Many Britons were, in the 1920s and 30s, convinced that Germany would convert its civilian airliners into makeshift bombers, and “rain down chemicals and bombs” upon London.
That is according to new research carried out by aviation historian Dr Brett Holman. In an article published in the journal 20th Century British History, Holman argues that aerial bombardment was widely believed to pose an existential threat to Britain in the wake of the First World War.
The press, wartime bombing experts and even the head of the RAF maintained that Germany intended to develop airpower under the camouflage of civil aviation. This meant that even a disarmed Germany would pose a grave threat to Britain.
An anonymous ‘ex-Squadron Commander’ wrote to The Times in January 1920, describing how Germany’s civil air fleet would one day “suddenly appear in their tens of thousands above us and… rain down chemicals and bombs” upon London until it was “utterly destroyed”. Meanwhile, General PRC Groves, a former RAF staff officer, warned of a knock-out blow from the air.
And while the commercial bomber “turned out to be a mirage”, says Holman, “the cumulative effect of the press attention being paid to Britain’s aerial danger produced a minor panic”.
Holman also explains that proponents of both disarmament and rearmament used the threat of the commercial bomber to advance their respective causes.
Groves and others used it as a justification for aerial rearmament, believing that Britain should use convertibility to build up a large fleet of civil aircraft.
And in 1934 Winston Churchill, then a backbench Conservative MP, opened a campaign for aerial rearmament with a speech claiming that Germany would reach air parity with Britain by the end of 1935, due in part to the large number of potential commercial bombers at its disposal.
Meanwhile, pacifists and internationalists claimed that commercial bombers posed a serious problem for any multilateral disarmament process. Philip Noel Baker, a professor of international relations, claimed that the availability of commercial aircraft “for offensive military action of a peculiarly devastating kind” rendered the existence of civil aviation “a grave menace to the world”.
Rhetoric about the commercial bomber subsided only after rearmament had begun in earnest in 1935, says Holman.
Attention shifted to the purely military balance in the air following Hitler’s revelation of the existence of the Luftwaffe in March. The danger posed by airliners turned into bombers appeared trivial when set next to that posed by the ever-increasing numbers of purpose-built bombers.
Holman told History Extra: “The idea of airliners being converted into bombers and used to launch a devastating air raid on an unsuspecting enemy is quite bizarre to us today when we think of the way bombing campaigns like the Blitz were actually fought. Yet it is one that also has some resonance after 9/11.
“It was clearly an influential idea, but it’s difficult to find any historians discussing it in a clear and accessible way. So I wanted to pull together some of these threads to make a case for the importance of the ‘commercial bomber’ concept and what it means.
“My research is, in a sense, about avoiding the historical sin of hindsight, and about restoring a sense of the possible paths history might have taken.
“The commercial bomber was considered a huge problem for the world disarmament process in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
“Looking at the ideas people had about turning airliners into bombers helps us to understand that their future looked very different to our past. Stepping back a bit, civil aviation is not inherently civilian – any technology has potentially malign uses. It’s up to us how we use it.”