"The history of clouds" World War II skyscapes

With all this talk of recording and rediscovering the home front landscapes of World War I, I thought this would be a good point to have a ponder about the home front landscapes of World War II instead.

In Britain, we’ve been lucky; the last battle on British soil took place in 1746 at Culloden. We have no historic battlefields of 19th or 20th century date at all. Our experience of World War I was largely vicarious, barring occasional naval bombardment and a little limited bombing (remind me to tell you the story of how my great-grandfather got a medal for not shooting down a zeppelin). The landscape imprint of the Great War is largely confined to the run up to combat (training camps; practice trenches) and the aftermath (hospitals and war graves / memorials).

The same is true to a certain extent of World War II. Again, there was no land-based combat on UK soil (unless Went the Day Well and the Eagle has Landed are true). The direct experience of the destructive power of modern warfare was however felt through the impact of the bombing raids. Obviously these were most extensive in the Blitz over London – my great-grandparents lost their house. But many other places, Coventry, Bristol, Cardiff Liverpool and other great industrial cities were heavily hit. Even smaller towns such as York felt the impact of the Luftwaffe – my daughter’s school was substantially rebuilt following the Baedeker raid on York in 1942. These not surprisingly had a massive physical impact on the fabric of British cities and these structural and social effects were recorded by artists during and after the bombings.

However, I’ve been increasingly coming across another dimension to the landscape experience of the World War II air war. I’m currently reading a book by HE Bates called “In the heart of the country” written in 1942 about living in Kent during 1941. It is primarily a book about nature and rural life, but the war keeps on breaking through the surface. He encounters evacuee children, meets squaddies fishing, records a crashed German bomber and a dogfight over the village resulting in a Messerschmidt being shot down. For Bates, the “memorable hot beauty of that summer was sharply impregnated by the prick of destruction”.

One particular experience he mentions was the appearance of vapour-trails in the sky tracing the twists and turns of Spitfires and Messerschmidts in combat

So you got another example of the how little a war, savagely though it was fought above the countryside affected the countryside. The summer went on from that day in middle August as if the air-battles were not only clearing the sky of raiders but clearing it also of cloud. But towards the end of the summer they began to do the opposite things; they began to fill it with cloud. It was cloud such as has never been seen before. The white or blue-white vapour trails of plane-wings were a new phenomenon. They streamed in delicate smoke parallels from the wings of planes that were not visible, or they whitened suddenly the fresh blue autumn surface of a sky with soft splashes of milky curd. If there were many planes and the sky was blue and clear enough, it was would as if the sky were ice and the planes were skaters marking on the virgin surface all the rings and spirals and figures-of-eight and fancy cuttings that skates make on a frozen pond. These patterns sharp, frost-white, so fine and fancy, when first made, added something to the history of clouds. Sometimes you never saw the plane except for a split second as they turned in the sun; all you saw were the parallel streams of snow pouring backward from a moving point. Sometimes a squadron would turn in the sky, and then the snow-trails would turn too, suddenly merged together or split apart, but always, as they hung far behind, enlarging and softening and sometimes even assuming the shape of natural cloud, remaining visible for a long-time.(Bates 1942, 86-7)

The con-trails also make an appearance in the wonderful woodcuts by C F Tunnicliffe that illustrate the book, including my favourite image, of a man lying on his back looking over the Kent countryside with the vapour tails like spider scratches at the top of the picture.

These vapour trails not surprisingly appear to have had quite an impact on those who observed them, and they appear several times in art and film in the early 1940s. The best known example is the painting Battle of Britain – by Paul Nash (Yes him again), which although as is typical of Nash’s post-WWI work is balanced on the very cusp of surrealism, depicts the con-trails of dog fights over the Channel.

Vapour trails also appear in the work of other war artists, such as Richard Eurich, who depicted them on the south coast in his painting Fortresses over Southampton Water and Airfight Over Portland, and Walter Monnington’s Southern England, 1944. Spitfires Attacking Flying-Bombs.

A classic filmic depiction of con-trails I’ve come across recently is the Noel Coward war film “In which we serve” (a film, which incidentally, should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Trousers). At 1hr24min50s into the film, a frightfully dapper Capt Kinross (Noel Coward), his cut-glass Mrs (Celia Johnson) and family have a picnic and watch the vapour trails of a dogfight going on overhead. [I did go back and check the famous opening sequence of Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, with the famous jump cut from a diving medieval kestrel to a Spitfire, but sad to report, no vapour trail).

In a world where we are used to seeing the trails behind high altitude plains, it is easy to forget that until the Battle of Britain very few people would ever have seen vapour trails- they were something new and with their close connection to dog-fights and bombings must have had a slightly sinister beauty. However, this nice little clip from a Pathe newsreel from the summer of 1941 of the village of Meopham in Kent, includes the site of con trails as part of its overview of a picturesque rural landscape, so thoroughly had they become embedded into the national consciousness by this point

Finally, although I’ve mainly been writing about the con-trail as it was seen from a English point of view, there is a rather nice passage from Flight to Arras by the French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery about the other side of the equation:

“The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the watery vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside. The fighters are guided towards us by their radio, by the bursts on the ground, and by the ostentatious luxury of our white scarf… The fact is, I have absolutely no idea whether or not we are being pursued, and whether from the ground they can or cannot see us trailed by the collection of gossamer threads we sport. Gossamer threads set me daydreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting. “… As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars.”

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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  1. dear sir i think you forgot to coment on the first air battle over british soilwhitch was over the firth of forth and also you forgot to mention the blitson Clyde bank mabe you shuld look a little further than kent when looking atBritish history PS the air battle hapend on october 28 1939


  2. Hi- thanks for the comment- this post was not particularly about the chronological history of the air war, more about its artistic representation. It would be great if you could pass on any artistic responses to the Clydebank blitz/Firth of Forth- fascinating stuff


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