Vol. 44 No. 23 · 1 December 2022

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When the Engine Cuts Out

James Meek is right to deplore Russia’s use of Shahed-136 drones, but he exaggerates their capabilities (LRB, 3 November). They have been used primarily for terror attacks against soft Ukrainian civilian targets, not against critical national infrastructure. Since the Shahed-136 has a relatively small payload of about 50 kg, the Russians have mainly employed R-500, 6 Kalibr and 6 Kh-101 missiles against strategic targets. Although military drones like the Shahed-136 have often been very effective, especially when used against undefended targets, they do not represent a profound revolution in warfare, but are just one weapon among many others.

Anthony King
University of Warwick

James Meek tells us his mother learned that ‘when the engine cut out’ on a V-1 flying bomb it ‘began its terminal glide’. Actually it was the other way round. After travelling the distance preset on its odometer (driven by a small windmilling propeller), the V-1 would go into a dive, which starved the engine of fuel, making it cut out. This was contrary to the designer’s intention: the plan had been for a powered dive. The anxiety that people on the ground reported as they waited out the silence between the engine stopping and the impact was, from a German point of view, the unexpected bonus of a design flaw.

Gabriel Egan

James Meek writes that ‘V-1s and V-2 rockets destroyed or damaged more than a million houses’ in London. According to the National Archives, 2340 V-1s hit London, and fewer than 1400 V-2s. Between them, these weapons were responsible for about 3 per cent of the 116,000 London homes destroyed or damaged beyond repair during the Second World War. The rest of the damage was caused by bombs dropped in conventional air raids.

David Elstein
London SW15

James Meek writes: My source was Philip Ziegler’s book London at War (1995):

After the first two weeks of the flying bombs a Home Office statistician calculated that, if the assault carried on as vigorously for another two months, as much damage would have been done as in the nine months of the blitz. In Croydon 54,000 houses had been damaged, including more than 300 food shops; Sutton and Cheam fared almost as badly, with 18,000 houses damaged out of a total of 22,000. ‘Damage’ did not necessarily mean much; many of the houses affected were still habitable; the vast majority could be repaired; but in almost every case urgent work was needed. Still more inconvenient, the blast of the V1 often ripped off a roof but left the interior intact. The furniture could be salvaged but men to move it and places to store it were hard to find; often it was dumped in derelict buildings where the damp ruined whatever the looters had missed. The V1s and V2s together totally destroyed nearly 30,000 houses in the London area and damaged another 1.25 million.

So the difference between David Elstein’s figures and Ziegler’s isn’t a minor discrepancy, but an order of magnitude. What could explain this? Part of the answer may be that, presumably, different agencies had different counts of damaged houses – first responders, for instance, would have had a different tally from offices dealing with compensation claims. But there’s also a big difference between ‘damage’ and ‘damage beyond repair’. As Ziegler points out, ‘damage’ might not mean much, though it’s hard to live in a house without glass in the windows, as many Ukrainians are currently finding out.

Ziegler, like Elstein, puts the number of V-1s that hit London at 2340, but the number of V-2s considerably lower, just over 500. So let’s say the combined total of missiles hitting London was 2850. If 1.25 million houses were damaged, that would mean each missile, on average, damaged 439 houses. If we’re talking about blowing a roof off, that seems high. But if we’re talking about breaking windows and stripping roof tiles, it doesn’t.

The V-1 warhead carried 850 kg of an explosive called Amatol; the V-2 somewhat more of the same explosive. There’s a handy website, unsaferguard.org, where you can estimate blast radius by size of charge and type of explosive. For 850 kg of Amatol, it suggests proper damage – ‘Houses require repairs, serious inconvenience but remain habitable’ – extends out to 255 metres from the point of impact. There is also a measure called ‘minimum range to no break’: the smallest distance at which it is likely that no windows will be broken by the explosion. For ‘large windows’ that’s 887 metres. Using another website, mapdevelopers.com, which has a tool for drawing a circle on a map, you can generate an image of the ‘large windows could break’ radius were a V1 to land on the offices of the LRB. It would extend all the way from Chancery Lane to Soho, and from Tavistock Square to Somerset House.

Credit Where It’s Due

David Runciman claims in his account of the defenestration of Liz Truss that ‘had it been Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell who spooked the markets, Labour would have stuck with them out of a determination not to be pushed around by anyone’ (LRB, 17 November). That seems highly unlikely. ‘Labour’ in the sense Runciman is using the term – that is, the Parliamentary Labour Party – did its level best to overthrow the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership in 2016 on the pretext of the EU referendum result, for which their culpability was tenuous at most.

The factional warfare against Corbyn and McDonnell – extensively attested by reports both leaked and official, and in numerous accounts by the participants – paused for just a few months after they had led Labour to its largest share of the vote for two decades in the election of 2017. The influence of that shock result on subsequent events features nowhere in Runciman’s account of the Tories’ allegedly wholly self-inflicted wounds.

Stephen Daker

Toland and Deane

John Kerrigan suggests a provocative intellectual ancestry for Seamus Deane in the late 17th-century deist John Toland (LRB, 20 October). The yoking of Toland and Deane raises the complex issue of the reception of Milton in the Irish nationalist tradition. Toland was in great part the inventor of the Milton who would be an intellectual influence on the American and French revolutions. In his 1698 edition of Milton’s prose and the accompanying account of his life, Toland presented Milton as a secular, anticlerical republican, downplaying the religious and prophetic aspects of his ideas and character. He read Paradise Lost in the same way: the ‘chief design’ of Milton’s epic was to ‘display the different effects of tyranny and liberty’. It was in the spirit of Toland’s Milton that Milton’s prose defence of the execution of Charles I, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), was reprinted in Dublin in 1784 and advertised as ‘Particularly Recommended, at this time, to the Perusal of the Men of Ireland’. For Toland, and for some later Irish readers inspired by events in America – the sort who would foment the 1798 rebellion – Milton was the embodiment of transnational secular republicanism, and Paradise Lost its most eloquent articulation.

For Deane, however, Milton’s epic was a testament to the evils implanted by colonial history, all the more oppressive for its display of what Deane describes, in a comment quoted by Kerrigan, as the off-putting ‘magnificence’ of the Protestant literary tradition. In Book 4 of Paradise Lost, Milton describes the God who has created the ‘blissful Bower’ for Adam and Eve in Eden as the ‘sovran Planter’. In one of Deane’s most powerful poems, ‘Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster 1984’, this ‘sovran Planter’ becomes an ironic personification of the legacy of Protestant plantation and Cromwellian conquest, which has replicated religious division down the centuries and turned the Edenic landscape of Ulster into the hell of civil war. For Deane, ‘Enlightenment rationalist’ though he may have been, Milton measured the colonial limits of the cosmopolitan republican ideal.

Nicholas McDowell
University of Exeter

For Entertainment Only

Chloe Aridjis writes about the ‘inherently ghostly’ magic lantern (LRB, 3 November). Christiaan Huygens, who demonstrated the first magic lantern in 1659, couldn’t find much use for it as a scientific instrument, but immediately recognised its potential as an entertainment. He made drawings of skeletons in various jaunty poses, inspired by Holbein’s Dance of Death, to be transferred to glass slides. The projection of these images greatly amused his father, the poet and diplomat Constantijn, who was keen that his son should demonstrate the device at the court of Louis XIV. The serious-minded Christiaan thought this was a terrible idea, but couldn’t refuse his father. Instead, he arranged for the lantern to be sabotaged on arrival in Paris by the removal of one of its lenses, rendering it mysteriously inoperable.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Aylsham, Norfolk


Eric Foner makes several references to the use of ‘presentism’ – the use of present-days ideas to assess past behaviour – in the work of C. Vann Woodward (LRB, 20 October). There is another kind of ‘presentism’ in historical analysis, which Raymond Williams referred to as the ‘selective tradition’: of all the possible pasts available, particular events are selected and emphasised because they confirm present-day power structures. A case can be made that political agendas such as Woodward’s are necessary in order to counteract the hegemonic deployments of any particular historical period.

Raymond Rogers
Little Harbour, Nova Scotia

Quite Nice Actually

Rosemary Hill says Congress tart ‘sounds unappealing’ (LRB, 17 November). On the contrary, the small tarts I know under this name are delicious, made from short pastry with almond and raspberry filling. Perhaps they sound more attractive under their other name, Maids of Honour.

Sheila Russell
Pendeen, Cornwall

Rosemary Hill writes that the ‘entremet’, the palate cleanser served after the main course, is ‘now almost extinct’. A trou normand – typically apple sorbet and a shot of Calvados – is still par for the course in more traditional establishments in Normandy. Perhaps our ‘cringing sense of inferiority’ to our neighbours is justified after all.

Pratinav Anil

Space Snooker

Am I the only one who wishes that our exercise in ‘space snooker’, as Chris Lintott calls it, had been less successful (LRB, 20 October)? The thought that there is now a 10,000 kilometre dust cloud trailing behind the asteroid Dimorphos where there wasn’t one before will delight some for the influence it shows we can have on the universe – and dismay others for the same reason. Have we not learned by now that overindulging the Promethean instinct can lead to less than ideal outcomes: climate change, biodiversity loss, the Covid pandemic? Nasa’s Dart was an exercise in prophylactic Prometheanism, a side effect of which is to undergird the belief that we can protect ourselves from any eventuality. Here on Earth, prophylactic Prometheanism in the face of Covid led to untold numbers of collateral victims, a virtual absence of attention to its causes, and in the UK a handing over to the government of emergency powers which have found their way into the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Bill.

Andrew Dobson

Consider the Hummingbird

Katherine Rundell’s piece on the hummingbird could only have been enhanced by a mention of its name in Brazilian Portuguese: beija flor – ‘flower-kisser’ (LRB, 3 November).

Inigo Kilborn
Collobrières, France

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