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. ...continue reading →
The graph above shows two things. (After relying on Plot for many years, I've switched to DataGraph, which is not free but is more powerful and much easier to use.) The blue bars represent the number of British periodicals (mostly daily newspapers, London and provincial) which mentioned mystery airships on each day in January-April 1913, while the red bars represent the number which mentioned airships, whether mysterious or non-mysterious (for example, the activities of German or British military dirigibles). It doesn't matter whether a newspaper mentioned scareships once as a humorous aside or devoted half a page to a topic, both are counted equally here. Three phases can immediately be distinguished. (I must admit to having fudged the data a little bit: I've assumed that every issue of the Aeroplane would have mentioned airships, as I don't have access to copies to check. Flight certainly did.) The first, from the start of January through the third week of February, is characterised by a relatively low level of press interest in airships, in which references to mystery airships predominate (though not so much towards the end of this period). The second phase is clearly the peak of the phantom airship scare, the last week of February and the first week of March, when more than two or three times the usual number of periodicals talked about airships, overwhelmingly the mysterious kind. The third phase extends from the second week of March until the end of April. There are far fewer mentions of scareships here, even compared to the first phase. But interestingly, the amount of attention paid to airships in general remains very high: several times that of the first period, and not too far short of that in the second, peak period. ...continue reading →
The planet Venus normally sticks close to the Sun and so can only be seen very shortly after sunset, to the west (or before sunrise, to the east, when it is a morning star). But every 584 days, when it reaches maximum elongation in its orbit, it is far enough from the Sun in apparent terms that it remains visible for quite some time after dusk. It also relatively close to the Earth at this time and so unusually bright: only the Moon is brighter. At such times Venus dominates the western sky and it can be very startling, especially for the infrequent stargazer.
As it happens, Venus reached maximum elongation on 11 February 1913, right in the middle of the phantom airship scare. The above thumbnail probably isn't very clear, but the full-size version, made with Stellarium, shows the western horizon from London at 8.30pm on 21 February 1913, the beginning of the scare's peak. (London without any buildings, light pollution or clouds, admittedly, but the view would have been roughly the same from anywhere in the British Isles.) Venus can be seen low above the horizon, almost exactly due west, and extremely bright (apparent magnitude -4.1, though extincted by the atmosphere to -3.2). Anyone who happened to glance in that direction would see a brilliant light hovering in the distance, very different to the other stars and even planets. If they watched it for a few minutes they might see it drifting northwards and perhaps sinking lower; if there were clouds scudding by or trees waving in the wind the effect might be enhanced. It would be very easy to think an aircraft was flying about, equipped with a searchlight. ...continue reading →
The Daily Mirror has a curious item today under the headline 'BRITAIN'S PERIL IN THE AIR' (p. 5; above). It is apparently a statement made yesterday by an unidentified 'famous naval tactician', but instead of setting it out as an article or a letter to the editor it is given as an extended quotation with no gloss apart from the hint about the person's identity. Even if it is from an interview, it's an unusual way of doing things. ...continue reading →
So, to wrap up this accidentalseries. To check whether professional astronomical journals displayed the same patterns in discussing 'Mars' and 'canals' as the more popular/amateur ones I again looked at the peak decade 1891-1900, this time selecting only the more serious, respected journals. However, because of the French problem I had to exclude L'Astronomie and Ciel et Terre (the former was apparently more popular anyway). So for my top three I ended up with Astronomische Nachrichten, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). Astronomische Nachrichten ('astronomical notes') was the leading astronomical journal of the 19th century, founded 1821. It published articles in a number of languages including English. Fulltext Service seems to be multilingual, as it picks up the German (at least) equivalents of Mars/Martian and canal/canals. That doesn't help with the French problem, but that will only affect a small minority of Astronomische Nachrichten's articles. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded in California as a joint amateur-professional organisation. Its PASP is now a very highly regarded journal, although I must admit I don't know if this was always the case. MNRAS is the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain. It also happens to be where my solitary peer-reviewed astronomy article was published (and when I say 'my', I think approximately 1 sentence relates to research I actually undertook), but even so it really is a highly-respected journal. ...continue reading →
My source is the ADSLabs Fulltext Service. ADS is the Astrophysical Data System, an online database of articles published in astronomy and physics journals. Which doesn't sound so amazing these days, but it was in 1994 when I first used it! (More on its history here.) The interface has changed remarkably little since then, but it is still free and very comprehensive. While it is primarily an abstract service, fulltext is available for many older articles -- but only as non-searchable images. Moreover, not all articles have abstracts. However, the text of articles from most of the major journals have been OCRed into a parallel database, the Fulltext Service. Like the classic ADS Abstract Service, this was not designed with historians in mind, but it's still quite useful. ...continue reading →
In my discussion of the ill-fated Sykes Memo, I noted that it included proposed force levels for the Dominion air forces, which I haven't seen discussed before. This is interesting because it came at an interesting moment. It's early December 1918, with the Empire was in the flush of victory and all things seeming possible (at least they did to Sykes, which is why he lost his job as Chief of the Air Staff). But it's before any of the Dominions had actually created their own independent air forces (SAAF: 1920; RAAF: 1921; RCAF: 1924; RNZAF: 1937 -- though those dates are inevitably contentious; see Pathfinder 114 for a RAAF perspective). Their decisions to do so inevitably reflected local concerns and conditions, but they also took advice from the RAF, as the Empire's 'mother' air force. So Sykes's proposals provides some insight into how the centre viewed the periphery in an airpower sense at this cusp between war and peace, and what advice he might have given the fledging air forces had he not been ejected from command of the RAF.
So, as before, I've tabulated the squadron numbers from the Sykes Memo in From Many Angles, and added some comments after.1 ...continue reading →
F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74. ↩
The Sykes Plan (or Memo, I'll use them interchangeably here) is an infamous document, at least among those airpower historians interested in the early RAF. Major-General Frederick Sykes was the second Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), that is the professional head of the RAF; the Plan is infamous because it cost him his job. He took up the position less than two weeks after the RAF was formed on 1 April 1918, succeeding Major-General Trenchard who had had an unhappy tenure due to clashes with the Air Minister, Lord Rothermere (who ended up resigning himself). Sykes was a key figure in the prewar RFC, commanding its Military Wing, and had played an important role as chief of staff (and sometimes commander) of the RFC in France. After that he had his own field command, of the RNAS in the Dardanelles. Thereafter he served in a number of non-aviation administrative roles, organising the Machine Gun Corps and serving as General Wilson's deputy at the Supreme War Council.
Sykes was CAS for most of the dramatic events of 1918: he took charge when the German spring offensive was at its most threatening and was still in office when the Armistice was signed in November. When peace threatened, Sykes had to consider what form the postwar RAF would take. With the help of Lieutenant-Colonel P. R. C. Groves, his friend and Director of Flying Operations, by early December he produced a 'Memorandum by the Chief of the Air Staff on air-power requirements of the Empire', AKA the Sykes Memo.1 It proved far too ambitious, and more to the point, costly. Churchill, the new Air Minister, needed economy and was not impressed. Sykes was out and Trenchard was back in, and this time he stayed there for more than a decade.
So how did Sykes cut his own throat? Above all he wanted a big RAF, keeping as much as possible of its wartime strength. In fact, at first he proposed 348 squadrons, which was optimistic considering that in March 1918 the RFC and RNAS combined had only 168 squadrons.2 However, I haven't seen that plan and I wonder if those 348 squadrons were actually intended to be mostly cadres in peacetime, say flights rather than whole squadrons, to facilitate rapid expansion in an emergency. In that case it might only be about the same size as the 1918 RAF (though of course the extra aircraft and men required would need to be got from somewhere). The final version of the Plan did use cadre squadrons for just this purpose. But even so it was still larger than Trenchard's more palatable proposal of only 82 squadrons. ...continue reading →
F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74. ↩
John Robert Ferris, Men, Money and Diplomacy: The Evolution of British Strategic Foreign Policy, 1919-26 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 68; John James, The Paladins: A Social History of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London and Sydney: Macdonald, 1990), 243. ↩
In my previous post, I threatened more statistics about Australian mystery aircraft scares of the First World War, and here they are. What I've been doing is collating all the sightings recorded in two NAA files, MP1049/1, 1918/066 and MP367/1, 512/3/1319. The former is the Navy Office's file pertaining to 'Reports of suspicious aeroplanes, lights etc', more than a thousand pages in all, though the majority of it is composed of reports obtained by military intelligence and local police. The Navy was presumably interested because, assuming the reports were genuine, the most likely explanation was that the aircraft were flying from a German raider operating in Australian waters. The file also contains some operational orders and reports relating to the search for the presumed raider, regular reports and analyses of the sightings to date, and related correspondence. The other file contains 'Reports from 2nd M D during War Period on lights, aeroplanes, signals etc.' 2nd Military District covered NSW; presumably there were similar files from the other districts but if so I haven't found them yet (3rd MD would be the one to get, as that was Victoria where the majority of sightings took place). Some of the material in it is duplicated in the Navy's file, but there's much which isn't, including a number of pre-1918 reports. ...continue reading →