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


Keep Calm and Carry On

The Guardian has published a very interesting piece by Owen Hatherley on the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' phenomenon, an extract from his new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity. He persuasively locates the poster within the context of an 'austerity nostalgia [...] a yearning for the kind of public modernism that, rightly or wrongly, was seen to have characterised the period from the 1930s to the early 1970s; it could just as easily exemplify a more straightforwardly conservative longing for security and stability in hard times'. I'm not British, but from the outside this seems like a plausible explanation for the renewed interest in the Blitz spirit in recent times.
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In my previous post on the possible airship panic of 1915, I used n-grams for 'Zeppelin' and 'rumour' derived from the British Newspaper Archive to try to work out when exactly it was. The answer was that it began in late December 1914 and finished in early February 1915. But is the answer right? Is the method useful? To test that I switched to close reading and checked whether it does indeed relate to an airship panic. The very preliminary upshot is that the principle seems sound, but its application is difficult, or at least more complicated than I've allowed -- while the signals in the data are more or less real, there are a substantial number of false positives and false negatives. There will always be some of these, due to bad OCR or just chance, but there are a couple of systematic reasons increasing the difficulties.

The first problem, an obvious one, is that a wider range of key terms is needed: 'Zeppelin' is pretty sound for this period (though occasionally 'airship' and 'dirigible' appear in its place), but 'rumour' needs to be supplemented by other terms such as 'panic', 'scare', or even a phrase like 'it is said'. And of course ostensibly sober and objective analysis of the prospects of Zeppelin raids won't get picked up by a search like mine which is looking for discussions of panic. So there are these false negatives (things I've missed) -- such as the claim in early January that Germany was planning to send ten Zeppelins to raid London at the end of the month with 'the task of crippling the British fleet, and also cause a panic', or the story that a 'huge box kite' being used to test London's anti-aircraft defences led to speculation 'as to whether [a?] Zeppelin has arrived at last'.1 The second, and less soluble, problem is that BNA isn't always very good at detecting when one article starts and another one begins. In fact, it's quite common to find a dozen or two short articles joined together. This means that BNA could (say) consider an article mentioning Zeppelin operations over France, and another discussing rumours that the Germans have mined Brussels so that they can destroy the city if forced to evacuate it, to be part of the same article.2 These are false positives.
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  1. Western Times (Exeter), 11 January 1915, 4; Daily Mail (Hull), 19 January 1915, 4

  2. Birmingham Daily Post, 28 December 1914, 4


My peer-reviewed article 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War' has now been published in the Journal of British Studies, and can be found here (or here, for the free, self-archived version). This is the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky, yet there were none. It was widely assumed that these “phantom airships” were German Zeppelins, testing British defenses in preparation for the next war. The public and press responses to the phantom airship sightings provide a glimpse of the way that aerial warfare was understood before it was ever experienced in Britain. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain’s aerial forces, which were perceived to be completely out-classed by Germany’s in both number and power. In many ways this airship panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic. The result was the perfect Edwardian panic: the simultaneous culmination of older fears about Germany and the threat of espionage, invasion, and, above all, the loss of Britain’s naval superiority. But, in reality, there was little understanding about the way that Zeppelins would be used against Britain in the First World War—not to attack its arsenals and dockyards, but to bomb its cities.

As I've said a fair bit about this article already, I won't go on about it any further -- except to add that this is my first illustrated article (apart from maps and figures), and a very rare illustration it is too!

1 Comment

In order to start characterising the possible airship panic of 1915, let's generate some n-grams and do some distant reading to get a basic overview of press interest in Zeppelins during the early part of the war. Here are the number of articles per month in the British Newspaper Archive for 1914 and 1915 mentioning the word 'zeppelin', normalised by the number of issues published each month, to account for variations in BNA's coverage (since, if there are more newspapers in total, all else being equal you would expect to get more articles about Zeppelins).1

zeppelin, monthly, normalised

There are a few things that are apparent from this plot. One is that the start of the war is really obvious: Zeppelins are mentioned ten or more times more frequently from August 1914 onwards than in the earlier part of 1914. (Even the peak of the 1913 airship panic was only about a fifth of the level of August 1914.) In the wartime period itself, there are a number of peaks. The biggest is in June 1915, which corresponds to the aftermath of the first Zeppelin raid on London. The next biggest are January 1915, the period of interest here, and September-October 1915, in which there were a dozen raids in total. Also of interest is October 1914, when there were no air raids on Britain at all. This was when the possibility of aerial attack began to be taken seriously (and when the Zeppelin panic of 1914 took place, but that's a subject for another day, or article).
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  1. It would be much better to use the total number of articles each month for this normalisation, but I don't know how to get that from BNA. Words common enough to appear in practically all articles, like 'the', are now stop words, so they can't be used to estimate how many articles there are in total. 


The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all.1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.)
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  1. Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too. 


I'm very pleased to announce that the Journal of British Studies has accepted my article, 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War', for publication. This is exciting for a number of reasons. Naturally, one reason is because it's another peer-reviewed article (number six, by my count). That's always good, and even more so when you're on the job market. And it's been a while since I last had an article accepted, and while I have one or two other things in the works the pipeline was starting to look dry. It's also great to get into JBS, as it's one of the more influential history journals. I've not published in an American journal before (JBS is published by the North American Conference on British Studies), so this puts my work before a new audience (though presumbly British historians in North America read British journals too, just as those in Australia do) -- though at the admittedly high price of submitting to an American English style guide.

It's also great because, of course, phantom airships are perhaps the most characteristically Airminded (as distinct from airminded) thing I do. I've been going on about them in one way or another for the entire millennium: on this blog, in my book, my PhD thesis, my 4th year thesis, one or even I think two undergraduate essays. But while the 1913 phantom airship panic does feature in my book, it only gets about a third of one chapter (alongside the 1922 and 1935 air panics), and is treated in a very formal manner -- it's not really a good place to refer to if you want to get a good overview of what was going on. The only other academic discussion, in Alfred Gollin's The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14, is disappointingly brief. So hopefully this can become a standard reference for the 1913 panic, in the same way that the articles by Gollin and by David Clarke are for the 1909 panic. (Gollin's article was published in Albion, which merged with JBS in 2005, another reason why it's nice for them to publish my sort-of sequel.) Not that it's my last word on the phantom airships; in fact now I can cite it and build on it in future work.

Per JBS's self-archive policies, the accepted version of the article is available for download; when the final revisions are in I'll update the upload. Those of you who have been paying attention will realise that it's a revised version of an article I put up last year under a slightly different title (when submitting it to a different journal, which obviously ended up rejecting it). Since the revisions were quite extensive (the referees gave very constructive and consistent advice), it's probably worth commenting on the major changes. Most noticeably, it's considerably shorter (though not quite short). That's no bad thing; it's nearly a third shorter (nearly 5000 words!) but retains everything essential -- all else being equal more people are more likely to read the whole thing now. The parts that were discarded or modified include most of the original frame, namely the Anglo-German antagonism and the aerial theatre. They're still there in some form, but I place much less weight on them. The original aerial theatre section, in particular, I think I'll expand into a separate article; there wasn't quite the space here to do it justice and it didn't quite work the way I wanted it to. The new frame is more aligned with my actual argument (i.e. it's what I should have done in the first place), placing the phantom airships in the context of prewar and wartime myths and panics, and arguing that they were the successor and culmination of prior spy, naval and invasion panics. This also enabled me to highlight the way that the idea of aerial bombardment that existed in 1913 did not dwell on the possibility of air raids on cities. Instead it appeared more likely that Germany would use its Zeppelins to attack British military and naval facilities. There are numerous other changes which I won't go into, but overall I think it's much better. Especially since it's going to be published!


S.55s over the Alps

This photograph purportedly shows a squadron of Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats over the Alps on 1 July 1933, during the second and last of the long-distance formation flights led by the Fascist air minister, Italo Balbo (hence 'balbo', briefly in vogue to describe a large formation of aircraft), Rome to Chicago and back. These flights were (and were intended to be) a powerful and spectacular display the reach and power of Italian aviation, repeated and enhanced through images such as this, and therefore a prime example of what I call aerial theatre.
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These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006,, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...

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.