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Barrier Miner, 6 July 1914, 3

Australia has never had much to do with airships. In recent decades you might be able to catch a glimpse of an advertising blimp or a camera drone. You have to go back many decades to find anything else, and what you do find didn't amount to much. There would have been airship bases in Melbourne and Perth by the late 1930s, if the R101 disaster hadn't brought down the Imperial Airship Scheme with it. Early recruitment for the Royal Australian Air Force included jobs for airship riggers, whose skills were never needed. In 1909, mystery airships were seen around Australia, but they were phantoms. And as far back as 1851, William Bland, a Sydney doctor, designed and patented an 'Atmotic Ship', supposedly capable of flying to London in a week and a half, but it was never built.

So here's another to add to the list, though it's a bit more successful than the others, since not only did it exist, as you can see in the photo above, but in 1914 it actually flew. It's the first, and I think the only, airship designed and built in Australia. Its creator was electrical engineer Alban Roberts (on the left in the photo), who was New Zealand-born and raised, but in the years before the First World War moved back and forth between there and Australia, Britain, and the United States.1 From 1909 he was in Britain working on wireless control of boats, subs, aeroplanes and airships. By 1912 -- after an interlude in America, during which he crashed an airship into the Atlantic while attempting to fly from New York to Philadelphia -- he had perfected a remotely-piloted dirigible well enough to demonstrate [in music halls], much as Raymond Phillips had already done before him. He publicly demonstrated this drone back home in Wellington in 1913, where it 'dropped a tiny bomb of confetti' on a marked spot.2

A few months later, he was across the Tasman in Sydney building his full-size airship, 'the first Australian constructed one [...] constructed as far as possible of Australian material and by Australian hands. The only part which was imported was the balloon section, which it was found could not be made in Australasia.'3

The 'Nacelle,' or framework which carries the engines and propellor is 48ft. by 2ft. 6in. Mr. Roberts does not regard his vessel as much more than a model. Its engine is 15-h.p., and its speed in calm weather is 16 miles an hour. 'I would have to treble my engine power,' says Mr. Roberts, 'to get another five miles an hour out of my little ship.'4

Indeed, the airship itself was not the point: it '"has the pull as a spectacle," said Mr. Roberts, "but the wireless is the big thing."'5

Still, Roberts seems to have had plans for his airship:

Later, the airship will take up its occupation as a pleasure craft. Passengers will then be able to sail gently over Sydney and about the harbour. The ship may also be used at night as an advertising hoarding.6

It took more than 70 years for airships to be used for advertising in Australian skies, and I don't think paying customers have ever been able to take dirigible joyflights here. But Roberts' airship did fly, as I will discuss in another post.

Image source: Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 6 July 1914, 3.


  1. See generally H. R. Everett, Unmanned Systems of World War II (MIT Press: 2015), 266-8

  2. Dominion (Wellington), 25 November 1913, 10

  3. Ibid., 7 July 1914, 8

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

Paul K. Saint-Amour. Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. One of those books that does that worthwhile thing of looking at familiar works in unfamiliar ways. For most readers that will probably mean Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but in my case it's more the airpower prophets I studied for my PhD/book. I'm not persuaded by the reading of L. E. O. Charlton's books about the knock-out blow in the 1930s as being a betrayal of the humanitarian conscience he displayed over civilian casualties of air control in the 1920s; for me, they are cut from the same cloth. But I look forward to reading Saint-Amour's analysis of Charlton anyway, and of other unexpected gems such as Getrude Bell's description of a Hendon-style mock combat put on by the RAF in Iraq in 1924!

Daniel Todman. Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941. Allen Lane, 2016. Just from reading Dan's (lamented) blog, Trench Fever, as well as his occasional comments here at Airminded over the years, I know that this is also going to be an original version of a supposedly familiar story. Even the periodisation is intriguing, and the second volume will complete the story up to Indian independence in 1947. As this one is more than 800 pages, I'd better get cracking...

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!

Statistically, this was probably bound to happen eventually...

Jeremy Black. Air Power: A Global History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. The indefatigable Jeremy Black has produced a small but useful library of short, accessible surveys of sometimes neglected areas of military history. On my own shelves I already have Avoiding Armageddon (2012) on the interwar period, and The Cold War (2015), and now they are joined by this volume on a topic even closer to my heart. All the things you'd expect in such a survey are pretty much here, and he does attempt to look at airpower around the world. Inevitably it's still mostly a Western view. Still, there are a couple of pages on the Iran-Iraq war, for example, a bit over a page on China in the 1930s; but only a couple of sentences on the Chaco War (but what are ya gonna do).

Jeremy Black. Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015. The indefatigable Jeremy Black has also produced a small but useful library of short, accessible historiographical works. I've got Rethinking Military History (2004) and I did have the previous edition of this book, What If? (2008) -- I'm not sure how they differ, precisely, but the new version is about 20 pages longer and the chapter on counterfactualism in military history, at least, seems to have been largely rewritten. Black thinks that counterfactuals do have value for historians, so it's a good addition to the pile.

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Shori Arai, Maintenance Work aboard Aircraft Carrier II (c. 1943)

Apropos of nothing, here's a (somewhat cropped) c. 1943 painting by a Japanese artist named Shori Arai. (Sometimes called Maintenance Work aboard Aircraft Carrier II, though clearly it's not maintenance that's going on there.) The original is held by the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. It was also issued as a postcard by the Japanese Navy Ministry.
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Kristen Alexander. Taking Flight: Lores Bonney's Extraordinary Flying Career. Canberra: NLA Publishing, 2016. If Australia had an equivalent to Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, and Amelia Earhart, it was Lores Bonney: the first woman to fly around Australia (1932), the first woman to fly from Australia to England (1933), the first person to fly from Australia to South Africa (1937). But she's not very well-known. This might do something to change that. Looks like a nice companion piece to Michael Molkentin's Flying the Southern Cross, also published by the NLA.

James Harris. The Great Fear: Stalin's Terror of the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. A short book making a big claim: that the purges were the result of the belief that the Soviet Union was under imminent threat by internal conspiracy and external attack. It wasn't, but in this case perception mattered more than reality. Hmm, that idea sounds familiar somehow...

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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!

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In July I'll be at this year's Australian Historical Association conference, which is being hosted in Ballarat by Federation University Australia. I'm pushing my aerial theatre project along with a talk entitled 'The RAF versus the Wottnotts: Hendon's imaginary wars, 1920-1937':

The Royal Air Force (RAF) Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which large formations of military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying. These pageants were hugely popular among all classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands directly and millions more indirectly through newsreels and the press. Each pageant climaxed with an elaborate set piece in which a battle scenario with an imaginary enemy was acted out, for the entertainment and edification of the spectators. The enemies varied according to international context and the RAF's institutional interests: thinly-disguised Germans and Soviets, Arab tribes, modern-day pirates, and more abstract and industrialised targets. Paying close attention to these scenarios therefore reveals something of the RAF's conception of its own role in a environment constantly changing due to technology and politics. It reveals even more about what its leaders wanted the British public, and the world more generally, to understand about its role at a time when the lessons of the last war were being applied to the preparations for the next one.

But wait -- there's more! I'm speaking as part of a panel on the theme of 'Airmindedness: cultures of aviation'. Also on the panel are: Steve Campbell-Wright, speaking on 'The Role of Place in Remembering: Point Cook’s part in the Nation’s Identity'; Leigh Edmonds, on 'Gleaming modernity comes to Australia'; and Peter Hobbins, on 'Safer in the air? Australian apprehensions of aviation disasters'. I've never been part of a conference panel before; it's a great opportunity to make the case to the Australian historical community that aviation history is both interesting and important. Ad astra!

I walked into the local secondhand bookshop thinking I should try to buy something to support them; and of course then walked out with an armful, including:

P. M. S. Blackett. Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. London: Turnstile Press, 1948. Blackett was a bit of an overachiever: the Tizard Committee, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, director of operational research for the Admiralty, the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on antimatter, later MinTech. He even fought at Jutland. Here he grapples with the problem of nuclear weapons (he had been on the MAUD Committee which first investigated the feasibility of a fission weapon), starting with an analysis of the effects of strategic bombing in the late war (he was a sceptic, as he had been at the time) and ending with -- well, by his own admission, not very much by way of a solution, for which he blames the state of the world. Fair enough!

Nigel Calder. Nuclear Nightmares: An Investigation into Possible Wars. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979. The companion to a BBC documentary narrated by Peter Ustinov, of all people. The nuclear nightmares considered are: escalation, proliferation, decapitation, counterforce. So much for détente.

Martin Ceadel. Thinking About Peace and War. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A fairly persuasive attempt to classify peace movements on the basis of ideology, by one of the most influential British peace historians; but I do wish he'd come up with a less ugly formulation than 'pacific-ism' (sic) to differentiate absolute pacifists from those who accept that war is sometimes necessary.

I. F. Clarke. The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001. London: Book Club Associates, 1979. Clarke's other defining work on predictive fiction, this time on future histories more generally, as opposed to just the military ones. I don't know it as well as Voices Prophesying War, because the uni library had in storage and it was a pain to get out. So my eyes lit up when I found this.