Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Fall of France, 11: Postblogging Technology in 1939, I: January


Yes, this blog is going the artisanal slow history route!

1939: The year that the state spent more on technology than any other (peace) year ever. Is that how you know 1939? No, you know 1939 as the year war came. The two are of course related, but in a way that is  none too obvious. In the received version that I learned from Professor Strawman’s 1962 bestseller, I Tossed Off This Book During A Sabbatical I mostly Spent Drinking Myself Stupid Around London, I learned that the Western Democracies entered the year humiliated by their surrender of (nice) Czechoslovakia to the Dictators at Munich, and exited it in a self-chosen world war for Poland. Because Britain didn't spend enough on defence. (I think France might have been involved in this, too, but I don't find "France" in the Professor's index). Also because Neville Chamberlain was dumb, dictators were bad, and, uhm, Cliveden Set something something.

A few years later, I learned from Duncan Cameron Watts that it looked like the German economy was collapsing in the spring of 1939, even as Hitler went on a rampage of aggression and menaces that led to the Allies finally standing up against him: in January, not March, being the substantive point of a well-written and not that old book that for some reason shows up on the third page of results in a Google Books search for "d c watt How War Came" after two pages of citations. Google Book's search algorithms could do with some tweaking. 

Even more recently, I learned that the Allies were optimistic going into the war. That they thought that they would win (which, after all, they did) because they were stronger. And even more recently, Adam Tooze has shown that they were, in fact, stronger. This is kind of an important point, as it exposed German National Socialist Democratic Worker's Party as a bad economic manager, which you might think would be an important point that our larger learned and semi-learned public sphere might absorb as a counterpoint to the idea that authoritarian regimes at least have the advantage that they manage the economy better. 

It doesn't, I think because 1939 was over too quickly. At the time, it may have happened day by day, just like any other year, but, in retrospect, we're just galloping through to get to the cool part, with dive bombers. It's a pretty common thing. Try to find a history of the Thirty Years War that spends as much time on Prince Thomas of Savoy as it does on Count Mansfeld, or a review of the Italian Wars that makes the War of the League of Cambrai as big a  deal as the "descent on Italy" way back in 1494. 

So: 1939, slowly. 

First to introduce our sources, I have three weeklies lined up: Flight, the "official weekly of the Royal Aeronautical Club;" The Aeroplane, the "most influential aviation weekly in the world;"  and Engineering, the weekly review of British engineering; and one monthly, the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society.  

This isn't an ideal lineup. The British weeklies sometimes break down into one with a higher and more irenic tone and one that is, uhm, more vigorous. The Aeroplane is the latter, and, loathsome as I and I think pretty much any other sane people, find its long-term editor, C. G. Grey, it does make for brighter copy. Unfortunately, long past schoolboys stole so many numbers of The Aeroplane out of the UBC library that the run is incomplete, and we won't be joining Grey until July. 

There is a similar contrast between Engineering and The Engineer, from which the former split back in 1866. The Engineer is more engaged in everyday events and much more interesting than Engineering, and its editor isn't a hateful racist who has to spin out endless pages of copy in the down weeks. Unfortunately, UBC's run of The Engineer is in offsite storage and currently inaccessible, and I'm not so burdened with time that I can run out to Metro and read their run in Vancouver's Coliseum-inspired public library that you might remember from Battlestar Galactica. (It really is the only building in this city besides the SFU main campus building, otherwise known as "every alien city ever.") Engineering is boring, but it's what I've got, is what I'm saying. 

So the conceit of this exercise is that you've --no, wait, one-- has just met Neville Henderson at a New Year's Party. He's convinced that Hitler is about to launch a new adventure, and talked one's ear off about the strength of the Luftwaffe and how the Air Ministry was refusing to take it seriously. An Air Marshal wandered over and complained that the Treasury Secretary was "determined to save enough money to pay Hitler an indemnity after we're defeated." The rebarbative editor of The Aeroplane was drawn in. He felt that British aircraft production could easily overtake Germany's, if it had not already, and that Hitler was no threat. (Unlike, he continued, Bolsheviks, Jews, Asiatics, French, the Celtic fringe, speed limits, safety regulations for aircraft --and, well, that was the point that you made your polite regrets.)

Now it's the morning after, and you're at your club. Sitting across from you is a fellow who made a fortue on the Air Boom of 1936, pumping-and-dumping shadowy new concerns. "Bring me the aeronautical papers," you tell a passing waiter. You'll find out what's what soon enough. 

There, are, however, no aeronautical papers. Apparently, the ink-stained set do not publish on New Years Day. The waiter does, however, take great pleasure in thumping the  great bound volume that contains the last six months of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society at your table. Perhaps one could have been more generous with the Christmas gratuity?

Anyway, one learns about: The Focke-Angelis Helicopter;  “Large Aeroplanes; "Anodic Oxidation of Aluminium and its alloys;“Relaxation and Iteration;" German sail planes; “Riveting Methods and Rivet Equipments used in German light metal aeroplane construction,”; “The Manipulation of the Boundary Layer;” “The Stressing of a Tail Boom System For Fin and Rudder Side Loads.”

Helicopters and very large aircraft could be thing, although you've heard that kind of optimism before. And clearly people are quite interested in German technical progress, but not overwhelmed with it. What's most interesting, given your Maths background, is just how challenged aircraft designers clearly are in approximating numerical solutions to the very complex systems of linear differential equations that describe stress in an aircraft structure. The implications, for example, in building structures that can support massive stresses with minimal material while at the same time greatly reducing drag by manipulating boundary layer effects, are impressive. 

Then you get to the November 1938 number, which reprints H. J. Gough's 26th Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture. This sort of thing is familiar to you. Your buttocks ache at the memories inspired by the first  quick skim of the table of contents: “Materials of Aircraft Construction,” it says. 

So you turn over the page and begin to skim. And skim. And skim. Apparently, Dr. Gough gave a talk that extends for 110 pages in print, admittedly including copious illustrations. His audience, one is asked to suppose, followed Gough in a ramble that led from the original Wright aeroplane's engine to the use of plastics in (some) components to new alloys for supercharger manufacture. Pull the other one, Royal Aeronautical Society! It has bells on. Clearly this is actually a primer of current developments of aircraft construction under the guise of a lecture. One wonders why the RAeS feels the need to disseminate this information right now. 

Finally, the December number is also a distracting exercise in page-thumbing, but in this case because of the many, many pages of ads inside the front cover. As a man of the world, one is aware that the annual December Paris Show is the climax of the aviation technological year, but this still seems a bit excessive. Doesn't advertising follow money? How much money is there in aviation right now? The actual articles include one by an American (John E. Younger ((Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the “University of California,”)), “Engineering Aspects of Commercial High Altitude Flying;” yet more mad stressmen writing about this newfangled "numerical analysis" of unsolvable mathematical problems, and an article, translated out of Italian, on pigeon flight. Curious, given how vehemently Mr. Grey talked up technological progress under Italian Fascism last night. Is this the best the Italians can do?

A few days later, you are brought something a little more accessible. Specifically,

 Flight 1567 (5 January 1939): the news of the issue is neatly summarised at the head by an extended editorial by a pleasant Danish chap named C. M. Poulsen. Our Editor leads off “Developing the Fleet Air Arm.” Apparently, four RAF stations have been handed over to the FAA for training and development as it expands from its current strength of c. 3000 officers and men to c. 10,000 in “a few years time.” “Believe it or Not" headlines a bit about how experts at the US War Department have just determined that Germany and Italy have six times as many military aircraft as France and Britain combined. Germany’s monthly military aircraft output is 500, while that of Britain, while doubled since 1937, is only half that number. Germany’s peak production occurred in November (1938), when she produced 10000 machines. Edward Ellington has been to Australia, hates that the Aussies are buying American aircraft, and wants factories for British planes in Australia; progress in rotor aircraft is being held up by the confused situation on the patent front. No-one can proceed without violating someone’s patent. Where has one heard this before? The London-Lisbon service, to have begun on Monday, is indefinitely delayed. There is a picture of a new De Havilland airliner, the  De Havilland 95 Flamingo, which apparently premiered last month and is expected to draw strong interest.

The Service Aviation section features two pages and two pictures, suited for the ever-expanding subject, and has room for two pictures: the formidably built up look of the brand new aircraft carrier, Ark Royal in a side view, and a Lockheed Hudson, with a foregrounded Sqdn Leader J. Addams taking receipt from one C. L. Johnson, of Burbank, California. Heh. "Burbank" is a funny word. Some music hall comic should make light of it.
Foreign Service news covers dive bombers twin-engined fighters in France, the case for the Light Fighter, featuring the appallingly ugly Caudron.
Articles: “America ‘Sold’ on Helicopters,” by Raoul Hafner. Who appears to sell helicopters. Well, it is a trade publication.

One is old enough to remember many, many arguments about manning the Royal Navy's technical services over the year, and your eyes tend to roll, even though the implication of a 7000 man increase in the number of Navy ratings repairing aero-engines at sea in the annual Mediterranean cruise causes one to raise one's eyebrow and think about the implications for one's Nuffield shares. How is the Navy going to get so many skilled men without generous hardship pay, and what will that do to the factories? Speaking of which, one notes that apparently three new British airliners debuted (in various ways) last Fall: the DH 89, Armstrong Whitworth Ensign, which British Pathe has described as the largest aircraft ever built, and this new DH. 95. This strikes one as rather a lot of planes. Looking back at Professor Younger's article, it is striking at how much attention is lavished on planes that have not flown yet. Odd. Aren't the Americans supposed to be vastly in advance of us? And no mention of a new German type at all. (Although someone at lunch points out that there is an omission here, and that British Pathe is actually wrong.)

The next day, there arrives with a resounding thump

Engineering 6 January 1939

Engineering's editorialist seems to be a bit of a wet blanket. No wonder that his page is buried in the middle of the paper. Although perhaps there was a more pressing reason in 1866, one would still think that the format might have been revisited at some point in the last 73 years. We are worried, says the editorial, that the current trading depression is leaving the industry too dependent on armaments. Well, yes, you think. Considering how backward-looking the paper is on format, it sure seems willing to look around the corner at the problems of the future!.

Flight 12 January 1939

Editorial: leading off, “Safety Last –or Fast?” Flight “pleads for . . . a little sanity and common sense in the race for speed on the air routes of the world.” This is followed by a summary of a talk on strategic bombing and bombing panic given to RUSI. The point seems to be that Wells is wrong, and a bit of bombing won't cause the collapse of civilisation.  “Finding the Answer” proposes that we keep up with the whole wind tunnel thing in spite of the results so far being a bit disappointing, and, specifically, that Farnborough should get two wind tunnels as big as the ones the Americans have. Harrumph. 

Article: “Atlantic Overture:” what’s being done on the Atlantic this year. The Stars and Stripes will be carried by the enormous Boeing 314, a still more enormous French Potez-CAMS six-engined flying boat that is apparently nowhere near completion, the Albatross, and, to the extent that the Germans are in it at all, by a repeat performance by Deutsche Lloyd/Deutsche Lufthansa's catapult ships, which fly off diesel-engined BV139 flying boats. At least these silly Heath-Robinsons make one feel better about the sum total of British efforts, the bizarre Short “C” flying off a Short-Mayo parasite aircraft and an even more unlikely use of a specially strengthened Short boat that will be fueled up after it has taken off, in a pioneering industrial application of "mid air refuelling." It is small consolation that newer, faster, bigger Fairey and Short civil airliners under development, since the editor is pessimistic about their actual use on the Atlantic run. Its is unlikely the editor concludes, that there will be paying passenger service on the route in the 1939 season. American heiresses will have to continue to reach London the old-fashioned way.

Service Aviation is one page and pictureless. Opposed is “Flying with the Luftwaffe,” featuring pictures of Do 17s on the ground and in the air. Odd. Aren't these rather old planes?

Of the regular columnists, “Indicator’s” Topics of the Day" is worthy of note. 'Indicator' writes on civil aviation, and throws more cold water on the idea of passenger flights across the Atlantic. Remember, 'Indicator' asks, how PAA has lost two flying boats in the Pacific already, and how Captain Powell’s last flight to Newfoundland (for Imperial, one assumes. Remarkably, 'Indicator' is mistaken in thinking that Imperial Airways pilots are household names) nearly ended in disaster when he almost missed the island in weather that was far from good, albeit in summer, when the best flying conditions will be found? If that can happen with a picked crew, it seems a little premature to be talking about a paying passenger service this year.

Speaking of which, there are articles on “Plastic Progress;" “the Napier Dagger VIII;” and “The Use of Wind Tunnels,” which appears to be a write up of a Q&A with “Miss F. B. Bradfield” and “Mr. D. L. Ellis,” rather than an article. The point that sinks in is that wind tunnel workers have to defend their equipments against the accusation that they are just elaborate devices for "cooking" up whatever results one needs to begin with. Hmm. That does seem like something that a Yankee huckster would do. Or a wily old civil servant. Bradfield and Ellis even concede that this is a risk of scaling-up methods.

Engineering 13 January 1939

Who is worrying about emergency power supply in relation to new plants failing for one reason or another? Engineering is. Also, the current report from the Special Areas is in. Unemployment will not be relieved by the traditional heavy industries, and there are encouraging signs that “light industry” is moving into the trading estates. Well, that's bad news for labour costs in one's mine, steel and textiles stocks, then. One might want to consider combing some of them out of the portfolio. 

Flight 19 January 1939

Editorials: America is expanding its air force: the Aussies reply to Ellington; the RAF is introducing a full-time Air Gunner rating drawing only from the Wireless Operator trade to save on the loss of ground service for tradesmen. One wonders how those oily-but-indispensable ground tradesmen will be compensated for loss of flight pay. The lower classes are such sticklers about their wage packets! French a/c production is too low. The Ensigns have been withdrawn from service. Hmm. Well that's certainly bad news. One wonders what that's about. Isn't it government policy to carry the entire first class Empire mail by air? One was hoping to keep closer track of goings-on at the Hong Kong shipyard, and this loss to the Imperial fleet is not encouraging. Even if they are smaller than the latest(?) German ship. Perhaps the Germans or Americans will come in with something new to pick up the business.

Articles: Sir Francis Chichester, “Navigation, Fourth Rate or First Class.” One is mildly surprised that apparently it can be hard for aircraft pilots to know exactly where they are, especially when over water. They look at the stars through sextants, one is told, just like in the Middle Ages, and use 'Dead Reckoning,' about which one could make a joke. What about modern technology? A fellow named F. de Vere Robinson, apparently a regular columnist notwithstanding the heavy demands he makes on the paper's typographers, visits 90 Squadron. The point here appears to be that since  Robertson last visited, only two years ago, the squadron has gone from a fusty-looking biplane called the Sidestrand to an exciting monoplane called the Blenheim. Although one wonders just how exciting the Blenheim can be when it is apparently being shopped to Yugoslavia of all places. Someone, it is not entirely clear who, writes “Ultra Modern,” which one would guess would be the title of an article if a librarian were asked, and is anyway preliminary details of the new Fairey commercial four-engine airliner, which will cruise at 220mph.

Service Aviation: after a picture of an Anson in the editorial page, has “Hounds and Hurricanes,” showing a meeting of the Puckeridge Hunt on the grounds of RAF Debden. A Shark of the RCAF is shown page over, apparently built in Vancouver by Boeing. So presumably wily Chinese  gentlemen and head-hunting Kanaks and French Catholic halfbreeds can at least build biplanes, under some surplus of direction as provided by Blackburn men supervising Boeing men supervising "natives." And one's cousin Reginald, who has been living in out there since the unfortunate episode with the maid.

Flight 26 January 1939

Editorial: Observer rating in RAF, FAA, more voluntary reservists sought, preliminary reports of yet another episode in which an Imperial flying boat has crashed, this time off Bermuda. Oh no! That might involve the right kind of American!

Articles (right inside editorials for a change): Staff: “Sunderland I.” The militarised version of the Empire boat sounds like just the thing.   F. G. Miles summarises recent work on boundary layers. Odd. Doesn't he design fighters in his spare time? The North American Harvard has arrived. You see, British trainers are named after Oxford and Cambridge, so this first American-procured RAF trainer is named after Harvard! Ha! Just as well that the Air Ministry has decided to buy American, before the RAF ended up flying a plane named after a red brick!

Commercial Aviation: a blurb on  new airstrip lighting technology for QBI approaches. "QBI" apparently refers to conditions under which commercial airliners fly into airfields that are so socked in that you can't see the ground! It sounds awfully dangerous, and while of course brighter lights would help, one would like to hear a bit more about, you know, modern technology (infrared? television? radio? sound-locating?) before letting one's daughter fly to Paris, as she has begged to do.

The monthly technical supplement of Flight, Aircraft Engineering has Low Compression diesel engines.

Engineering 20 January 1939
Who cares about the drainage of agricultural land? Engineering does. So does oneself. But one can see how little obstacles like "being incredibly boring" are standing in the way of Engineering reaching peaks of circulation. Has it considered more stories about Hollywood stars instead of agricultural drainage?


Looking back at a month that saw the Prime Minister go all the way to Rome to try, and fail, to put together an agreement with the Italians, and ever increasing talk of new German adventurism, one cannot help but begin to feel that Munich might have been a mistake, no matter what Neville said at the time. At this point, one begins to wonder where all these war scares are going to lead. What might the Air Forces be able to do if the worst happens?

*This cartoon appeared in the last Grey-edited number of The Aeroplane, 30 August 1940. From right to left beginning with Albratross cracking up on the closed door of the Air Ministry in the right hand corner, the "straight dope" is: (i) The Air Ministry is buying bombers with lots of turrets and stuff that slow them down, instead of a plane like the Albatross or the old Comet Racer, which could evade interception with speed; (ii) Britain is being lazy and dreamy while Germany and the Americans take the larger share of aviation exports. Which isn't true. Actually, America is in the lead followed by Britain, but, as we shall see, this is a pretty systemic distortion for The Aeroplane; (iii)  there is a privileged "air ring" of manufacturers who get all the Air Ministry's money on account of being able to manufacture to Ministry specifiications, and it is totally unfair; (iv) While the Air Ministry buys ever more-complex radial, inline and diesel internal combustion engines, designs for turbojets and turboprops are pilling up at the back door; (v) the British and German air ministries  are crowing about the size of the egg they've laid, but, of course, we can't see it, because they're sitting on it.

Let me repeat myself: in bold full-sized type: On  30 August 1939, a cartoon was published in the "most influential aviation weekly in the world" pointing out that British manufacturers were lining up to pile  turbojet and turboprop designs   at the back door of the Air Ministry. Fun, hunh? I'm not prepared to draw world-shattering conclusions at this point, but it's something worth noting.

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