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Wells, The War in the Air (XXI)

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Maj Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601 – Foundations of Military Strategy



The War in the Air Precis



The English novelist H.G. Wells wrote The War in the Air in 1907. In this work, Wells recounts the misadventures of Bert Smallways, a bicycle engineer from Bun Hill, England who serendipitously becomes a witness to the German air attack against the United States, which leads to a world war. Smallways accidently exchanges places with Mr. Alfred Butteridge, who has designs for a secret flying machine, by falling into Butteridge’s balloon. The balloon drifts to Germany, and during the trip, Smallways discovers the detailed drawings for Butteridge’s flying machine. Smallways manages to land at the staging ground for the German air fleet, led by Prince Karl Albert. The Germany initially believe Smallways to be Butteridge and therefore bring Smallways along with them as they launch their attack against the United States. The Germans needed to launch their attack before the Americans developed a large scale aerial force because of the perceived German technical superiority. The German airship fleet positions itself above New York City and attacked the city, resulting in tremendous destruction. The Germans were unaware that other nations also possessed aerial fleets, so the German attack resulted in attacks against other cities across the world. The Germans attacked London, while the French and English attacked Berlin. The Japanese and Chinese fleets crossed the Pacific Ocean and battled both the German and American fleets over the United States. The world war led to a great collapse of the financial and scientific civilization of the twentieth century.

Wells had a limited view of the efficacy of airpower:

· “The special peculiarities of aerial warfare were of such a nature as to trend, once it had begun, almost inevitably towards social disorganization. The first of these peculiarities was brought home to the Germans in their attack upon New York; the immense power of destruction an airship has over the things below, and its relative inability to occupy or police or guard or garrison a surrendered position… A second peculiarity…was the ineffectiveness of the early air-ships against each other…In addition, when it became evident that the air must be fought for, the air-sailors were provided with rifles with explosive bullets of oxygen or inflammable substance…one finds a growing tendency on the part of the air-fleet admirals to evade joining battle, and to seek rather the moral advantage of a destructive counter attack…The third peculiarity…was that it was at once enormously destructive and entirely indecisive.” (191 – 193)

· “One conspicuous peculiarity of the early aerial fighting arose from the profound secrecy with which the airships had been prepared…None of the designers of airships and aeroplanes had known clearly what their inventions might have to fight.” (196 – 197)

Wells expresses pacifist sympathies in the work:

· “Look at the mischief you done! Look at the way you smashed up New York – the people you killed, the stuff you wasted. Can’t you learn?” argues Smallways to Prince Albert. (232)

· “War’s a silly gaim…We thought those big people knew what they were up to – and they didn’t.” (243)

· “Could mankind have prevented this disaster of the War in the Air? They could not, because they did not, they had not the will to arrest it.” (269)

Wells sees technology contributing to humanity’s downfall:

· “It is difficult perhaps for the broad-minded and long-perspectived reader to understand how incredible the breaking down of the scientific civilization seemed to those who actually lived at this time, who in their own persons went down in that debacle. Progress had marched as it seemed invincible about the earth, never now to rest again…It seemed but a part of the process that every year the instruments of war were vaster and more powerful and that armies and explosives outgrew all other growing things.” (258)

· “They complacently assumed a necessary progress toward which they had no moral responsibility.” (268)

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The War in the Air – H.G. Wells written in 1907 (4yrs after Wright bros, 7 years before WWI).

Wells primary focus is a commentary on the depravity of man and the fragility of modern society. He promotes a one world government and funding education and development vs. war. At the same time he has incredible insight into the future and air warfare.

He envisions a total world war started by Germany and later ramped up by an Asiatic alliance of Japan and China. Germany launches a surprise attack on New York using lighter than air Zeppelins as the new battle ship. They are able to quickly decimate entire cities and city blocks in what feels like a preview to nuclear weapons. The target list of government, industry, financial, and infrastructure is spot on with modern target lists. Very interesting insight that airships can dominate cities, but not hold a population because they don’t have presence on the ground. Basically the bomber will get through but the bomber carries smaller tactical airplanes. War leads to societal collapse in the financial and credit areas and then a great worldwide plague. In the end society is pushed back hundreds of years to local farming.

The book follow Bert Smallways from a meddling carrier as a bike repair shop where they systematically scam customers, to a terrified passenger on the German Command airship, to a unwilling participant in the 3 man Goat Island war, to a hardened survivor that kills the town bully to protect his girl, Edna.

HG Wells preface for a 1941 edition, “I told you so.”

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