Monday, 17 February 1913

Daily Mirror, 17 February 1913, 5

The Daily Mirror has a curious item today under the headline 'BRITAIN'S PERIL IN THE AIR' (p. 5; above). It is apparently a statement made yesterday by an unidentified 'famous naval tactician', but instead of setting it out as an article or a letter to the editor it is given as an extended quotation with no gloss apart from the hint about the person's identity. Even if it is from an interview, it's an unusual way of doing things.

The author of the statement begins by saying that they 'heartily congratulate The Daily Mirror [...] on the able manner in which it has exposed Great Britain's grave liability to defeat by a foreign aerial fleet':

Silence in the presence of imminent national danger would be criminal, and therefore I hold it to be the duty of every true-born Briton to make himself acquainted with the real facts and to do all in his power to bring pressure to bear on the governing authorities until such time as we have adequately secured the supremacy of the air.

The tactician's contribution to this process is to use the government's own figures on the respective airship fleets of Britain and Germany (though attributing them to a statement made in the House of Commons by Churchill, when in fact it was made by Seely) and translating them into more familiar naval terms:

"By my method of classifying these airships according to size -- calling the largest ones Dreadnoughts and so on -- I arrive at the following table of the relative strength of the two countries: --

GermanyGt. Britain
"Dreadnoughts"90
"First-class cruisers"21
"Gunboats"12

"So you will see that Germany has nine monster airships (Dreadnoughts), all capable of making long voyages at fifty miles an hour and carrying several tons of high explosives, while this country has not a single airship which could meet one of these giants in an air battle.

They then, somewhat less fairly, claim that in the 'smaller type of vessels -- what I call the first-class cruisers and gunboats -- Germany has also an overwhelming predominance in the size and power of the ships'. In addition, 'You must also bear in mind that there are several privately-owned airships in Germany, but not one in England'.

"We should most certainly be beaten if Germany declared war against us.

"Those nine aerial Dreadnoughts could within a few hours cripple our proud battle fleet and destroy many of our fortresses and magazines, for we have nothing with which to fight them.

"The few aeroplanes and hydro-aeroplanes we have would be practically useless against swift airships capable of remaining in the air for a day and a half.

According to the tactician, 'It is an elementary fact in the science of war that every method of attack, whether it be under the sea, on the sea or land, or in the air, must be met by a strong counter attack and defence'. But 'We have neither the counter attack nor the defence'.

"Apparently all we have done to defend ourselves against the new offensive weapon is to pass a Bill prohibiting foreign airships from repeating the many mysterious midnight visits to our shores, which have recently been somewhat of a shock to our nerves.

"If war comes that Act of Parliament will not save us!

They conclude by arguing that 'Obviously' a great deal of experimentation will be needed to evolve 'the most suitable type of airship', but 'so far as I can see the Government officials are merely cherishing the vain hope that the perfectly-made airship will blow into the office some fine day, and so save them a lot of time and trouble in planning the ideal design'.

While it doesn't mention phantom airships, another article published today may shed some light on the identity of the Mirror's 'famous naval tactician'. The Aberdeen Journal summarises a 'manifesto' issued on Saturday by Rowland Hunt, a Liberal Unionist MP and chairman of the Imperial Maritime League (p. 8). This manifesto appears to bear some similarity in terms to the article in the Mirror, in that it highlights Churchill's own figures in an attempt to damn the government's defence policy, only this time they are really Churchill's figures and they refer to British and German strength in naval dreadnoughts, not aerial ones. (Briefly, even though by April 1914 Britain will have 29 dreadnoughts to Germany's 21, 6 or 7 of the former will be in the Mediterranean or remote parts of the Empire, and 25 or 30 percent will be unavailable for operations at any given moment -- though presumably the same would be true of the German fleet. Hence Britain will actually only have 18 dreadnoughts to Germany's 21, leaving it open to being 'invaded and conquered'.) However, Hunt does also refer to Britain's inferiority in airships:

The position in regards to airships is much worse, as the Germans have thirteen airships, besides ten privately-owned airships, against three British airships.

Could Hunt be the Mirror's source? The chairman of the 'navier' League could perhaps be described as a 'famous naval tactician', if absolute accuracy was no object, and the focus on Churchill, numbers, dreadnoughts, and both military and civilian airships is common to both. Obviously the tactician only discusses airships whereas Hunt's main focus seems to be warships, but perhaps this was what the Mirror found interesting. On the other hand, the Abderdeen Journal article gives the number of German airships as 13, whereas the Mirror says 12. And another newspaper, the Standard, quotes from the manifesto itself, or at least from a letter by Hunt on the same topic (p. 8), and the style is very different to the anonymous piece in the Mirror. That could be because the Mirror article was indeed drawn from an interview or talk. Or perhaps they are by different people, after all; but the similarities in timing and content could suggest a coordinated publicity effort, presumably by the Imperial Maritime League, to hammer the government from both sea and air.

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