Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

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!

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Last Friday, 3 October 2014, I gave the Humanities Research Seminar at the University of New England on the topic of 'Staging the aerial theatre: Britishness and airmindedness in the 20th century' (kindly introduced by Nathan Wise), in which I expanded upon my ideas for a research project involving aviation spectacle. You can watch the seminar itself above; the abstract is below.

The place of the sea and the navy in the construction of British national identity has recently come under scrutiny from historians, for example in the way that spectacular fleet reviews and ship launchings were orchestrated in a kind of naval theatre in order to display national strength, assure imperial stability, and enact international rivalry. With the coming of flight in the early 20th century, however, the air and the air force became increasingly more important to both the defence of the nation and to its self-identity: for example, think of the Battle of Britain and the Spitfire, in popular memory Britain's salvation and the agent of its salvation, respectively. But the process began long before 1940, in large part through an aerial theatre: aerial displays, aerial reviews and aerial races. This kind of airmindedness, or the enthusiasm for aviation, advertised and celebrated British technological and destructive capabilities, though how it was interpreted by its audience is another matter. In this seminar I will outline a research programme to investigate how airmindedness was conveyed by aerial theatre, and how this worked to construct Britishness in the 20th century. My primary case study will be the Royal Air Force Pageant, held annually between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London, in which British airpower was demonstrated in highly choreographed, large-scale aerobatic routines and battle scenarios for the enjoyment of huge crowds. I will also look at other examples of British aerial theatre, such as Empire Air Day, the Aerial Derby, and Operation Millennium, as well briefly touch on some international comparisons. Aerial theatre helped define what it meant to be British in the 20th century; but in so doing it also revealed tensions over alternative identities, as well as anxieties about whether Great Britain could in fact continue to be great in the aerial age.

The presentation itself was a bit rough. Normally I would speak off the cuff, and in the past I've read out talks verbatim, but this time, because of the length of the seminar and because I wanted to keep the slides themselves low in information density, I used notes, which of course just tripped up my tongue and made me sound even more inarticulate than usual. Partly as a consequence, I don't think I really gave a good explanation of why I think the aerial theatre is so interesting, which was really the whole idea of the thing. If I gave the same talk again (which almost never happens), I'd do it a bit differently. But I got some really good questions at the end and had fun choosing photographs and newsreels to talk to. Also, it was possibly the first time I've used the phrase 'pure sex' in a public forum. So it wasn't all bad.

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So, in the previous post in this series, I explained why (at least to a proximate cause) in 1914 people around Britain started worrying that German spies had gone around the country building concrete platforms for heavy artillery, as supposedly had been done before the war near Maubeuge and Antwerp. But what I didn't do was explain the concurrent (and in the case of Great Missenden, overlapping) belief that German spies had also gone around building Zeppelin bases, which after all is where I started. This seems especially puzzling since, thanks to their long range, Zeppelins certainly didn't need any such bases to launch air raids on London or elsewhere in Britain; this was well-known and was the basis for the phantom airship panic the year before the war.

What I think was happening here is essentially the same as happened with the Maubeuge platforms: people were reacting to the rapidly developing war situation, particularly the German advance to the Channel coast: Antwerp fell on 10 October 1914, Ostend on 15 October. The next major ports to the west, Dunkirk and Calais, were to remain in Allied hands for the rest of the war, but this couldn't have been known at the time. Already in late August, the Channel ports were being identified as potential forward bases for Zeppelins: 'While [the Royal Marines] hold Ostend there need be no fear of the town being made a Zeppelin base as was suggested a day or two since'.1 The Western Daily Press thought that

it is plainly the object of the enemy to establish themselves on the coast, and to find there more than one point d'appui for delivering attacks on England by means of aeroplanes and Zeppelins. It has been obvious that, during the past few weeks, the Germans have determined to make the fullest use of their aerial flotilla, quite irrespective of the regulations laid down in the second Hague Convention. The performance of a Zeppelin over Antwerp the other day stands in proof of this conviction.2

By 16 September it was being reported as rumoured in Berlin that 'Germany is preparing to invade England with a Zeppelin armada [...] the stories all agree that the base from which they shall start is Calais. As soon as the French army is disposed of, according to the German plan, a strong force will capture Calais'.3 A week later, there was more confidence, with the Aberdeen Daily Journal suggesting that 'If the Germans had succeeded in establishing a Zeppelin base at Dunkirk or Calais, there is no doubt the danger to London would have been real from a panic point of view'.4 The RNAS raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf on 22 September may have allayed fears, although whether it had done any significant damage was not clear, and the very fact of the raid and its daring nature itself proved that the government was taking the Zeppelin threat seriously. In fact it was assumed to be a reprisal for the bombing of Antwerp.5
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  1. Birmingham Gazette, 28 August 1914, 4

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 29 August 1914, 4

  3. Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 16 September 1914, 2

  4. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22 September 1914, 4

  5. E.g. Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield), 24 September 1914, 2

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After looking at rumoured secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the first few months of the First World War, I asked what the source of these rumours were. In particular, why did people even think that Zeppelins would need to have a base in Britain, given that the reason why they were so threatening was their long range? In the 1913 airship panic, newspapers and magazines regularly published articles and maps showing how they could menace the entire British Isles from Heligoland or Borkum. It must have been one thing that nearly everyone knew about Zeppelins. So why the idea that the Germans would need bases in Britain itself? We're in the realm of folk strategy here.

Firstly, I should note that this idea of secret Zeppelin bases was not entirely without precedent. In 1909, Roger Pocock, the founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen, wrote in his diary that:

4 mi[les] inland from Stranraer a private firm have meadows but this is a blind. There are German experts [and a] depot for 2 Zeppelin ships -- being tested in a suitably hilly place... For 3 years a wooden airship has been building in a factory at Friern Barnet in London. Germans are opp[osite] an institute called the Freehold.1

Friern Barnet is a suburb in northern London, while Stranraer is in the Scottish Lowlands (the opposite end of Scotland from the bases rumoured in 1914, incidentally). Pocock doesn't say what he thinks these Zeppelins or airships were going to be used for (I haven't seen the original diary, only the above extract). However, given that he was a relentless amateur spyhunter it's safe to assume that he didn't think they were for benign purposes.2 There was also some press discussion in 1913 about Zeppelins having the range to reach targets in Britain, but perhaps not the range to make it back. However, that was very rare, and doesn't seem to have translated into any widespread speculation about secret bases; Pocock's rumour or story is the only example I know of before 1914. However, there is at least one example from after 1914, though not from Britain: in the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918, there was speculation that German agents had established bases inland or off the coast. But there the rationale is obvious: Australia was so far away from Germany that it was impossible for aircraft to fly between the two, so they would have to fly from somewhere nearer (the other option was a German raider or raiders). Again, that wasn't the case in Britain in 1914.
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  1. Quoted in A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 148. 

  2. Pocock also wrote an airpower novel set in 1980, revolving around the attack on Britain by Germany, France and Russia, with etheric ships drawing on radiant energy for power. Roger Pocock, The Chariot of the Sun: A Fantasy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1910). 

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On ABC New England last week I briefly mentioned rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the early months of the First World War. So far as I have been able to determine, the stories, which peaked in October 1914, centred on three locations: the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Chiltern Hills.

The one in the Lake District is the best known of these, partly because of the involvement of B. C. Hucks, a famous aviator before the war (he was a regular at Hendon, the first British pilot to loop and, later, inventor of the Hucks starter), but paradoxically it's the hardest to find much information about. According to Cole and Cheesman,

One persistent rumour of a Zeppelin operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere was dispelled only after Lieut. B. C. Hucks -- a highly experienced prewar civil pilot -- had searched the Lake District from a Blériot monoplane.1

Hayward adds a few more details:

In September 1914 a local rumour in Cumberland held that a German airship was operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere, and flew sorties over Westmorland by night. The story was only dispelled after a Royal Flying Corps pilot undertook several patrols above the Lake District in a Bleriot monoplane, and saw nothing but glorious scenery.2

Similarly brief accounts can be found here and there, but they all likewise concentrate on Hucks' search rather than the rumours themselves, and I haven't been able to find any primary sources.3
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  1. Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 8. 

  2. James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), 18. 

  3. Presumably the War Office and the Home Office are the places to look. Hucks' WO 339 might also have something. 

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The Field of Mons

My third contribution to ABC New England's 'The road to war' series is now online. Today I looked at the events of 20-26 August 1914, focusing particularly on events in Belgium: the march of the German 1st Army through Brussels, 320,000-strong; more German atrocities against civilians, as well as the burning of the library at Louvain; the exploits of L. E. O. Charlton and V. H. Needham of the Royal Flying Corps; and (the ostensible topic for today) the British Expeditionary Force's first major encounter with the German army in the battle of Mons. I also discussed the Angel of Mons, which then led to a digression into the 'Russians with snow on their boots' legend as well as rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain. I then briefly discussed the outcome of the battle of Lorraine, in which Ferdinand Foch first distinguished himself, as well as noting Russian engagements with both Austro-Hungarian and German forces, including the start of the battle of Tannenberg. Finally I talked about the massive losses being incurred by all armies but by France in particular: 27,000 French soldiers were killed on 22 August 1914, which apparently is the highest number of deaths for any army for a single day in this war.

Image source: Yahoo! News.

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With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).
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Since I'll be undertaking a research trip to the UK this November or so, I need to think about exactly what I'm going to do there. Giving a paper at the AHA is part of that process. That will hopefully help me formulate my approach or at least identify potential approaches to comparing airship, spy and invasion scares in the First World War. But I also need to nail down where I am going to go in a very physical and literal sense. This is because I want to get out of London for at least a week, to look at scares in a provincial area, and raid the local archives for civil defence files or personal diaries and so on (which of course I can supplement in the London archives). This is partly because it'd be nice to avoid the London-centric perspective for change, but also because I suspect that such fears could be as or even more intense in outlying areas -- particularly on the eastern coast facing Germany. I had been thinking somewhere like Hull, which was raided by Zeppelins on multiple occasions, or East Anglia which is the closest part to Germany and so an obvious (at least in the folk sense) place for a German invasion or raid. Both areas also had notable phantom airship sightings in 1913. So maybe there. Or maybe somewhere else.

I wondered if it there was perhaps a systematic way of gauging fears along the invasion coast, something better than throwing darts at a map. And it occurred to me that I might be able to use the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) for this. We're all used to n-grams by now, which are great for tracking the varying usage of words over time. Tim Sherratt's QueryPic does this for Australian newspapers based on the Trove Newspapers corpus; though there's nothing similar for BNA that I know of, you can manually extract the data yourself without it getting too tedious. What I am thinking of might be termed an n-map: an n-gram across space instead of across time. It's a very obvious thing to do, but I don't think I've seen it done for the databases I'm used to using. It's really just GIS (without an actual map). Or distant (newspaper and map) reading.

There's no publicly-available BNA API to make it possible to do this in an automatic way, but again it is actually not too difficult to use the BNA interface manually. This is because BNA has a very fine level of geographic discrimination: all newspapers in the database are allocated a place (e.g. Hull), a county (e.g. East Riding of Yorkshire) and a region (e.g. Yorkshire and the Humber). These appear as filters when you do a search, and listed beside each filter is the number of issues the search has thrown up for it. So you can just copy down the numbers into a spreadsheet to construct your own low-tech n-map (or n-gram, for that matter).

So now the question is, what keywords do I use? This is not completely straightforward, though neither does it have to be airtight. This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, after all. After some experimentation, I ended up going with 'zeppelin'; 'invasion'; and 'spy'. (BNA automatically searches on plurals as well.) Here are the number of articles in the BNA for each keyword for each region, for the period 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918.

regionzeppelininvasionspy
Borders, Scotland10592103
East Midlands, England269912972657
East, England530395354
Grampian, Scotland271018403429
London, England204148
Lothian, Scotland661432968
North East, England156911641690
North West, England510434086854
South East, England629569656
South West, England477739604917
Strathclyde, Scotland224207349
Tayside, Scotland236116083849
West Midlands, England852247856552
Yorkshire and the Humber, England598830755575

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