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Would you?

Croydon Airport booking hall, summer 1935

It's the summer of 1935. You're at Croydon Airport, waiting to board an Imperial Airways flight to Paris. But you were in a rush this morning, and you forgot to bring something to read. According to your Bradshaw's it's a flight of 2 hours and 15 minutes, and you don't particularly want to spend it looking out the window at the ground, so far beneath your feet. No matter, Croydon is fully up to date and has a news kiosk in the booking hall. You wander over to peruse the selection on offer, and this is what you see:

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One thing we were curious to try with hota-time is to see whether the idea and the code could be applied beyond looking at London-Sydney travel times. And it can! Here is the output for Melbourne-Sydney travel times, in hours rather than days:

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950), Y axis = Hours (travel time) between Sydney and Melbourne. The data points are few before about 1910, there are some between 1910 and 1915 and then many more between 1920 and 1940. There is a trend towards lower values (faster travel) but it is not strong

Lots of data points, roughly the same as for the London-Sydney plot. It does look like there is some sort of trend over time, but it's pretty messy. So let's break it down a bit so we can see what's going on.

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Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about a software project Tim Sherratt and I were working on for Heritage of the Air called hota-time. Briefly, the idea was that hota-time would extract and then plot travel times between London and Sydney mentioned in Trove Newspaper headlines, as a quantitative way to gauge the qualitative impact that aviation had on Australian perceptions of distance -- or, to be more precise, travel time. We (Tim) wrote the code, proved the concept to our satisfaction, uploaded the project, and then didn't get around to writing it up for publication. Which we are now remedying… nearly four years later! (The writing, that is, not yet the publication.)

As part of this process, we've been cleaning up the data and trying some different visualisations. Here's one of the more interesting plots.

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950s), Y axis = Days (travel time) between Sydney and London. Indigo data (sea travel, predicted travel times) dominates from about 1880s to 1915, between 20 and 30 days without much trend. Dark red data (sea travel, actual travel times) is not common, mostly sits around 30 days. Yellow (air travel, actual travel times) shows up in the 1930s, declining from around 15-22 to 5 or less by the late 1940s. By far the most common data is teal (air travel, predicted), which thickly clusters from 1917 onwards, starting at around 5-12 days and declining to well under 5 by the early 1950s

This is an updated version of the first plot in the old post, but instead of just lumping all the data together, it is separated out by colour:

  • dark red: sea, present
  • indigo: sea, future
  • yellow: air, present
  • teal: air, future

That is, present travel times are those reported as actually having been achieved, whereas future travel times have not yet been achieved (usually because they are medium or long-term forecasts, but shorter-term schedule changes fall into this category too). So dark red + yellow tracks actual travel times between London and Sydney, while indigo + teal tracks predicted travel times. Or dark red + indigo tracks sea travel, while yellow + teal tracks air travel.

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History of the Second World War

It seems like only last week that I was spruiking a podcast appearance -- actually, it was last month, which is also not very long ago! This time it was on the History of the Second World War podcast with Wesley Livesay, chatting about the German air raids on Britain of the First World War (and how that affected British thinking and planning for the air raids of the Second World War).

Wesley is indefatigably thorough, or possibly thoroughly indefatigable: this was his 27th interview for this podcast, on top of 97 regular episodes, and he's still only in the interwar period! (This is after doing 295 podcast episodes on History of the Great War, too: clearly he knew what he was getting into.) So there is plenty more world war content to consume -- including another five episodes on interwar airpower, and an interview with Alan Allport on 1930s Britain -- and when you've finished with all that you can go read Wesley's sources.


Evening Telegraph (Dundee), 30 October 1922, 2

In the previous post I looked at the possible origins of the phrase 'big bang' -- as in 'Big Bang' -- in Operation Big Bang, the partial destruction in 1947 of Heligoland, a German island in the North Sea. I also suggested that there was longer history to the phrase 'big bang', which I'll also dig into here -- partly for its own sake, partly to illustrate how easy it is track a term's popularity over time in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). And partly because I love the headline above, over 70 years before the other Big Bang was 'photographed' by COBE.

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Sydney Mail, 8 June 1938, 9

A cloud of smoke billows up from a building during a low level bombing attack carried out by biplanes. The First World War? Air control in the Middle East? Fascist bombers over Spain, or Japanese bombers over China? No, it's an air raid carried out by the RAF against Nottingham on 15 May 1938.

Of course it wasn't a real air raid: it was a mock one, something I wrote about recently in the collection edited by Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber, Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain. The photos above and below were published in the British and Australian press, and I wish I'd known about them earlier because they're great illustrations of the topic and I might have been able to include them in my chapter.

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Articles with 'air raid' per issue, 1913-1946 (BNA)

The time has finally come to address the claim I've made in the title of this series of posts, that the air raid somehow vanished. Why did I say that, and what does it mean? Well, look at the plot above. Previously I looked at how often 'air raid' (and related phrases) appeared per issue in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in each month across the First World War. The above plot, now, is how often 'air raid' appeared per issue in each year from the start of the First World War (when 'air raid' was first used) until the end of the Second. Now you can see that the first peak in 'air raid''s popularity came in 1917, at an average of 0.8 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA; and that this was followed by a second, much bigger peak in 1940 of 5.2 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA. All of which makes sense.

What's more surprising is what happened in between. From 1921 to 1934, the phrase 'air raid' almost completely disappears from BNA. At the lowest point, 1929, the average number of mentions per issue was just 0.026, or one in about 38. In other words, if you read 38 issues you might expect to read the phrase 'air raid' once, which is more than six weeks of reading a daily. If you want some absolute figures, 'air raid' appears 609 times in the 23054 issues contained in BNA for 1929. So 'air raid' was not a phrase you were at all likely to see in a newspaper in the 1920s and early 1930s.

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Broadgate, Coventry, 25 August 1939

From Alan Allport's excellent new book, Britain at Bay 1938-1941, a couple of sentences about the IRA's 1939 bombing campaign which were guaranteed to catch my attention as imaginary air raids:

Some witnesses to the Broadgate bombing interviewed by the police were convinced that they had seen aircraft in the sky moments before the explosion, and that they had actually been attacked by the Luftwaffe. When, back in May, the IRA had set off a magnesium bomb in a Paramount cinema in Birmingham, there had been pandemonium inside the auditorium as members of the audience panicked, thinking that the long-dreaded German aerial Blitz had begun. 'Keep calm -- it's only the Irish again,' someone shouted to reassure the crowd (whether they added 'and carry on' is unknown).

There's a little more detail available in the contemporary press about the first incident, which killed five people and injured seventy more in Broadgate, a major shopping street in Coventry, on 25 August 1939 (as shown above). The Birmingham Post reported that

There was chaos for a time after the Coventry explosion. A bomber aeroplane was passing over the centre of the city at the time, and the first thought of many people was that a surprise air attack had begun. This fear, indeed, led to an ugly scene. One of three men standing near a car was heard to say 'Let’s get away' or 'Let’s get out of this.' Some hearers jumped to the conclusion that the men were responsible for the explosion, and a threatening crowd began to collect. It was with difficulty that the police got the three men away to the police station, to be detained for a time for their own safety. The men’s credentials were found satisfactory, and they were afterwards released.

The link between the three men and the belief that an air raid was under way is a bit cyrptic here, but is clearer in the Dundee Courier and Advertiser's account:

The men explained that they had been standing near their car when the explosion occurred. The eldest of the men, who was with his son and grandson, shouted, 'The war has started -- let's get away,' and ran to his car, whereupon the crowd shouted, 'Lynch them.'

So the grandfather, at least, was one of those who believed that the knock-out blow from the air had arrived. This was just one week before the declaration of war on Germany. Britain was already beginning to move to a war footing -- the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act had received Royal Assent the day before -- and Coventry was an important heavy manufacturing centre, so you can see why the first thought might have been of a Luftwaffe bomb from the sky, rather than an IRA one on the ground. The surprise, perhaps, is that more people didn't make this assumption. At least some people seem to have understood that it was a terrorist attack, or else they wouldn't have made to grab the three men just for trying to flee the scene (this was in fact the seventh IRA bomb in Coventry since February, though by far the most damaging). Though it's also possible that the idea was the men were spies who had directed the supposed bomber to its target somehow. Or both, or neither: mobs aren't really known for their cool logic.

Image source: Leitrim Observer.

The first air raid on Britain during the Second World War is usually held to have taken place on 16 October 1939, when a dozen Ju 88s struck at the Royal Navy base at Rosyth, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. But there was in fact an earlier attack, on 27 September, also in Scotland, at Bellochantuy (variously spelled Bellochanty, Ballachantuie or Ballachantuy):

MACHINE-GUN fire from the air sprayed the Ballachantuy Hotel, ten miles from Campbeltown, Argyllshire, yesterday [27 September 1939]. A window was broken and the roof of the garage belonging to the hotel was also struck. No one was hurt. An aeroplane was heard roaring high overhead, and there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.

Some 'nickel-cased bullets' were found around the hotel. But no aeroplane was seen, even though a gamekeeper 'focussed a powerful telescope on the sky [and] the sun was brilliant and there were no clouds'. An aeroplane was heard again a quarter of an hour later, along with 'three rapid bursts of machine-gun fire', but again nothing was seen. Then peace returned.
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