The Antarctic Peninsula, as it may or may not have been walked by one John Davis, the New England sealing captain who may or may not have commanded the first ship to make landfall, in the same year that two separate expeditions discovered the peninsula from the sea. We don't know for sure, but given the number of sealers making first landfall in the rookeries of the south in this year of grace 1820, we'll give him all credit due. Twenty-three year old captains commanding ships full of teenagers, discovering the most desperately dangerous lands on Earth to meet the demand for train oil. Or, more accurately, to make a living and earn the money to have a life in these desperate days after the withdrawal of public finance at the end of the Napoleonic wars. As a meditation piece for today's post: "Little Joe the wrangler will wrangle never more."
Okay, enough of the maudlin. As it turns out, Gericault's has more to do with an age when young men's hopes are being dashed against postwar austerity than the wreck of the Meduse frigate directly. It turns out that the wreck of the Meduse, is somehow Louis XVIII's fault, mainly, I think because "the Generation of 1820" is growing up into an unexpectedly opportunity-deprived adulthood due to post-Napoleonic austerity. The conjunction I see between the wreck of the Meduse frigate and Antarctic exploration is that incredibly green crews are sailing inconceivably remote and inaccessible places while still having shipwrecks is that navigation is actually very hard. Our attention is being drawn to a particular shipwreck because the young men of France are pissed that they don't have jobs. Historians of technology are not necessarily called upon to revise our understanding of particular historical episodes. I have no idea whether there is even a revision to be made in the history of the Meduse. Perhaps its captain and navigator really were as incompetent as the anti-Bourbon press presents them as being.
This is a thing about the history of technology. Not only is it hard to do properly, we have a motive for doing it wrong. In talking about patent trolls, I've had occasion to mention Elihu Yale, whose patent "Yale lock" has a prototype discovered in ruins from the Uruk expansion, and Henry Sibley, who got a patent for inventing the wigwam. It may be because I've had too much coffee, but I find it hard not to look at the smug, Civil War-era smile on the face of the Wikipedia photograph and not want to climb through a convenient time portal and punch him. Except that the real villains of this story lie hidden at the Patent and War Offices, and the real victims are only the US taxpayers. The residue of old-time historians of technology who count American Nineteenth Century patents to conclude that American society was especially innovative? They just need to be corrected. Because here is a place where the historiography needs to be pushed forward to serve policy and the larger project of historical research. Technological progress does not happen of itself, nor does it fail to happen anywhere near as often as we suppose.
Now try this as a Google Search Item:
"The RAF had neglected. . . "
Because, with all due respect to the esteemed historians who like this phrase, the Air Ministry had neglected nothing. Money flowed like water into every crook and corner of the British aviation and ancillary industry for five long years before May of 1940, and before that, excepting a two year handicap to the Germans, more had gone to the British sector than that of any other country on Earth, excepting only the 2 billion dollar investment jag in the States during the boom years of 1927--9. We can safely say that the RAF was not as good at various things as it could have been.
Again, because it is worth pointing out, had the RAF announced, on the morning of 10 May 1940, that all these propellery-things had been a clever Mastroika to lure the Germans into attacking, and that the real British air arm had Hunters and Canberras and Vulcans, this would have been a thing that could imaginably have happened.
No, wait, you're saying. That's crazy. How can you imagine a world in which the RAF had successfully developed all of the exotic light alloys and proven jet turbine engines and electronics and aerodynamic theory that lies behind all of these planes without massive knock on consequences? Just think through the changes to British thermal power plants implied by working jet turbines! My head is exploding!
Fair enough. But understand that when we are supposing that the RAF could have solved the celestial navigation thing in the spring of 1939, we are supposing a world in which technology has developed ten years beyond where it was.
This, we see.
This, on the other hand, we don't. Here's a very brief explanation. A very brief explanation, that, to me reads as though two attractive people bumped into each other and someone got an Air Mileage Unit in someone else's Direct Reading Gyrocompass. Hey I just realised that that old commercial is a double entendre! Never mind, I'm slow sometimes.
I've highlighted a great many things in my series on technology in 1939. The British air effort is going in a huge range of directions simultaneously.
"This historical study of naval aviation embraces not one, but several intriguing issues. For example, why did the US surpass the British in carrier aviation? There is general agreement that by the end of World War I, the Royal Navy's aviation unit enjoyed world leadership. The Royal Naval Air Service introduced the first torpedo plane; engaged in tactical support of British ground troops; launched the first strategic bombing raid on German Zeppelin sheds; and introduced the world's first aircraft carrier. In tactics, organization, administration and assets, the Royal Navy stood preeminent.
Between the two world wars, however, Britain forfeited its naval aviation lead. The culprit turned out to be an aviation merger - a belief that an amalgamation of army and naval air units would yield both technical and operational economies. Executed by the Lloyd George coalition government in April 1918, "aviation unity" was a reaction to a 1917 zeppelin raid on London's Victoria station. The raid and its civilian casualties precipitated a series of events that led to the creation of the RAF, the Royal Air Force.
In reality, Britain's aviation merger turned out to be a hostile RAF takeover of naval aviation. Committed to the bomber and the long distant strike in the interwar period, the RAF neglected naval aviation. And, apparently, so did the British admiralty. By the time war clouds descended upon Europe in 1939, British naval aviation was dominated by cloth-covered biplanes capable of speeds slightly in excess of 100 knots per hour. The Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm was embarrassingly reminiscent of 1918 vintage planes."
Notice how the reviewer of Thomas Hone, Norman Friedman and Mark Mandele's work manages to blame the Air Ministry for "neglect" that was entirely the Admiralty's fault, since all Fleet Air Arm money came out of the Admiralty budget? Notice how the "neglect," as we can now see, consists of the launching of two aircraft carriers in six months, with another three to launch in the next year, and another one laid down in the spring budget, not to mention a carrier in disguise? (Also, a far as I know, even before the outbreak of war, the sixth "modified Illustrious" was to be ordered in a 1939-40 Naval Supplementary, not the 1940 Estimates. That's eight new aircraft carriers by 1943, if you're counting. Not that this should be surprising, given the way that the Admiralty, industry, and public has ridden naval scares into massive "we want eight and we want eight" buying sprees. As for the "cloth-covered biplanes," that's because the Admiralty has decided to scrap a massive mid-30s buy of more metal-clad strike aircraft than the USN or IJN even had in order to focus on the cheaper Swordfish as an operational trainer while it completely overhauls its air arm, mainly because it can. Comparison? Spades versus spades (1:1,2:2, 3:3).
Or then there's this. "Having failed to solve the problem of best supporting the army against a mechanised enemy..."
Well, okay, sure. But bear in mind that this is the most modern aircraft that the Germans have ordered for army support:
How do you support the army in action? With this?
Now you're not even trying.
As far as I can tell, the whole sum of the Air Ministry's error is that it decided that as long as people were satisfying themselves with what were, in effect, repurposed light bombers, it could afford to settled for actual light bombers, and meanwhile try something really high tech.
Meanwhile, the Germans threw Ernst Udet's surplus crap into the army cooperation flights for lack of anything better, and, amazingly enough, single-engined dive bombers turned out to be quite suitable for stooging around dropping bombs and shooting machine guns at the ground pounders in an air superiority environment.
But, then, what wouldn't be?
I'm not defending the decision to buy the Battle here. I'm just saying that if the main problem with your plane is that it's getting shot down by enemy fighters too easily, that fact that it succeeds in environments where there's no enemy pursuit is not exactly a recommendation for its innovative innovativeness in the field of making enemy truck drivers stop and run and hide in a ditch when you fly over.
At one point in his magisterial Right of the Line, John Terraine suggests that the RAF abandoned army cooperation because it counted up the number of squadrons required to give the BEF air support on a German scale, realised that it would then have no independent air force, and decided that army support was a job lot.
Nazi supermen. They really are our superiors. Except, of course, that the German air force had nothing like a "German scale of army air support." The German air force put a single "Schlachtgruppe" into action over France with 48 planes. Not surprisingly, then, the dive bomber groups, lacking the range or surviveability to dive bomb factories per standing German doctrine, instead spent the campaign stooging over the army. Meanwhile, exactly as promised before the war, there was a full army cooperation squadron per BEF regular division, all tricked out with Westland Lysanders, which were just exactly what the army wanted.
Too bad the army's demand was: "We want a plane for forward liaison. Maybe it could pick up message buckets with those cool hooks? Plus radio. A good radio. And a W/O operator. And casualty evacuation. That would be awesome. Land on a dime, takeoff with two stretcher cases? Those are incommensurable requirements? Can you find a technological solution? Stretcher cases slung under the wings? Awesome! And it should be able to drop bombs and fire cannons and stuff. And did we mention land on a dime? In case the general is right at the front and wants to take an aerial tour? Wait. Those are still incommensurable requirements? Can you, like, dangle the bombs and guns and stuff off the plane the way you did the stretchers? Gun mounts on the wheel spats? Awesome."
Honestly. Bob Newhart should do a routine. All that said, the Lysander's only problem, apart from not being a helicopter, was that it was trying to stooge around over a battlefield gussied up with a thick coat of 109s.
Coming back around to "navigation," we get to a truly incoherent place. Here, Let me throw up a thick blanket of words, from Scott Robertson:
It should surprise no one, then, that the results of the exercises were taken as evidence of the veracity of the Air Staff view, even though exercise design exhibited numerous shortcomings, to say nothing of the interpretation of the results. Other doctrinal considerations also suffered from the tendency of theory to become dogma. Not the least of these were the capabilities and tactics of bomber formations. Carrying out a strategic offensive required the solution of a number of problems. Two stand out as fundamental to the “offensive.” The first of these was the question of how the bomber force would reach the general target area intact. Assuming that the Air Staff could work out a solution to the first question, the second question involved a consideration of how to deliver the attack itself. For the Air Staff to give meaning to its theory, it had to come to grips with these issues. The means and extent to which it did so—or, more correctly, failed to do so—reveal just how far the Air Staff allowed theory to unduly influence doctrinal considerations.. . . .
Put simply, the RAF’s theory of the strategic offensive was not a theory in the Clausewitzian sense. Rather, it was merely a hypothesis. In other words, the Air Staff failed to appreciate the importance of applying critical analysis to the matter of airpower and its place in the defense hierarchy. Instead, airpower advocates seized upon the experience with “strategic” bombing during the First World War as a means of ensuring the survival of the air force as an independent service. This was not necessarily a negative factor, but in the absence of a thorough exploration of the record of airpower during the First World War, it led to unwarranted conclusions. For instance, no one paid much attention to the fact that British defenses had succeeded, ultimately, in coping with the German bombing offensive, albeit at tremendous cost and effort. In the absence of such consideration, it was a fairly straightforward step to the conclusion that the “offensive” application of airpower was the only possible course to take.
So, to put it even more simply, "the RAF" forgot to think about how to get bombers to the target areas because it wasn't being sufficiently Clausewitzian. Oh, had the RAF only sat down in a Prussian garrison town and thought, really thought, about Kant and Hegel and like that, everything would have been different. Because, you know, who in, oh, pick a year, 1935, was worried about aircraft getting to the places they meant to get to, and not, say, the side of a mountain? I did not, by the way, cherry pick the year that Wiley Post killed Will Rogers (and, to be fair, himself) with his home improved Lockheed Vega. There were a lot of planes flying into the sides of mountains in 1935. The amazing thing about WWII is how many planes didn't fly into the side of mountains in the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Command, even all of those single engined escort fighters that the RAF "should" have invented by 1939. Navigation is easy. Except when it's impossible. And the Air Staff never gave it a thought. Except to get it right, as far as Coastal Command was concerned. Which is okay, because Coastal Command was "neglected" in the interwar years.
What neglect looks like, by the way:
(To be less gnomic, that's the Short Shetland, a militarised version of the Short "G" boat, at 120,000lbs all up. Had it appeared on the same schedule as the Sunderland, it would have been in service in 1941. Assuming that the Centaurus was actually ready for service. Giving Bristol due credit, the Centaurus had a better prototype-to-service engine record than the Hercules, but, to take it back, that might have been because development followed the departure of Roy Fedden.)
Okay, sure, if you're reading Flight in 1939, you could be forgiven for thinking that aerial navigation isn't being neglected at all. Here is F. de Vere Robertson, M.C., visiting the Navigation School at Lee-on-Solent and taking flights on the School's "aerial observatories," each supporting eight trainee navigators doing their sextant sightings and kneeboard calculations in their 25 week course. Here's Francis Chichester, boring us again with all of his math, taking "pinpoint" nighttime navigation down from "a mile, more or less" to "bombing a particular chateau." Here's vague talk about "High Frequency beacons" being installed all over Britain as an aid to "QBI" navigation. Here's endless talk about riding the beams, and Indicator on the RAF's dead reckoning test, done in flight "under the hood." Indicator thinks he could be more accurate if he had a better weather report, but he also thinks that more needs to be done about cockpit displays. Technology is getting ahead of the pilot's ability to assimilate the navigational data that he's given.
It is at this point that I ask that we step back a little. In his editorial celebrating the twentieth anniversary of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown's first transatlantic flight in a Vickers Vimy, C. M. Poulsen reminisces about how Brown, unemployed and trying to capitalise on his navigational skills, dropped off an article on new techniques of aerial navigation at Flight just before leaving for Newfoundland. The next day, someone from the Air Ministry showed up to confiscate the manuscript. The methods that Brown was using were a sate secret!
Just to review: this is a Vickers Vimy:
This is Brown's key technology:
|Courtesy of Helicopter Pilots Only|
Brown was facing, and solving, a huge technological problem. How do you keep track of where you are when you're stuck in a cockpit, moving at a full 100 knots, a thousand feet off the ground? That's a hard thing to do.
Now, let's make it harder. It's cold, and you need air gunners and a flight engineer. More crew means a cabin. So we'll put a roof over your head, so that you can't take star sightings. Oh, I know, you're thinking that you can just get a window put in. Well, guess what? Optically transparent plastics are busy being invented, as an offshoot of the whole artificial poo industry. (For bating leather, in case anyone's wondering. At least, according to the potted company histories in the History of the American Chemical Industry) Then we'll put up barrage balloons and make you go ten times as high. Then we'll add fighters, and make you go twice as fast. Still coping? AA. Now you need to go twenty times as high, and three times as fast.
In the course of twenty years, the number of whatchamacallit, technological disruptions or innovations that disrupt f at-one-moment settled-at-the-next-moment-impossible task of celestial navigation. At each turn, new techologies are required in response. Looking back, we can see that hose technological responses drive change in a direction that, even today, we do not fully grasp. The "classic kneeboard" above has been replaced with an iPad with a strap.
As far as I can tell, the substantive objection to Bomber Command's performance in the Battle of France is that the squadrons did not level Germany before the Battle of France was over. Well, here's the thing: the Battle of France did not last very long. Had it lasted six years, Bomber Command absolutely would have levelled Germany during the Battle of France. Could the Battle of France have lasted longer had the British air effort looked like something else? Yes, yes it could have. Had the British air effort looked like 70 squadrons of fighters, in France, it would have looked very different. Could it have looked like that? Yes, given enough money and a large enough RAF Vote A, subject to their actually being recruits agreeing to join the Air Force. (Mostly, remember, as storekeepers, given that the issue here is projecting fighters into France.)
But let us, just for a moment, imagine that, given all of that money and all of those recruits United Kingdom instead decided to top up all of the units of the army that were almost ready for action. Remember: the British taxpayer has been paying for many of the personnel and all of the barracks for these units for twenty years, precisely so that they would be available to prevent things on the continent from going pear-shaped. Remember that all of those barracks, and many of those men, are still sucking up resources on 10/05 May. Given a few more (trained) men, some more Warlike Stores, and they're ready to go to France..
That would be 5 infantry, 2 armoured, and 1 motorised divisions, plus an army tank regiment, another army tank brigade, and, incidentally, an entire cavalry division sent to Palestine because Levantines are notoriously excitable, when the BEF has had to sent most of its second flight divisions to France without divisional reconnaissance units.Would that have been about as efficacious in winning the Battle of France as 70 squadrons of British fighters, and a great deal cheaper? I tend to think so.
So, leaving the false counterfactual aside, could Bomber Command have levelled Germany on its own schedule, with the resources it had on hand in six weeks in 1940? No. Could it have done better, given a different technological set? Yes, again. Avro Vulcans, even dropping conventional ammunition, could have done it. But that's not a reasonable counterfactual. Was Bomber Command being held back by technological problems that it had failed to solve through "neglect," as opposed to "not time enough nor money in the world?" The answer to both questions is the same: technological development is a moving target. Solving the problem, at a particular time, is a strategic question of allocating resources. Whitleys could have punished the Germany of 1930 pretty severely, because they could have flown over untroubled at a thousand feet on moonlit nights. But the Germany of 1940 was not the Germany of 1930. More resources, more problem solving. As we can see from following the technological press, problems are being solved right, left and centre in the first 8 months of 1939, as we would expect from the heroic amounts of money being spent on them.
I'm going to put it another way. How do technology-driving arms races, and even wars, serve social needs? As little as I like the answer, modern times are unfolding in such a way as to make me wonder if the whole "war is the health of the state" thing has been sold a little short on account of it being full-court-press Fascist. I mean, "a generous commitment to fiscal stimulus during recessions is the health of the state" is, as I understand it, perfectly theoretically interchangeable with the full-court Fascist version, but it seems as though wars are a fuck of a lot more likely to happen than generous peacetime fiscal stimulus packages. Basically, if you shovel money into the economy, things happen. Planes don't fly into mountains, Little Joes, desperate to prove themselves, don't ride off cliffs.
Which is why my next postblogging series is going to look at the blooming health of the state in the midst of war.
*Thanks to Ian Maclaren for uploading this to his Flickr account. I hope he doesn't mind, assuming he trackbacks. If you do, Ian, the reason I'm putting acknowledgement down here is so that my scattered prose is more readable.