Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

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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.

region
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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I've just submitted an article for peer review, 'The airship panic of 1913: the birth of aerial theatre and the British fear of Germany on the eve of the Great War'. I'm not going to say where, since it will likely be rejected and I don't need to have a public record of my failures! But while this particular journal does allow self-archiving, it only allows authors to self-archive the pre-peer review version (which I dislike, but it's better than nothing) and then only if it is uploaded before the article is accepted. So in the unlikely event that it is accepted, I need to self-archive it now or not at all. So here it is, and here's the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. It was widely assumed that these 'phantom airships' were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be completely outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic, which took place at the height of the Anglo-German antagonism. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a time of détente between the two nations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

The answer lies in the persistence, despite improving relations, of the effects of earlier spy, invasion, and naval panics. When combined with an emerging aerial theatre, which used flying displays and aviation exhibitions to emphasise British weakness, instead of strength as with the older naval theatre, the result was the perfect Edwardian panic. The airship panic was simultaneously a spy panic, an invasion panic, and above all a naval panic: navalists argued that Germany, having lost the dreadnought race, was building Zeppelins at a furious rate in order to overcome British naval superiority, and that Britain was losing a new, aerial arms race of which it was barely even aware.

Also, since it worked so well before, I've decided to use open peer review while the article is undergoing closed peer review. If you feel like it, I'd appreciate your feedback (anonymously if you prefer) at Google Docs.

Either or both of these versions may be replaced or even disappear without notice, depending on what happens with the journal(s). Fingers crossed!

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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. [Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] 

  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.