War History Online Reviews Editor Mark Barnes was so impressed with Rob’s new book he tracked him down for a chat about writing books and his abiding interest in the Great War.
Rob Langham’s new book Bloody Paralyser has received positive reviews from a wide range of media sources and beyond. The book tells the story of the Handley Page bombers of the Great War. I have known Rob quite a while, dating back to my early days on the HMVF forum over ten years ago and he has the distinction of being a contributor to the predecessor of WHO during the days of mixed fortunes on the The Pathfinder magazine that might have left him disheartened but if it did, it doesn’t show! We first met up in Flanders on an Anzac Day weekend when I was in a wheelchair following a freak accident involving a Henry VIII lookalike and an Essex dance floor. We have met up occasionally and I last saw Rob sitting on the roof of a MkIV Male during Tankfest 2015. He was clearly enjoying himself.
It made sense to get him round to WHO Towers to see how things are going. So we pulled up a couple of ammo boxes, opened a tin of bully beef and mixed up some Camp coffee. It was horrible! Despite this I managed to ask some vaguely intelligent questions.
You must be pleased with the positive reaction to your book. Are you surprised?
Not as much as I was with my first one (The North Eastern Railway in the First World War), but still surprised by amount of people who seem interested in it. I suppose it’s mainly due to the power of social media, which is such a great tool for anyone having something published nowadays. It’s pretty nerve-wracking waiting for the few weeks or so from it being released for people to read it and review it or pass on their comments. Fortunately all good so far but there’s always the fear i’ve missed something, or something will turn up after the release of the book that i’ll wish I had been able to include!
What was your motivation to tell the story of the big bombers?
There’s a lot of focus with First World War aviation with the single-seat Scout aircraft and the ‘aces’ – Fokker triplanes, Sopwith Camels etc. When I first found out about the Handley Page bombers I thought it incredible there seemed so little knowledge of them, even amongst people who had an interest in First World War aviation. The Handley Pages certainly weren’t as good looking or glamorous as the fast single-seaters duelling in dogfights but their sheer size and scale and what they did was so impressive that I felt there was such an amazing story that deserved a wider audience. For me its the first-hand accounts of the pilots, observers and rear gunners that really bring the story of any aircraft to life, and with the amount of first-hand accounts by Handley Page crews fortunately accessible, well, it needed to be done.
Was it difficult selling the idea to your publisher?
Very easy actually – the guys behind Fonthill Media are very interested in aviation and snapped it up straight away – the only problem was it then took me seven years to actually complete it, about four years of that past when it was originally due to be handed over! Fortunately they were very patient
How did the research phase go?
Were there any difficulties or surprises you can describe for us? The research phase was pretty much constant, I was finding new information out even up to the last couple of months before the book was completed. Sourcing books and other publications took a number of years, mainly just perseverance and checking Amazon and Abebooks for out of print publications. I had a few people keeping a look out for me for new information though – Jim Grundy, who runs the superb (and in my opinion, a must-follow for anyone interested in the First World War) ‘Small Town, Great War – Hucknall 1914-1918’ Facebook page in particular sent over some interesting articles regarding Handley Pages that came up through his research.
Got to agree with you there. The fruits of Jim’s research are always worth reading and he knows a bit about beer, too! How important was the IWM sound archive to your research?
Very, and the document archive, as well as the Liddle Collection at Leeds. As well as the first hand accounts of the Handley Page crews helping to bring the use of the Handley Pages to life, the men’s experiences of them also include incidents or factors of life on a First World War flying unit that aren’t written down elsewhere, and also bring out the human aspect of the Handley Page story. The aircraft wouldn’t be built or operated without human input, and any story about an aircraft, tank, battlecruiser etc is also the story of the people who designed, built and used them.
What attracts you to the Handley Pages?
Certainly not their appearance! Try as I might I find it hard to think of the Handley Pages as attractive as, say, the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a or a Bristol F2b Fighter. They’re just so different from anything else the British actually used during the war, and i’ve always found the operations of night bombers in both wars fascinating. Even though i’ve spent seven years of my life on the book, looking at photos of them and reading about them most days, I still find the sight of them astounding, and to think such giants flew as well. Hopefully i’ve conveyed what they were actually like in the book, despite of course never having seen one in real life.
What do you think of the men who flew the Bloody Paralysers?
As with all those who flew aircraft in action in the First World War, brave. I (briefly) flew for a full-time job and that was in a relatively modern aircraft made of metal and with an enclosed cabin – despite aircraft of the era being strongly built, when the first Handley Page flew it was just over a decade since the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine, and not only were you defying gravity but the enemy on the ground and in the air wanted to give gravity a lending hand. Personally I see the men who flew in the ‘Bloody Paralysers’, and other aircraft, as well as those who served in the trenches and in warships as ordinary men who before war mostly lived normal, ordinary lives thrown into extraordinary circumstances – determined to make the best of the situation and at the same time undertaking feats of immense bravery
Would you like to have flown in one?
Depends on when and where! Given the opportunity I’d certainly like to, to be able to say i’d done it. I’d be more than happy just to have seen one on the ground though to fully understand the immense presence they must have had. I’d love to hear the two Rolls Royce Eagle engines roaring away in unison too, there’s a few videos on YouTube of single engine Rolls Royce Eagle powered aircraft I occasionally play on full blast to try and get some idea.
How realistic was the plan to use the V/1500 to attack Berlin? It appeared to rely on the Czechs being able to provide landing grounds and facilities.
I think if the war had gone on much longer – perhaps as little as a matter of days – they would have bombed Berlin. As to whether it would have just been a one-off, well… One of the pilots due to go on the raid said himself “I promise you i’ll get there, but I doubt whether you’ll ever see me again’. I think the aircraft would have been up to the job, based on the preparation for the mission and the performance of the V/1500’s after the war. Another plan I mention in the book which was probably more viable – and involved the men being armed to deal with any local resistance – involved a detachment of 216 Squadron set up and ready to fly to Prague with a number of Handley Page O/400’s, to be met there by a train (which was kept near 216 Squadron’s operational aerodrome and was kept at thirty-minute readiness as was the detachment) and to bomb Berlin or other targets from what would today be called a Forward Operating Base until supplies ran out, at which point they’d return. We’ll never know for certain but it’s an interesting ‘what-if’.
In the book you make the point that there is no way of being sure of the exact contribution the HPs made to the overall bombing effort. How do you think they should be remembered?
In much the same way as other new technology from the First World War. Together with the Tanks, machine guns, gas, ground attack aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft etc, etc; as well as, of course, infantry and artillery (as a proud grandson and great-grandson of Gunners I will always believe it was the use of artillery that won the war) their use was refined which meant that from August 1918 onwards the allies were able to deal the Germans a devastating blow and keep on attacking until the inevitable surrender. Straying again into ‘what-if’ territory, as there were never as many Handley Page units in action as desired, assuming they would be available by 1919 the night bombers could have had much more impact. I think with regards to the Handley Pages alone they should be remembered as the first British heavy bombers, forerunners of those used by Bomber Command in the Second World War and the V Bombers of the Cold War.
What do you think of how the centenary of the Great War is being commemorated? Will you be attending any major events? What do you hope to take from it?
Not entirely sure – some organisations are doing fantastic work, from small-scale groups like the Wessington u3a War Memorials project whose work on researching and remembering those in the local area (Washington, Usworth and Harraton near Sunderland) is a perfect example for those with similar aims.
On a larger scale I’m blown away by the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s exhibitions on various parts of the war – their opening stages of the Royal Navy’s war was great, as was the Gallipoli exhibition, and the restoration and opening to the public of the Gallipoli, Salonika and Russian Intervention veteran M33 Monitor warship is an absolutely must-visit (I am a bit biased as I appear as a sailor and as a soldier in the audio visual experience!).
The restoration of the Cruiser HMS Caroline in Belfast is something i’m really looking forward to visiting. The only major event I’ve attended is the anniversary of the Bombardment of the Hartlepools of 16th December 1914, which was done respectfully, and appropriately – i’ve attended the annual ceremony there for four of the past five years and i’m glad to say it has continued through 2015. I was also at Gallipoli one hundred years to the day since my great-grandfather landed there in September 1915, which, as well as the Bombardment anniversary, is all I’ve wanted to take away from the centenary.
What would you like to see commemorated during the remaining years of the centenary?
Hopefully the home front will get more focus, and particularly women entering the workforce in huge numbers for the first time. The slogan ‘The girl behind the man behind the gun’ on the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps poster couldn’t be more accurate – without the women joining the uniformed services, munitions factories or even cleaning windows or cleaning locomotives on Britain’s railways, there wouldn’t have been enough men to serve in the armed forces, and in particular in munitions factories the armed forces wouldn’t have had the arms and ammunition they needed.
The commemoration of the Battle of Jutland this year will be interesting and I hope the naval side of things will get more attention – although, apart from Jutland, the Royal Navy wasn’t involved in huge battles on the scale of those on the Western Front, Britannia ruling the waves was vital for the war to be won, and the threat of the U-boats in particular in 1917/18 could have brought Britain to its knees without a decisive battle on the Western Front
I have walked in the vicinity of Langham’s Dump. How cool is to have a spot named after you on the Gallipoli battlefield?
Very! It’s a place very close to my heart as, after years of not realising I had a close relative who served in the First World War, I found out just before my first trip out there that my great-grandfather was there, a member of a Scottish Territorial Force mountain gun battery who certainly had an interesting time out there.
Over the past four years I’ve spent four weeks in total there and hope to be back there again before too long, but hopefully reduce the amount of trips, falls, bruises, cuts, spooky encounters or other incidents that constantly seem to befall me when out there. I know what you mean. It is a stunning place. I half wondered if our guide might attach a name to the spot in Gully Ravine where I fell and broke my camera and ripped the arse out of my trousers. My mob would love to go out there again and I think we may well do so one of these summers before we are too old.
How do you fit in all your writing, living history and battlefield touring projects? Will we see you at the Tank Museum again in 2016?
Erm, I’m not sure! As well as having a full-time job and volunteering at a couple of places it’s certainly a struggle. I have to prioritise some places/events and i’m always catching up on writing whether it’s book reviews, magazine articles or working on future books. I certainly plan to be at the Tank Museum for Tankfest 2016 and Tank100 in September portraying First World War tank crew with the Great War Society, which i’ve done for five years now
Would you like to give lectures or do you just prefer writing?
I do sometimes give talks to Western Front Association branches and other organisations on the subjects of my books – i’m not a great public speaker though so always regret doing so in the days leading up to the talks and then doing it, however end up enjoying it afterwards. I’ll stick to writing mainly for now though, although never say never – my A-levels were an E in History and a D in English so writing books on historical subjects wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing ten years ago
What is next for you?
I’m hoping to start my Masters degree in First World War studies later this year to improve my knowledge of the war as a whole as well as my analytical and research skills which I hope will strengthen my writing in the future and open up new areas to research.
Thanks, Rob! Good luck with it all and we’ll hopefully see you at an event or two this summer.
BLOODY PARALYSER – The Giant Handley Page Bombers of the First World War is published by Fonthill Media and is available from the usual outlets.