Tuesday, 11 February 1913

Daily Mail, 11 February 1913, 3

There is little overt mention of phantom airships in today's newspapers, but quite a few allusions. They all accompany the news, published in all the major papers, that last night the Secretary for War, Colonel Seely, introduced to the House of Commons an Aerial Navigation Bill to amend the 1911 Aerial Navigation Act. The bill would enable, in the words of the Daily Mail (p. 3; above), 'the restriction, if necessary, of flights by foreign aircraft over this country':

The Bill gives a Secretary of State powers to prohibit aircraft from flying over prescribed areas, which may include the whole of the coast-line and the 'territorial waters (i.e. within three miles of the coast) adjacent thereto.'

If an aircraft flies over a prescribed area or fails to comply with the landing conditions a signal shall be given by 'the officer designated for the purpose.' Then if the aircraft still fails to comply 'it shall be lawful for the officer to fire at or into such aircraft and to use any and every other means necessary to compel compliance.'

As it stands, the 1911 Act provides only for a £200 fine or imprisonment for 6 months (or both) for aviators caught flying over a prohibited area. Therefore, if passed, the Aerial Navigation Bill will for the first time give the government the legal basis for air defence.

The suspicion at once arises that the Aerial Navigation Bill is the government's response to the many reports of mystery aircraft along the coasts recently, widely suspected to be of German origin. As the Mail's headline puts it:

MYSTERY AIRCRAFT VISITS.
COL. SEELY'S BILL TO GIVE A RIGHT TO SHOOT.

Some of the other newspapers have similarly suggestive headlines. This is from the Daily Express (p. 2):

Daily Express, 11 February 1913, 2

SHOOTING AT STRANGE AIRCRAFT.
PROTECTION AGAINST AERIAL SCOUTS.

And, from the opposing political viewpoint, the Daily Herald says (p. 7):

Daily Herald, 11 February 1913, 7

DANGER FROM THE AIR.
Power Sought to Shoot Strange Aviators.

But the articles which these headlines introduce make no reference, even indirectly, to the scareships. Moreover, most of the other newspapers don't even hint at any connection, even in their headlines. For that matter, neither do they offer any alternative explanation for these new powers. So it's not really clear if the government is really seeking the power to shoot down the mystery airships or if the introduction of this bill at this time is merely a coincidence.

There is, though, one newspaper which candidly discusses the motivation behind the bill, the Edinburgh Scotsman. And its London correspondent does indeed claim that it was 'brought forward at the instance of the Imperial Defence Committee' to deal with phantom airships (p. 7):

This Bill is regarded as a sequel to the report that airships have recently been seen by night in the vicinity of Sheerness and other naval bases. The measure, I am told, has its counterpart in the statutes of foreign countries. It is a sign that the military authorities take a more serious view of the danger of spying by means of airships than some recent public statements indicated.

Also, the bill is described as having been 'hurriedly introduced'; and 'A strong effort will be made to pass the Bill this session'. This sounds like panic.

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