Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Coming of the Aerial War

Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain


Michele Haapamaki


International Library of Twentieth Century History, vol. 65

London : I.B. Tauris, 2014

Hardcover. xi+255 p. ISBN 978-1780764184. £56.50


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



The Coming of the Aerial War is based on Michele Haapamaki’s Ph.D. Thesis, “Challenges from the Margins : Some British Left-Wing Intellectuals and Criticisms of Air Raid Precautions, 1918-1939”, completed at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) in 2009. Extending the subject of the thesis, its stated aim is to serve “as a composite portrait of fear of the next war in interwar Britain” [2], one of the guiding threads, “the culture of anticipation”, being borrowed from Roxanne Panchasi’s recent study of the French case (1). Another claimed influence was that of Susan Grayzel’s At home and Under Fire (2)  and “its insistence on the need to consider wartime in a larger timeframe” [9]. The dustcover indicates that the book addresses “the key issues of interwar historiography such as patriotism, fear, masculinity and propaganda”: a huge agenda, evidently.

Chapter 1 goes back to the pioneering years of aviation, with an excellent quotation from Alfred Harmsworth / Lord Northcliffe: "England is no longer an island. There will be no sleeping behind the wooden walls of Old England with the Channel our safety moat. It means the aerial chariots of a foe descending on British soil if war comes". Unfortunately the date and circumstances are not given. The date is in fact 13 November 1906, when the angry newspaper proprietor chastised the Editor of his Daily Mail for not having pointed out the historic importance of a flight of 722 feet by Santos-Dumont at the Parc de Bagatelle, Paris, the day before (3). What is so remarkable is that Northcliffe was immediately able to extrapolate from this ridiculously short hop in our eyes – and see the outstanding consequences for Britain, which was thereby losing its unique advantage and now subject to the same threats as its neighbours. Michele Haapamaki has an excellent discussion of the interest for aviation in pre-1914 Britain, going as far back as the creation of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1866. If “flying was imbued with romance” [21], there was also always “the omnipresent element of danger”– with therefore “an undercurrent of fear” [23]. The danger resided in the technique itself, but also in the threats immediately adumbrated by Northcliffe. The author rightly points out the negative impact of popular fiction, like H.G. Wells’s War in the Air (1908), “which emphasized the destructive power of aerial technology and the fear that England had lost its position of international superiority and ingenuity” [27], and was followed by a long list of “best-selling apocalyptic novels” which could only arouse anxiety. Among them, Michele Haapamaki quotes The Gas War of 1940 (1931), “which sold 100,000 copies” [28]. She might have added the articles which Winston Churchill wrote in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine and reprinted in book form (4).

Interestingly – because this goes very far – she argues that “most proponents of aviation were politically inclined towards the right” [29]. There is no doubt that Douhet and D’Annunzio were at least intellectually associated with Italian Fascism. It is also true that a number of German Nationalists were angry at the limitations imposed upon the Weimar Republic by the aviation clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. She appropriately mentions Ernst Jünger and his foreword to the photographic collection Luftfahrt ist not! (1928), but curiously makes no allusion to Goering, the “air ace”. For Britain, she gives an impressive list of groups and names connected with aviation which could clearly be associated with the militant Right, including on occasion the British Union of Fascists. The extreme case seems to be that of C.G. Grey, Editor of The Aeroplane “until 1939, when his increasingly right-wing political views forced his resignation”. Indeed, “Grey was unapologetically pro-fascist, anti-communist, and undoubtedly anti-Semitic. […] He was also an open admirer of the regimes, along with the aviation programmes, of Hitler and Mussolini” [69]. But then, it is generally admitted that the Royal Air Force was the most “democratic” of the three Services, and she also honestly concedes that strong Conservative supporters of expanding aircraft production like Churchill and Moore-Brabazon, though on the Right, had no Fascist sympathies. So, there is little in that argument – except to reinforce the idea that there was a great confusion in British attitudes towards aeronautical questions.

One such question was the controversial theory of the “knock-out blow”, which largely informs Chapter 2. Michele Haapamaki gives a revealing quotation from a 1924 report of the Committee of Imperial Defence : “It has been borne in upon us that in the next war it may well be that the nation whose people can endure aerial bombardment the longer and with the greater stoicism will ultimately prove victorious” [37]. This in a way contradicts the theory of the “knock-out blow”, since it implies that instant victory is not obtainable if the population shows sufficient resistance and endurance. Also, the country can build its defences to make such a decisive blow impossible – though of course, as Baldwin warned in 1932, the bomber will always get through. On the other hand, the proponents of the “knock-out blow” against the enemy, like Lord Trenchard, at the head of the RAF, could indulge in what she calls “the fantasy of war without warriors” [41]. The first Zeppelin raids in 1915 had created a panic out of all proportion with the actual casualties: the aerial war was therefore largely a war of nerves – but also of trust in those in charge of conducting the war as a collective effort and of confidence in ultimate victory. In other words, a matter of morale. The “knock-out blow”, it was therefore believed, could only affect a population with a low morale. Hence the importance of Civilian Defence and Air Raid Precautions, both as a physical measure of protection and a psychological measure of reassurance that the ordinary population would not be let down by the governing élites. The various plans made and booklets published from 1935 are well documented, especially on the well-known debate between the advocates of individual shelters – generally on the Right – and those of deep public shelters, on the Left.

An entire chapter is devoted to the protection against gas and chemical weapons. It could of course be argued today that it is perhaps too much since after all these “barbaric weapons” [51] were not used in the end. But Michele Haapamaki naturally sees the fear which they aroused as part of “the ‘doomsday’ culture of the interwar years” [ibid.] which she wants to study and discuss. The prima facie revulsion vis-à-vis the use of gas, especially against civilian populations, needs no explanation. Michele Haapamaki excellently shows how the Left, the pacifists and the anti-militarists played on it through their multiple organisations and publications. She insists however on what she calls “the contrarians in the poison gas debate” [66], i.e. those who deny that death by gas is more painful than death by wounds, notably led by the well-known scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who denounced the “sentimentalism” of the opponents to “the most humane weapon ever invented” in 1925 [56].

To add to the confusion, Haldane cultivated the image of a Leftist from the 1930s, supporting Socialist culture in the Soviet Union in 1931 or denouncing his (Conservative) MP as “one of those responsible for the massacre of the women and children of Madrid” in 1937 [78]. His magnum opus on gas and shelters was undoubtedly A.R.P., published in Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club in 1938. In it he demolished the Government’s policy on at least two accounts, as made clear by the copious quotations given in The Coming of the Aerial War: only gas-proof deep public shelters are adequate, and the policy of dispersal envisaged “ensures that almost every bomb will find a human target of some kind” [81].

The first practical real-life test of Air Raid Precautions came with the Spanish Civil War, which is discussed in the next chapter, with the emphasis on “how observations regarding ARP in Spain were translated into the British context” [89]. It aims to show that “for all the rhetoric about international solidarity, Spain functioned primarily as a venue to reassert British democracy” [ibid.] If anything, the experience of the Spanish Civil War should have destroyed the theory of the “knock-out blow”, if by that it was meant that the population would immediately yield before massive bombings: “air raids provoked fear and outrage, but on the whole they failed to dent morale” [94]. Michele Haapamaki concludes the chapter by convincingly pointing out that “the image of heroic”, that is defiant, Spaniards, set an example which largely dismissed “the despairing accounts of the fiction writers and peddlers of fear” which had so far dominated the debate [101].

The lesson was not lost on the Left, always inclined to glorify citizens’ initiatives. As Michele Haapamaki excellently demonstrates, “the leftist air raid precautions (ARP) critique evolved to combine technical observation from Spain and theories of deep shelter with collectivist and communitarian ideals” [106]. She examines the aims and actions of the Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War Group “often seen as agitators first and professionals second” [106] – and how the Right and the Government used that image to discredit their findings, notably on gas. The Left Book Club joined the fray on the continued official refusal to build deep shelters for the general population while some were under construction at Whitehall and Windsor. Further confusion arose when Haldane, the Communist Party and the Cambridge Scientists produced widely different – but enormous – figures for the total cost. The funding could only come from the State, leading to another heated debate on the inevitable increase in taxation. An interesting argument was that the proposed construction programme would create jobs at a time of high unemployment. It seems that Haldane was the central figure in that national debate and, as Michele Haapamaki astutely observes, his books “were widely read by both opponents and supporters” [121]. The net result of that debate, she concludes, was that “by 1938 the ground had been set for a clash between radically differing view of society and the civilian relationship to the state” [ibid.]

This is the subject of the next chapter, which examines the inevitable collective discipline of ARP in the light of the desirable preservation of civil liberties in a democracy like Britain: “the prospect of unqualified wardens with broad police powers was particularly troubling” [125], especially among Left-wing intellectuals and pacifists like Bertrand Russell. The fear of “meddling” and “busybodies” on the part of the ordinary population is well documented by a number of Mass-Observation surveys, appropriately quoted in the chapter, which also discusses “the more conciliatory attitude” [131] of Herbert Morrison and the Labour Party.

Michele Haapamaki then turns to the extremely complicated question of the connection between the actual attitude to the bomb raids when they finally came in 1940 and “Britishness”. British identity is a vexed question in itself, fraught with pitfalls. To study individual and collective behaviour in the face of the air raids in the light of a supposed national character – disputed by many – is therefore a very bold undertaking, which she accepts with gusto, examining the vast corpus of evidence and literature which has appeared since in fact the very first raids. Arguably, nobody can entirely embrace this colossal corpus, and Michele Haapamaki strives to provide a representative sample of the averred facts and interpretations offered so far. The inevitable contradictions soon appear, however, as when she cites the mid-19th c. ideals of self-help and social duty / altruism in two successive sentences defining the British way. When she writes that “most British people held a range of attitudes that fell between the poles of voluntarism and compulsion” [139], she demolishes all arguments in favour of a typical “British character”, since this could apply to people of all countries at all times in their inner hearts. On the one hand, she gives the example of the Women’s Voluntary Service, whose agenda is self-explanatory; on the other, discussing the evacuation scheme, she argues that it shows “that officials firmly believed that the principle of dispersal remained the soundest” [191] – and they did not hesitate to resort to compulsion, at least in the initial phases of the war.

In between, she has an interesting chapter on a relatively little-known “project proposed by the Borough of Finsbury” in 1938, which “represents practically all the political and technical issues that surrounded the ‘British way’ of air raid precautions” [152]. The proposal for a large deep shelter, put forward by the Labour Left at the head of the council, clashed with National Government policy. It was a clear case of collective action versus individual precautions. Michele Haapamaki makes much of the debate : “All the previous issues regarding political activism, Britishness and the role of the state came together just prior to the war in a struggle of vision, ideology and competing notions of scientific and moral authority” [168], but if there was anything typical of the British way of doing things, it seems that it was a perfect example of the constant struggle between the individual approach defended by the Conservatives and the collective approach defended by Labour, with the Liberals diffidently oscillating between the two. The Hailey Commission, whose composition made its recommendations a foregone conclusion, finally ditched all projects of building deep shelters for the general population in March 1939. Michele Haapamaki correctly concludes that “it served as the final expression of the government’s idea of national character and the ‘British way’ of civil defence” [184] – but this proves nothing as far as “Britishness” is concerned: only that the Conservative-dominated National Government had its own notions of the concept, to which there was vocal disagreement all over the United Kingdom. She herself provides the counter-argument when discussing the evolution of policy after Morrison’s appointment as Home Secretary in October 1940 and Haldane’s new role as “important advisor to the National ARP” [196]: both had been forceful opponents of “the government’s idea of national character and the ‘British way’ of civil defence” in the late 1930s. For at least the duration of the war, that Conservative conception was discredited, to be replaced by “the idea of popular cooperation and community action that the leftist ARP critics had advocated” [200]. If anything, therefore, contrary to the thesis defended in the book,  the actual experience of the raids and the precautions then taken against them shows that there was no such thing as a clearly visible “British identity” at the time.

The Coming of the Aerial War is not an easy book to read – nor is it easy to discuss, as we have impeccable documentation, with sometimes interesting forays into little-known aspects of the question, unfortunately marred on occasion by self-contradictory elements, or conclusions which can only be seen as “not proven” – or even worse, disproved by the evidence adduced by the author herself. As an illustration of the political debate (in the wide sense) on the implications of the coming war seen through the prism of the bombing menace and the air raid precautions which it was desirable or otherwise to take, the book is no doubt of great interest – it is a pity, however, that muddled considerations of “Britishness” should have been introduced, as they only confuse the discussion.


(1) Panchasi, Roxanne. Future Tense : The Culture of Anticipation in France between the Wars.  Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 2009

(2) Grayzel, Susan R. At Home and Under Fire : The Air Raid in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz. Cambridge: University Press, 2012 (Paperback reissue, 2014).

(3) This is fully discussed in Gollin, Alfred. No longer an Island : Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909.  London: Heinemann 1984. Not in the book's bibliography.

(4) This is fully discussed in Farmelo, Graham. Churchill's Bomb : A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics. London: Faber & Faber, 2013 - probably published too late for inclusion in the book's bibliography. See review.


Cercles © 2014

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.