NAA: A2023, A38/2/147/677

I ended the previous post in this series with the tease:

In a final post, I will discuss what [Alban] Roberts called his airship, and what it might mean.

That was over two months ago! I think it's time to finally reveal the answer to this question.

According to Errol Martyn, who has written what must be the fullest account of Roberts' career, says that around the time of the airship's tethered test, it was 'patriotically named Australia 1'.1 He gives no source for this name and I couldn't find a reference to it in Trove or elsewhere. In fact, most of the press accounts don't call it anything other than 'the airship' or 'the dirigible'. But not all:

Mr A. J. Roberts's airship, the White Australia, left the Show Ground yesterday under its own gas [...]2


The trial flight of Mr A. J. Roberts' airship, White Australia, from the Sydney Showground, ended abruptly on Sunday afternoon.3

I find this extraordinary. Australia's first airship was named for a racist policy of ensuring an Australian nation free from non-Europeans. Why?
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  1. Errol W. Martyn, A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation Before the Great War, Volume 3: The Joe Hammond Story and Military Beginnings 1910-1914 (Upper Riccarton: Volplane Press, 2013), 98. 

  2. Sun (Sydney), 5 July 1914, 4

  3. Maitland Daily Mercury, 6 July 1914, 6


The Australian airship of New Zealander Alban Roberts seems to have had only three outings, all in 1914. The first of these was a tethered test at the Sydney Agricultural Showground on 23 June, in which the envelope was filled with hydrogen, united with the nacelle, and 'dragged into an open space, to undergo its first trial flignt'.1 The test was successful, in that the airship rose 80 feet into the air while carrying a passenger (Mrs Roberts), as far as the tethers would allow. This was reassuring, since a recent storm had allowed air to enter the envelope, displacing some of the hydrogen and lessening its lifting power. The airship was also able to move forward under its own power, again with someone on board (Mr Roberts, this time). However, this was not a particularly impressive feat: despite the near-complete absence of wind, and despite having detached everything detachable in order to counteract the loss of hydrogen, it was able to move no faster than 'walking pace'.2 The airship also suffered some damage, when part of the nacelle collapsed under Colin Hall, Roberts' chief mechanic. As he was some 30 feet up at the time, he had to clutch at the tethers until the airship could be pulled back down. At least this spectacle 'provided a fund of excitement for the privileged onlookers'.3
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  1. Maitland Daily Mercury, 24 June 1914, 5

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 


Barrier Miner, 6 July 1914, 3

Australia has never had much to do with airships. In recent decades you might be able to catch a glimpse of an advertising blimp or a camera drone. You have to go back many decades to find anything else, and what you do find didn't amount to much. There would have been airship bases in Melbourne and Perth by the late 1930s, if the R101 disaster hadn't brought down the Imperial Airship Scheme with it. Early recruitment for the Royal Australian Air Force included jobs for airship riggers, whose skills were never needed. In 1909, mystery airships were seen around Australia, but they were phantoms. And as far back as 1851, William Bland, a Sydney doctor, designed and patented an 'Atmotic Ship', supposedly capable of flying to London in a week and a half, but it was never built.

So here's another to add to the list, though it's a bit more successful than the others, since not only did it exist, as you can see in the photo above, but in 1914 it actually flew. It's the first, and I think the only, airship designed and built in Australia. Its creator was electrical engineer Alban Roberts (on the left in the photo), who was New Zealand-born and raised, but in the years before the First World War moved back and forth between there and Australia, Britain, and the United States.1 From 1909 he was in Britain working on wireless control of boats, subs, aeroplanes and airships. By 1912 -- after an interlude in America, during which he crashed an airship into the Atlantic while attempting to fly from New York to Philadelphia -- he had perfected a remotely-piloted dirigible well enough to demonstrate [in music halls], much as Raymond Phillips had already done before him. He publicly demonstrated this drone back home in Wellington in 1913, where it 'dropped a tiny bomb of confetti' on a marked spot.2

A few months later, he was across the Tasman in Sydney building his full-size airship, 'the first Australian constructed one [...] constructed as far as possible of Australian material and by Australian hands. The only part which was imported was the balloon section, which it was found could not be made in Australasia.'3

The 'Nacelle,' or framework which carries the engines and propellor is 48ft. by 2ft. 6in. Mr. Roberts does not regard his vessel as much more than a model. Its engine is 15-h.p., and its speed in calm weather is 16 miles an hour. 'I would have to treble my engine power,' says Mr. Roberts, 'to get another five miles an hour out of my little ship.'4

Indeed, the airship itself was not the point: it '"has the pull as a spectacle," said Mr. Roberts, "but the wireless is the big thing."'5

Still, Roberts seems to have had plans for his airship:

Later, the airship will take up its occupation as a pleasure craft. Passengers will then be able to sail gently over Sydney and about the harbour. The ship may also be used at night as an advertising hoarding.6

It took more than 70 years for airships to be used for advertising in Australian skies, and I don't think paying customers have ever been able to take dirigible joyflights here. But Roberts' airship did fly, as I will discuss in another post.

Image source: Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 6 July 1914, 3.

  1. See generally H. R. Everett, Unmanned Systems of World War II (MIT Press: 2015), 266-8

  2. Dominion (Wellington), 25 November 1913, 10

  3. Ibid., 7 July 1914, 8

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

So I half-promised a final post in this series about the airship panic of 1915. There are a couple of methodological points I'd like to make.

The first point is that this is an unusually well-attested panic. There are panics with more sources, but not with so many different kinds of sources. Here, there are three overlapping and fairly consistent layers of evidence for phantom airship sightings or rumours of air raids: stories in the press; military intelligence reports and analyses; and private diaries and letters. For peacetime panics, newspapers are normally the only source of information, with scant evidence for official interest -- for example, the 1913 phantom airship panic. In wartime, there is much more in the way of intelligence interest, but less full and/or less frank press coverage, partly due to censorship -- for example, the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand. In both peace and war, presumably private individuals wrote in letters and diaries about the mystery aircraft they saw or heard about, but they're hard to survey on any scale, inevitably hit and miss, and in any case I don't think anyone else has looked.
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Rumours have a bad reputation, especially in wartime. They are at best unreliable, at worst flat-out lies. They are distractions from the war effort, if not actually undermining it. They can create unreasoning suspicion and fear or equally unjustified hope and optimism. In short, nothing good comes from them.

Unless you're a historian, of course. Then rumours in wartime are valuable evidence for what the people who told them thought was important and what they thought was going on, and how these differed from the official or press view. And they're even more important if you write an article about rumours in wartime and it's accepted for publication, which is what has just happened to me! In this case, the article is 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914' and the journal is the British Journal for Military History.

BJMH is published by the British Commission for Military History, which in 2014 hosted a conference at Wolverhampton where I first presented on this topic. It's a new journal: the first issue came out in 2014 and it's still only up to its second volume. It's peer-reviewed, of course; but more interestingly, it's open access (libre). I strongly believe that research should be made available to as wide an audience as possible, which is partly why I have this blog and why I upload whatever versions of my articles I can here. But I've never published in an actual open access journal before, so I'm excited about that.

The article expands upon several blog posts I wrote on the topic of the strange rumours of Zeppelin bases which spread in Britain in the first summer and autumn of the war, which were paralleled by strange rumours of secret German gun platforms, linked by the occurrence of both at Great Missenden on 18 October 1914. I was awarded a UNE grant to further this research, and so this article (and the departmental seminar I gave last month) is the result of that. It's the first time I've stepped away from a strictly airminded topic: while obviously it is still partly about aviation, it is also obviously partly not, and moreover it's ultimately about trying to chart the imaginative shifts from home to home front and from peace to total war. This will, hopefully, be the topic of my next book; it's off to a good start!

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On Friday, 1 April 2016, I gave my second Humanities Research Seminar (again introduced by Nathan Wise) at the University of New England, under the title of 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret German forts and aerodromes in Britain, August-October 1914'. It was based on a (hopefully) forthcoming article, which in turn is based on a series of posts here as well as a research trip. The abstract:

I will explore the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and hidden Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914. These were so persistent that they were repeatedly investigated by both thepolice and the military. I argue that these rumours were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of the German enemy within. But they also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasing likelihood of a long, total war.

I haven't listened to it (and don't plan to!) so can't vouch for its comprehensibility -- especially since since I didn't have as much time to prepare it as I would have liked. It might be safer to wait for the article!

The following article appeared on p. 4 of the 15 June 1914 issue of the Broken Hill (NSW), newspaper, the Barrier Miner:


Aden, Saturday.

Naval Lieutenants Boothby and Richard B. Davies are at Berbera, investigating the feasibility of utilising airships for the purpose of an expedition to subdue the Mad Mullah in the desert.

This is interesting for three reasons. The first reason is that it's a very early instance of the idea of air control, using airpower to subdue colonial unrest. The classic example of air control was in the Iraq mandate in the 1920s, which was inspired by the RAF's success in 1920 in helping to end the revolt in Somaliland of Abdullah Hassan (the 'Mad Mullah'), a revolt which had been causing the British grief since the last days of Victoria's reign. But this shows that air control was being contemplated in 1914, a full six years earlier. If the Great War hadn't intervened, Somaliland would probably have been the first operational use of British airpower -- and carried out by RNAS airships, too, not RFC aeroplanes.1

The second reason why it's interesting is that less than two months later, F. L. M. Boothby, now an RNAS squadron commander, was attached to the Vickers airship shed at Barrow-in-Furness, where the large rigid airship HMA 9 was under construction. At Barrow, Boothby was instrumental in fanning an airship panic at the start of the war, informing Whitehall of his theory that the Germans 'have a temporary base in the hills' nearby. It seems likely that in coming up with the idea of a forward aerodrome in Cumberland that he drew on his recent experience in planning forward aerodromes in Somaliland.

The third reason why it's interesting is because of the way that I found it, through Trove, the National Library of Australia's portal to many different kinds of information, including digitised newspapers. Actually, that's not all that interesting; I use Trove all the time. I've used it to uncover Australian mystery aircraft sightings, of course, but also the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla, the March to Freedom, blockbuster bombs, the Willunga Rifle Volunteers, even milk bars -- the list goes on. It's such a brilliant discovery tool that it's natural to turn to it when research a topic, sometimes even if that topic has nothing to do with Australia. The ease of use matters; while there are some good newspaper archive interfaces out there, the best have clearly been influenced by Trove itself; and they all could do a lot worse than to adopt Trove's front- and backends wholesale. It is quite simply one of the world's best digital history resources.

Which brings me to the real reason why this is interesting, not because of the article itself, but because I found it in the last Trove search I did before finding out that Trove's funding is being cut, in what is euphemistically described as an 'efficiency dividend' (if it was really a dividend, it would come after an increase in efficiency, not before a decrease in services). Jobs will be lost, 22 across the NLA. It's not going to be shut down; in the first instance it will stop aggregating some content. But that fantastic interface is useless without the content. And this is the thin end of the wedge; other major national cultural institutions (except for the Australian War Memorial, of course; and there's still lots of money for a new Anzac museum in France) are also receiving budget cuts. As many others have pointed out, there's a fundamental disconnect between the federal government's rhetoric praising innovation and technology, and the lack of support for an amazing Australian success story. It's not smart.

What can you do? Start with Tim Sherratt, then read the Conversation, like the Facebook page, follow the hashtag, sign the petition, or even write the senator.

  1. Further discussion in Flight, 19 June 1914, 641; Roy Irons, Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013), 170

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One of the advantages of studying wartime airship panics, like the one in January 1915, is the relative abundance of private archives, diaries, letters and interviews for the 1914-1918 period which have been collected and catalogued. This makes it theoretically possible to compare the press view and the official view with the view from below, a rare combination in this line of work. Actually finding relevant private sources is rather hit and miss, partly because of the general lack of digitisation, partly because of the vagaries of memory and experience, of what seemed important to record or query. But because of the writer (or interviewer) is by definition concerned with wartime experiences, they are rather more likely to discuss scares and panics, spies and Zeppelins than would be the case for a purely peacetime context.

So what is there? Actually, let's start with what there isn't. One of the best-known civilian diarists of the First World War is the Reverend Andrew Clark, who was the parish priest at Great Leighs in Essex. He recorded a vivid account of how the war affected his village, and in particular took a keen interest in rumours of all kinds. As it happens, Great Leighs is only about 7 or 8 miles from Chelmsford, which was the centre of the 'Day of Dupes' rumours on 3 January 1915. And what did the Reverend Clark have to say about this? Nothing whatsoever! There is no entry for that date, and the following day has only some unrelated comments about Territorials and HMS Formidable. This is surprising, to say the least; the Chelmsford rumours reached London within an hour or so at the most, so it's hard to understand why they wouldn't have made it to neighbouring Great Leighs as well, at least within a day or two. However, on 5 January Clark does mention that he was 'still in grip of influenza', and it seems to have struck him on 3 January or so, so perhaps that explains it.1 But it could also be that the Day of Dupes was a victim of Clark's editor, who after all had to cut a lot: there are 92 volumes, 12 by March 1915, with 3 million words in total, compared with less than 300 pages in the published edition. So maybe a trip to the Bodleian is in order.
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  1. James Munson (ed.), Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19 (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1985), 41. 

I've established from press accounts that there was a phantom airship panic in January 1915, in two parts: a vaguely-defined one in the first half of the month and a much more clearly-delineated one in the last week or 10 days. What I'm going to do here is look at what evidence there is for this panic in The National Archives and how well it matches up with the newspaper reports.1

There are several files which are potentially relevant. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, 'GHQ Home Forces General Correspondence File re. Movements & rumoured movements of hostile aircraft etc', covers the period from the start of the war in August 1914 to January 1915. Unfortunately the last entry in the file is from 2 January so it isn't very helpful, though it has some miscellaneous reports. Another potentially relevant file, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, contains MT1b's (roughly) weekly Home Defence Intelligence Summaries from October 1914 to April 1915 (thanks to James Pugh for providing a copy of this one!) But it's missing the reports for most of January, and those which do survive provide scant details of aircraft sightings, because those deemed to be false have been filtered out. It does have a couple of useful items. HO 139/43 has an interesting D-notice (a censorship request from the Home Office to the press -- not enforceable, though they were usually followed). By far the most useful file is AIR 1/561/16/15/62, 'Several files containing reports of false alarms & rumoured Air Raids on England', covering the period from December 1914 to August 1918. This has information on about half a dozen seperate phantom airship incidents from January 1915, some involving multiple sightings and defence responses.
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  1. See also Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), 94-95, 168-171. 


Australia and the Great War

I have a new publication out -- at least, it's out electronically, I haven't seen a physical copy yet! It's a chapter in a collection published by Melbourne University Press and edited by Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology. My chapter is entitled 'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand'. It's based on my presentation at the British Empire and the Great War conference held at Singapore in February 2014, and as the title suggests is effectively an expansion of my article on the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 to encompass its New Zealand counterpart. In a way, expansion is not quite the right word, since I had to compress my discussion of the Australian side compared with the article version, and to be consistent I had to pitch the New Zealand part at the same level. But then again, compared with Australia there wasn't anything like the archival material in New Zealand, while the press was both more sceptical and more candid about what it thought was going on. And the fear of bombardment, as opposed to espionage, seems to have been uppermost there. So there were interesting differences as well as similarities to tease out, and it ended up being more than just a rehash of the Australian article with some Kiwi stuff thrown in.
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