Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

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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The Australasian Association for European History is, by widespread acclaim, the best conference series ever, and so I'm pleased to report that I will be speaking at the next one, to be held in July at the University of Newcastle. The title of my talk is 'Zeppelinitis: constructing the German aerial threat to Britain, 1912-16', and the abstract is:

I will show how the German aerial threat to Britain was constructed in the public sphere during the First World War, with the Zeppelin menace eclipsing older anxieties such as invasion and espionage. This was partly an objective assessment: Zeppelin raids did actually occur. But it was also partly a subjective and greatly exaggerated one, due to prewar speculation about aerial warfare, wartime propaganda about German atrocities, and the pervasive nature of the atmosphere, which for the first time exposed everywhere and everyone in Britain to attack. In this way, the Zeppelin menace helped construct the home front, too.

Now to work out what I actually meant by all of that. Something to do with this, I think.

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Tu-95 Bear

Every so often, Vladimir Putin gets annoyed with NATO and engages in a bit of sabre-rattling, sending a few Tu-95 Bear bombers on long-range flights off the coast of Portugal or Canada in order to remind them that Russia is not to be taken lightly (I happened to be at a conference at a RAF base shortly after these flights resumed, and it had certainly caught the attention of the air force officers there). In many ways, the Tu-95 is the equivalent of the American B-52: they are both strategic bombers, which first flew in 1952 yet are expected to remain in service into the 2040s. Remarkably, though, the Tu-95 is not a jet, it's a turboprop. That makes it seem like a charming old relic of a bygone age; and maybe it is, but it's a nuclear-capable one. Which is precisely why interceptors are scrambled whenever these bombers appear off the coast and why reports of the interceptions soon appear in the media, which in turn is why Russia keeps doing it. Earlier this week, two Tu-95s were sent down the English Channel, as far as Cornwall, apparently in response to British concerns about Russian involvement in Ukraine and the Baltics. Lately, these flights are becoming so frequent as to almost be routine: the RAF carried out four times as many interceptions in 2014 as in 2013; another English Channel flyby took place three weeks before the latest one.
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Zeppelin L3

For my eighth contribution to The Road to War on ABC New England, I spoke about the first Zeppelin raid on Britain, on the night of 19 January 1915; certainly more consequential than the first air raid on Britain as it actually killed people in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn in Norfolk. I talked about the Zeppelins themselves (including L3, above), why everyone assumed they would be used to bomb Britain, why they were not used at first, and why they finally were used nearly six months into the war. I also talked a little about the response to the raids, including the rumours which sprang up afterwards about German spies driving around in motor cars during the raid guiding the Zeppelins to their targets.

For more from me on this topic you could also check out this article by Shane Croucher in the International Business Times.

Image source: Love Great Yarmouth.

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Aircraft recognition poster, c. 1914

Back to back Roads to War! This week's topic is the most airminded yet: the first German air raids on Britain. I had to cheat slightly to fit them in, as technically I'm supposed to talk about the centenary events in the week leading up to the broadcast date, i.e 23 December, but the first German bomb didn't fall on British soil until 24 December. However, if you count bombs falling pointlessly into the sea off Dover pier then 21 December 1914 was the date of the first German air raid on Britain. That's not exactly exciting, so I also talked about the slightly more interesting Christmas Eve raid (which famously destroyed a Dover cabbage patch) and the even slightly more interesting Christmas Day raid (which led to the first aerial combat in British skies). Even so, that wasn't enough to fill up 15 minutes, so I also talked about the fear of aerial attack and (of course) phantom airships, including one over Hartlepool the second night after the bombardment which led to a rumour that the Germans were back and this time had landed, and hence to a minor exodus as people fled to the relative safety of Middlesbrough.

Image source: Online Bicycle Museum (!) Note the injunction for members of the public in country districts to report hostile aircraft to the authorities.

I'm shocked to see that it's already nearly two weeks since I got back from my UK research trip -- it seems like it was just a couple of days ago. It was a fairly long trip: five weeks in total, essentially all of them spent in archives in London (National Archives, British Library, Imperial War Museum), Newcastle (Tyne and Wear Archives), Middlesbrough (Teesside Archives), Woodhorn (Northumberland Archives), Durham (Durham County Record Office), Edinburgh (National Records of Scotland), Leeds (Liddle Collection, University of Leeds), and Aylesbury (Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies), as well as at a conference in Wolverhampton (British Commission for Military History). In fact my initial plan of four weeks research and one week holiday fell by the wayside, as there was just too much I still needed to do in the archives in London to waste time in Berlin. I half-expected this would happen, which is why I didn't book a holiday in advance (corollary: if I really want a holiday, I should book it in advance). But it was certainly worth it in research terms, as I found some great stuff in that extra week.

I had to adjust my plans on the fly in other ways, too. For example, I spent two weeks in Newcastle, with the intention of using it as a base from which to examine archives in the northeast for evidence of invasion, Zeppelin and spy fears. But it turned out that there wasn't a whole lot to find, either in terms of private diaries and letters or local government records. One week, with better planning, would have been enough. Because I was in Newcastle, however, it was feasible to commute to Edinburgh or to Leeds, so I spent two useful days at the National Records of Scotland and one at the Liddle Collection. A shame I didn't plan this from the start, though.
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Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser, 24 October 1914, 7

Yesterday was the last research day proper of my big trip. Actually, I was supposed to be having a holiday, but instead I spent it in Aylesbury at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, trying to see if I could get to the bottom of the Great Missenden affair of 18 October 1914, when villagers decided that before the war Germans had hidden either a siege gun emplacement or a Zeppelin base in their midst. I didn't find anything in the nature of a revelation, but I did find some very useful bits and pieces. For example the above photograph from the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser shows 'the mysterious enclosure at Great Missenden' itself -- though why with all those hills and trees it was thought to be a safe landing place for an airship is anyone's guess.1 Otherwise most of the local press reports simply repeated the London Star's report, apart from the Bucks Herald which instead gave a sceptical summary, which did add some commentary, and the Bucks Advertiser which rather sniffily declared that 'little importance is attached to the rumours' and so 'it is inadvisable to pursue the matter further'.2 It probably didn't help that they all went to press nearly a week after the scare had begun and then been debunked, so it's treated as a curiosity rather than a live issue. But none of these papers, nor the South Bucks Free Press, denied that the hunt happened, though, so presumably it actually did.
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  1. Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser, 24 October 1914, 7. 

  2. Bucks Herald, 24 October 1914, 2, 8; Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News, 24 October 1914, 8. 

Weekly Mail, 22 May 1909, 7

Chatting to Andrew Gray the other day, I realised that I'd never got around to posting about a small discovery I'd made about one of the most sensational sightings from the 1909 phantom airship scare. This is the claim by a Welsh showman named Lethbridge that he had actually seen an airship on the ground, seen its crew, seen them board the airship and take off. Here's how I summarised this incident when I postblogged 20 May 1909, quoting from the London Standard (and ultimately the Cardiff Evening Express):

a travelling Punch-and-Judy salesman by the name of Lethbridge was walking back home from Senghenydd to Cardiff over Caerphilly Mountain. At about 11pm [on 19 May 1909] he saw an airship which had landed on the mountain, and its crew. At least, that seems to be the implication of the interview he gave to the Cardiff Evening Express yesterday.

At the mountain's peak, he saw 'a long, tube-shaped affair lying on the grass on the roadside, with two men busily engaged with something near by'. The men wore 'big, heavy, fur coats, and fur caps fitting tightly over their heads'. When he got within twenty yards 'they jumped up and jabbered furiously to each other in a strange lingo -- Welsh, or something else; it was certainly not English'. They picked up something from the ground, and the object started to rise into the air. The men then 'jumped into a kind of little carriage suspended from it', with wheels. Once it had cleared some telegraph lines, it turned on two lights and headed towards Cardiff.

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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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Since I was awarded a grant by UNE to travel to the UK to undertake archival research into Zeppelin, spy and invasion fears during the First World War, it follows that at some point I should actually do that. That point is now three weeks away. I'll be arriving in London on Saturday, 1 November and will spend two weeks there, visiting (at least) the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum and the British Library. I also hope to attend The First World War: Perspectives of the Home Front conference at the RUSI on 5 November. On Saturday, 15 November, I'll be heading north to Newcastle upon Tyne for another two weeks for the regional part of my research. There I will be using various local archives, including the Durham County Record Office, Northumberland Archives, Teesside Archives, and Tyne and Wear Archives. On Sunday, 30 November I'll head back down to London, but as the research portion of my trip will be over by then, I'm thinking I will fly out to Berlin for a few days (partly because I've never been to Germany, partly because I will be teaching Weimar and Nazi history next year), then back to London before flying back home on Monday, 8 December.

If you're around any of those places at those times, and would like to meet up, let me know!