Eighty years ago, the horrors in China reach Biblical proportions, France moves on some embarassing visitors and transport safety rockets up the agenda in Britain and Germany

The already grim conditions on the battlefield in China became even worse when the defending Chinese armies breached the dykes containing the Yellow River to hold back the advancing Japanese in what has been described as “the largest act of environmental warfare in history.” Tens of thousands of square kilometres were flooded for minimal military gain. Perhaps 400,000 civilians were drowned and a further 5m were made homeless. Elsewhere epidemics were becoming a notable feature with cholera and typhoid attacking even the relatively privileged European population.

At the northern end of the Pyrenees 10,000 soldiers of the Republic 43rd division retreated across the mountains after a prolonged rear-guard action. They were practically the last remaining formed units of the Republic army in the North. The French authorities speedily evacuated them across the country into Catalonia which remained in Republican hands. Despite the efforts of Francoist propagandists who were allowed access to the men, only a handful asked to be sent to areas under Nationalist control. 

Britain’s semi-state-owned airline Imperial Airways had come in for severe criticism on a number of scores, most notably its perennial financial deficits. Somewhat surprisingly the government announced that the new Chairman was to be Sir John Reith, Director general of the BBC, who had no experience of aviation or running a commercial business of any kind. Hidden from public view Reith had been lobbying his patrons at the top of the Civil Service for a more responsible job as a stepping stone to higher things. The man the civil servants really wanted in the job had spotted a disaster in the making and declined, leaving them to make do with Reith as a docile and obedient “safe pair of hands” despite his lack of qualifications.

The British and German governments were united in their desire for road safety. Leslie Burgin, Britain’s junior transport minister in pale imitation of his more rumbustious senior, Leslie Hore-Belisha (he of the beacons with whom he shared a given name and an affiliation to the fading National Liberal party) launched a campaign to improve safety for bicyclists, calling for cycles to bear disks identifying the rider, rear lights and not to ride more than two abreast. Only one of these made it into law, providing occupation for the Cambridge constabulary for many years, prosecuting undergraduates caught riding lightless at night. By contrast Hitler no less ordered the National Socialist Motor Corps to test the fitness of coach drivers after a series of fatal accidents.


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