The Brigadier And His Brigands: The Complexity Of Commanding The SAS In 1944

Britain got its first glimpse of the Special Air Service in the spring of 1944. Nearly three years earlier the special forces unit had been raised in Egypt, the brainchild of Lt David Stirling, and in the interim the SAS had grown from a force comprising six officers and sixty other ranks to a brigade encompassing two British regiments, 1SAS and 2SAS, two French regiments, 3SAS and 4SAS, and a company of Belgians.

F Squadron, GHQ Liaison Regiment Phantom, was attached to the brigade to make up for the shortfall in skilled signallers, increasing the brigade’s strength to 2,500 men. Most were seasoned troops who hadn’t seen Britain for years when they returned from the Mediterranean in early 1944, and nor had they seen much in the way of ‘regimental soldiering’ since volunteering for the SAS.

So it was a shock to the system when they discovered they now belonged to the SAS Brigade, a component of 1 Airborne Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, with Brigadier Roderick McLeod in charge of the SAS.

From pigsticking to guerrillas

Roderick William McLeod was not by nature a guerrilla soldier. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1925, he saw service on the North-West Frontier of India in the early 1930s and, as he himself admitted, up until he joined the Airborne Forces in 1943 his army career had consisted mainly of “hunting, polo, pigsticking…followed by staff college”.

Temperamentally and strategically, McLeod was unsuited to command the SAS. But then who was in the spring of 1944? (Mike Calvert, who made his name fighting with the Chindits, would succeed McLeod as brigadier in early 1945, but in the spring of 1944 he was in Burma). As it transpired, McLeod was a deft choice as brigadier, an officer who, as Calvert later acknowledged, skilfully and diplomatically welded the disparate regiments into a well-administered brigade.
All the same, the appointment came as a surprise to McLeod. In an article written for Mars and Minerva, the Regimental Journal of the SAS, some years after the war, he admitted his “shock” on learning he was no longer Deputy Commander of the 1st Parachute Brigade but brigadier of the SAS. He had fleetingly encountered the SAS in Italy at the tail end of 1943, describing them as “colourful and curiously dressed ruffians”, and like everyone in the British army he had heard of their legendary commander, Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne.

When Stirling had been captured in January 1943, the SAS teetered on the brink of extinction, but Mayne, assisted by Captain Lord George Jellicoe, the son of the famous admiral, had persuaded Middle East HQ of the need for the retention of the special forces unit once the Desert War was over.

An unnecessary evil

Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne

By the time Mayne returned to Britain in January 1944 he was a half-colonel with a DSO and bar, and a reputation as a guerrilla fighter par excellence. But there was another side to Mayne that he chose to reveal only to his small inner circle. “Paddy had controlled recklessness,” remembers Mike Sadler, who served with Mayne from 1941 to 1945. “He wasn’t the hard-drinking, fearless, mad Irishman of popular myth. He was intelligent, sensitive and warm underneath.”

Mayne was not only sensitive, but he was shy, and he lacked the social skill of David Stirling. These traits, combined with his rugby forward’s physique, meant he could be intimidating to subordinates and enigmatic to superiors – as McLeod soon discovered. “Mayne and the 1st SAS were straightforward,” he reflected. “They said ‘yes’ to everything they were asked to do (or not to do), they never bellyached, they were always cheerful and welcoming, and they regarded my H.Q as an unnecessary evil who should be humoured providing it did not interfere with what the Regiment thought should be done.”

The SAS didn’t appreciate Browning’s instruction in spring 1944 to replace their sand-coloured beret with the red one worn by airborne troops. Several desert veterans followed the example of Mayne and ignored the order. “I began to find that my previous experience had not prepared me for the problems of command over such unorthodox units,” remarked McLeod
McLeod also discovered that what the SAS wanted, the SAS usually got, particularly when it came to equipment. “With two years of the Desert and Italy behind then, and being accustomed to looking after themselves…the ‘G.S’ [Get Stuffed] attitude of Q [uartermaster], Staffs and Ordnance depots in England came as a shock,” said McLeod. “I hasten to say that the shock did not in any way deter the Regiment from obtaining equipment by the most unorthodox methods and then expecting my A/Q [Assistant Quartermaster] to pacify the authorities concerned.”

Little French fraternity

The arrival of the SAS in Britain brought other challenges for McLeod. There was little warmth between 1SAS, who had fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa, and 2SAS, who hailed predominantly from the First Army. That ill-feeling, however, was benign compared to the antipathy that existed between the two French regiments. 4SAS was composed of men who had been fighting the Germans since May 1940, while 3SAS was formed after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and some of its soldiers had served with the Vichy French forces. “Not only did [they] not speak to each other, but they actively fought,” remembered McLeod.
When they weren’t at each other’s throats, the French were upsetting the locals near their base, east of Ayr in Scotland. “It was difficult to persuade these splendid characters that the local salmon river should not be used as a grenade range,” said McLeod, who also had to smooth ruffled feathers after the French demolished a section of the railway line in the course of practising their sabotage skills with plastic explosives.
The only SAS soldiers who didn’t cause McLeod sleepless nights were the Belgians. “They did what they were told, their discipline was admirable and my staff loved them,” he said.

Hell of a rumpus

Frenchmen reducing salmon stocks and Irishmen wearing the wrong berets were soon the least of McLeod’s worries. On March 29, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force [SHAEF] issued the SAS Brigade with its operational instructions for the impending invasion of France. The SAS was to parachute into France the night before D-Day (D-1), outside the eastern extremity of the landing beaches, and “delay reinforcements into Normandy”.

SAS officers were aghast at the order. They were not trained to fight as a large infantry force; their expertise was operating in small parties behind the main battle area, disrupting the enemy’s communication and attacking appropriate targets. “There has been a hell of a rumpus between SAS and Airborne,” wrote Captain Sandy Scratchley, an experienced SAS officer, at the time. “No one on the Airborne planning staff has had any experience in our type of work.”

Bill Stirling, brother of David and commanding officer of 2SAS, already disenchanted with the way his regiment had been misused in Italy over the winter, was so enraged that he sent a letter to SHAEF in which he made clear his opposition to the order. When he was asked to withdraw his criticism, Stirling refused and he was relieved of his command [some sources say Stirling resigned, but in his letter Scratchley wrote of his “dismissal”].

Stirling’s sacrifice was appreciated by his men. “We were in absolutely agreement with his decision because of that thick-headed idiot ‘Boy’ Browning,” said Captain Tony Greville-Bell, a 2SAS officer. “In fact the senior officers, of whom I was one then, were inclined to resign as well but Bill told us not to.”

Lt-Colonel Brian Franks

Lt-Colonel Brian Franks replaced Stirling as commanding officer of 2SAS, but the latter’s stance hadn’t been in vain. On May 17 SHAEF cancelled its operational instructions of March 29 and it was agreed that small parties of SAS men would parachute deep inside France and work with local Resistance groups to disrupt enemy communications and attack transport heading north towards the Normandy beachhead.

For Roderick McLeod, the days of hunting and pigsticking on the north-west frontier must have felt like an idyll in contrast to the complexities of commanding the Special Air Service in the spring of 1944. “I and my H.Q were regarded initially as an entirely unnecessary evil,” he wrote in Mars and Minerva. “I like to think that eventually and rather reluctantly we became accepted, as a necessary evil, but an evil we remained.”





Gavin Mortimer has written wartime histories of the SAS, SBS and LRDG and will be at Chalke Valley History Festival 2019 to speak about THE SAS IN FRANCE 1944.

Tickets go on sale 30th April 2019.

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

One of the great joys of researching my two books about special agents and pilots in the Second World War has been interviewing veterans and witnesses to that conflict, and others who knew or met those who served in it. As the human coast erodes, as it were, it feels ever more important to capture these stories. 

Hanna Reitsch with Kwame Nkrumah, from Hanna Reitsch, I Fly for Kwame Nkrumah (JF Lehmanns Verlag, 1968)

Occasionally after a book has been published, people get in touch with stories that I would love to have included in my books. With The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the dramatic and still little-known story of Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, the only women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots in the Second World War, but who ended their lives on opposites sides of history, I have been lucky enough to meet two people who knew Hanna.  

Former diplomat, Treasury official and President of the European Investment Bank, Brian Unwin, met Hanna in the 1960s when he was serving the British High Commission in Accra, Ghana. He got in touch having been astounded by the very different picture he had gained of Hanna from reading my book. Over lunch at the Reform Club, Brian told me how he had been sent to deliver a diplomatic gift of books to the head of the Ghanaian gliding school outside Accra in ‘the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah’s totalitarian regime’. He remembered a few white buildings around the field, a crowd, the hot sun, and his giving a ‘stock speech’. Afterwards the ‘attractive silver-haired director of the school, in her 50s’ offered to take him up in a glider. Slightly nervous, Brian checked that she was qualified to do so. After her reassurances she took him up for a short flight. Only when he returned to the High Commission did he learn that she was Hanna Reitsch, ‘Hitler’s pilot’.  


Brian said that he had been rather proud to include this story in his memoirs, and to think that he was probably the last Englishman alive to have been flown by Hanna Reitsch. Having read my book, however, and learned ‘how unreconstructed’ Hanna was, he has reviewed his perspective. 

Last week, after I gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary Festival, John Batchelor, MBE, introduced himself. John is a military artist and technical illustrator who met Hanna at Edwards Air Force Base in California, around 1977. Hanna had got out of her Mercedes car, John told me, and soon had a crowd of people around her. Curious as to who she might be, John identified her by the two pieces of jewelry she was wearing. One was a senior gliding award with diamonds, the other a round brooch with a border of precious stones and a swastika at its centre. The woman could only be Hanna Reitsch and the second brooch her gift from Hitler, which she said she would wear for the rest of her life – even though it was now illegal to wear the swastika in Germany.

Clare Mulley with John Batchelor. Photo c. Alan Bentley

John introduced himself to Hanna, and found her ‘very helpful’ when he asked her about her war-time test flights. Fascinatingly, she told him that the one aircraft she would not fly under power was the Me163. This confirmed my belief that although she was happy to tell the BBC in an interview that flying the Me163 was ‘like riding on a cannon ball,’ her own flights with it had been when she was towed up to test the gliding landings. 

Hanna did not discuss the Nazi regime or politics with John, but when he mentioned her jewelry she told him that she had also kept her Iron Cross but did not wear it ‘every day’. It seems to confirm that Hanna was, as the brilliant British Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown had told me during my research, ‘a fanatical Nazi’ to the end. 

John was amused, however, when he left Hanna or, as he put it, ‘got rid of her into her waiting Mercedes’. A group of young aviation people, editors and writers, who were waiting nearby, asked, ‘Who was that old woman you were trying to date’, only to be astounded to learn that it was Hanna Reitsch!

Twice during my research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler I was told that I was just ‘two handshakes away from Hitler’; once by Eric Brown, who had shaken Hanna’s hand, and once by Major General Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father Claus von Stauffenberg had led the most famous assassination attempt on Hitler; the 20 July 1944 Valkyrie bomb plot. It was an honour, as well as a great pleasure, to interview all these men, and it is always wonderful to meet other people who are willing to generously share their memories to help me gain the most accurate picture I can of my subjects. Perhaps, if I get the chance to have a new edition of The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I can add some further nuance to their stories!   


Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, is a dual biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, but who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. 


A regular contributor to TV and radio, Clare gave recently gave a TED talk at Stormont, and lectures in London and Paris on wartime female special agents. She reviews non-fiction for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. Clare was chair of the judges for the Historical Writers Association 2017 Non-Fiction Prize, and has recently become an honorary patron of the Wimpole History Festival. She will be talking about The Women Who Flew for Hitler at 2pm on 26 June 2018 at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Book your tickets here.

The decline of wild salmon in Alaska’s Yukon is putting lives and native culture at risk

Alaskan salmon (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty)

Alaska is synonymous with wild salmon. The rivers here used to be so crowded with the fish that it was said the backs of those at the top were burnt by the sun, while the bellies of those below were scoured by gravel. Salmon steaks and salmon burgers are on the menu of every diner in the state, while dried and smoked varieties are available in airport gift shops.

When people think of the state, they often picture grizzlies haunch-deep in a river’s turbulence, catching leaping salmon like furry goalkeepers. And on Independence Day weekend, whole families jump in the car to go fishing, filling their freezers when they return home.

Few of nature’s great migrations still take place in North America. Flocks of passenger pigeons once darkened the sky for days; the last died in 1900, hunted to extinction. European settlers also shot 60 million buffalo as they moved west across the plains, decimating along with them the Natives’ way of life.

Salmon, too, have all but vanished across most of their range: through Europe, through Russia, up the East and West coasts of North America. In many ways, Alaska is synonymous with wild salmon because it is all that’s left. And yet Alaska’s salmon are now threatened too.

Over the course of two summers, I have canoed the length of the Yukon river, 2,000 miles, the longest salmon run in the world. I hoped to better understand why salmon numbers have collapsed in recent years, and how the lives are changing for those who still depend upon them, which I explore in my book Kings of the Yukon.

Canoeing on the Yukon (Photo: Ulli Mattsson)

I paddled at the same time as the salmon run, from McNeil Lake high in Canada’s Pelly Mountains across to the Bering Sea, where the Yukon reaches seven miles wide from bank to bank. The king salmon leave the Pacific Ocean in which they have spent their adult lives, and, shouldering their way against this mighty river’s current for several months, navigating by their sense of smell, they return to the pools where they were born, to spawn and then to die.

This annual surge from the ocean to the mountains has for millennia provided a reliable source of protein for the indigenous people who live along the rivers’ banks. Every summer, they would make fish camp, coming down to the Yukon from the hills and lakes where they would have spent the spring. Cultures and economies formed around the abundance of salmon.

The Tlingit, the Athabascan and the Yupik are no longer nomadic. But the ritual of the fish camp – passing a month or two with family on the Yukon’s banks, sharing stories, teaching the children, catching and cleaning salmon and drying them for the winter – remains as important as it ever did. It is a time for the enriching of traditions and the spirit, as much as the stocking of larders.

Yupik people eating fresh salmon on the banks of the Ninglick River in Alaska (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Now, however, the salmon are vanishing. And it is not only the number of fish in decline, but also their size. I was shown old photographs of kings the same length as the people who caught them, 36kg monsters that were common. Now a good-sized fish is 9kg, and smaller fish lay fewer eggs. Whilst roughly five salmon used to return for every spawning adult, these days it is not far off one to one. Before 1997, the historic average for the king salmon run on the Yukon river was 300,000 fish; in 2013, just 37,000 came back.

Camping on the banks of the Yukon (Photo: Ulli Mattsson)

All this is playing out against the background of a rapidly changing climate, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the global average. The river’s winter ice is unreliable. As traditional sources of food disappear, people here are forced into buying from the stores – where the food has often been flown thousands of miles and has a price tag to match. Their villages are often many hundreds of miles from the nearest road.

Salmon caught in the Yukon being dried (Photo: Adam Weymouth)

As local diets change, instances of once unknown illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are also escalating. Forced into a cash economy, but with few jobs available, there is a widening gap between rich and poor, a growing dependence on food stamps and government handouts. Aimless and rootless, many people are turning to drink. Alcoholism and its associated symptoms – crime, domestic violence, suicide – are taking a heavy toll. As the culture erodes, so does the language, and a sense of pride in the unique way of life of some of the planet’s last remaining hunter-gatherers.

No one I met wished to preserve their culture unchanged, a museum to their past. They are as much 21st-century Americans as they are the inheritors of knowledge that is thousands of years old. But people do want the right to choose, to determine how they move forward as communities, rather than having decisions forced upon them.

The salmon, the people and the place are intimately connected. More than 50 mammals take sustenance from the king; the very trees contain minerals brought from the oceans by the salmon, minerals that have leached into the soil as their carcasses decay.

As I travelled the river, I fished with people and cooked with them. I helped three generations of one family tend the fire in their smokehouse. And I listened as people told me how they felt caught in a trap: whether to stop fishing in an attempt to preserve the king, or to keep fishing to keep hold of the culture. The decisions made about the fish in the coming years will determine the fate of one of the last great salmon runs in the world. And in a place where the salmon is the lifeblood of the land, it will determine much more than that.


This article was originally published in the i newspaper and on

Adam Weymouth’s work has been published by a wide variety of outlets including the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Internationalist. His interest in the relationship between humans and the world around them has led him to write on issues of climate change and environmentalism, and most recently, to the Yukon river and the stories of the communities living on its banks.

He will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Thursday 28th June about Kings of the Yukon: The History of the Salmon Run. Tickets can be purchased here.

Brexit suggests we’re on the right side of history

Whatever the theorists say, ordinary people seem intuitively to feel the opposite

How nice it would be, in this season of good cheer, to find something hopeful to say. Being a historian, I shall try: history often helps us to see our problems in proportion. But let us grit our teeth and begin with the depressing news.

Worst is the sudden emergence — or re-emergence? — of an unusually angry division within our politics and society. A large part of the political class, and seemingly a sizeable proportion of the country’s educated elite, have distanced themselves from the majority of the country. Never in modern times has there been such an overt and even contemptuous attempt to deny the legitimacy of a popular vote. Edmund Burke in the 1790s gave credit for our freedoms to ‘the wisdom of unlettered men’; William Ewart Gladstone believed that ordinary voters ensured the morality of government; the great French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville realised that everyday experience enabled people to make sensible choices. But today, some prominent voices imply that only those with university degrees have opinions worth listening to. We might be back in the 1860s, when the Liberal MP Robert Lowe, who opposed giving working men the vote, sneered that ‘you should prevail upon our future masters to learn their letters’.

Why has Brexit caused such a strain to our politics and, more worryingly, to our sense of community? It was fashionable not long ago to say that no one cared about ‘Europe’. What has changed? It goes much deeper than debates about the merits or demerits of the single market or the customs union — technical issues that few people on either side understand and which experts seem to think will have few long-term consequence.

Brexit has become a question of identity. Theresa May touched a sore point when her innocuous comment about ‘citizens of nowhere’ caused such outrage. I am not the only person who feels an odd sense of déjà-vu when listening to Remainers. The philosopher John Gray recently ventured a comparison with the ‘fellow travellers’ of the 1930s. Others recall George Orwell’s contrast between ‘the vast majority of the people who feel themselves to be a single nation’ with ‘the English intelligentsia’ who ‘take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow’. When I hear prominent Remainers unquestioningly supporting the demands of the EU Commission, however incoherent and excessive, I cannot but remember the opposition leader Charles James Fox happily admitting during the Napoleonic Wars that ‘The Triumph of the French government over the English does in fact afford me a degree of pleasure which is very difficult to disguise.’

Is this just coincidence? There does seem to be a sectarian strand in our political culture whose natural home is in what the French call ‘internal exile’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was associated with religious Dissent — that high-minded elite of Unitarians, Quakers, Wesleyans and so on — who felt both outside and frankly morally superior to the vulgar and immoral masses, to the fox-hunting Tory squirearchy and to the worldly Anglican Establishment (‘immoral, wine-swilling, degraded clergy’). Think Fielding’s ‘Mr Allworthy’ versus ‘Squire Western’. The consciously progressive and enlightened elements in our own society and their great institutions (including the BBC and the Guardian) were born of and still seem to cultivate this Olympian inheritance. It includes a revulsion against British history or, more precisely, against an internalised caricature of British history: imperialism, exploitation, oppression. We rarely know enough to form a more balanced picture: few advanced countries teach their children less history than we do.

Are we really divided almost equally into two hostile camps, the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent? I doubt it. The referendum and its agitation created that impression, but diehard Remainers are a small minority, however influential. Before the referendum raised our collective blood pressure, very few Britons identified strongly with the EU vision of ‘Europe’. The EU’s own polls showed that only 2 per cent described themselves only as ‘European’, and only another 3 per cent as ‘European and British’. The Pew Research Center, polling at the time of the referendum, discovered a similar number: only 6 per cent in Britain wanted more powers given to the EU (compared with 34 per cent in France, for example). Simple arithmetic shows that most Remain voters would oppose the crash Europeanisation urgently advocated by President Emmanuel Macron. How many of the 48 per cent were reluctant Remainers, persuaded by alarmist predictions? These are the people who, polls suggest, now want the government to push on with Brexit.

Perhaps Christmas is a good time to count our blessings, or at least relativise our problems. We have a weak government, but not as weak as that of Jim Callaghan when we were the first industrialised country to have to ask the IMF for a bailout. We may be demoralised, but less so than in the 1970s, when the country seemed ungovernable. We have difficult decisions to make in foreign policy, but nothing could be as disastrous in blood or treasure as the invasion of Iraq (which I supported — I trusted Blair!). We may perhaps be humiliated by paying Danegeld to the EU, but not so humiliated as by Eden’s Suez fiasco in 1956. We might even be feeble enough to accept foreign jurisdiction over European citizens, like the Chinese empire in the 19th century; but that would be infinitely less shameful than the Munich betrayal in 1938.

But saying that bad things could be worse is poor consolation. What about things we can truly be cheerful about? We have a generally uncorrupt public life. We instinctively trust our fellow citizens — or most of them. We are pretty tolerant of each other, and still on the whole quite civil. As my phrasing may suggest, there has been some decline in these areas over the past half-century. But in compensation, we are less snobbish, less conventional, less prudish and more open-minded. We remain, as for more than a century, non-violent in our private and public existences. We are far from perfect and should not be complacent: all our virtues are relative, better than in many countries, worse than in some. Above all, the good things we have inherited need constant maintenance at a time of rapid economic, social and demographic changes comparable with those of the early Victorian age. The Victorians made a huge common effort to cope: are we capable of such effort?

We depend on the health of our institutions, both ancient and modern: they structure, symbolise and regulate our common life as a nation. We all know them. In no particular order: the monarchy, the BBC, the NHS, parliament, devolved governments and local authorities, universities and schools, the armed forces, the police, charitable organisations, the civil service, churches, even private institutions such as sports associations. We need to cherish them, where necessary by showing them tough love: we are rightly angry when the BBC shows bias, when MPs cheat or abuse their power, when educational institutions or charities pay their leaders vast salaries, when the police behave unjustly, when companies evade taxation, when sports stars misbehave. We need constantly to resist our institutions being captured and used by factions or lobbies: they belong to us all. We have been fortunate in our history. For many centuries, Britain has been among the richest, safest and best-governed places in which to live. Most of us alive today have enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. However much we complain, however much we demand, we must realise how fortunate we are among all those who live and have lived on our planet.

But we may be entering a more dangerous age, and certainly a more volatile one. Globalisation and economic instability, technological innovation and the shifting balance of power will change our world. The revolution in communications may have as seismic an impact as the printing press, which began two centuries of cultural and political earthquake.

Even within established democracies, what would once have seemed unthinkable is now commonplace: whoever predicted the victory of Trump, the apotheosis of Corbyn, the invention of Macron, the crisis in Spain? No one knows the future of China or the dangers posed by newly nuclear-armed states. No one can tell whether the ‘clash of civilisations’ warned of by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington may break out. No one can predict whether we shall manage to limit climate change.

Brexit means that in the face of all these dangers and uncertainties, we have chosen a national, rather than an international, path. This choice, which may turn out to be truly historic, is at the root of our present dissension: it has, at least for a time, divided what David Goodhart calls the ‘Somewhere’ people from the ‘Anywhere’ people. We have chosen to leave an organisation which, whatever its many failings, was an attempt to deal with modern problems by supranational organisation. For more than a century, theorists have advocated just such an approach: the nation was obsolete, the future lay with great continental or even global federations run by high-minded elites.

Whatever the theorists say, ordinary people seem intuitively to feel the opposite: they look for security to the people they know and trust, and to governments over which they have some direct control. That is what Brexit means, and it will leave us with two huge tasks. First, to work to restore and enhance our solidarity as a multinational nation. Second, to show that like-minded countries can work together while maintaining their democratic sovereignty. As William Pitt might have put it, we must save ourselves by our exertions, and help others by our example.

This article by Robert Tombs was previously published in The Spectator, December 2017 

Robert Tombs is Professor of History at Cambridge University. He has published numerous key publications and is one of the leading scholars of Anglo-French relations. His most recent book is The English and Their History, and he continues to work and publish on French history and on French attitudes to Britain.

He will be taking part in our BREXIT: IN THE LIGHT OF ITS PAST, IS BRITAIN READY? Prospect debate on Sunday 1st July. Tickets are available here.


Q: You have written primarily works of fiction, and were the winner of the Whitbread prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for your novel English Passengers. What made you want to make the switch and dive into nonfiction, specifically a book about Rome’s history?
A: History has always been my passion, ever since I was a small child. I studied it at university and to this day I mostly read history books. Two of my novels, including English Passengers, were historical. Another passion of mine has been Rome, a city that has captivated me since I first saw it aged 8. For that past 16 years I’ve lived in Rome and read everything I could find about the city. I began to dream of writing about the city’s past, not just one era, but that would give a sense of all of its immense history. Yet I saw it would be a mistake to try and narrate everything as there was far too much. I would end up with an immense book filled of and thens and even then it would be hurried and too short. One day, taking a walk through the city, I had the idea of telling Rome’s history through a handful of key moments. Sackings seemed the obvious choice as they transformed Rome and they were dramatic. Before long I could see the book. I would use the storytelling techniques that I used as a fiction writer. Each chapter would begin with an enemy army advancing on the city, explaining who they were and why they had come. The narrative would then pause and describe what life was like in the city before the attack, recounting everything from Romans’ food and beliefs, their and homes and their health, to what the city looked like and smelt like. Only then, when we knew the city, would I tell how the enemy broke into Rome – or were let in, as often happened – what they did there and how Rome was changed by their actions.

Q: Rome remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Why do you think that is?
A: Rome has the pope. It has an extraordinary past of which far more can still be seen than in any other great city. Visitors can walk across bridges that were crossed by Cicero, Pompey and Julius Caesar. They can visit churches that have hardly changed since Christianity was a young religion. They can see layers of the past piled on top of one another: a piazza grown out of an ancient stadium; a high medieval church built on a Dark Age church that in turn is built on rooms of an ancient Roman town house and a temple to the pagan god Mithras. Throw in great art, stunning baroque fountains, a wonderful climate and fantastic food and it is no surprise people are drawn to Rome.

Q: You write, “Imperial Roman and modern Italian cuisine have little in common” (p.56). How has Italian cuisine evolved over the course of Roman history?
A: Two thousand years ago, Romans ate dishes that would we would think more Thai or Vietnamese than Italian. Popular ingredients included a Thai style fermented fish sauce (originally from Carthage) and also coriander and lots of black pepper. Grand banquets included food that might prove difficult for modern diners: flamingo, ostrich, dolphin, and sows’ wombs and teats. With the fall of the Roman Empire, cooking became simpler and then began to change as outsiders – mostly invaders – brought new ingredients. Either barbarian Lombards or the Byzantine Greeks brought buffaloes to Italy, giving Romans buffalo mozzarella. Arab conquerors of Sicily brought eggplants, spinach, pomegranates, almonds, lemons, sugar cane and saffron. By the Middle Ages, and perhaps earlier, Romans were eating some form of pasta, and a vegetable sauce called pulmentarium, which is thought to be an ancestor of pasta sauces and pizza toppings. By the Renaissance Romans were enjoying pastas we know and love, from macaroni to pappardelle to ravioli and tortellini. Rome’s Jewish population was very influential on Roman cuisine, giving the city lamb and artichoke dishes, among others. Conservative Romans were slow to accept ingredients from the New World – tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and chili peppers – but in time they did and by the mid-nineteenth century, Romans’ favorite foods were much the same as they are today. The long journey from fish sauce to pasta alla carbonara or amatriciana was complete.

Q: War, violence, and destruction defines so much of Rome’s history. How has so much of Rome’s iconic architecture remained intact over the years?
A: An astonishing amount has survived. For all that it has suffered over the centuries at the hands of invaders, and from egotistical rulers wanting to stamp their mark on the city, Rome has been very lucky. Wonders have survived attacks by would-be emperors, Goths, Holy Roman Emperors, popes and antipopes, Normans, Spanish and Lutherans. They escaped destruction by French guns in 1849 and by Allied bombers in the Second World War. On the Capitoline Hill, in today’s Musei Capitolini, one can still see the foundations of Rome’s great temple to Jupiter Capitolinus, built more than 2,500 years ago, when it was the largest temple in the Western Mediterranean. One can walk over the Bridge of Cestius by the Tiber Island that was built in Cicero’s time, in the dying days of the Roman Republic. Numerous remnants have survived from Imperial Rome, from its fora, its great baths – of Caracalla, of Diocletian and Trajan – and the Imperial Palace on the Palatine, to Augustus’ tomb and his exquisite Temple to Peace. And of course there is the greatest pagan Roman temple of them all: the Pantheon, which is relatively unchanged from when it was built almost nineteen centuries ago. Most of the city’s ancient walls have survived, along with the gates where invaders broke in, or were let in by treacherous defenders. Churches from all eras remain, right back to the time when Christianity had just become the religion of the empire. Look carefully and one can find dozens of medieval fortress towers, some concealed in the fabric of later apartment buildings. One can visit the Castel Sant’Angelo, the fortress built from Emperor Hadrian’s tomb that became the city’s greatest strongpoint, where many a pope fled from invaders. Countless jewels of Renaissance Rome and Baroque Rome have survived, from the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica to palaces, piazzas and fountains. Alongside these are buildings from Rome’s period of rapid expansion, under a new United Italy, and then Fascism. Rome is a city of layers like no other.

Q: What is the most surprising thing that you have learned over the course of your research?
A: I was surprised to learn that one of Rome’s most beautiful medieval churches was built out of spite. The church of San Clemente was closely linked with Pope Clement III, who, after his death, was denounced as antipope by his rival and successor, Pope Paschal II. Paschal had Clement’s bones flung into the Tiber and then entombed his church in earth. Above it he built a new San Clemente. To this day it is one of the city’s most likeable churches. This seems a very Roman story. From the worst of motives – vengeance and spite – something enduringly beautiful was created. 

Q: The Gothic Wars, which occurred in the 500s when the Ostrogoths invaded Rome, brought about the end of the Senate, “an assembly that had once ruled the Mediterranean world, and had existed since the time of Rome’s kings, 1,200 years ago” and that as a result, “Rome found itself Christendom’s number one pilgrimage destination.”(p.111). Could you elaborate on this and explain how this came to be? 

A: The Gothic Wars were a low point for Rome. The city suffered two sieges, each lasting a year, it changed hands several times, suffered grave destruction and for a brief period was wholly abandoned. During this same era, the institutions and traditions of classical Rome, from consuls to chariot races, slowly vanished away. The Senate, whose real power had faded centuries earlier, was the last to go. A new Rome emerged. Popes took the title of Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) that had been used by Western Roman Emperors. The city’s highest clergy wore silk slippers, which had been a privilege of Rome’s senators. Then, just when the city needed some good fortune, it came from an unexpected quarter. Around 636 AD Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem. Christianity’s chief pilgrimage destination was off limits. With her greatest rival out of the way, Rome filled the gap, and the city’s pilgrimage industry began to thrive as never before. 

Q: What was the impact on the introduction of Christianity to Rome?

A: In some ways Christianity changed Rome less than one might think. Pagan Emperors had used Rome to display their power, building vast palaces, baths and forums. The first Christian emperors built vast churches outside the city above the tombs of Christian martyrs: Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Lawrence. The centre of the city gradually became filled with churches large and small. Pagan processions were replaced by Christian processions that followed the same routes on the same day of the year. The Protestant Reformation, though a disaster for the papacy, brought good times to Rome as popes remade the city as a showcase of Catholicism. But perhaps the greatest change brought by Christianity was to Rome’s location. Pagan Rome had been centered around the Seven Hills east of the Tiber, gradually extending down to the river. Christian Rome moved slowly but steadily westwards, till the Seven Hills were abandoned, reverting to farmland. The Forum became known as ‘Campo Vaccino’ or the cow field, and the Capitoline Hill was ‘Monte Caprino’, or Goat Hill. This happened in part because most of the city’s aqueducts no longer worked, causing Romans to move close to the Tiber for their water supply. But the city also moved because of Christianity. It was pulled westwards by the tomb of Saint Peter. The area around it became the most dynamic part of the city, a centre of pilgrimage and of government, as popes built and enlarged the Vatican Palace till it was the largest in Europe. Saint Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt as Europe’s the greatest church. And yet there is now considerable doubt as to whether Saint Peter was actually buried here, or whether he came to Rome at all. 

Q: Roman Jews were a major part of city life from the beginning, but the way they were treated and perceived was constantly in flux, and as you mention, “life for Rome’s Jews could be precarious at certain seasons” (p.170).  Could you discuss how their position in the community evolved over the course of its history? 
A: Roman Jews consider themselves the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world and with good reason. They have had a presence in the city for 2,200 years. Over the centuries, like Jewish communities across Europe, they have enjoyed both good times and very bad times. As early as the 1st century AD, after the Jewish war of 66-70 AD, they suffered persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities. Things grew more difficult when Roman emperors adopted Christianity and early popes incited mobs to burn synagogues. Over the next thousand years, the lives of Jewish Romans were always precarious, and Easter, when religious plays were put on in the Colosseum was an especially dangerous season. Yet at some periods, they were protected and treated well by the popes. In the Middle Ages, Rome was Europe’s greatest center of Jewish learning. During the Renaissance, when Spain expelled Jews from its territories, which included Southern Italy, Rome became a haven for Jewish refugees. When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he scoured the city for Jewish models to depict as Old Testament figures. Tougher times for Jewish Romans lay just ahead.

In the 1550s, stung by the rise of Protestantism, Pope Paul IV – a Senator McCarthy-like figure – became determined to convert Rome’s Jews to Catholicism with a campaign aimed at making their lives as miserable as possible. Jewish Romans were confined to a crowded Ghetto, which they could not leave at night, they were forced to attend weekly Christian sermons designed to show them the errors of their religion, and they were barred from all but the poorest professions. Pope Paul’s efforts ultimately failed. In three centuries of such persecution, few Jewish Romans converted and their community endured, tougher and more united than ever. Isolated, it developed its own dialect and its own cuisine, both of which had a profound influence on Christian Romans. Yet Jewish Rome was left diminished. Having been Europe’s greatest center of Jewish learning the Jewish community became one of Europe’s poorest and most illiterate. In 1870, when Rome became part of a unified Italy, the walls of the Ghetto were finally torn down and Jewish Romans delighted in their new freedom, becoming patriotic supporters of their country. Only a few decades later they suffered their worst trial of all. In the late 1930s Mussolini’s Racial Laws brought back many of the worst restrictions of the Ghetto era. During the Second World War, when Nazi forces occupied Rome for eight months, Jews were hunted down and some 1,800 were deported to death camps, only a handful to return. Yet this was a time when Jewish and Christian Romans came together as never before. Despite German death threats to any who harbored Jews, Churchmen and lay Christian Romans rich and poor hid them in churches, monasteries and their homes. More than 10,000 Roman Jews survived.

Q: You mention that in nineteenth-century Rome, “Writers were especially drawn to Rome” like Dickens, Byron, Ruskin and Lear, Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Gaskell, Keats, and Hawthorne (p.236). What do you think the draw was?
A: Writers were drawn by Rome’s great past, its monuments and its art. They were fascinated by Rome’s decline since its Imperial days – by the nineteenth century, Rome was a sleepy, provincial city – which many saw as a warning of how their own countries’ greatness might prove temporary. They were curious to visit a quaint, eccentric theocracy governed by popes. They were drawn by the city’s fine winter climate and sought cures from sickness. And they came because it was so popular with other writers. Any writer who was anyone was drawn to meeting the challenge of describing the city in prose. 

Q: Taking Rome as an example, why do you think structures of power rise and fall in the way that they do?
A: That’s a tough question and I doubt it can be fully answered even by looking at Rome’s long history. One thing that I would say is that it helps to have some good stories. Stories can keep a population motivated and loyal to its leaders. It doesn’t much matter if they’re true, as patriotism or religious fervor will soon grind down sceptics. Classical Romans were inspired by Livy’s tales of indomitably disciplined, fearless and self-sacrificing early Romans fighting back Gaulish invaders. Despite being largely, if not wholly fictitious these continued to capture Roman imaginations for many centuries, and even long after Rome had repeatedly fallen to invaders. 

Q: In the book you write, “Almost every inch of Fascist Rome has survived. The Romans have even preserved mementos of the Nazi occupation. Look up at the walls of apartment blocks on Via Rasella and you will see small holes left by the shrapnel from the Gappisti bomb and by bullets fired up by the German soldiers. The city’s Gestapo headquarters on Via Tasso – where members of Rome’s resistance, Allied prisoners of war and some Jewish Romans were subjected to terrible tortures – has been preserved as a museum.” (p.378) Why do you think Italy has chosen to preserve the legacy of fascism in Rome, as opposed to say Germany, who has chosen to remove all Nazi insignia?
A: It’s important to distinguish here between Fascism and Nazism. Mementos of the Nazi occupation, such as the SS headquarters on Via Tasso, have been deliberately preserved in remembrance of the horrors of that time, and in remembrance of those who died struggling for the liberation of their city. Survivals from the Mussolini era are an altogether trickier matter. Mussolini’s regime, though it was often cruel, inefficient and corrupt, has got off lightly thanks to comparisons with the far greater horrors of Nazism. Many Italians do not feel the pain and shame felt by Germans towards that time. Some Italians – worryingly – are even a little nostalgic. Yet there are also practical reasons why Fascist Rome has not been erased. Mussolini ruled Italy for two decades, during which numerous districts of Rome were built or remade. Look closely and you will find countless Fascist apartment blocks, ministry buildings, Fascist eagles and slogans, and Fascist dates (from the Fascist Year One, the March on Rome in 1922). Though most tourists do not realize it, the Rome they see is, to a large extent, Mussolini’s Rome. To fully erase his legacy one would have to remake half the city. Romans are a frugal, practical people. They don’t like to waste serviceable buildings. Personally I have no time for Mussolini’s regime, which in most respects was disastrous for Italy and yet I don’t feel his monuments should be destroyed. Some have a kind of bleak elegance, while they form yet another layer of Rome’s architecture, which has been created by emperors, popes and kings, some of whom were no less brutal than Mussolini. Yet I feel there’s a case for showing a little disdain for some of the more outrageous Fascist survivals, such as a vast obelisk by Rome’s Olympic Stadium, which is still inscribed, in huge letters, with ‘Mussolini Dux’. It doesn’t need to be pulled down or have the lettering erased. It could just be decorated with some disrespectful street art.

Q: The health of our cities is a major preoccupation in the United States, as we have seen the steady decline of once prosperous cities like Detroit and Cleveland. What lessons can Rome’s history offer us? 

A: The lessons Rome can offer are not unexpected. To thrive cities need money, planning and intelligent regulations. Classical Rome had ludicrous regulations on street size – streets were required to be narrow – and as a result residential areas were warrens of narrow lanes, fire was a constant danger and the city suffered numerous conflagrations. Yet in other respects Classical Rome functioned remarkably well. Its rulers built no fewer than eleven aqueducts, enough to keep its huge population – estimated at around 1.5 million – constantly supplied with fresh water. An efficient system of drains took away its waste. A dozen huge bath complexes and many hundred of small ones kept Romans clean. Fleets of ships sailing from every corner of the Mediterranean kept them fed. Vast theatres, stadiums and amphitheatres, including the Circus Maximus chariot circuit and Colosseum, provided them with entertainment, however unsavory it may be to our eyes. Gardens and close to a dozen fora gave them open areas to take a walk, meet one another, go to court and shop. After the city was devastated by repeated sackings these pleasures were lost. Baths were abandoned and only one or two aqueducts still functioned. The city reached a low point, rather surprisingly, during the Renaissance, an era we associate with progress and clear thinking. By then Rome was larger than it had been for a thousand years yet most of its residents still lived in a chaos of medieval non-planning. Houses encroached on winding alleys. Drains no longer worked and of the city’s original eleven aqueducts only one still functioned while that produced only a dribble. Romans drank water from the Tiber, which was also functioned as the city’s main drain and morgue – astonishingly many of them claimed to like its taste. Improvement came to the city thanks largely to religious failure. After the papacy suffered the disaster of the Protestant Reformation, during which it lost a large portion of its European believers, popes remade Rome as a showcase of Catholicism. Money poured in from Catholic states, notably Spain and its wealth of silver and gold from the Americas. Rome’s drains and aqueducts were repaired, fountains created, streets were widened and cleaned up, new palaces and churches were built. The city became more pleasant to live in than it had been at any time in its long past. The Rome that we think of today was largely created at this time. 

Q: Between 2014-2017, over 500,000 refugees flooded Italian ports, many of whom are asylum seekers. This has caused many local residents to be angry and has led to the rise of right-leaning political parties in Italy. In light of the fact that, as you discuss in your book, refugees have come to Rome to escape violence throughout the course of its history and found it a welcome sanctuary, what are your thoughts on this, and the general state of Rome today?

A: There’s no question that many Romans are unhappy at the numbers of refugees who have arrived in their city. They fear that Italy’s welfare system – which was already strained by the effects of the long economic downturn here – will not be able to cope. And there’s no doubt that Rome is struggling. There are problems with rubbish collection, roads are filled with potholes – made worse by recent freezing weather – while only recently millions of euros of taxpayers’ money was lost in a local government scandal known as ‘Mafia Capitale’. Rome is not the easiest city to live in and one needs a strong stomach to cope with the bureaucracy, let alone the driving. Yet I for one would live nowhere else. I know of no other city that is as beautiful or as fascinating. I also feel much affection for the Romans – their warmth, their world-weary cynicism and their scathing humor. Despite recent election results, in my experience Romans are surprisingly open towards the foreign. Perhaps centuries of pilgrimage have left their mark. I am sure newly arrived immigrants find Rome a frustrating place, with few job opportunities, and yet I have personally seen numerous instances of kindness and warmth towards them from Romans. Rome is a place where a sense of humanity is both respected and expected. It can seem like a strangely village-like capital, where everyone appears to know everyone else by his or her first name. Rome has known better days but, looking back over three millennia and a dozen and more sackings, it has also known far, far worse. 

Matthew Kneale studied Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. Fascinated with diverse cultures, he travelled to more than eighty countries and tried his hand at learning a number of foreign languages, including Japanese, Ethiopian Amharic, Romanian and Albanian. He has written five novels, including English Passengers, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. His latest was a non-fiction history book, An Atheist’s History of Belief. He has lived in Rome for the last fifteen years.

Matthew will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about ‘Rome: A History In Seven Sackings’ on Monday, 25th June. Tickets are available here.

The original suffragette: the extraordinary Mary Wollstonecraft

Her argument – outrageous at the time – was that women were capable of reason, and deserved to have that recognised. Now it’s our turn to recognise her contribution to women’s rights.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)

Meet the original suffragette: Mary Wollstonecraft. The founder of feminism, a philosopher, travel writer, human rights activist, she was a profound influence on the Romantics, and an educational pioneer. In Virginia Woolf’s words, “we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” This may be true, but it’s not as true as I’d like. The writer of Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) sank into relative obscurity after her death, aged 38. Why?

Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 into a picturesquely bleak family. She had a violent alcoholic father, and a weak, unsympathetic mother. Despite her inauspicious beginnings, she dragged herself upwards, eventually becoming a self-supporting bestselling international human-rights celebrity. The self-supporting bit is key – for her, independence was “the grand blessing of life”.

She argued, apparently outrageously, that women were capable of reason – all they lacked was education. An early role model, she translated and reviewed essays on natural history, and she was speaking the language of human rights before the term existed. She didn’t exclude men, or indeed anyone. Perhaps her most quotable maxim is “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.”

Wollstonecraft saw marriage as slavery and had her first child out of wedlock. When she set off on a mysterious mission, chasing a Norwegian captain along the treacherous shores of the Skagerrak, she took her baby with her. And knocked off a bestseller along the way. Has there been another treasure-hunting single mum philosopher on the high seas?

But Wollstonecraft died not one, but two deaths. First in childbirth, bringing the author Mary Shelley into the world – the agonising post-partum infection took 10 days to finish her off. She left behind two daughters and a devastated husband, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin.

Godwin, still grieving, wrote her first biography. And in doing so, he unwittingly brought about Wollstonecraft’s second death: her reputation was killed in the scandal following the revelation of her unconventional life and loves. Overnight she became toxic. The shockwaves were massive, and lasting. Wollstonecraft’s enemies couldn’t contain their glee: here was proof irrefutable that she was a whore, a “hyena in petticoats” as Horace Walpole described her.

Scurrilous poems did the rounds, including an exceptionally unpleasant piece of work called The Un-sex’d Females. This was poetry functioning as an 18th-century Twitter: mocking Wollstonecraft as a “poor maniac” a “voluptuous” victim of “licentious love.” The author also crowed that “she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable.” In that oldest of misogynistic chestnuts: she was asking for it. She was a trouble-maker, and she died a woman’s death. Take note, ladies!

Even Wollstonecraft’s friends and allies stepped back; silenced, shaking their heads. Wollstonecraft’s legacy was trashed for well over a century and even today, despite a number of outstanding modern biographies, there’s still no significant memorial to her anywhere.

Mary on the Green is the campaign for a statue of Wollstonecraft in the north London area of Stoke Newington, where she lived, worked, and founded a school. The historian Mary Beard wrote in support that “every woman who wants to make a difference to how this country is run, from the House of Commons to the pub quiz, has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank”.

This article was previously published in The Guardian

Bee Rowlatt is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and has reported for the World Service, Newsnight and BBC2. The co-author of the best-selling Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad as well as one of the writers featured in Virago’s 2013 anthology Fifty Shades of Feminism, she won the K. Blundell Trust award for In Search of Mary.

Bee’s talk at Chalke Valley History Festival 2018, entitled. ‘Equality For Women: From Mary Wollstonecraft To The Suffragettes And Beyond is on Wednesday 27th June. Tickets are available here.

Those Magnificent Men..

One summer’s afternoon, in 1917, Grahame Donald attempted a new manoeuvre in his Sopwith Camel. He flew the machine up and over, and as he reached the top of his loop, hanging upside down, six thousand feet above the ground, his safety belt snapped – and he fell out. He was not wearing a parachute; they existed but were not issued to British pilots in the belief that their availability would impair fighting spirit. Hurtling to earth, with nothing to break his fall, Donald’s death was less than a minute away – but it didn’t come. In an interview given fifty-five years later, he says: 

The first two thousand feet passed very quickly and terra firma looked damnably ‘firma’. As I fell, I began to hear my faithful little Camel somewhere nearby. Suddenly I fell back onto her.

The Camel had continued its loop downwards, and Donald claims that he landed on its top wing – which he grabbed with both hands. Hooking a foot into the cockpit, he managed to wrestle himself back in, before taking the controls, and executing ‘an unusually good landing.’

If you were told this story by a man propping up a bar, you might smile politely and check your watch. But if it was told by Air Marshal Sir Grahame Donald KCB, DFC, AFC to a member of staff at the Imperial War Museum, you might feel inclined to believe it. 

At the time of his unlikely escape, Grahame Donald was a member of the Royal Naval Air Service, the naval wing of the flying services, but he would not be for long. On 1 April 1918, the RNAS amalgamated with its army cousin, the Royal Flying Corps, to form a new service, the Royal Air Force. 

Over the previous three and a half years of the war, the army and navy branches had competed for limited resources, each pursuing its own strategic ends, and it was now felt necessary to impose some kind of unity. 

Soldiers and sailors found themselves shoehorned together into an upstart service with no traditions, and many were not happy. One described the Royal Air Force as a ‘complete hotch potch’ whilst another complained that the new blue-grey uniform made him look like an actor in a comic opera. Most, however, were too busy fighting a new kind of war in the skies over France, to concern themselves with the politics of the world’s second independent air force. The Royal Air Force had been pipped at the post. Three weeks earlier, the Finnish Air Force, consisting of one aircraft and a man to fly it, had been formed.

The men who came together to form the Royal Air Force were leaping into the unknown. When the first four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps flew across the channel to France, days after the outbreak of war in August 1914, it was unclear what role they would play. They began by watching the movements of the enemy, but the generals were not initially inclined to believe reports gathered by ‘fleets of flying birdcages’. The birdcages proved accurate, however, and aerial reconnaissance reports were soon relied on by both sides. 

Once cameras were fitted onto aircraft, they were used to map the entire Western Front in minute detail. The changing nature of the conflict gave the aeroplane its second crucial role. As the war stabilized into a stalemate of mud, wire, and attrition, artillery became the army’s most important weapon, and aircraft were used to range gunfire onto enemy positions, by flying over the target, and reporting the accuracy of each shell burst, back to the battery in Morse code.

These jobs (as well as bombing, and, in later years, ground strafing) made up the daily work of the Royal Flying Corps. This work was the reason for its growing importance, and it was to protect the aircraft, and to prevent the enemy from carrying out similar work, that aeroplanes were turned into fighting machines. This is how the great aces came to prowl the skies in search of prey; it is why young men engaged in gladiatorial dogfights to the death. 

There were no dogfights at the start, however. In the earliest days, rival airmen would wave as they passed each other, but before long, they began arming themselves with revolvers and rifles. The chance of hitting one moving aircraft from another with a single bullet was minimal, although lucky strikes did occur. Gilbert Mapplebeck was a pilot with 4 Squadron, who was hit in the thigh by a rifle bullet fired from a German machine. He was unfortunate enough to be carrying loose change in his pocket, and the force of the bullet drove a twenty-five franc piece into his groin, slicing away the tip of his penis. 

Aircraft were turned more fearsome when mounted with machine guns aimed away from the propeller, but the aeroplane’s fighting potential truly began to reveal itself in the spring of 1915, when Anthony Fokker – a young Dutch designer working for the Germans – perfected a synchronizing gear that enabled a machine gun to fire safely through the spinning blades. The aircraft Fokker had offered his services to the British authorities before the war, and been turned down, and his successful invention now threatened to clear the skies of British aircraft. An arms race took hold, its goal being aerial dominance, and for the remainder of the war, aerial superiority swung back and forth between the sides.

This was a new concept of warfare; one in which progress depended not on past experience, nor on the views of the authorities, but on the initiative of the young airmen themselves. Only they truly knew what could – and could not – be done in an aircraft. In 1914, they decided to toss darts over the side of their machines. By 1918, they were dropping mammoth 1660 pounder bombs on German cities from the bomb racks of their Handley Page heavy bombers.  And just as they used initiative in the air, so they demonstrated it on the ground.  Individualist, unkempt, lacking in traditional military discipline, First World War airmen represented a new breed of soldier. When Archibald James, a pilot with 5 Squadron, returned from leave, he brought with him eight clear breaches of discipline:

Before returning to France I had bought from the local pack of harriers in Sussex, four pairs of hounds.  These I took out with me to France.  And when I arrived, they were greeted with a minimum of enthusiasm by my ardent soldier commanding officer. A considerably strained relationship ensued but the hounds were great fun.  I hunted hares of which there were quite a number in Bayeux-Armentières sector, with a most distinguished field, beautifully mounted on their first chargers.  There were only two or three little thorn hedges in the whole of our area, which extended nearly up to the gun lines. And these we periodically jumped as often as possible to keep up the illusion that we were a hunting club.

It was only an airman amongst First World War combatants who could have attempted to mimic the life of a country gentleman, whilst actively engaged in a struggle as bloody as the hare’s. It was as though the stresses of daily flying might be overcome by a grand gesture, or an imitation of normality. Robert Loraine, West End actor, squadron commander, and wearer of an entirely redundant monocle, built a theatre on his aerodrome, in which he staged anti-war plays, with the parts taken by those airmen who had survived the day’s flying.

The strains that these men were overcoming were huge. During the Battle of Arras in 1917, the life expectancy of a new pilot fell to eleven days. One sensitive man who struggled against his fears was the highest scoring British ace of the war, Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock VC. Tactician, socialist, supporter of Irish Home Rule, Mannock was a spontaneous, working class man, who generously nurtured young pilots, and machine gunned wounded Germans on the ground. He carried a revolver with him into the air, with which to take his own life, rather than burn. Whilst at home on leave, he broke down in front of an old friend:

We were sitting in the front talking quietly when his eyes fell to the floor, and he started to tremble violently. This grew into a convulsive straining. He cried uncontrollably, muttering something that I could not make out. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Saliva and tears were running down his face; he couldn’t stop it. His collar and shirt-front were soaked through. He smiled weakly at me when he saw me watching and tried to make light of it; he would not talk about it at all. 

Mannock was killed – as were so many other successful pilots – when he broke his own rules of flying safety. His aircraft burst into flames after being hit by ground fire. It is not known whether he ended his own life, or was consumed in the blaze.  

And yet, in spite – or perhaps because of – the strain under which they lived, airmen became heroes to the public. In a war in which the majority of fighting was remote and impersonal, they engaged in tactical duels, watching an opponent’s facial expression, circling and straining to get on his tail. Pilots came to be known as ‘knights of the air’. One of these knights was William Leefe Robinson, a man who received the Victoria Cross, not for fighting against other aeroplanes, but for shooting down the first Zeppelin airship over British soil. A mood of euphoria gripped the country in the wake of his act, as though he had personally freed the country from the grip of a tyrant. In a letter to his parents, Robinson wrote:

As I daresay you have seen in the papers – babies, flowers and hats have been named after me, also poems and prose have been dedicated to me. Oh, it’s too much! I am recognized wherever I go about Town, now, whether in uniform or mufti. The city police salute me, the waiters, hall porters and pages of hotels and restaurants bow and scrape, visitors turn round and stare. Oh, it’s too thick!

As a ‘reward’, Robinson was sent out to France, to fly the Bristol Fighter, a prestigious new aircraft. He was shot down on his first flight over enemy lines, and taken prisoner. The prison guards did not bow and scrape. They mistreated him, and he fell ill, dying after his repatriation.

The story of infantry fighting on the Western Front, with its vivid evocations of suffering and wasted life, has captured the modern imagination. Yet taking place above the very same Western Front was a conflict of intense human emotion, of young men growing up in an exciting and terrible world, of chivalry, of fear and danger, of the creation of modern warfare. Twenty-seven years after the end of the war, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. That event was only made possible by the ‘lessons’ that were learned during this period. The First World War in the Air is a conflict that deserves to be far better known.

Joshua Levine practised as a barrister for several years before becoming an actor and author of seven critically acclaimed histories. His plays have been performed on the London stage and he has written and presented documentaries for BBC Radio 4. He fronted the documentary film Dunkirk: The New Evidence for Channel 4 and most recently he worked as Historical Consultant on Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dunkirk.

He will be speaking about ‘The Aviation Heroes of the First World War’ at Chalke Valley History Festival on Monday 25th June – tickets are available here.

Five things that may change your mind about Queen Victoria


Queen Victoria ruled from 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901, making her the second longest reigning monarch in Britain. To many she is thought of as a dour, rigid monarch – perhaps because she is oftentimes seen dressed in black and with a downturned expression in her portraits. However, the real Queen was engaged with her work and remained interested in her subjects across the globe for over 63 years. Here are five things you may be surprised to find out about the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India:

1. She liked curries

Queen Victoria tasted her first authentic Indian curry in 1887 when her servant Abdul Karim cooked it for her. She pronounced the curry to be ‘excellent’ and then ordered that curries would be cooked in the Royal kitchens every day. For thirteen years till her death, curries were always cooked and served at luncheon. Victoria’s favourite curries were chicken curry and daal.

She longed to eat a mango from India, but the sea journey was so long, they were always rotten by the time they reached her.

2. She learnt to read and write in Urdu

Victoria wanted to learn Urdu or Hindustani as it was known, and requested Abdul Karim to teach her. He was soon promoted to be her teacher or Munshi. She took her lessons every day, never missing one, even if she was travelling. Towards the end of her life, she could write half a page of fluent Urdu.

She completed 13 volumes of her Hindustani Journals, one for each year that she spent in the company of Abdul Karim. Her last entry, two months before her death, was in November 1900. Victoria died in January 1901.


Nutmeg Tree, Sumatra, 1824

3. She was Empress of India, but never visited

Victoria was given the title of Empress of India in 1876 by her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. She was delighted with the title and longed to visit India, but the sea journey was too long and she never did. She once wrote that she would give anything to see the Taj Mahal.

She sent artists to India to paint the ordinary people and artisans, so she could understand the real India.