Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

War in the Air (BBC)

Since I may be the only man in Northern Europe who failed to see the superb lunar eclipse the other night, I am keeping a low profile. I meant to watch it - I had the blinds wide open on the roof windows, the conditions were crystal clear (we have no light pollution at all here), the moon was big and perfectly placed, I had my camera standing by - and I fell asleep before the eclipse started. Oh well.

To change the subject, about 10 miles from here is the village of Athelstaneford, which is noted for a piece of (debated) history. It seems that in 832AD there was an invading force from Northumbria up here, possibly commanded by a chap named Athelstan (not the king of the Angles who lived in East Anglia, he would have been 5 years old...), and a battle took place near the village whose name now commemorates the visiting commander. On the morning of the battle, the king of the Picts, Oengus II, saw a St Andrews cross (saltire) in the blue sky, and knew that he couldn't be beaten. Subsequently, the blue and white saltire was adopted as the Scottish flag. The story might just possibly be mythical, of course, but there is a little museum behind the church in Athelstaneford dedicated to this tradition, so at least the Visit Scotland people believe in it.

Nowadays, of course, we would just assume that old Oengus had simply seen a couple of aeroplane trails - as exemplified by the photo at the top of this post, taken by the Contesse over Asda's car park at Dunbar, around 7:30am today. Combination of humidity level, still air and the right number of planes - not an uncommon sight, but still worth a look, I think. Less of a saltire, more tartan?

In a very roundabout way, this gets me to the BBC's famous series of films on WW2 aerial warfare, War in the Air, which I bought on DVD recently and have started working my way through. They are really very good - the series was made in 1954, so the emphasis is very much on what a jolly good, heroic show the RAF put on (no complaints about that), which is probably why this series has been repeated on TV much less frequently than the Thames TV World at War series, for example, which was made some 20 years later, and which gives a more rounded view of the history.

The quality of the newsreel and other archive film is remarkable - so much so that I have occasionally got sidetracked trying to spot the joins between the dramatised bits and the original film. Maybe there are not so many joins - I guess a lot of documentary film was made during the war which required people to play, or voice-over, some of the parts - maybe they even played themselves. There are scenes involving dialogue which are set in the full operations room, with girls moving markers around the giant map with the long poles - I doubt if the BBC had the budget or the scope to reconstruct a complete ops room, and the scenes involving streets full of smoking rubble look obviously authentic - these must be original contemporary films which required people to speak, I suppose. Some of the acting is certainly hamfisted enough to have been done by amateurs (real people?), though it does seem unlikely that we would have a film archive of a meeting during which someone announced that he had invented radar.

Whatever, I enjoyed an episode involving some excellent Coastal Command material last night. I promise not to get sidetracked, but I have been fishing around, trying to find out more about the making of the series. It is interesting to surmise which bits are

(1) original wartime action archives

(2) scripted wartime documentary films, involving written dialogue

(3) scenes shot specifically for the BBC series

There's some fine, vintage stereotyping in the voices - all officers have nice, plummy accents, and the occasional fireman or groundcrew will be a Cockney. There is also a slightly crazed German voice which explains what the enemy were trying to do. Again, I have to emphasise that there is some superb archive material, including a great deal that I have never seen before (not that I am any kind of expert, of course).

Really very good - a worthwhile addition to my DVD collection.


Late edit:

Jimmy "One a Day" Rankin
My good friend (and musical associate) Ian lives in Portobello, Edinburgh. Ian is an enthusiastic amateur pilot, and he recently told me a tale of a former resident of his home. Ian bought this house, which came up for sale opposite his mother's home in about 1985, and his mother remembered a previous resident, a Mrs Rankin, whose son grew up to be Sq/Ldr "Jimmy" Rankin, who served at Biggin Hill and elsewhere during WW2. He flew with the Fleet Air Arm and with 92 Squadron of Fighter Command, and he had 17 confirmed kills. At one period his success rate was such that he was known as "One a Day" Rankin. There is also a story that for a while he was stationed at Drem, in East Lothian (very close to Athelstaneford, in fact), and he used to fly over his mother's house to signal that things were OK. This story may, of course, be up there with Oengus and his blue-sky visions - I have no idea.


  1. So, evidence of time traveling aircraft in 832? Presumably flown by nationalists of the future?

    1. Aircraft are at least as likely as some other bits of the story. Nationalists in those days might only have been people that didn't wish to be trashed by the Northumbrians (they hadn't sorted out a full manifesto).

      Mention of nationalists reminds me that a character named Tam who lives around here saw a marketing opportunity in the lead up to the Scottish Referendum, and spent his entire savings on getting a load of full-size Scottish saltire flags manufactured in India - very cheap. How could he fail? Sadly, the flags (which took up most of his house plus outbuildings when they arrived) were green with a white saltire. Some problem with attention to detail? Tam was ruined - he had to sell his house - it isn't funny (well, maybe a little). If he had only explained the Oengus story to the Indians this mistake could not have happened. I feel there are several lessons available here, for all of us.

      By the way, if you want a very cheap green flag, somewhat similar to the Scottish flag, I can help you out.


    2. That story makes me smile for so many reasons. I hope it's not an urban myth.

      Maybe Tam can persuade the Irish to join with the Scots to form a new union. On second thoughts, maybe selling the green saltires to colour-blind Scots Nats would be easier.

  2. Yep, I missed it as well...

    Does the DVD have any footage from the air war in Burma?

    1. Hi Ian - Burma is covered fleetingly in an episode which probably covers too much ground in a single 30 minute show - check out

      Scoping is pretty critical in the programming - the above link is to Part 7 (of 15) - the next one, Part 8, for example, concerns the raids on the Ruhr, and that is much better - allowing more detailed coverage.

      The whole series is available on YouTube, I believe, which is a fine thing - especially if your broadband is rather faster than mine!