Meanwhile, back on the Continent

LZ16, Lunéville, April 1913

The phantom airships seen over Britain in the early months of 1913 had their counterparts in Europe. It's hard to reconstruct what happened from the scattered references in English-language sources, but it seems that far fewer were seen than in Britain, even in toto. Here are the ones I've been able to find mentioned in the British press.

  • France: according to Santoni, managing director of the British Déperdussin Aeroplane Company, as evidence for the fact of Zeppelin visits to Britain, 'In France the fact of extensive German dirigible expeditions and practice is quite well known'.1 (I might be reading too much into this; the statement is vague and could be referring to expeditions to places other than France; anyway Santoni no doubt wanted to sell aeroplanes to Britain.)
  • Belgium:

    [...] the Brussels correspondent of the Central News telegraphs that the newspapers of that city state that for several nights past [prior to 26 February 1913] mysterious dirigibles have been carrying out evolutions over Peperinghe [sic], in West Flanders. The airships are believed to have come from the French frontier, and one of them is said to have been followed by a motor car fitted with a searchlight, which was flashed at times, apparently to guide the dirigible.2

  • Romania:

    It is reported from Jassy, near the Russian frontier, that at eight o'clock last evening [29 February 1913] an aeroplane with powerful searchlight was observed over the town coming from the direction of Russia. It manœuvred over the town for ten minutes, afterwards making towards the barracks. Troops were ordered out, and signals were made to the aviator to come down. The command was not obeyed, and two guns were fired at the machine. The aviator immediately put out his lights and disappeared. The affair has caused a great sensation.3

  • Austria-Hungary:

    According to the journal 'Slovo Palski' a Russian aeroplane, equipped with a searchlight, was seen manœuvring over Lemberg on Saturday evening. At Tarnopol (Galicia) likewise an aeroplane, making signals, was sighted over the town.4

  • Germany:

    Reuter's Berlin correspondent says that a detachment of the 8th Chasseurs of the Guard spent yesterday morning searching for the remains of a mysterious airship which, according to a story told by peasant women, caught fire, exploded, and fell to earth over the woods at Kaputh, near Potsdam, on Wednesday evening [12 March 1913] The women, who were positive they saw the disaster, reported it to the local authorities, who promptly telephoned for help. The Commandant of Potsdam set out with an ambulance column, with doctors and fifty Chasseurs. The fire brigades from Potsdam and other places in the neighbourhood hurried out and troops and firemen spent the night seeking in vain for the wreck of the airship. Yesterday morning another eighty Chasseurs took up the search without result. All the known airships were reported safe and sound in their various sheds. Nevertheless the women adhered to their story, and insisted that they saw the fire spread from one end of the ship to the other, then a sudden explosion occur, wrapping in flame the whole ship, which plunged headlong to the ground.5

Other countries had aerial visitors too: Russia, the Netherlands, Luxembourg. Around the start of February, the mayor of a village near Plock in Russian Poland claimed to have kidnapped one night by Austrian airmen and taken for a 60 mile flight, lashed to their aeroplane's fuselage. However, I haven't seen primary sources for any of these, only secondary ones, and ufological works at that -- albeit well-researched ones.6 At least these do draw on some contemporary French- and German-language newspapers, which is better than I can do as a monoglot. There could well be far more incidents than just these few.

But what evidence there is does suggest mystery aircraft scares elsewhere in Europe at the same time as the British one, particularly in the Low Countries and along the Russian border. The presumed origin and type of the aircraft changes with the local context. French airships over Belgium, Russian aeroplanes over Galicia and Romania. It's clear that many of these incidents were interpreted as part of a spy or invasion scare: the motor car scouting for the airship near Poperinghe (an idea which recurred in Britain during the war), the shots fired in anger at the aeroplane over Jassy. On the other hand, the sensational story of the airship crash at Kaputh doesn't seem to have been seen in a threatening light. It sounds more like a search-and-rescue operation for a Zeppelin, perhaps inspired by the Miracle at Echterdingen in 1908 and subsequent German airship losses (though the biggest disasters were not to take place until later in the year). In that case my first thought was a bolide, though German opinion apparently settled on a night flight by a German military aeroplane as the cause; in others, Venus, then near maximum elongation and maximum brightness, was likely responsible (though only if the aircraft were seen to the west, which might have been true in Poperinghe but probably not Jassy). In some cases, though, foreign aircraft might really have been seen. In January, a member of the Russian general staff was supposedly killed on a spy (?) flight when his aeroplane crashed near Jaroslaw in Austrian Galicia, though I can't find confirmation of this.7 And in April, a German military Zeppelin really did fly over French territory: LZ16 had flown off course and landed in the middle of French cavalry parading at Lunéville (pictured above).

William Mulligan has recently argued that historians have overstated the mutual hostility between European states in the years before 1914 and underestimated the factors restraining them from conflict; that not only was the First World War not inevitable, it wasn't even likely.8 He makes a strong case. But then why were people across Europe imagining hostile aircraft in their night sky? Perhaps the press exaggerated the mystery aircraft sightings. (That was claimed at the time, but while it could be the case in Britain it certainly wasn't the case in Australia in 1918.) Or maybe public opinion operates on different cycles to those of diplomacy? Europe might have been cooling down by 1913-4, but it could be that the inertia of suspicion was carrying Europeans, if not over the brink, at least to its edge.

Image source: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.


  1. Standard (London), 25 February 1913, p. 9. 

  2. Ibid., 26 February 1913, p. 7. 

  3. Manchester Guardian, 31 January 1913, p. 9. 

  4. Globe (London), 4 February 1913, p. 3. 

  5. Manchester Guardian, 14 March 1913, 7. 

  6. Nigel Watson, Granville Oldroyd and David Clarke, The 1912-1913 British Phantom Airship Scare (South Humberside, 1987); Thomas E. Bullard, 'Newly discovered "airship" waves over Poland', Flying Saucer Review 29 (1984), 12-4

  7. Journal des Débats (Paris), 20 January 1913, 2

  8. William Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

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