Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics


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!


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. 


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.


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.


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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