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. 


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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Keep Calm and Carry On

The Guardian has published a very interesting piece by Owen Hatherley on the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' phenomenon, an extract from his new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity. He persuasively locates the poster within the context of an 'austerity nostalgia [...] a yearning for the kind of public modernism that, rightly or wrongly, was seen to have characterised the period from the 1930s to the early 1970s; it could just as easily exemplify a more straightforwardly conservative longing for security and stability in hard times'. I'm not British, but from the outside this seems like a plausible explanation for the renewed interest in the Blitz spirit in recent times.
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In my previous post on the possible airship panic of 1915, I used n-grams for 'Zeppelin' and 'rumour' derived from the British Newspaper Archive to try to work out when exactly it was. The answer was that it began in late December 1914 and finished in early February 1915. But is the answer right? Is the method useful? To test that I switched to close reading and checked whether it does indeed relate to an airship panic. The very preliminary upshot is that the principle seems sound, but its application is difficult, or at least more complicated than I've allowed -- while the signals in the data are more or less real, there are a substantial number of false positives and false negatives. There will always be some of these, due to bad OCR or just chance, but there are a couple of systematic reasons increasing the difficulties.

The first problem, an obvious one, is that a wider range of key terms is needed: 'Zeppelin' is pretty sound for this period (though occasionally 'airship' and 'dirigible' appear in its place), but 'rumour' needs to be supplemented by other terms such as 'panic', 'scare', or even a phrase like 'it is said'. And of course ostensibly sober and objective analysis of the prospects of Zeppelin raids won't get picked up by a search like mine which is looking for discussions of panic. So there are these false negatives (things I've missed) -- such as the claim in early January that Germany was planning to send ten Zeppelins to raid London at the end of the month with 'the task of crippling the British fleet, and also cause a panic', or the story that a 'huge box kite' being used to test London's anti-aircraft defences led to speculation 'as to whether [a?] Zeppelin has arrived at last'.1 The second, and less soluble, problem is that BNA isn't always very good at detecting when one article starts and another one begins. In fact, it's quite common to find a dozen or two short articles joined together. This means that BNA could (say) consider an article mentioning Zeppelin operations over France, and another discussing rumours that the Germans have mined Brussels so that they can destroy the city if forced to evacuate it, to be part of the same article.2 These are false positives.
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  1. Western Times (Exeter), 11 January 1915, 4; Daily Mail (Hull), 19 January 1915, 4

  2. Birmingham Daily Post, 28 December 1914, 4


My peer-reviewed article 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War' has now been published in the Journal of British Studies, and can be found here (or here, for the free, self-archived version). This is the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky, yet there were none. It was widely assumed that these “phantom airships” were German Zeppelins, testing British defenses in preparation for the next war. The public and press responses to the phantom airship sightings provide a glimpse of the way that aerial warfare was understood before it was ever experienced in Britain. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain’s aerial forces, which were perceived to be completely out-classed by Germany’s in both number and power. In many ways this airship panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic. The result was the perfect Edwardian panic: the simultaneous culmination of older fears about Germany and the threat of espionage, invasion, and, above all, the loss of Britain’s naval superiority. But, in reality, there was little understanding about the way that Zeppelins would be used against Britain in the First World War—not to attack its arsenals and dockyards, but to bomb its cities.

As I've said a fair bit about this article already, I won't go on about it any further -- except to add that this is my first illustrated article (apart from maps and figures), and a very rare illustration it is too!

Jeremy Black. The Cold War: A Military History. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. I already have a book with this title (by David Miller) but that was published in 1999, and another half-generation's distant might lend some valuable perspective. The indefatigable Black traces the Cold War all the way back to 1917, perhaps the drawing on the research for his recent book on the interwar period, Avoiding Armageddon (2012).

Michael Bryant. A World History of War Crimes: From Antiquity to the Present. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. China and India appear a couple of dozen times each in the index, so this is a fair attempt at a world history; but inevitably it's dominated by the evolution of war crimes (and of course the legal systems which defined war crimes) in Europe and its sphere of influence.

T.M. Devine. The Scottish Nation: A Modern History. London: Penguin, 2012. A subject I should know more about (among many others).

Lindsey A. Freeman. Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Part history, part sociology of Atomic City -- Oak Ridge, the site of the world's second self-sustaining nuclear reactor as well as the focus of American postwar nuclear utopianism as well as disillusionment. All of that spells: fun!

Terry Moyle. Art Deco Airports: Dream Designs of the 1920s & 1930s.. London, Chatswood and Auckland: New Holland, 2015. Airports and Art Deco grew up together, so it's no surprise that there are Art Deco airports. Quite a few of them, in fact, from Le Bourget at Paris to Shushan at New Orleans. This is a very attractive, well-illustrated book, but while it's not quite an academic work it is more than a coffee table book, and it has a decent bibliography and endnotes section as well.

Robert M. Neer. Napalm: An American Biography. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 2013. If you buy only one book on napalm, this is the one you want (and maybe the only one there is). We tend to associate napalm with Vietnam and maybe Korea, but of course it was born in the Second World War, where it would have incinerated more Japanese than the atomic bombs did.

Peter J. Dean, ed. Australia 1944-45: Victory in the Pacific. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Having devoured Australia 1942 and Australia 1943, I was disappointed when Australia 1944 didn't appear. This explains why! As with the previous volumes, this is an Australian perspective on the war, although there is a chapter on the Japanese Army in the areas facing the Australians. There's a cast of thousands (well, seventeen) in the 'Contributors' section, including Joan Beaumont, Rhys Crawley, Lachlan Grant, David Horner, Karl James, Michael McKernan, Michael Molkentin (branching out here – his topic is the home front rather than aviation), and Peter Stanley. There are chapters on POWs, jungle warfare, special operations and intelligence, as well as two on the end of the fighting in New Guinea and four on the controversial Borneo campaign. Once again the chapter on the RAAF seems somewhat out of tune with the rest of the book, but overall this looks like an excellent conclusion to an excellent series.

Frederick Taylor. Coventry: Thursday, 14 November 1940. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Taylor's Dresden (2004) is near-definitive, so I have high hopes for this. There's an interesting discussion of the question of whether Coventry (and other blitzes) led to a desire for reprisals on the part of the British public; although Tom Harrisson is misleading on this topic, and the opinion polls need careful interpretation, Taylor is probably right to conclude that reprisals were not uppermost in the minds of most people. Still, I think the Blitz spirit was not as stoicly passive as legend (or myth) has it.

1 Comment

In order to start characterising the possible airship panic of 1915, let's generate some n-grams and do some distant reading to get a basic overview of press interest in Zeppelins during the early part of the war. Here are the number of articles per month in the British Newspaper Archive for 1914 and 1915 mentioning the word 'zeppelin', normalised by the number of issues published each month, to account for variations in BNA's coverage (since, if there are more newspapers in total, all else being equal you would expect to get more articles about Zeppelins).1

zeppelin, monthly, normalised

There are a few things that are apparent from this plot. One is that the start of the war is really obvious: Zeppelins are mentioned ten or more times more frequently from August 1914 onwards than in the earlier part of 1914. (Even the peak of the 1913 airship panic was only about a fifth of the level of August 1914.) In the wartime period itself, there are a number of peaks. The biggest is in June 1915, which corresponds to the aftermath of the first Zeppelin raid on London. The next biggest are January 1915, the period of interest here, and September-October 1915, in which there were a dozen raids in total. Also of interest is October 1914, when there were no air raids on Britain at all. This was when the possibility of aerial attack began to be taken seriously (and when the Zeppelin panic of 1914 took place, but that's a subject for another day, or article).
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  1. It would be much better to use the total number of articles each month for this normalisation, but I don't know how to get that from BNA. Words common enough to appear in practically all articles, like 'the', are now stop words, so they can't be used to estimate how many articles there are in total. 


In the middle of January 1915, days before the first, fairly ineffectual Zeppelin raids on Norfolk, the novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes visited some relations of Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary. There she

was told that Mr. Gatty [a London historian] had heard from the Duke of Westminster that Winston Churchill says he expects a fleet of a hundred Zeppelins to leave for England on the eve of the Emperor's birthday, January 26th! He expects seventy to be destroyed, but believes that thirty will reach London and he estimates the casualties at 10,000 to 12,000! Several people are so affected by this tale that they have already sent their children away into the country.1

This sounds very much like an airship panic, complete with rumour, fear and even evacuation. Indeed, Jerry White places this in the context of rumours in the East End on 3 or 4 January that a Zeppelin had reached Colchester in Essex, and the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 22 January passing on the almost unanimous prediction of experts that a raid on London was certain to come within a few weeks (though equally that it would be a failure). He attributes these public fears to an infection by official fears: on 10 January the War Office warned the London Hospital to prepare for air raid victims, presumably informed by the Admiralty's submission to the Cabinet on 1 January that Germany planned 'an attack on London by airships on a great scale at an early opportunity'.2 Indeed, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, threatened Churchill, his political master, with resignation if his proposal to 'take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft' was not taken to Cabinet.3 (It was, and it was rejected.)

White's account is intriguing, but as a glance back at the prewar airship panics of 1909 and 1913 might suggest, there was a lot more going on, which obviously is what I intend to explore in the next few posts!

  1. Susan Lowndes, ed., Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 (1971), 47; quoted in Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014), 124. Emphasis in original. 

  2. White, Zeppelin Nights, 124-125. 

  3. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 2 (2007 [1923]), 38; quoted in White, Zeppelin Nights, 81. 

Ian Castle. The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War. Oxford and New York: Osprey, 2015. As seen on the Internet! I already own the two books which this combines. But they were review copies so I didn't pay for them; it seems fair enough to support the author more concretely this time.

Robert Loeffel. The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Depressingly timely in the current situation. While on the question of titles, I think most people would assume that a book called The Fifth Column in World War II was about Europe, or perhaps the United States -- definitely not Australia. But this does at least look briefly at the origins of the fifth column fear in Europe, as well as how it was imported into the Australian context. (Spoiler: there was no fifth column, as such.) I'd love to see something this thorough for the British case, for that matter. As a bonus, my article about the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane episode is cited, a clear sign of quality :)

Neil R. Storey. Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War. Stroud: History Press, 2015. As with The First Blitz, I've discussed this book here recently, sight unseen, so I should probably actually buy it instead of just talking about it. It's a very solid and well-illustrated text, and looks like a fairly comprehensive guide to the Zeppelin raids on Britain (and it even discusses the prewar phantom airships, though without giving sources). However, by only including airship raids it provides a distorted picture of the campaign (and the Gotha raids of 1917 and 1918 were the most 'Blitzy' of the war, if you're going to go down that path); and its claim to originality is undermined by the failure to cite Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman's The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (1984), which is still the definitive account of the operational aspects of the raids and is pretty clearly also based on the GHQ summaries (among other sources), even if their own refusal to actually cite anything is irritating.