Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

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I often toss the nouns scare and panic around. One of my articles is titled 'The air panic of 1935', another is subtitled 'airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918'. Sometimes I use them to mean the same thing: in the former article, about the press agitation for RAF expansion in response to the aerial rearmament of Germany, I even refer to 'a panic or scare'.1 I'm not alone in this: for example, an article by Matthew Seligmann is entitled 'Intelligence information and the 1909 naval scare: the secret foundations of a public panic', and uses the phrases '1909 scare' and '1909 panic' twice each.2

Despite this, I do tend to think of scare and panic as having slightly, and usefully, different meanings. Both are about fear, obviously, but the difference lies in the intensity of the fear and hence the response to it. A scare seems less intense than a panic: a scare is closer to being startled; panic is more akin to terror. And we can speak of a panic attack or a panic reaction: a surge of adrenalin, the impulse to flee, losing control of mind and body. But a startle reflex is more like just jumping out of your skin when being surprised by something unexpected. After a moment you are back to normal; there are no significant or longterm effects.
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  1. Brett Holman, 'The air panic of 1935: British press opinion between disarmament and rearmament', Journal of Contemporary History 46 (2011), 305. 

  2. Matthew Seligmann, 'Intelligence information and the 1909 naval scare: the secret foundations of a public panic', War in History 17 (2010), 37-59. 

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Getty Images has just announced an embed function, which makes it possible to very easily use images from their collections in blogs and other social media, while simultaneously maintaining Getty Images' rights and -- this is the really nice bit -- avoiding the use of unsightly watermarks. This is rightly being greeted with enthusiasm (though not so much by photographers), and I'll try to use it myself where possible. Even a quick search turns up many great historical images, some familiar, most not. (Basic tip -- to filter out stock photos, restrict your search to editorial images.)

But there are problems, too. Above is an example of a embed from Getty Images. It's from a lithograph by W. Walton of Day & Haghe, lithographers to the Queen, depicting 'Ariel, the first carriage of the Aerial Transit Company', and printed on 26 March 1843 by Ackermann & Co., Strand, London. But the only part of all that which is given in the Getty Images metadata is the title; the rest came from the Library of Congress's copy, which moreover has no usage restrictions at all (since it's long out of copyright) and shows the uncropped lithograph (admittedly, probably less desirable for a blog post). The only other information offered by Getty Images is that the date it was created was 1 January 1900, which is ludicrously incorrect.

We can't expect Getty Images to thoroughly research every image they hold, and an aeroplane flying over Egypt in the mid-19th century is kind of weird to begin with. But the problem of poor or incorrect Getty Images metadata is actually quite common.
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Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.
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  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. 

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[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. 

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Navy League poster, 1913

This is the poster produced by the Navy League in 1913 as a key part of its campaign to force the government to increase the amount it spent on military and naval aviation -- or as the poster itself puts it, rather more succinctly:

THE NAVY LEAGUE
DEMANDS £1,000,000.
FOR
AERIAL
DEFENCE

BRITONS
WAKE UP!

Describing this poster as a holy grail is somewhat of an overstatement, but it had been proving elusive. I'd read a description of it in the popular press, and found some information about where it was distributed and how much it cost in the Navy League archives, but I hadn't managed to find an actual reproduction of it until I looked at The Navy, May 1913, 135. The official organ of the Navy League was always a likely bet, but when I visited the UK last year, the British Library's copies were unavailable due to the move from Colindale to Boston Spa, and the relevant volume in the Navy League archives was missing. So, naturally, I found a copy in the State Library of Victoria on a quick visit during my holidays.

The description I'd already had turns out to have been perfectly accurate, and so arguably being able to see the design rather than read about it adds little (though the lines of airships and aeroplanes rising up behind Britannia might suggest it an influence from the Illustrated London News). But it will make a nice illustration for an article -- and even nicer if I can find a colour version...

While archival research can be slim pickings, I suspect that this may not be such a problem for my Great War panics project, given that on my recent trip the UK I found some really good examples without even trying. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated 7 June 1915, sent to the navalist and journalist Arnold White by a member of the public (the first item in the list is a -- false, as far as I can tell -- claim that the same man had been captain of both HMS Bulwark and HMS Princess Irene and had left 15 minutes before each was sunk by internal explosions, and was court-martialled and shot):

Second, the last German Zeppelin raid [presumably 4 June 1915] has been very serious in loss of life at Tilbury, Gravesend, Greenwich Hospital, Enfield and elsewhere. The [objective] was Woolwich where Von Donop is [still] in charge. Engineers who meet him daily are astounded at the Government keeping him there!

Third, the 'guide' to the last raid is, as I have previously referred to, a motor cyclist with a side seat and a woman. This I have from a man who saw it flashing an upward light at the last raid with a Zeppelin following. I have seen the couple pass my house at Castlenau several times -- they go at great speed.

Fourth, I hear, again on good authority and from an Engineer who has frequently to meet von Donop, that the next Zeppelin raid in force will be made, (as they now know their ground) on Woolwich and that the German Navy will come out to meet our Navy, and the opportunity will be made for the German [transports] to slip out and attempt a landing at Southend. [Personally] I believe the S.E.Kent Coast will also be a base for their operations -- Ramsgate in particular -- they want waking up there -- Especially the Chief Constable -- its [sic] still a hotbed of spies.1

So Major-General Stanley Von Donop, Master-General of the Ordnance, is a suspicious character, apparently even more so since Woolwich Arsenal was the objective of the last Zeppelin raid, which caused serious loss of life. He may be connected with the couple in the motorcycle and sidecar who were seen guiding the Zeppelin. He is also apparently somehow involved in the next Zeppelin raid, also on Woolwich, which will be coordinated with a sortie by the German fleet and a landing by the German army at Southend in Essex. Also, spies or something in Kent. Of course, the spineless authorities are doing nothing about it. (White, at least, was paying attention: in 1917 he published The Hidden Hand detailing German infiltration and subversion of Britain.)

Just about none of this was true: if Von Donop, grandson of a German nobleman but son of a British admiral, was a German agent, he was never found out; spies did not go out at night to guide Zeppelins to their targets; nobody was killed in the air raid of 4 June 1915; the next Zeppelin attack wasn't on Woolwich but on Hull, and there was no German fleet sortie then, let alone a landing in Essex. In fact, this is an excellent example of the intersection and interaction of the three types of scares I am looking at: invasion, spies, air raids. These didn't exist in isolation, but could complement and reinforce each other, in a sum of the British people's fears.


  1. National Maritime Museum, Arnold White Papers, WHI/186. The words in square brackets are not unclear -- the original is in typescript as well as handwritten versions -- but I'm fairly sure I've transcribed them incorrectly. I was in a hurry; I'll have to go back. 

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I've been awarded a small grant by the University of New England to fund research into 'Popular perceptions of the German threat in Britain, 1914-1918'. I'm very fortunate to have received this and very grateful. The basic idea is this:

This project will investigate the British public's reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, including invasion, air raids, and espionage. Broadly speaking, the anticipation of such attacks before 1914 has received occasional attention over the last few decades. However, the way these fears actually developed during the war itself is less well understood. From scattered evidence it is known that they included trekking to safe areas, spontaneous organisation of civil defence measures such as the occupation of Tube stations as air raid shelters, and anti-German riots, but no comprehensive study has been carried out, with the recent and partial exception of invasion fears in south-east England in 1914. These fears are important for several reasons. Firstly, because they played a role in strengthening or weakening popular support for the war. Secondly, because they played a role in the retention in Britain of substantial military, naval and aerial forces which could have been deployed on the Western Front and elsewhere. Thirdly, because during the 1920s and 1930s, memories of air raids by Zeppelin and Gotha bombers led to an exaggerated fear of bombing which in turn had significant psychological, political and military consequences.

This is designed to be a standalone project (i.e. and an article), but it's also designed to support my longer-term mystery aircraft research by establishing a sort of baseline for the effect and extent of other forms of scares. How I (tentatively) plan do this is as follows:

  1. Using a combination of distant and close reading techniques, survey the British wartime press to identify periods when fear was likely at its highest, which will likely include the period after the fall of Antwerp, October 1914; the battlecruiser and Zeppelin raids in December 1914-January 1915, the first London air raids in May 1915, the height of the Zeppelin raids in the winter of 1915-6; the daylight Gotha raids in the summer of 1917; the night Gotha raids in the winter of 1918; and the German spring offensives of 1918. This can be done via the Internet using digitised newspaper archives such as the British Newspaper Archive and Gale NewsVault, which between them give good coverage of national and provincial daily newspapers.
  2. The core of the research will be undertaken in London:
    I. 1 week research at the National Archives to examine the official understanding of public fears and responses to particular incidents such as riots and trekking.
    II. 2 weeks at the Imperial War Museum to survey diaries from relevant places and periods to ascertain privately held and expressed reactions to the German threat.
    III. 1 week in a provincial archive in a threatened area such as Hull or Norwich as a check of the predominant London bias of many sources, to gauge local government understanding of and responses to the German threat.
  3. Analysis of data and followup research, if necessary.

This is significant for a number of reasons. First, it's the first time I've won any substantial research funding. Second, it will be the first time I've moved outside aviation history to any real degree (even if I will still be mostly doing aviation history). And third, while my last research trip to the UK may not have been completely successful, I will be going back for more.

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Now that I'm back home, it's time to sum up what my UK sojourn achieved. The short answer, at least in terms of my immediate research objectives, is that it yielded only mediocre results.

The ostensible purpose for the trip was to attend the Empire in Peril workshop at Queen Mary and to give a paper on the 1913 phantom airship scare. This I did, and I think it went well enough (though perhaps in future I should revert to actually reading a paper, rather than speaking to slides). It certainly helped that I was after Michael Paris (Central Lancashire), who set the scene with a discussion of early aerial warfare fiction, and Michael Matin (Warren Wilson), who used the phantom airship scare as a starting point to reflect upon invasion scare literature more generally. This capped off a stimulating two days of papers and discussions about, inter alia, inter-service debates regarding the possibility of invasion (Matthew Seligmann, Brunel; Richard Dunley, KCL), the representation of compulsory service in invasion scare fiction (Harry Wood, Liverpool), the Yellow Peril (Robert Brown, Birmimgham; Ailise Bulfin, Trinity College Dublin); and women writers on Germany (Richard Scully, UNE). A usefully discordant note was struck by Ian Hopper (Brandeis) who questioned just how seriously publishers, authors and readers took invasion scare novels: were they reflective of deeply held fears or simply trivial entertainments adapted to the political themes of the day? Perhaps the standout talk was the public lecture given by Nicholas Hiley (Kent), who reconstructed 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare', i.e. the German invasion of Britain as supported by the large number of spies and saboteurs believed to be lying in wait for Der Tag, as was fully expected at the outbreak of war by MI5, and hence prepared for -- but played down after the war in favour of the very different, and less impressive, threat posed by the handful of naval spies rounded up in the first days of the war by Kell's men. Apart from the papers themselves, of course, there was the usual networking: identifying a nucleus of researchers interested in broadly the same topic is a useful thing in itself, and may lead to future workshops, research and publications.
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I have previously outlined evidence from the New Zealand press for mystery aeroplane sightings in that country in 1918. I think it is clear that the reports, though not great in number, did amount to a scare. Apart from the claims themselves, and the associated talk of aerial or naval bombardment of New Zealand's major cities, there is also the following overt discussion, published in several papers in early April 1918:

Since the disclosure of the boast by an officer of a German raider than he had passed over Sydney in a seaplane, the authorities in New Zealand have had to cope with quite an epidemic of reports about mysterious seaplanes circling around the more remote parts of New Zealand. In every case careful investigation has to be made, and in every case the report has been found to be without foundation. Some of these reports have found their way into the newspapers, causing somewhat of a scare, and it is intended to prosecute under the War Regulations any person who in future circulates, without good cause, any such report likely to cause public harm. If New Zealanders see any more mysterious visitants in the sky, their best plan will be to carefully verify the sight, and quity [sic; quietly] inform the nearest police or defence officer, avoiding any public mention, for fear that it comes under the scope of the numerous possible offences against these comprehensive War Regulations.1

So this tells us that there were a considerable number of mystery aeroplane sightings, only a fraction of which made it into the press; that the government wanted reports to be made to the police or defence authorities, threatening prosecution if any public statements were made; and that the government took the reports seriously and investigated them. This is very similar to what happened in Australia at around this time (where censorship of mystery aeroplane sightings seems to have been imposed a couple of weeks later), which is promising, because in the National Archives of Australia I found a trove of intelligence files relating to mystery aeroplane scares. So I hoped to find something similar in Archives New Zealand. But I didn't. Here's what I did find.
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  1. Auckland Star, 8 April 1918, 4

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Talk in the New Zealand press of mystery aeroplanes and the German threat died down by the beginning of May 1918. At the end of the month, though, mystery aeroplanes returned, followed a few weeks later by the German threat -- albeit both in a more muted fashion.

At Greymouth (on the west coast of the South Island) 'A report was circulated in town last evening [29 May 1918] that an aeroplane had been seen over the sea near the hospital last evening' [sic].1 Unfortunately there are no further details, but on the same night at about the same time, near Hokitika, 40 km to the south,

Several people, including a member of the [Hokitika] 'Guardian' staff, saw in the far roadstead last evening [29 May 1918], a number of vessels just before dusk. A pair of field glasses were obtained and nine vessels were counted. It is also stated that an aeroplane could be seen circling around in near vicinity to the ships. Quite a number gathered on the sea beach to view the interesting sight, but the fast approaching dusk soon hid a further view.2

At neither Greymouth nor Hokitika is any speculation recorded regarding the identity of these aeroplanes or ships.

About three weeks later, a story emerged, not of a new mystery aeroplane sighting, but of one which took place more than a year earlier. There were few details; it was only said that 'in the early part of last year [1917] a Clutha farmer stated that he had seen an aeroplane over the land, and that it had disappeared northwards'.3 This was suggested as 'corroboration to some extent' of reports that the German raider Wolf had sailed right around the New Zealand coast, carrying out aerial reconnaissance of various harbours.4 Further evidence that Wolf had been in southern waters at the time came from the crew of a trawler, who saw a light which they took to be another vessel (which turned out to be back in port), and local Māori, who saw searchlights playing over Stewart Island, again presumed to be from a ship (no government steamers were so equipped).5 This belated report prompted G. H. Lysnar to inform the Poverty Bay Herald and 'the authorities at Wellington' that 'in March or April last year [1917] [...] he saw the aeroplane or seaplane [...] from his station a few miles beyond Parikanapa, and it was travelling from Poverty Bay in the direction of between Mohaka and Wairoa':

Mr Lysnar says he regrets not having reported the occurrence at the time, but there then was no talk or thought of a raider with a seaplane visiting New Zealand, and he came to the conclusion at the time it was one of the flying machines from the Auckland Flying School paying a visit to either Napier or Wellington, and which preferred taking the coast line so as to be over cleared country; otherwise in the event of engine trouble it might have had to land in the back ranges in the bush.6

It's an interesting index of how much more probable a German aeroplane visit now seemed, that Lysnar felt compelled to give an elaborate explanation of why he hadn't thought to report what he had seen.
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  1. Grey River Argus (Greymouth), 30 May 1918, 2

  2. Guardian (Hokitika), 30 May 1918, via Press (Christchurch), 3 June 1918, 6

  3. Otago Daily Times, 20 June 1918, 8

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid., 26 June 1918, 4; Nelson Evening Mail, 27 June 1918, 4

  6. Poverty Bay Herald (Gisborne), 2 July 1918, 4