Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

Portable airship hangar, Farnborough

Exactly three years ago I was visiting the National Aerospace Library at Farnborough, the historic home of British military aviation going back to 1904 through the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Cody's first flight, and the Army's Balloon Factory. The site now seems to consist largely of a series of business parks -- though the famous air show is still held here, along with the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust and several large ex-wind tunnels. One of other the remaining remnants of Farnborough's aviation heritage can be seen above: the British Army's portable airship hangar (sans canvas), dating originally to 1912.
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On Remembrance Day, 11 November 2016, I was privileged to be part of a joint seminar with Dr Richard Scully and Dr Nathan Wise, highlighting the teaching and research we do around the topic of the First World War (Richard is the author of British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860-1914, Nathan of Anzac Labour: Work and Workplace Cultures in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War). Richard provided the context and graciously introduced Nathan and I, who each then gave a short presentation explaining our respective reaearch programmes. You can see the whole seminar above. Nathan went first; the abstract for his part is as follows:

Citizen-soldiers: Contextualising military service during the First World War

For decades, the otherworldliness of the First World War has fascinated Australian historians. Since the 1960s there has been a steadily growing genre of social and cultural histories of military environments. This genre analyses people in the military by the same standards that scholars would otherwise use when assessing people in civil society. What did they believe, how did they behave, how did they relate to each other, how did they actively shape the world around them? Part of this approach is designed to challenge the assumptions of the traditional genre of military history, and to attempt to explore these environments through ‘civilian lenses’. In this talk, Dr. Wise explores how this scholarly approach impacts on research and teaching activities at UNE.

And the abstract for mine (which starts at about the 26 minute mark, but listen to Nathan's too!) is:

Zeppelins and Gothas: The British People and the Great War in the Air

As a cultural historian of aviation, I am primarily interested in the ways that people in the early 20th century thought and felt about the new technology of flight and its incredible potential for changing the world. Over the past couple of years I have focused especially on the Great War, during which aircraft moved from being merely entertainment to efficient and deadly weapons. In this talk, I will outline my current research programme which aims to understand how the British people experienced and interpreted what was then a new and terrible experience: the aerial bombardment of London and other cities, first by Zeppelin airships, then by Gotha aeroplanes. This research has already resulted in three articles and eventually will lead to a book, in what is a surprisingly under-researched field.

As you can see, it's essentially a preview of my next book, or what will be my next book if I ever get around to it...

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White Australia and the Empty North (1909)

The previous post in this series was supposed to be the last. But in the course of taking two months to write it, I managed to forget about another, earlier association between a White Australia and an Australian airship. This one wasn't a real airship; it was a fictional one which appeared in Randolph Bedford's 1909 play, White Australia; or the Empty North -- effectively an Australian version of Guy du Maurier's An Englishman's Home. Does this shed any light on Alban Roberts' 1914 airship, White Australia?
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So I half-promised a final post in this series about the airship panic of 1915. There are a couple of methodological points I'd like to make.

The first point is that this is an unusually well-attested panic. There are panics with more sources, but not with so many different kinds of sources. Here, there are three overlapping and fairly consistent layers of evidence for phantom airship sightings or rumours of air raids: stories in the press; military intelligence reports and analyses; and private diaries and letters. For peacetime panics, newspapers are normally the only source of information, with scant evidence for official interest -- for example, the 1913 phantom airship panic. In wartime, there is much more in the way of intelligence interest, but less full and/or less frank press coverage, partly due to censorship -- for example, the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand. In both peace and war, presumably private individuals wrote in letters and diaries about the mystery aircraft they saw or heard about, but they're hard to survey on any scale, inevitably hit and miss, and in any case I don't think anyone else has looked.
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Rumours have a bad reputation, especially in wartime. They are at best unreliable, at worst flat-out lies. They are distractions from the war effort, if not actually undermining it. They can create unreasoning suspicion and fear or equally unjustified hope and optimism. In short, nothing good comes from them.

Unless you're a historian, of course. Then rumours in wartime are valuable evidence for what the people who told them thought was important and what they thought was going on, and how these differed from the official or press view. And they're even more important if you write an article about rumours in wartime and it's accepted for publication, which is what has just happened to me! In this case, the article is 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914' and the journal is the British Journal for Military History.

BJMH is published by the British Commission for Military History, which in 2014 hosted a conference at Wolverhampton where I first presented on this topic. It's a new journal: the first issue came out in 2014 and it's still only up to its second volume. It's peer-reviewed, of course; but more interestingly, it's open access (libre). I strongly believe that research should be made available to as wide an audience as possible, which is partly why I have this blog and why I upload whatever versions of my articles I can here. But I've never published in an actual open access journal before, so I'm excited about that.

The article expands upon several blog posts I wrote on the topic of the strange rumours of Zeppelin bases which spread in Britain in the first summer and autumn of the war, which were paralleled by strange rumours of secret German gun platforms, linked by the occurrence of both at Great Missenden on 18 October 1914. I was awarded a UNE grant to further this research, and so this article (and the departmental seminar I gave last month) is the result of that. It's the first time I've stepped away from a strictly airminded topic: while obviously it is still partly about aviation, it is also obviously partly not, and moreover it's ultimately about trying to chart the imaginative shifts from home to home front and from peace to total war. This will, hopefully, be the topic of my next book; it's off to a good start!

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On Friday, 1 April 2016, I gave my second Humanities Research Seminar (again introduced by Nathan Wise) at the University of New England, under the title of 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret German forts and aerodromes in Britain, August-October 1914'. It was based on a (hopefully) forthcoming article, which in turn is based on a series of posts here as well as a research trip. The abstract:

I will explore the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and hidden Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914. These were so persistent that they were repeatedly investigated by both thepolice and the military. I argue that these rumours were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of the German enemy within. But they also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasing likelihood of a long, total war.

I haven't listened to it (and don't plan to!) so can't vouch for its comprehensibility -- especially since since I didn't have as much time to prepare it as I would have liked. It might be safer to wait for the article!

The following article appeared on p. 4 of the 15 June 1914 issue of the Broken Hill (NSW), newspaper, the Barrier Miner:

AIRSHIPS AGAINST THE MAD MULLAH

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

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One of the advantages of studying wartime airship panics, like the one in January 1915, is the relative abundance of private archives, diaries, letters and interviews for the 1914-1918 period which have been collected and catalogued. This makes it theoretically possible to compare the press view and the official view with the view from below, a rare combination in this line of work. Actually finding relevant private sources is rather hit and miss, partly because of the general lack of digitisation, partly because of the vagaries of memory and experience, of what seemed important to record or query. But because of the writer (or interviewer) is by definition concerned with wartime experiences, they are rather more likely to discuss scares and panics, spies and Zeppelins than would be the case for a purely peacetime context.

So what is there? Actually, let's start with what there isn't. One of the best-known civilian diarists of the First World War is the Reverend Andrew Clark, who was the parish priest at Great Leighs in Essex. He recorded a vivid account of how the war affected his village, and in particular took a keen interest in rumours of all kinds. As it happens, Great Leighs is only about 7 or 8 miles from Chelmsford, which was the centre of the 'Day of Dupes' rumours on 3 January 1915. And what did the Reverend Clark have to say about this? Nothing whatsoever! There is no entry for that date, and the following day has only some unrelated comments about Territorials and HMS Formidable. This is surprising, to say the least; the Chelmsford rumours reached London within an hour or so at the most, so it's hard to understand why they wouldn't have made it to neighbouring Great Leighs as well, at least within a day or two. However, on 5 January Clark does mention that he was 'still in grip of influenza', and it seems to have struck him on 3 January or so, so perhaps that explains it.1 But it could also be that the Day of Dupes was a victim of Clark's editor, who after all had to cut a lot: there are 92 volumes, 12 by March 1915, with 3 million words in total, compared with less than 300 pages in the published edition. So maybe a trip to the Bodleian is in order.
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  1. James Munson (ed.), Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19 (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1985), 41. 

I've established from press accounts that there was a phantom airship panic in January 1915, in two parts: a vaguely-defined one in the first half of the month and a much more clearly-delineated one in the last week or 10 days. What I'm going to do here is look at what evidence there is for this panic in The National Archives and how well it matches up with the newspaper reports.1

There are several files which are potentially relevant. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, 'GHQ Home Forces General Correspondence File re. Movements & rumoured movements of hostile aircraft etc', covers the period from the start of the war in August 1914 to January 1915. Unfortunately the last entry in the file is from 2 January so it isn't very helpful, though it has some miscellaneous reports. Another potentially relevant file, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, contains MT1b's (roughly) weekly Home Defence Intelligence Summaries from October 1914 to April 1915 (thanks to James Pugh for providing a copy of this one!) But it's missing the reports for most of January, and those which do survive provide scant details of aircraft sightings, because those deemed to be false have been filtered out. It does have a couple of useful items. HO 139/43 has an interesting D-notice (a censorship request from the Home Office to the press -- not enforceable, though they were usually followed). By far the most useful file is AIR 1/561/16/15/62, 'Several files containing reports of false alarms & rumoured Air Raids on England', covering the period from December 1914 to August 1918. This has information on about half a dozen seperate phantom airship incidents from January 1915, some involving multiple sightings and defence responses.
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  1. See also Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), 94-95, 168-171. 

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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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