Friday, 20 November 2009

First Blitz

I really really enjoyed this book. I nearly bought it, decided that it was a rather big book to have on just one topic, and didn't. But then I saw it at the library and thought I'd give it a go, and have now come to the conclusion that it would've been worth buying it. Neil Hanson does a fantastic job of bringing an intriguing and little known event to life. At times his tale is very moving, particularly when describing the deaths of a number of schoolchildren due to a German bomb which fell on a primary school. There were tears in my eyes as I read the first hand accounts which were woven into the narrative throughout (although I admit I am quite an emotional person at times). Now, I'm a bit of a WWI aviation fan, as you may have noticed :D, but I'd never heard of this attempt, or the England Squadron as it was termed. And though I had a vague knowledge, inspired by some pictures, that there were a couple of massive aircraft built by Germany, I had no idea just what they stretched to. Aircraft, biplanes remember, and rather flimsy things at that, which had five/six engines, and the Giants were bigger than anything the British or Germans flew during WWII (so bigger than a Lancaster bomber, and that is BIG). Can you imagine what it would be like to fly in something like that?! Well, Neil Hanson does a very good job of capturing the sorts of emotions flying through the pilots and crews minds as they set out on their missions.

The England Squadron's sole purpose was to deliver a devastating load of bombs to London, in order to force England to capitulate. The theory was, that if London was wiped out, the ability of the British people to resist would be shattered. Basically, it was area bombing as later practiced by the British. Hanson traces the battle from both sides--that of the victims on the ground, and that of the aircrew who flew these tremendously long missions, bearing in mind that in 1917 when the thing really got started, aeroplanes had only been able to fly over the Channel for eight years. And in 1918, apparently the Germans were only minutes away from delivering a massive strike upon London, one which would (theoretically) have had a similar impact to the attack upon Dresden as the incinidaries to be dropped were almost identical in design, and the methods had been finalised as a result of experience gained previously. At the last minute, politics intervened: the German high command felt sure they were going to lose the war, and feared that by bombing London they would inflict upon themselves a more punitive peace than would otherwise be the case. It is interesting to ponder what would've happened had the messenger's car broken down and the England Squadron taken into the air. Would London have been wiped out? Would enough planes have gotten through to cause substantial damage? There was little risk from anti-aircraft fire, which could not see the night-flying bombers, and relied upon pinpointing them with sound (apparently blind people were used for this role, as they had more sensitive hearing) and then ranging the guns accordingly. The anti-aircraft guns were in fact more of a danger to London than to enemy aircraft. And the aircraft sent out as interceptors had only the most rudimentary night time flying equipment--it was all rather trial and error, and incredibly difficult to find a Gotha or Giant when you were up there in the dark. No, the real danger was from the aircraft themselves. Only two sorties out of every single mission flown by the England Squadron had no aircraft suffering engine failure and returning to base. It has to be remembered that they were flying these massive bombers at a time when the Sopwith Camel killed about as many pilots through its own violent right hand spin and engine failure and structural failure as the enemy pilots did shooting them down.

This is a remarkable book, well written and gripping, and echoes of WWII sneak through its pages. The air defence system which was put in place by the end of WWI was identical in every respect apart from the fact that radar replaced audio direction finding, to that used in WWII with such success. The lessons learned from the bomber offensive were ironically used differently by each side. The British concluded that a) the bomber would always get through, and b) it would be possible in future for a knock out blow upon the enemy, that morale bombing would work as they had seen such disruption (completely out of proportion to actual damage). The Germans on the other hand, concluded that it was pretty much a waste of time. Both conclusions are still drawn about area bombing.

I would strongly recommend this book. Not only does it tell a fascinating story, Neil Hanson writes with insight and flair. I really enjoyed this book, and will probably find myself reading it again, and I'll certainly keep my eye out for other books by him.

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