A widespread assumption in 1913 was that the mysterious airships then being seen in British skies were real and German. The vast majority certainly were not: there were just too many of them, in too many places, for no conceivable purpose. But it remains a possibility that a few of them really were German airships. In particular, competent authorities then and later have concluded that the Sheerness incident on 14 October 1912 was caused by the intrusion of a Zeppelin into British airspace. At a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence in December, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, reported that

There was little very doubt that the airship reported recently to have passed over Sheerness was a German vessel, and this incident had renewed anxiety. 1

At the next CID meeting, in February 1913, Vice-Admiral Sir John Jellicoe stated that 'A German airship of the Parseval type had flown over Sheerness and back to Germany'.2 When the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, asked what the evidence for this was, Jellicoe replied that 'it was known that an airship had left Germany on the day previous', and Churchill added that there was 'information from other sources which confirmed their belief'.3 The nature of these 'other sources' is suggested by a letter written by Churchill to Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson several days earlier, though then the implication was not that it was a Parseval but rather Hansa, a civilian Zeppelin:

14. Visit of 'Hansa' over Sheerness.

One of the pilots of the Bristol and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Mr. E. Harrison, recently visited Farnborough, and stated that he was in Germany on the night of 13th October, and saw the 'Hansa' start on a trip, and he stated that everybody knew that she had been over the North Sea. The 'Hansa' is an older and smaller airship than the German naval airship.

It has not been thought advisable to take the matter up closely with Mr. E. Harrison, but enquiries are being made in other directions to confirm the accuracy of this information.4

I'm not aware of the results of these further inquiries. But in 1931, C. F. Snowden Gamble, an early aviation historian, perhaps drew on Admiralty sources for his flat assertion that Hansa did indeed fly over Britain (though without specifically mentioning Sheerness):

There is every reason to believe that, at the time, the Admiralty knew that the craft was the Hansa -- a Zeppelin airship belonging to the Deutsche Luftschiffahrt A.G. (German Airship Transport Company) but manned by naval officers and ratings. Although the allegations were denied by the German press there is now no doubt that this ship did cruise over part of southern England.5

John Cuneo remarks that Gamble's confidence is hard to understand, 'because the facts are far from being well-known despite the insinuation by the author. No reference is given although the history is otherwise unusually well documented'.6 He attempted to find supporting evidence in published sources, including the Official History and Flight, but was largely unsuccessful.7

No date is given of the cruise or cruises of the Hansa but it seems to place it over England in 1912 or the early part of 1913. It is true that this Zeppelin was used to train navy crews and such training frequently took place over the North Sea but this was only after the explosion of the only naval airship in October, 1913. Of course a special trip was a possibility. It seems peculiar that such a visit was not described by some Zeppelin commander or crew member in the flood of post-war revelations.8

For that matter, it also seems peculiar that no archival records of such a flight have ever turned up. Douglas Robinson, who drew on the logbooks of the Naval Airship Division and other sources, dismisses the phantom airship reports as 'alarmist rumours' and likens them to 'the "flying saucer" craze of our own day'.9 Of course, he might have missed something, or the records might not have survived. Or the crew might not have survived the war to write their memoirs. It would certainly be unwise to dismiss altogether the possibility that evidence from German primary sources might turn up: after all, the contemporary spy scare was ridiculed then and later, but there were some German spies in Britain before the war, just not remotely as many as was claimed.10 In fact, one of those spies published a book in which he claimed that a German airship secretly flew over London in peacetime. Was he telling the truth? I'll leave that for another post.

  1. The National Archives (TNA), CAB 38/22/42, Committee of Imperial Defence meeting, 6 December 1912. 

  2. TNA, CAB 38/23/9, Committee of Imperial Defence meeting, 6 February 1913. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. TNA, CAB 38/23/11, letter from Winston Churchill to Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson, 3 February 1913. 

  5. C. F. Snowden Gamble, The Air Weapon, volume 1 (London: 1931), 205; quoted in John Cuneo, Winged Mars, volume 1 (Harrisburg: Military Service Publishing, 1942), 125. 

  6. Cuneo, Winged Mars, 125. 

  7. He did note a similar statement in George Fyfe, From Box-kites to Bombers (London: 1936), 161. 

  8. Cuneo, Winged Mars, 125. 

  9. Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912-1918, 3rd edition (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1980), 22. 

  10. Thomas Boghardt, Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain During the First World War Era (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), chapter 3. 


[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

Xmas Office Party

An interesting Flickr set of photographs evidently taken in the south of England in the last year of the Second World War was recently posted to a WWII mailing list I'm on. Many show aircraft of various types; others are of people and places. The photographer is unknown but judging from the content was in the US Army Air Forces, stationed at RAF Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire.

I've picked out a few interesting aircraft shots: some are aesthetically pleasing, some show unusual types, and one shows something I'd never come across before. But first is one of a person, perhaps the most intriguing. It shows an unidentified, uniformed woman on a bed: the negative is labelled 'Xmas Office Party 1 75w bulb overhead f2 25th sec 02' which says much, but not enough: we are drawn into speculation. Perhaps she has something, or someone, on her mind; perhaps she's just tired and had a bit too much to drink. It's unlikely that we'll ever know, but then that's what intrigues.
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Dellschau 1969

The art of Charles Dellschau has been receiving some attention lately, thanks to the recent publication of a book about his work. Dellschau, who produced thousands of strange and wonderful watercolours, drawings and collages in Houston, Texas, between about 1899 and 1922, is significant as an early outsider artist, but he is mainly of interest to me for two things. Firstly, his subject matter: his artwork is filled with strange flying machines (balloons? airships? aeroplanes?) intermingled with press clippings about aviation. Secondly, his overarching narrative: that his artwork records the activities of the Sonora Aero Club, a secret group of airminded inventors who actually created and flew the aircraft he depicted in California in the mid-nineteenth century. This is a beguiling idea, and some of Dellschau's admirers have tried to find out whether it is actually true (such as Pete Navarro, who is largely responsible for rescuing Dellschau's work). The Atlantic describes it as 'The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed', as though we should be surprised if it had not. But it seems abundantly clear to me that we can in fact say that it pretty much definitely never existed. There is no evidence for the Sonora Aero Club that does not appear in Dellschau's artwork, but plenty against it elsewhere in the historical record.
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Daily Herald, 14 February 1913, 6

Yesterday, the Daily Mail said that the Aerial Navigation Bill would be put before the Lords next week. In fact, as today's issue reveals, the bill already 'passed through all its stages in the House of Lords late last night' (p. 5). Moreover, 'all the regulations for the enforcement of the Government's Aerial Navigation Bill [...] have already been drawn up by the Home Office, with the assistance of War Office experts'.

In view of recent circumstances, everything has been hurried forward so that there will not be the least hitch or delay in enforcing the Act, which gives power to the authorities to shoot at sight at any aircraft coming from places outside the United Kingdom whose pilot fails to respond to certain signals. Pilots anxious to sail over our harbours and naval bases will be subject to the most stringent regulations.

The same article also discusses the mystery airships:

We are able to state that in the case of the airship which was reported by The Daily Mail to have been seen sailing above Sheerness on October 14, the authorities have satisfactory proof that this was not one of our own airships but one belonging to a foreign country.

The nature of this proof is not explained, nor is the identity of the airship its origin stated. No reference is made to the claim -- assumed to be officially inspired -- in The Times a month ago that there was reason to believe that the airship responsible was the German civilian airship Hansa. But it seems like this is new information, because that previous report also blamed Hansa for the Dover sighting, whereas the Mail says 'Nothing is certain in regard to the other reported flights'. However, given this 'conclusive proof of the visit of a foreign airship to Sheerness the other reports are naturally considered in a very grave light' (pp. 5-6).

The Mail further reports that, according to the War Office, 'special guns capable of firing at aircraft within a reasonable height are already mounted at various points round the coast' (p. 6). Again, yesterday it had merely said that this would happen at some unspecified point in the future. So things are speeding up.
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While searching for images to illustrate my Wartime article, I came across this German propaganda poster from 1918. It ultimately didn't make the cut but I think it's very interesting. The seaplane soaring into the top left of the poster is a Friedrichshafen FF.33; in fact it is the very one which scouted for the raider Wolf during its voyage into Australasian waters in 1917, Wölfchen ('Little wolf' or rather 'Wolf's cub'). But what about the two people in the lower right, cowering in fear before the swooping aeroplane? They appear to be stereotypical and somewhat racist images of Africans, or possibly Papuans. I suspect the latter. The Wolf came close to Africa twice, near the Cape of Good Hope on both its outbound and inbound legs, but it also sailed past Rabaul after preying on Allied shipping in the South Pacific. Rabaul would have had more resonance for Germans than South Africa, because it had been the capital of German New Guinea until 1914, when the Australians occupied the colony. So perhaps this poster should be seen as suggesting to the German public that Wolf's visit was a token of Germany's continuing claims in New Guinea and would soon return to reclaim its imperial possessions. And that it had reminded the natives who their real masters were.

But the poster had a more overt purpose, indicated by the text at the bottom: to advertise the Deutsche Luftkriegsbeute Ausstellung, or 'German air war booty exhibition', held in Munich sometime in 1918 (after February, when Wolf returned to Germany, and before November, presumably) along with associated military concerts. Presumably these were primarily propaganda exercises to rally the home front, but they may also have been used to raise funds for the war effort. However, I haven't been able to find much information about the exhibition, other than this poster and the rather striking ones below. (Apparently a pocket guide is still extant.)
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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

I recently came across what appear to be two bad books from what are two good publishers. There's nothing particularly unusual about that -- these things happen, a lot of books get published on military history and they can't all be good. But it turns out that the author of these books is even more questionable than the content. I worry that, having got this far and established a track record, he will be able keep convincing publishers to look favourably upon his work.

The author in question is Frank Joseph, and the books are Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy's Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011) -- the publisher's pages can be found here and here. I must admit to not having read them, so this is not a review. But enough is available on Google Books, here and here, to cast serious doubts upon Joseph's reliability, and these doubts are amply confirmed by reviews available elsewhere, for example by Richard Carrier in Global War Studies. I'll focus on Mussolini's War, though The Axis Air Forces appears to be pretty bad too -- I'll just mention here the blunt, unsupported claim from that an American experimental VTOL aircraft of the 1950s, the Convair XFY, 'had been built from Campini's original plans' (p. 31) for the Caproni Campini Ca.183bis, a planned 'futuristic Italian interceptor' with 'a highly innovative vertical takeoff and landing design' (p. 30). The only trouble is that, as far as I can tell, the XFY owed nothing to any Italian aircraft (though it did to a German one, the unbuilt Focke-Wulf Triebflügel), and the Ca.183bis was not a VTOL design at all, but a high-altitude interceptor of relatively conventional configuration (albeit with a Campini compressor, making it a crude jet). The only somewhat unusual feature they had in common seems to have been contra-rotating propellers, but they weren't actually all that rare. But on to Mussolini's War.
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VH-UXG, courtesy Phil Vabre

Very sad news today. On Monday, VH-UXG, a De Havilland DH.84 Dragon owned and flown by Des Porter, went missing on a flight from Monto to Caboolture in Queensland. A distress call and an emergency beacon were heard briefly, but then nothing more was known until today, when VH-UXG's wreckage was found in rugged terrain north of Borumba Dam. Unfortunately, all six on board were killed: Des and Kathleen Porter, Carol and John Dawson, Janice and Les D'evlin. My sympathies go out to their family and friends for their tragic loss.

The aeroplane itself is also a loss, if nowhere near as tragic a one. The Dragon, along with its successor the Dragon Rapide, is perhaps the classic 1930s small commuter airliner, designed for flying feeder routes between regional airports and metropolitan centres. Before Monday, there were apparently only eight Dragon survivors worldwide -- not four, as reported in the media -- of which six, remarkably, were still flying; now there are only seven and five respectively. (One of the seven is here in Melbourne at the RAAF Museum, tucked away in the back of one of the hangars.)

As can be seen from the photo above (taken from here, with the kind permission of Phil Vabre), VH-UXG was a beautiful aeroplane and had been lovingly restored. It was built in 1934 and flew in Britain for a couple of years as G-ACRF for Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Ltd before being sold in 1936 to Aircrafts Pty Ltd, a Queensland airline and charter service, and then in 1948 to Queensland Flying Services. It had been sold again, this time into individual ownership, by the time it crashed and was written off at Archerfield in April 1954, and it was this wreckage which Porter eventually restored. Incredibly, his father was the owner and pilot of VH-UXG in that crash, and just a few months later was killed in another Dragon crash along with Des's older brother; Des himself survived. Parts of that aeroplane were apparently incorporated into VH-UXG's tail. (This is what I've pieced together from several online sources; again the media reports differ somewhat, saying that VH-UXG was the actual aeroplane Des's father and brother were killed in. I welcome any corrections.)

This raises the question of whether we should be flying such near-unique and near-irreplaceable vintage aeroplanes at all. I think we should. These machines were not designed to sit in museums, but to soar in the sky. That's their proper context, or at least part of it, and we can better understand them, and the people who built, flew and watched them, by trying to use them as authentic a manner as possible. That entails risk, but risk was and is inherently a part of flying. Statistically, this means we will eventually lose all flightworthy vintage aircraft to accidents (though we are still adding new ones to the list and there is a surprising amount that can be done with wreckage), but we'll at least still have the museum-bound survivors. One day even those will crumble into dust and rust. But that is the fate of all things. We can't pretend otherwise, so we should make use of what we've got while we've got it.

Some more lovely photos of VH-UXG, including when it was new, can be found here, here and here.


NAA: A1194, 19.03/6255

This is from a document issued by the Air Council in October 1918, 'Identification marks on all aircraft', FS Publication 89. I think it's available from the National Archives in London as AIR 10/128 and AIR 10/129, but I found it in the National Archives of Australia as NAA: A1194, 19.03/6255, and because I paid to have it digitised you can see it on their website. It portrays the national identification markings for every country from America (a red, blue and white roundel) to Turkey (a black square inside a white square). I'm not sure how germane it is to the mystery aircraft scare earlier in the year: it probably wouldn't even have arrived in Australia before the Armistice. But it did follow a series of official determinations in the autumn about how to recognise German aircraft and, indeed, how to recognise aircraft at all.
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The Lebaudy-built Patrie, seen above, was France's first military airship. A descendent of the Jaune, in 1906 and 1907 it carried out a number of successful proving and publicity flights, including one where it carried the prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, over Paris. Afterwards it was moved to its operational base near the fortress of Verdun. Due to a mechanical failure during a subsequent flight it had to ground in the open, far from the safety of its hangar. A gale blew up, and even one hundred and eighty soldiers were unable to hold the stricken airship down. At 8pm on 30 November 1907, the Patrie floated off into the distance, fortunately sans crew.
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Future schemes of air defence


During the last years of the Great War, sound detectors played an increasingly important part in the air defences of all the belligerents. Since those days they have undergone great development. Here the emperor of Japan is inspecting the huge trumpet-like detectors that work in conjunction with the anti-aircraft guns (seen right)

This last in a series on 'Things of tomorrow' draws upon Boyd Cable, 'Future schemes of air defence', in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [1936]), 310-6. (There was a seventh in the series, but by another author and on a non-military subject, that of stratospheric flight.) The previous posts looked at 'Death from the skies', 'The doom of cities', 'New horrors of air attack', 'If war should come' and 'When war does come: terrifying effects of gas attacks'.
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