Australia

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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. 

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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. 

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

AIRSHIPS AGAINST THE MAD MULLAH

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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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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In December I'll be giving a talk at the Aviation Cultures Mk. II: Technology, Culture, Heritage conference at the University of Sydney, entitled 'Comparing Hendon: aerial theatre in context'. Here's the abstract:

The RAF Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying, climaxing with an elaborate set piece in which a battle scenario with an imaginary enemy was acted out, for the entertainment and edification of the spectators. These pageants were hugely popular among all social classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands of people directly and many millions more indirectly through newsreels. Hendon was undoubtedly the most important British venue for staging aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to project images of future warfare, national power and technological prowess. However, the RAF Pageants were not unique. In this paper I will compare them with: equivalent forms of theatre employed by the British Army and the Royal Navy; similar forms of aerial theatre staged internationally, for example in Italy, the Soviet Union and Australia; and different kinds of aerial theatre used by the RAF itself, particularly Empire Air Day. This comparative approach will enable me to demonstrate the importance of Hendon and its influence, and to understand the relationship between the specific form of aerial theatre and the messages it conveyed about war, nation and technology.

This is the start of pulling together a few themes into something publishable. As part of the revision process for my 1913 phantom airships article, I decided to cut the section on the idea of the aerial theatre and to instead expand that into an article of its own. But instead of focusing narrowly on the Edwardian aerial theatre I'll think I'll take it into the interwar period and talk about the Hendon pageants instead, which were the subject of a series of posts I did ages ago. So it's time to take another look at Hendon, and presenting at Aviation Cultures Mk. II will be a part of that process.

I see that I neglected to post about Aviation Cultures Mk. I, which was held back in February, also at the University of Sydney. I think that was because I wasn't presenting anything original, just an overview of my research interests. It was an excellent one day interdisciplinary seminar involving mostly Australian researchers from the humanities and social sciences, as well representatives from the heritage sector. A highlight for me was Michael Molkentin's paper on pre-1914 military aviation in the Dominions, where he revealed the (unsurprisingly) naive entries submitted by the public for the Australian government's competition to design an effective military machine. Peter Hobbins (one of the organisers) spoke about his work on the pioneering Cotton Aerodynamic Anti-G Suit, the remains of which we got to see (it was developed at Sydney). So with Aviation Cultures Mk. I being such a success, the programme for Mk. II has expanded to cover two days. There are a lot of papers to look forward to, but here I will just mention those given by Leigh Edmonds, author of the (I think) only study of Australian airmindedness, who will speak on 'Australian aviation and society: the feedback loop', and two by commenters on this blog, Phil Vabre (with Roger Meyer) on 'How to make the uninteresting interesting: the Airways Museum as a case study', and James Kightly (AKA JDK) on 'Tested testers: re-learning to fly the Boxkite'. Should be fun!

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.


  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54. 

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At 10:45am on 25 April 2015, a RAAF Hornet (possibly a Super Hornet) flew 500 feet over my house. Ordinarily my response to something like this would be: COOL. But this day was a bit different, because it was, of course, Anzac Day; and not just any Anzac Day, but the long-anticipated centenary of the Australian and New Zealand invasion of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Anzac Day is now the most important day in the national calendar, eclipsing Australia Day, 26 January, the anniversary of white settlement and the official national day, as well as Remembrance Day, 11 November, the anniversary of the end of the Great War and the other major day in the Australian calendar which commemorates war. Why? The Australian War Memorial (AWM) puts it like this:

Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.

But the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland probably gets closer to its real significance for Australians:

one day in the year has involved the whole of Australia in solemn ceremonies of remembrance, gratitude and national pride for all our men and women who have fought and died in all wars. That day is ANZAC Day -- 25 April.

Every nation must, sooner or later, come for the first time to a supreme test of quality; and the result of that test will hearten or dishearten those who come afterwards. For the fledgling nation of Australia that first supreme test was at Gallipoli.

This is what Anzac Day is really about: 'The Gallipoli landing was in an important sense the birth of our nation. Certainly it was the coming of age', as prime minister Tony Abbott said, not entirely consistently, a few weeks ago. A century ago, many would have shared his sentiments, too. But a generation later, the patriotism and militarism embodied in that viewpoint had begun to seem old-fashioned, even dangerous, after another world war and a new cold war; and after another generation, with the original Anzacs fading away, it seemed like Anzac Day would too. (I barely remember Anzac Day from when I was a kid, which seems bizarre to me now given its present prominence and my own war obsession.) That has changed utterly: an incredible 128,000 people turned up to the dawn service in Canberra, about a third of the population (though no doubt many were from out of town: the AWM is the central site for Australia's memory of its wars).
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Art.IWM PST 12220

FREE
TRIP
TO
EUROPE;
INVITATIONS
ISSUED
TO-DAY

or

ALL ELIGIBLE MEN Will be Given FREE CLOTHING, FOOD, MONEY, STEAMER AND TRAIN ACCOMMODATION, AND A TRIP FULL OF ADVENTURE AND INTEREST, FORMING THE GREATEST EVENT OF THEIR LIVES, TO DO THEIR DUTY AT THE PLACE WHERE EVERY FIT AUSTRALIAN SHOULD BE -- STANDING SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH HIS PRESENT DEFENDERS IN EUROPE; INVITATIONS (IN THEMSELVES DIPLOMAS OF HONOUR FOR EVER) WILL BE ISSUED AND COMRADESHIP ESTABLISHED TO-DAY ON APPLICATION TO ANY RECRUITING OFFICER.

Source: Imperial War Museum.

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Today, I received the news that not one but two conference abstracts I'd submitted have been accepted. Which means I'll be going to some interesting conferences and listening to some interesting talks, but it also means that I've made a lot of extra work for myself in just one day. Well done, me!

The first of these conferences is entitled New Research in Military History: A Conference for Postgraduate and Early Career Historians, and organised by the British Commission for Military History and the Department of History, Politics and War Studies, University of Wolverhampton. It's on 22 November 2014, i.e. just over a month, meaning I will have to leave my Newcastle stronghold temporarily for the wilds of the West Midlands. The title of my talk is 'Folk strategy, Maubeuge platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, autumn, 1914'; the abstract is

As Catriona Pennell has shown, the fall of Antwerp in October 1914 led to a surge of rumours in Britain about covert German activity in Britain. These took very specific and unusual forms: in particular, the ideas that before the war German businesses had prepositioned concrete foundations in strategic locations in order to serve as platforms for heavy artillery, and that secret Zeppelin bases had been established in rural areas preparatory to air raids on British cities. The public belief in the truth of these rumours forced the authorities to take action, by raiding suspect business premises and searching the Highlands and the Lake District. In this paper, I will discuss the extent to which these rumours reflected prewar ideas about German invasion plans, but will also show how they were modified by news from the war, specifically claims about German plans relating the fall of Maubeuge in France and Antwerp in Belgium. I will also assess how far the rumours about Maubeuge platforms and Zeppelin bases can be understood within the framework of 'folk strategy', that is the popular, civilian understanding of military strategy. What British civilians understood about war in 1914 was very different to what their military counterparts understood about it: it was a dimly perceived and mysterious world of dark conspiracies and occult forces. How far this changed over the course of the war remains to be seen.

So, obviously this is inspired by recent blog posts; I think it's an interesting episode which doesn't appear to be well-documented anywhere, so it's worth pulling it together and incidentally seeing if I can make the idea of folk strategy stick. Hopefully it could be something I can turn into a publication at some point, especially if I can find anything useful in the National Archives.

The second conference is called The First World War: Local, Global and Imperial Perspectives, and will be by the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle. That's Newcastle, Australia, not Newcastle, United Kingdom; but in fact it's the original Newcastle I'll be talking about. The title of my talk is 'War in a Northern Town: News and Rumour in Newcastle upon Tyne' and the abstract is:

As arguably the first total war, the First World War gave birth to the 'home front', a term affirming that civilians far from the battle front were nevertheless now inescapably part of the war. But the physical distance from local communities to their men in the real fighting made it all the more important to collapse the emotional distance between them, to believe and to show that they were in fact in the front line, sharing in the danger, that the enemy, too, realised their importance and was drawing plans to spy, to bomb or even invade. In this paper, I will examine the way in which news and rumour were used in Newcastle upon Tyne, an important shipbuilding and coal-mining centre on the north-east coast of England, to show how they were used to affirm the critical importance of the region to the British war effort. I will concentrate on the complex of stories communicated verbally or in print relating to the threats believed to be posed to Newcastle by enemy spies, Zeppelin raids and German invasion. I will end by briefly making comparisons with other types of wartime rumours, in Britain and in other countries, suggesting that this kind of 'manufacturing war' (per Michael McKernan, in the Australian context) was in fact a widespread phenomenon.

Again this is following on from my current project, but inevitably it's a bit more speculative, since I haven't done the Newcastle research yet. But by the time of the conference, 26 and 27 March 2015, I should have some idea of what's going on.

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The 1955 novel Biggles in Australia is the subject of an interesting article in Inside Story by Adam Nicol, 'Uncivil aviation: Biggles down under' (I like the line 'The common term “civil aviation” -- that is, flight for leisure -- suggests that aviation is intrinsically warlike'), which could be usefully read alongside my UNE colleague Erin Ihde's 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace'.1 There is an error, though: in referring to the well-known fact that W. E. Johns, the creator of Biggles, called himself Captain Johns 'despite retiring from the Royal Air Force with the rank of flying officer, some four ranks below captain'. But flying officer is not four ranks below captain, unless Nicol is thinking of group captain, or naval captain, neither of which is the rank Johns was claiming. In fact there isn't a RAF rank of plain old captain, except for the brief period when there was, i.e. after the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and before August 1918 1919 when the current ranks (more or less) were established. In between, RFC ranks were used, that is to say, Army ranks. This is where Johns's captain comes from. Since flying officer in the RAF is the equivalent of a lieutenant in the Army, just below captain, Johns only promoted himself one rank, not four.

But this made me think that maybe there is a way to explain why Johns called himself captain, not flying officer, or at least to shed some light on the matter. (In fact he was very inconsistent about it, sometimes using one title, sometimes the other.) In fact it was not an uncommon practice for officers to be given an honorary promotion upon retirement. (Sometimes, too, they retired with the highest rank they may have temporarily held during their career, again normally one grade.) Apart from a bit of additional status in civilian life, I think this also meant a higher pension. Also, in this period when the Air Force was new, former officers who had been in the wartime RAF or indeed the RFC sometimes elected to be called by the military version of their ranks, since these were more familiar and could carry more cachet. P. R. C. Groves is an example of both. At the end of his career in the RAF he was a group captain, but was granted an honorary promotion to brigadier-general (and not air commodore, the next RAF rank up), which had not been an Air Force rank for nearly 3 years at this point. Since he'd actually spent 19 years in the Army and just under 4 in the RAF, brigadier-general might have felt more real to him, for all his devotion to the cause of airpower. But, usefully, since brigadier-general was, at the time, classed as a general officer rank, it also meant that he could be called General Groves, as indeed he always was, which is far more impressive than Air Commodore Groves, it must be said. Not everyone did this; L. E. O. Charlton, also ex-RFC, was happy with air commodore when he retired, though since he didn't receive an honorary promotion perhaps he didn't get any say in the matter.

As for Johns, I don't think he was actually granted an honorary promotion; the London Gazette's entry recording his retirement calls him a flying officer and says he is permitted to retain his rank.2 For comparison, the equivalent for Groves says he 'is granted the honorary rank of Brigadier-General'.3 Perhaps Johns felt he deserved an honorary promotion anyway; and almost certainly he thought Captain Johns sounded better than Flight Lieutenant Johns, the RAF equivalent, let alone Flying Officer Johns, his actual title. Maybe, too, those who had known him as a flying officer in the RAF assumed that he had earned his promotion, which might explain why he seems to have got away it even though he was still heavily involved in the aviation scene. Either way, we're stuck with Captain Johns now.


  1. Erin Ihde, 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace', Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (2013): 363-80

  2. London Gazette, 22 December 1931, 8260

  3. Ibid., 17 February 1922, 1415