Bloody Paralyser: The Giant Handley Page Bombers of the First World War
Fonthill Media April 2016
In this centenary period for the First World War it is particularly heartening to see relatively untold stories from the conflict given the treatment they deserve. One such area of neglect is rectified thanks to Rob Langham’s ‘Bloody Paralyser: The Giant Handley Page Bombers of the First World War’. This is an exhaustive yet highly readable account of the history of the Handley Page O/100, the improved O/400 and the vast V/1500 through their conception, development and service. The book’s title of course refers to the famous request to Handley Page for a ‘bloody paralyser’ of an aircraft for the Royal Naval Air Service, which fits with the subsequent notion of the giant Handley Pages as Britain’s first strategic heavy bombers – though the reality is not quite that simple.
There are a number of surprises on first reading Bloody Paralyser, not least that there are actually two competing stories about how the ‘bloody paralyser’ appellation originated. In any event, it was clear that the thinking of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was ahead of its time in requesting an aircraft so large and with such load-carrying ability. Interestingly, Rob reveals that the aircraft were not originally intended as strategic bombers at all. The initial concept was for a battlefield weapon that could act as a form of long-range artillery, heavily armoured to protect against ground fire, inspired by the 1914 siege of Antwerp in the coastal zone that the RNAS had responsibility for. Another surprising aspect of the narrative is just how early the giant Handley Pages were conceived, given that few aircraft of such great size existed in 1915. The impressive abilities of the O/100 (named for its 100 ft wingspan) and the even more capable O/400 by 1917 standards are well communicated.
Importantly, the narrative places the aircraft in their historical context. While they are likened to the WW2 ‘heavies’ such as the Lancaster and Halifax, this is not done in an ahistorical way. Rob charts the development of the aircraft from its original battlefield conception to an aircraft that, shorn of its performance-sapping armour, became a machine that could fly above the range of small-arms fire and carry a large bomb load far beyond the lines, well into Germany by the war’s end, almost by accident. The fact that the Handley Pages began their operational career as naval aircraft is brought home in wonderful details such as the classification of air gunners as ‘Gun Layers’ and the use of specially constructed ‘lighthouses’ across the Western Front as navigational aids.
A fair amount of technical detail is provided where this is appropriate, including a discussion of the anti-aircraft artillery that the Handley Pages often faced and the weapons carried by the aircraft. This is by no means dry, and fits seamlessly into the narrative flow. The organisational and cultural changes wrought by the RNAS’ absorption into the RAF are also covered as they apply to the Handley Page squadrons.
The most impressive element of the book, as far as this reviewer is concerned, is the extent to which those who were directly involved are allowed to tell the story. The narrative, especially the chapters on the aircraft’s operational service, is peppered with quotations from the diaries and letters of Handley Page crews and others who were directly connected with their operation. These sources provide a far better picture than any modern retelling could, and the contemporary sources reveal startling insights such as the experience of being targeted by embryonic anti-aircraft defences (such as the legendary ‘flaming onions’) or the harsh conditions encountered during night flights lasting many hours. The experience of those on the receiving end of Handley Page bombing raids are not left out either, and there are numerous citations from contemporary German sources.
Each theatre of war the Handley Pages served in is covered, including the aircraft’s lesser known Middle East use and brief service with Colonel T.E. Lawrence’s ‘air force’. The development of the four-engined V/1500, which just missed service in WW1, has a chapter devoted to it, as does the postwar civilian use of surviving aircraft.
‘Bloody Paralyser’ is thoroughly recommended to anyone with an interest in WW1 aviation, especially where it concerns the development of strategic bombing by the Royal Navy, and later the RAF. It is a compelling read yet packed with information. These aircraft and the men who flew and worked on them deserve to have their story told and Rob’s book is a fine tribute to them.