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 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

When the present is too painful to think about, there is always the past to retreat into.

Japanese planes forced down an airliner which was flying from Hong Kong to Wuchow to-day [24 August 1938], and, it is reported, machine-gunned the passengers.

Of 18 people in the plane it is believed that 15 have either been killed or drowned, as the machine, which landed on the Macao River, sank.

The pilot, named Woods, and a Chinese passenger, both of whom were wounded, have arrived at Macao, the Portuguese province at the mouth of the Canton River.

Woods said that after he had landed the machine on the west side of the river, four of the 12 Japanese planes that had forced it down, dived and machine-gunned the helpless passengers.1

Well, there's no respite there.

The turbulent Mohmand tribes who have been gathering ominously on the North-West Frontier of India under incitement by Congress Party and communist agitators to strike a blow at the British administration, failed to heed the warnings to disperse contained in leaflets dropped by aeroplanes which flew over the tribal country in the vicinity of the border, and to-day [9 March 1932] they incurred the penalty stated in the warnings, when scores of their villages were bombed by Royal Air Force 'planes from Risalpur and Kohat. Several villages were wrecked and set on fire, Tribesmen hidden on the mountain tops turned fierce rifle fire on the 'planes, which replied with machine guns.

The bombing will continue until the raiders return to their mountain fortresses. One section of the tribesmen, which was threatening the approaches to the remote British outpost at Chitral is reported to have dispersed.2

No respite there either.

When the airmail leaves Parafield for Perth tomorrow mornining [sic] it will carry a highly-bred Nawab with it -- Higham Nawab of Warncourt, a six-weeks-old Persion [sic] kitten, dusty black in color, and about nine inches long.

The Nawab comes from a distinguished family. He was bred by Miss A. E. Jarmyn, of Prospect. His mother is Higham Gipsy, a litter sister to Higham Roulette, a South Australian grand champion Persian. The Nawab will go to Perth in a specially light matchwood box, and he will be in the care of the pilot of the mail plane.

He has been sold to Miss A. G. Cohen, of Buckingham Hill, Western Australia, who will call for him when the mail plane arrives.

Miss Jarmyn thinks that the Nawab will not be airsick because he is so small. She will give him a good breakfast before he goes, to make him comfortable and sleepy.3

That will do! Except – this is on the same page:

News, 11 November 1932, 8

Mr. Baldwin stressed the probable horrors of aerial warfare. The greatest fear among ordinary people of all nations, he said, was fear of the air. It was well for the man in the street to understand that no power could protect him from air-bombing. The only defence in aerial warfare was to kill more people than the enemy killed.4

There's no escaping the present, or the past.

  1. Argus (Melbourne), 25 August 1938, 1

  2. Western Mail (Perth), 17 March 1932, 34

  3. News (Adelaide), 11 November 1932, 8

  4. Ibid

No sooner is one conference over than another one looms. The one which is over is the Australian Historical Association annual conference for 2014, which was held last week at the beautiful St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. I spoke on the topic of invasion, Zeppelin and spy scares in Britain during the First World War. I was glad that I could speak, because I had an unfortunate throat infection that at times took away my voice entirely (and my poor students are still having to deal with the aftereffects). But I got through it, and the audience, if small, seemed appreciative. I had planned to use the talk to push the planning for my forthcoming research trip to the UK, but in the event teaching meant that I didn't have time to do any substantial new research. Instead, I expanded upon my recent n-map post, looking at how to use the British Newspaper Archive to map geographical variations in word use (and in my case, I'm arguing, suggesting where in Britain spy, invasion and Zeppelin fears were most common). That wasn't such a bad thing, and since historians, unlike scientists, are rarely explicit about how they do what they do, it may even be worth writing up as a methodological article, with the wartime fears as a case study. Otherwise, the AHA was good for what AHAs are usually good for -- catching up with friends and making new ones, and sometimes even learning some new history. I won't try to summarise the conference, particularly since I was too sick/lazy to livetweet it, but see Marion Diamond's post at Historians are Past Caring, as well as the indefatigable Yvonne Perkins' series at Stumbling Through the Past, here, here, here, here, and here.

The conference which is looming, Regional Australia at War, is just under a month away, 14-15 August 2014. Fortunately it is much closer to home; in fact it will be at my own institution, the University of New England, and is being organised by my Humanities colleague Nathan Wise. I'm giving a paper on the topic of 'The Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', which actually fits in perfectly with the theme of 'regional Australia at war', since it was primarily a regional and rural phenomenon. The abstract is as follows:

Between March and June 1918, Australian newspapers, police forces and military intelligence units were deluged with hundreds of reports of mysterious aeroplanes. They were seen in every state, mostly at night, by men and women, young and old, civilians and soldiers. The vast majority of reports came from regional areas. As there were only a tiny number of aircraft known to be operating in Australia, the sightings were presumed to be German aircraft, perhaps flown from unknown merchant raiders operating in Australian waters or by foreign spies working against Australia. The reports were taken seriously, but investigations by the authorities eventually found nothing to substantiate them. The mystery aeroplanes were phantoms.

Australia had been at war for more than three years. But it was a nation both divided and defenceless. It had gone through two bitterly-fought conscription referenda, and appeared to be threatened from within by immigrants, the Irish and the Wobblies. The vast majority of its military forces were deployed overseas, with little more than poorly-equipped training cadres remaining at home. In March 1918, newspapers carried reports that the German merchant cruiser Wolf, which had been raiding Australian waters the previous year, had flown its seaplane over Sydney unopposed and undetected. A few days later, Germany's Spring Offensive opened, nearly breaking the Allied lines for the first time since 1914. The mystery aeroplanes resulted from a new perception that Australia was directly threatened and that the war could be lost.

This is pretty much the same abstract I used for the AHA in 2012 and at Singapore earlier this year. I actually plan to give a slightly different different talk, focusing on following the chain of rumour from the initial aeroplane sightings to (ultimately) the military and naval intelligence archives. But as my experience with the AHA this year shows, that may be somewhat ambitious! I'll even have to give my paper in between lectures and tutorials, since I'll be teaching that day, which unfortunately also means that I'll miss many interesting papers. I was particularly keen to hear Jennifer Sloggett, who I met at the AHA and is doing her PhD at Newcastle on the topic of Australian military and civil defence planning before and during the Second World War, especially since her paper "Girt" and "boundless": the war roles of the coast and hinterland in NSW in WWII' would seem to have interesting conceptual parallels with my aforementioned project on invasion, spy and Zeppelin scares. Well, there's always the next AHA.


The New Zealand government, despite its lack of a homegrown air arm, was little inclined to get involved in the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla. Even though a local Over-Seas Club president happened to have a seat in Cabinet, official participation was largely confined to forwarding money collected by New Zealand individuals and organisations to the Over-Seas Club headquarters in London. This was not because the government wasn't asked. In February 1915 Evelyn Wrench, the Honorary Secretary and Organiser of the Over-Seas Club in London, wrote to the New Zealand Minister for Defence, James Allen, explaining the purpose of what was at this time called the Over-Seas Aircraft Fund. He pointed out that it had been approved by the Army Council and quoted a letter from Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, giving his endorsement.1 A pamphlet was included which pointed out that 'In view of the superhuman efforts which Germany is making to establish a mastery of the air' and 'the official German statement that the Yarmouth raid is only the precursor of many such exploits, every Aeroplane which we can provide will be needed'.2 Wrench's 'appeal to the people of New Zealand' to provide £2250 for a 'Vicker's Gun Biplane', to be 'definitely associated with the Dominion and the fact that it has been contributed by the residents of New Zealand would be painted on the machine' was considered by Cabinet in May.3 However, Allen's reply was that his colleagues 'cannot see their way to take any action in view of the tremendous demands that are being made upon the country during this war time'.4

There was a further approach in August, this time from Horace H. Hunt of the Auckland branch of the Over-seas Club. Hunt wrote to the Minister for Munitions, A. M. Myers, who just happened to be the president of the same branch. Hunt enclosed further literature and endorsements of what was now called the Over-Seas Aircraft Flotilla. This time, however, the idea was that the aircraft in question would be built in New Zealand and sent to Britain. Hunt noted that he had been in contact with 'the firm of Messrs. Walsh Brothers, who have for some time been manufacturing Seaplanes, and who have opened an Aviation School at Orakei'. Given that Walsh Brothers 'have received official recognition from the New Zealand Government' and 'have machinery etc on order for the complete outfitting of Seaplanes', Hunt seemed to be suggesting that the government should facilitate the establishment of a native New Zealand aircraft industry under the auspices of the Over-Seas Club.5 Myers passed this on to Allen, who again demurred. His argument this time was that 'it would be extremely difficult to see that any Aeroplane provided was up to the proper standard for use on active service, since there is no competent aviation engineer in the Dominion'. He also somewhat peevishly pointed out that the government had not given 'official recognition' to Walsh Brothers, having 'only undertaken to appoint officers to observe flights in accordance with the requirements of the Royal Aero Club's conditions for the granting of Pilots' Certificates'.6
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  1. Archives New Zealand [ANZ]: AAYS 8638 AD1/920 46/62/128, letter, Evelyn Wrench, 22 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid., 'The Over-Seas Aircraft Fund', n.d. [1915]. 

  3. Ibid., letter, Evelyn Wrench, 22 February 1915. 

  4. Ibid., letter, James Allen, 21 May 1915. 

  5. Ibid., letter, [Horace H. Hunt], 27 August 1915. 

  6. Ibid., letter, James Allen, 10 September 1915. 


As of May 1916, the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla consisted of 91 machines purchased with funds donated by Britons overseas, 69 for the RFC and 22 for the RNAS. The RFC donations were organised through the Over-Seas Club -- £1500 for a B.E.2c and £2250 for a Vickers F.B.5 -- and were as follows.1
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  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 18-23. 

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I heard today that my proposed paper for this year's Australian Historical Association conference has been accepted, so I'll be going to Brisbane and the University of Queensland in July. (Better winter than summer, the only time of year I've been previously, I'm quite sure.) The title and abstract are as follows:

Rumours of war: invasion, Zeppelin and spy scares in Britain, 1914-1918

Despite, or perhaps because of, the British government's tight control of war news, rumours competed with more authorised sources of information as people tried to make sense of the worldwide conflict they now found themselves in. One effect was to reconstruct the home front as a combat zone, under constant, if largely imaginary, attack from German spies, Zeppelins and even invaders. In this paper, I will explore the British public’s reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, primarily in the forms of rumours about invasion, bombing, and espionage.

This is part of my current research project. Well, I say 'current', but what with teaching, writing, and booking I haven't had much of a chance to work on it yet. So, in the time-honoured tradition of academia, I've committed myself to giving a talk about something I haven't done yet, essentially in order to force myself to at least start thinking about doing it. Let's see if this works.

1 Comment

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

Ottawa Evening Journal, 15 February 1915, 1

On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune's daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:

The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.

Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1

Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good -- at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate's anonymous astrologer.
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  1. Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 15 February 1915, 6. 


[Cross-posted at Society for Military History.]

IWM PST 12249

Above is a poster printed in Australia during the First World War. It very strikingly shows a Zeppelin caught in searchlights (with an aeroplane just visible at the top) over what looks like a town nestled in a valley beside a river. The text reads:



No Charge

It was pointed out to me by Peter Taylor, who found it in the Imperial War Museum's collections and noted that it seems unusual for a Zeppelin to feature in Australian propaganda. So what's going on here?
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It's quite a small world tour, admittedly, but two gigs in two countries just qualifies, I think. Little to no moshing is expected.

First, I will be giving a paper at the Empire in Peril: Invasion-scares and Popular Politics In Britain 1890-1914 workshop, which is being held at Queen Mary University of London on 14 and 15 November 2013. I'll be reprising my Wellington AAEH paper, with the following title and abstract:

'What are the Germans up to?' The British phantom airship scare of 1913

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. The general presumption was that these were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. One result was a largely Conservative press agitation for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be completely outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought scare (itself followed by a smaller phantom airship scare). But historians now generally agree that 1913 was a period of detente in Anglo-German relations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

As an example of collective behaviour, the phantom airship scare offers us a rare glimpse of the state of British public opinion (as well as press and political opinion) regarding Germany shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. I will place this scare in the context of the preceding dreadnought, spy and invasion panics, and will argue that the threatening nature of the new technology of flight, and Britain's perceived failure to keep pace with other nations in its military applications, amplified the German threat despite the improving international situation. In particular, I will show that the airship scare was also a naval scare: navalists argued that Germany, having lost the dreadnought race, was building Zeppelins at a furious rate in order to overcome British naval superiority and that Britain was losing a new, aerial arms race of which it was barely even aware. 1913 may have witnessed detente at the official level, but the British press and public were still less than ready to believe in Germany's good intentions.

So, the usual, in other words. But what's really exciting is that I won't be the only one talking about phantom airships or air scares! I'm speaking in a session entitled 'The Terror from Above' along with Michael Paris who is speaking on 'Aerial Invasions'; and afterwards there is a keynote and plenary by Michael Matin on 'The 1913 Airship Panic and the Cultivation of Fear'. At last, I have found my people! Of course, we'll probably vehemently disagree with each other but that's okay too. Given the topic, the rest of the workshop will also be fascinating, and on the evening of 14 November there's also a public lecture by Nicholas Hiley, intriguingly entitled 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare: The German invasion of Britain in 1914'. See, didn't I say that this was the best conference topic ever?

I'll also be giving a paper at The British Empire and the Great War: Colonial Societies/Cultural Responses conference, which is being held at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on 19-22 February 2014. This time I'll be expanding on my Adelaide AHA paper, with the following title and abstract:

Mystery Aeroplanes and the Colonial State of Mind in Total War

In the autumn of 1918, mysterious aeroplanes were seen in the skies of Australia and New Zealand. Hundreds were reported by men and women, young and old, civilians and soldiers. It was presumed that they were German aircraft flying from unknown merchant raiders or from secret inland aerodromes. Investigations by authorities revealed that the aeroplanes were phantoms, but for a time they appeared to pose a real threat.

After nearly four years of war, both countries were largely defenceless, with the vast majority of their military forces overseas and little more than poorly-equipped training cadres remaining at home. In March 1918, newspapers carried reports that the German merchant cruiser Wolf, which had been raiding Australian waters the previous year, had flown its seaplane over Sydney undetected and unopposed. A few days later, Germany's Spring Offensive nearly broke the Allied lines for the first time since 1914. The mystery aeroplanes resulted from the sudden fear that the Antipodean home fronts were now directly threatened and that the war could be lost.

I will discuss what the mystery aeroplane scare reveals about the state of mind of the people of Australia and New Zealand after nearly four years of total war.

This is a big conference: the keynote speakers alone are John MacKenzie, Hew Strachan, Tim Barringer and Jay Winter. There's much less airpower history on offer (only me) than in London, but you can't have everything, I suppose.

I'll be in London for at least two weeks, perhaps three from 9 November, researching in various archives and sightseeing at various attractions. (I might travel outside London or even the UK for the third week, but it won't exactly be holiday weather.) So, apart from the actual workshop dates of 14 and 15 November there will be opportunities for Airminded social activities, should there be sufficient interest. It's been four years since my last visit to the UK so there is catching up to do. Suggestions please!


NZ Observer, 4 May 1918, p. 5

For a country so far from the frontline, there was a surprising amount of discussion in the New Zealand press in the autumn of 1918 about the possibility of Auckland being bombed or Wellington being shelled. It's true that it was often framed in a joking fashion, as with the above cartoon which appeared in the New Zealand Observer on 4 May with the caption 'IF A BOMB FELL ON ONE OF OURS?' showing the reactions of an amusingly confused congregation as the war intrudes into their Sunday devotions.1 But despite the humour, there's an undercurrent of fear, and also perhaps, strangely, of desire.
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  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 4 May 1918, 5