Hitchcock’s comedy thriller The 39 Steps, first released in June 1935, has become a ‘classic’. But it’s also a film of its moment, or more precisely of the difference between two moments: the summer of 1915, when the novel by John Buchan on which it’s based began to appear in serial form, in the middle of one world war; and the summer of 1935, when the odds on the imminent outbreak of another were shortening by the day. The film takes from the novel its title, the name of the protagonist (but not of anyone else), the narrative structure of a journey from London to Scotland and back again, and the device of a man pursued at the same time by the police and by enemy agents. But it’s the things in the film that aren’t in the novel that demonstrate what Hitchcock was really up to.
The most notable of these is a music-hall performer called Mr Memory. In the film’s opening scene, he answers the questions fired at him by the music-hall audience with absolute infallibility, as long as they concern matters of fact. His performance has two salient features. First, whatever the question, he can’t not answer it. He is, so to speak, under oath to respond (or he’s a machine). Second, what he knows consists of already common, if arcane, knowledge: the distance, say, between Winnipeg and Montreal. That’s why he invariably asks for confirmation. ‘Am I right, sir?’ Mr Memory’s unique talent is his ability to retrieve the less readily accessible bits of common knowledge with uncanny speed and accuracy. That talent has earned him the job of getting some information of value to a foreign power out of the country. Unlike Buchan, Hitchcock shows no interest at all in how the information was obtained. What matters to him is its storage, or conveyance. And there’s a further difference. In the novel, the information the villains are after concerns the mobilisation plans for the British fleet. In the film, it concerns the engineering specifications for a new kind of silent aeroplane engine. These the unfortunate Mr Memory coughs up redemptively in the final scene, after being shot in mid-performance by the top villain, who realises that the gaff’s been blown.
Brett Holman doesn’t refer to The 39 Steps in his densely packed study of the ‘fear of the bomber’ which, he wants to show, took hold of the public imagination in Britain in the period between the wars. But the episode that sets the tone for his argument also provides an instructive context for the introduction into Hitchcock’s film of things that aren’t in the novel. In January 1935, the Evening News solicited from its readers ‘untold stories’ of German air-raids on London during the final years of the First World War, as a warning to a new generation of what it might have to face:
If war came tomorrow, London would be an inferno of exploding bombs, of gases drifting in poisonous clouds through the streets, of flames leaping from building to building. Squadron upon squadron of enemy aeroplanes – hundred after hundred filling the sky – would rain down death upon the city. There would be no escape from that destroying horror – except flight from the doomed capital of empire.
Having emerged from the war as the ‘strongest nation in the air’, Britain now lagged far behind the other major powers. London, the Evening News maintained, was virtually defenceless. So began that year’s bombing panic.
The paper’s proprietor, Lord Rothermere, had begun to campaign for aerial rearmament. At the end of January, he announced the formation of a new pressure group, the National League of Airmen. Within a couple of months, more than two thousand pilots had joined. The Rothermere papers, including the Daily Mail, which had a circulation of more than 1.5 million, zealously reported its activities. During the general election in November 1935, the league endorsed 160 parliamentary candidates who had backed its seven-point rearmament programme. And there was, as ever, some tat to promote. In March, another Rothermere paper, the Sunday Dispatch, began serialising S. Fowler Wright’s apocalyptic tale of aerial invasion, ‘The War of 1938’. Once again, flames leapt from building to building (on this occasion at a safe distance, in Prague). The immediate stimulus to these nightmares was the international crisis provoked by Japanese aggression in China and by German demands for treaty revision.
On 10 November 1932, the deputy prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, about to set off for a disarmament conference in Geneva, had told the House of Commons that when war broke out again the only question would be ‘Whose morale is shattered quickest by preliminary bombing?’ Baldwin’s subsequent remark that any town within range of enemy airfields could expect to be bombed inside five minutes of a declaration of war, and furthermore that the bomber ‘always gets through’, began to reverberate to even more ominous effect after the Geneva conference ended in failure. ‘By the mid-1930s,’ Holman maintains, ‘many people in Britain had come to fear what was sometimes referred to as “the knock-out blow from the air”: a sudden, rapid and overwhelming aerial bombardment of its cities, as impossible to predict as it was to resist.’ There was another reason to fear the bomber, of which Hitchcock appears to have been aware. In September 1934, the Air Ministry let it be known that it had approved the design of a silencer for aeroplane engines. From now on, the bomber would surely always get through, since no one could hear it coming (this was before radar).
The bomber had always got through, sort of. During the First World War, the German air force’s England Squadron, formed in late 1916, had raided London and other ports with the primary aim of sapping morale. Perfunctory though these raids were, except from the point of view of the 836 dead and 1982 wounded in them, they did give rise to counter-measures of enduring significance. By the summer of 1918, the London Air Defence Area boasted a full array of weaponry, including eight fighter squadrons and a personnel of 17,000. Widespread appeals for retaliation contributed to the development of an independent Royal Air Force equipped to attack German factories – a list of specific targets in the Ruhr-Rhineland region had been drawn up – or, failing that, centres of industry, and just about anywhere else where there was morale to be sapped. In the event, the RAF’s strategic bomber force aimed most of its ordnance at tactical targets such as railway lines, and suffered heavy losses in the process. Postwar surveys demonstrated the modesty of its achievement. But the notion that attack remained the best form of defence, and that the psychological effect of taking the fight to the enemy would always exceed any material damage thus inflicted, had taken firm root. Although by no means uncontested, it was to dominate military, political and popular opinion, and consequently the distribution of scarce resources, during the period between the world wars.
It was generally agreed that the next world war would take the form of a ‘contest of morale’, not between armies but between entire populations. The easiest way to win it would be to bomb the hell out of a febrile urban crowd already undermined by socialism and racial mixture. That was also the easiest way to lose it, since, as Air Ministry officials liked to point out, you didn’t really know whose crowd would ‘squeal’ first. The abattoir proved to be by no means the only resource commentators were able to draw on for class-inflected, scare-mongering metaphor. In 1923, the military strategist J.F.C. Fuller, later to join the British Union of Fascists, declared that a ‘nation septic with revolution’ can ‘no more wage an organised war than can a man, contorted with colic, shoot snipe’. Pick the bones out of that one. Fuller already had. In his view, the purpose of air power was to ‘attack the will of the enemy’s people’. ‘Whatever the civilian may desire or squeak for, to put it vulgarly, in the next great war he is going to be “in the soup”, and what kind of soup will it be? A pretty hot one!’ It could plausibly be argued that the readiness of British statesmen to allow the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia during the 1938 Munich crisis had something to do with anxiety about the consequences of air-raids on British cities; and that it was the inhabitants of Dresden who were served the snipe soup, to appalling effect.
The pronounced if uneven enlargement and sophistication during the 1930s of what David Edgerton terms Britain’s ‘warfare state’ has been extensively studied from a variety of angles, most recently in Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45, which includes an authoritative account of the evolution into doctrine of the belief that strategic bombing defined the purpose of the modern air force as an instrument capable of transforming warfare. Overy points out that the doctrine took root before 1939, and continued to flourish after 1945, only in Britain and the United States: both empires accustomed to projecting power across oceans on the basis of technological superiority, both liberal democracies acutely sensitive to the human cost of combat on the ground. In his view, the strategy of ‘Shock and Awe’ unleashed on Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in 2003 had its origin in the political bombing of a previous era. Holman’s aim is to bring into sharper focus the originality, scope and influence of ‘non-military ideas’ about the instrumental use of air power. Historians of air power have neglected ‘public opinion’, he says, a bit too baldly. But he’s right to propose that it wouldn’t hurt to hear more about what people other than those paid to do so really thought (and feared) about the shape of things to come. The great pleasure of his book is the cacophony of individual voices it entertains: a babble of speculation concerning the methods, up to and including a version of drone warfare, by which the world would very shortly be brought to an end. Even Fowler Wright’s ‘The War of 1938’ turns out to be not at all bad. Published in book form as Prelude in Prague, and still in print, it very nearly presciently envisages Germany’s annexation of Austria, followed by an all-out air assault on Czechoslovakia.
After considering various ways in which we might investigate and assess opinion about the coming war, Holman settles for a ‘simple transmission framework’. ‘The press,’ he claims, ‘was the medium which carried ideas from experts about air power to the public.’ After all, of the eleven hundred respondents to a Mass-Observation survey undertaken in August 1938, 35 per cent said they based their ‘opinion’ on newspapers (although we shouldn’t ignore the 17 per cent who gave greater weight to what their friends thought, the 13 per cent who had fallen under the sway of the radio, and the 5 per cent who read books). Holman has drawn the bulk of his evidence from mass circulation daily newspapers, while also sampling the weeklies and specialist magazines such as the Aeroplane, which was edited throughout the period by the fascist sympathiser C.G. Grey. His ‘new model’ of the methods the press used to amplify and exploit public concern is that of the ‘bombing panic’. He has identified three great British bombing panics. The first took place in 1913, when phantom Zeppelins kept appearing in the skies above key naval bases; the second in 1922, after demobilisation had already reduced the once pre-eminent RAF to a level significantly below that of its major competitors; and the third, as we’ve seen, in 1935. By inciting panic, Holman maintains, the press ‘taught the public to expect devastation when the bombers came’. If so, it must very soon have become a drearily familiar lesson. Passing from panic to panic, from one ingenious sketch of pendant poison clouds and zombie survivors huddling in basements to another, I began to wonder why anyone bothered to get out of bed in the morning in the 1930s. Can public opinion really have been that uniformly bleak? Or, how reliable a guide is ‘public opinion’, understood as what the papers said, to the attitudes and behaviour of people who, however anxious they might have felt about the instrumental use of air power, evidently did continue to bother to get out of bed in the morning.
What happens if we vary the angle a little? Holman makes no mention of the Illustrated London News, which, while it lacked the clout of a mass circulation daily, was lavish – and, of course, graphic – in its coverage of matters pertaining to air power. C.G. Grey, for example, contributed a weekly column on ‘The World of Flight’ from January 1918 until March 1920, just when the theory of the knock-out blow was beginning to gain some traction. A good proportion of the news the Illustrated London News aimed to illustrate was made by the air displays, pageants and parades which by the mid-1920s had become a staple of popular entertainment. Holman thinks that the huge crowds attending these events were drawn by a ‘love of spectacle’ alone, and therefore didn’t derive much from them in the way of instruction. I’m not so sure. The Illustrated London News distilled spectacle into a powerful propaganda narrative about the ever intensifying readiness of the nation’s air defence system. A fabulous double-page spread from June 1928 shows an ‘action’ at the Hendon Air Pageant during which fighter planes take off a mere seven minutes after the alarm has sounded, climbing rapidly to engage the enemy. Replace the Siskin biplanes with Spitfires, and it could just about be the storyboard for a scene in a Battle of Britain movie. Pie in the sky, perhaps. But the magazine’s enduring (and endearing) geekiness did stimulate – week after week – a curiosity which, while it remained technological in scope, nonetheless had profound implications for an understanding of the potential uses of air power.
Take another staple of the air shows and Royal Tournaments, the Vickers Predictor. The Predictor was an analogue computer connected to an anti-aircraft gun. Fed information about the height, speed and bearing of an approaching aircraft, it calculated trigonometric firing solutions and fed them automatically to the weapon. The Illustrated London News couldn’t get enough of such wizardry. A Vickers Predictor occupies centre-stage in a double-page spread from December 1936 entitled ‘Televising a Unit of London’s Land Defence Force against Enemy Aircraft under Realistic Conditions’. It’s not just that this example of one medium’s coverage of another medium’s coverage of a defence exercise throws doubt on the wisdom of assessing public opinion through newspapers alone. It is that the ‘realism’ of the exercises (faked or not) was itself an antidote to panic. Here were some ordinary real people who knew how to operate an extraordinary real machine. A British Pathé film, complete with animated diagrams as well as live footage, explained in great detail just how they did it. For the Predictor was on its way to becoming iconic. One appears, without any explanation at all, in a government film released in September 1939 that tells people how to behave properly in a war (don’t gossip, build that shelter in the garden now). What the country most needed to steady its collective nerve was a fleeting glimpse of an analogue computer. And quite right, too: the Predictor stood, not for the imminent, helpless collapse of an old world, but for the creation with instruments already to hand of a new one, in which information would matter more than energy. Two of the main architects of the modern information age, Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, worked on anti-aircraft fire-control systems during the war. Shannon saw in the errors such systems had to filter out of the diverse data received from range-finding devices a way to think about the ‘noise’ intrinsic to any form of communication. Wiener, finding his way towards cybernetics, wrote a substantial report on the circular causal relationship whereby the system’s output fed back into its input.
Predictors weren’t quite the future, yet. They didn’t always function reliably out of the box. The difficulties and delays that had to be overcome once war broke out in order to develop a radar capable of supplying them with accurate data have been well documented. Had knock-out-blow theory not held sway, London might have been better defended during the Blitz. Even so, the eventual outcome was what Sir Frederick Pile, the officer commanding anti-aircraft defences, later described (fondly, perhaps) as the ‘most highly technical army that ever wore khaki’. There must have been some optimism in the mix somewhere. Curiosity about the Predictor, like gossip, or swearing that you’d start on that bloody shelter first thing tomorrow, was a form of popular knowledge as likely to shape attitudes and influence behaviour as anything we could plausibly characterise as opinion transmitted by a newspaper. Popular technological knowledge defines its subject as well as, and sometimes more fully than, its object.
Transmission models have always found it hard to capture the extent of the knowledge there is in labour. Even more elusive, and ever more pertinent as the 1930s wore on, was an understanding of the extent of the labour there is in knowledge. We hear a great deal about the invention of game-changing technologies (file under ‘genius’), but hardly anything at all about those who build, maintain, repair and operate them. Charles Babbage always imagined that the operation of the calculating machine he began to design in the early 1820s would be overseen by mere ‘attendants’. Idiom, eager to instantiate, doesn’t exactly help. It allows the name of the machine to swallow the name of the operative. A bomber was once a soldier who threw grenades, before it became a Lancaster or a Flying Fortress; a predictor was once a soothsayer, before it became a fire-control system; a computer was once a person who made calculations, before it became an electronic device.
On 10 December 1934, William Burges, a ‘second-grade computer’ at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich was remanded in custody for a week on charges under the Official Secrets Act. Burges, who had planned to pay for his daughter’s education by selling the results of some chemical tests to a contact at ICI, was caught by a sting. The court acknowledged that there was no risk to the interests or security of the state in the transaction he had in mind, since the results ‘could have been arrived at by anybody taking the proper research steps’. In an increasingly connected technological universe, secrecy was no longer absolute. It had become a function of the speed at which someone else finds out what you already know, or vice versa. Best, the court felt, not to fret too much about it. Burges got 12 months in prison. Hitchcock wasn’t fretting, either. Something close to the bits and pieces of information about engine silencers, which Mr Memory tumbles out before himself falling silent, could have been found in any of the specialist air magazines of the day by anyone disposed to put such a device together in the potting shed. Mr Memory, infallible within his own terms of reference, unable not to reply when questioned, is an information worker, a human computer, rather than a spy. Whatever mood gripped the film’s first audiences as they left the cinema, it’s a fair bet they weren’t panicking.