Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber; 1908-1941‘, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 10 December 2015

[1] The London Gazette, 20 May 1919, Number 31348, 6249.

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