Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

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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 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

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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!

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. 

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In the middle of January 1915, days before the first, fairly ineffectual Zeppelin raids on Norfolk, the novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes visited some relations of Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary. There she

was told that Mr. Gatty [a London historian] had heard from the Duke of Westminster that Winston Churchill says he expects a fleet of a hundred Zeppelins to leave for England on the eve of the Emperor's birthday, January 26th! He expects seventy to be destroyed, but believes that thirty will reach London and he estimates the casualties at 10,000 to 12,000! Several people are so affected by this tale that they have already sent their children away into the country.1

This sounds very much like an airship panic, complete with rumour, fear and even evacuation. Indeed, Jerry White places this in the context of rumours in the East End on 3 or 4 January that a Zeppelin had reached Colchester in Essex, and the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 22 January passing on the almost unanimous prediction of experts that a raid on London was certain to come within a few weeks (though equally that it would be a failure). He attributes these public fears to an infection by official fears: on 10 January the War Office warned the London Hospital to prepare for air raid victims, presumably informed by the Admiralty's submission to the Cabinet on 1 January that Germany planned 'an attack on London by airships on a great scale at an early opportunity'.2 Indeed, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, threatened Churchill, his political master, with resignation if his proposal to 'take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft' was not taken to Cabinet.3 (It was, and it was rejected.)

White's account is intriguing, but as a glance back at the prewar airship panics of 1909 and 1913 might suggest, there was a lot more going on, which obviously is what I intend to explore in the next few posts!


  1. Susan Lowndes, ed., Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 (1971), 47; quoted in Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014), 124. Emphasis in original. 

  2. White, Zeppelin Nights, 124-125. 

  3. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 2 (2007 [1923]), 38; quoted in White, Zeppelin Nights, 81. 

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The novelist William Le Queux is famous, or rather infamous, for beating the drum of the German invasion and spy threat before the Great War. But what did he do during the war? Unsurprisingly, he did much the same thing. On 28 February 1915, for example, The People published an article by Le Queux entitled 'HOTBEDS OF ALIEN ENEMIES AND SPIES IN THE HEART OF THE METROPOLIS. THE SCANDAL OF THE ALIEN ENEMY AND SPY IN OUR MIDST. HOME OFFICE TURN A BLIND EYE TO TREASON-MONGERS AND TRAITORS'.1 This was not a work of fiction, but rather a supposedly factual expose of 'the alien enemy in our very midst [which] will be read with amazement and disgust'.2 The disturbing revelations were the result of Le Queux's intrepid forays into the 'nests of Germans who, unchecked by the authorities, vilify Britain and openly pray for her downfall', right in the heart of darkness, i.e. 'the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court-rd. and Soho'.3 For example, he claimed to have sat in on a conversation (apparently posing as an Italian –– the mind boggles) between two men and a woman in a house on Tottenham Street:

They laughed the British Government to scorn, and declared that certain Ministers were Germany's friends. 'We shall win,' declared one of the men. 'The British Army will never re-enter Belgium. We have some surprises there for them, just as we have here in England when our Zeppelins come. All is prepared, and, at a given signal, these English fools will wake up with a start. We already have our hand upon these vermin here, and it will not be long before the Eagle will show its claws. Happily, the fools are asleep. We are not! We know every night what is happening. Tonight, at eight o'clock, there were five German aeroplanes between Dunkirk and Dover. But they are not coming to England.'

'How do you know that?' I asked, instantly interested.

The round-faced man, a typical Prussian, only smiled mysteriously behind his glasses, and refused to satisfy my curiosity.4

Le Queux, of course, was able to verify that there were indeed five German aeroplanes near Dunkirk that night, and further that information was reaching the German spies in London on a nightly basis. And if more evidence was required, there was much more:

Everywhere I went, both around Tottenham Court-rd. and in Soho, I heard the same vile abuse of England, the same wild enthusiasm over German victories, the same blind, unshaken confidence in the German power to eventually crush us, and the same declaration that the bombardment of London from the air is only a matter of days, and that it will be the signal for terrible havoc and destruction to be worked in all our great cities by the army of secret agents who are 'lying low' awaiting the signal to strike, and thus produce a panic.5

And so on. The point was, of course, to rouse the Home Office from its slumber, to force it to place 'the whole matter of enemy aliens and espionage [...] under the control of a central board with absolute power to crush it out, and so protect the State from a deadly peril which has permeated into every walk of our national life'.6
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  1. The National Archives [TNA], MEPO 3/243: clipping from The People (London), 28 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

The Peril in the Air

This could be the lurid cover of an Edwardian novel about the dangers of aerial bombardment, with an aeroplane, an airship and Death himself hovering over a great city, watching the terrified populace streaming outwards in panic: the first knock-out blow from the air. But it's not. Instead it's the lurid cover of an Edwardian advertising brochure for Peps tablets, claimed to alleviate everything from coughs and colds to potter's rot and pulmonary tuberculosis, any ailment of the throat and chest.
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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!

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Sputnik I

After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.

I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!

Image source: NASA.

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.