NZ Observer, 4 May 1918, p. 5

For a country so far from the frontline, there was a surprising amount of discussion in the New Zealand press in the autumn of 1918 about the possibility of Auckland being bombed or Wellington being shelled. It's true that it was often framed in a joking fashion, as with the above cartoon which appeared in the New Zealand Observer on 4 May with the caption 'IF A BOMB FELL ON ONE OF OURS?' showing the reactions of an amusingly confused congregation as the war intrudes into their Sunday devotions.1 But despite the humour, there's an undercurrent of fear, and also perhaps, strangely, of desire.
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  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 4 May 1918, 5


In a not-very-recent post I discussed New Zealand press reports of mystery aeroplane sightings in the first few months of 1918. I suggested then that around about the end of March there was a change in the way these sightings were reported. This change had two aspects. The first was that there were no longer any straight news reports of mystery aeroplanes being published (no new ones, anyway; some of the earlier stories continued to be reprinted as local newspapers caught up). The obvious explanation for this would be because there weren't any to report. However this seems unlikely because of the second aspect: newspapers did in fact continue to circulate stories about mystery aeroplanes, only now in the indirect form of jokes and rumours.

As far as anything which even vaguely resembles an actual sighting is concerned, in fact there are only a couple of examples from April 1918, both from the New Zealand Observer. On 6 April, the Observer's 'They Say' column informed its readers

That a well-known motor car owner and a cold-feet sufferer reported an aeroplane outside Mangere the other night, but when under the third degree he mixed the Urewera locality with Onehunga, the authorities ducked.1

This entirely lacks the sort of information contained in the earlier mystery aeroplane reports, not even a date; and the jocular tone makes it hard to know how seriously to take it. It could be an offhand way of describing an actual sighting by a local notable, or it could be a humorous allusion to some then-topical incident which had nothing to do with mystery aeroplanes.

The other example from April is equally vague as to details, and is quite possibly apocryphal, but its point is clearer. The Observer's 'Fretful Porcupine' column (where did they get these names?) published a letter on 20 April from one 'Jay Bee' which includes this account of a mystery aeroplane sighting, apparently in a posh Auckland suburb:

Dropped into afternoon tea at a friend's house the other day and found I had fallen into the midst of the wife's day-at-home crownd -- 'first and fourth Tuesdays in the month' business. Took me a while to recover, but when I did come to I sat up and took notice of what the dear women were talking about. And, by Jove, it surprised me. One dear thing held the floor by virtue of the strength of her vocal chords, and she was talking about these strange aeroplanes nervous folk are seeing of nights. 'Yes,' she said, 'it's true all right. Only last night Mrs. So-and-So saw one going over her house just after midnight. She called Mr. So-and-So, and he saw it, too, so there. And my husband knows Captain Dash in the Defence Office, and Captain Dash says there are aeroplanes about [...]'2

So unidentified aeroplanes are being seen by unidentified people at unidentified times and unidentified places. Not terribly useful. But wait, there's more:

'[...] and if there's any trouble at any time not to rush to the station to catch a train to get away from town, because they're bound to try to drop bombs on the station, because they know everyone would go there.' (Pause for breath.) 'And then there are these big guns firing 100 miles. What's to stop a raider coming in behind Rangitoto with one of these guns and firing a shell into our houses in Grafton Road? And they're sending my husband into camp, so there would be no one left to fight them.' I regret that at this stage I fainted outright, and heard no more.3

Obviously Jay Bee is partly joking, but he (the condescension towards 'the dear women' suggests a man) was making a serious point about what he saw as the baleful effect of suburban gossip where the defence of the realm was concerned: 'Really, I'm almost in favour of the introduction of women police if they would only find their way to these afternoon teas and arrest a few of these idiotic scaremongers.'4 The reported speech may well be invented, synthesised, and/or exaggerated for effect, but it seems likely that it is more or less representative of talk that was very widespread in April 1918, not just about mystery aeroplanes in the sky or raiders in the sea, but about the possibility that bombs and shells would very soon be falling on New Zealand. Indeed, I think can show this, and will endeavour to do so in the next post in this series.

  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 6 April 1918, 7

  2. Ibid., 20 April 1918, 16

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 


A year has passed since my article on the debate in Britain over whether to bomb German civilians in reprisal for the Blitz was published. Under the Australian Journal of Politics and History's self-archiving policy I can now upload my own copy of the final, peer-reviewed text for anyone to read for free. So here it is. And here is the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasizing positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

AJPH's attitude to self-archiving is more generous than some journals I could name. Or at least it was -- its RoMEO entry doesn't seem to suggest 12 months as a standard embargo period, if I'm reading it right, but (maybe) 24. There's nothing I can see about it on AJPH's website either, so maybe it has got worse in the meantime. Hopefully not. In any case, my agreement says what it says.

Thomas Hippler. Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. There are very few studies of Douhet in English, and none since Azar Gat's Fascist and Liberal Visions of War (1998), so I'm very excited to see this. Even leafing through it it's obvious that there is a lot of valuable stuff here: for example, on Douhet's surprisingly pacifistic views before 1914. It doesn't look like there is much on the question of the wider influence of Douhetism outside Italy, but I suspect it will be all the better for it.

David J. Hufford. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982. This and the next two books fall outside of the subject matter of this blog: I bought them as methodological inspiration for the problem of how to approach people claiming to see things for which no objective evidence exists, vis-à-vis my ongoing mystery aircraft project. I actually devoted a whole blog post to this book without having actually read it, so it's about time I owned a copy.

Peter Lamont. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. The 'psychological problem' here is essentially the same one I'm interested in: why do people believe extraordinary things? The 'historical approach' refers to Lamont's use of the history of spiritualism and psychic research to this end. It appears to trip lightly over the decades and centuries in a way I probably wouldn't be comfortable doing, but that's not always a bad thing.

Brian P. Levack. The Devil Within: Possession & Exorcism in the Christian West. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. This is much more traditional history, unsurprisingly since it's written by a historian, not a folklorist or a psychologist. Levack argues that medical or psychological explanations for demonic possession cases are ahistorical, and that we should consider demoniacs as following a cultural script. How useful for me this is idea is, I'm not sure: where did the cultural script for seeing phantom airship come from, how did it arise so quickly? Something to think about.

Matthew S. Seligmann. The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914: Admiralty Plans to Protect British Trade in a War Against Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Back to some air... er, seapower. Actually, this has some relevance for my recent interest in the naval dimensions of the 1913 phantom airship scare, as well as the knock-out blow theory. Also has a very useful discussion of archival sources, including some scathing comments about the Admiralty's archivists who decided to destroy 98% of ADM 1 in the 1950s and 1960s! Ouch.


[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The election of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would 're-prioritise' another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed 'wasteful'. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody's bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation's self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called 'black armband view of history'. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia's past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of 'black armband history' suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history -- my areas of expertise -- may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools 'must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past [...] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War [...]

He's right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn't mean it's unproblematic -- as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can't erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.


Christy Campbell. Target London: Under Attack from the V-Weapons During WWII. London: Little, Brown, 2012. A popular (and in this case, cheap) account of the V-1 and V-2 campaigns with a nicely over-the-top cover illustration. As the title suggests, it does concentrate on London, but Antwerp's ordeal also receives some attention.

Hugh Dolan. Gallipoli Air War: The Unknown Story of the Fight for the Skies over Gallipoli. Sydney: Macmillan, 2013. On the one hand, it's good to see an Australian book about Gallipoli which isn't yet another Anzac story; and any book which cites Frederick Sykes (commander of the RNAS during the campaign) on the back cover and figures him prominently in the index gets bonus points from me. But if you're interested in Sykes you need to read Eric Ash's Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution (1999), but it's not cited here. And while it's clear from the bibliography that extensive archival research has been undertaken in both the UK and Australia, unfortunately there are no endnotes, which limits its scholarly usefulness.

John Keegan. The Face of Battle. London: Penguin, 1978. Don't tell anyone, but I've never read it.

Mark Mazower. Governing the World: The History of an Idea. London: Penguin, 2013. The subtitle is a bit misleading, I feel: except in the early part of the book which deals with the nineteenth century, it's not an intellectual history of world government proposals so much as a history of practical internationalism -- the Hague conferences, the League of Nations, and especially the United Nations and the proliferation of international bodies since 1945. Not that this isn't interesting or useful, but I'd like to know about the dreamers, too.

N. A. M. Rodger, ed. Naval Power in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. While obviously not intended to form a coherent approach to the topic, there's at least one chapter on most of the major navies. A couple of the chapters are particularly aviation-related: Michael Simpson's on airpower and seapower in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, and Eric Groves' on the Royal Navy's air-sea strategy east of Suez in the early 1960s. Something for everyone (for very small values of everyone).


The Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918 had its parallel in New Zealand, where there were even fewer real aeroplanes to confuse the issue: no military aviation at all and just two privately-owned flying schools. Here I'll track how the scare was reported in the press (repeating myself, somewhat) from the start of 1918 up until late March/early April, when there seems to be a qualitative change in the coverage; in following posts I'll examine later press responses as well as the archival evidence.

The earliest sighting I've found reported in 1918 actually took place on the last day of 1917, at Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island, where

A number of local residents are emphatic in saying they observed an aeroplane flying from the direction of Oropi on Monday evening [31 December 1917] at 9 30 o'clock. A party of four ladies, just after leaving the Methodist Church, and when opposite Mr Carmichael's residence in Devonport Road, noticed brilliant lights in the sky and a little later distinctly observed the wings of an aeroplane. The machine was travelling at a rapid rate and followed a course on the eastern side of the harbour, disappearing from view to the northward. It was flying at a great height. The members of the party are positive that the object was an aeroplane.1

There weren't any more mystery aeroplanes for a full two months, until 1 March. Then, at Tahuna, a suburb of Nelson at the north end of the South Island, a woman who had been out for an early-morning swim reported that 'on looking out to sea she saw two seaplanes quite distinctly. They were flying together near the surface of the water, and then separated, one going in the direction of the eastern hills', eventually being lost in the clouds.2 She was described as 'rather diffident about telling the story', but also as 'so positive as to what she had seen that she spoke to the press 'in order to ascertain if the planes had been seen by anyone else'.3 An earlier rumour 'that a seaplane had been seen in the Sounds' had been laughed off.4

A week later at Christchurch (also on the South Island, about 250km away but on the other side of the Southern Alps),

What appeared to be an aeroplane with lights was seen by several people in the city yesterday evening [5 March 1918] between 7 o'clock and 7.15. It seemed to be travelling in a south-westerly direction, at a rate estimated at something like 20 miles an hour, and was at a considerable height. To some, at first sight, it looked like a planet, but its fairly rapid movement dispelled that idea. Others surmised that it was a fire balloon, but to other observers it looked like an aircraft under control.5

After seeming 'to pass along the edge of a dark bank of cloud in the southern sky' it was lost to sight.6 The Sockburn flying school was contacted but disclaimed responsibility.7 This report prompted a letter to the Press, signed 'Leestonian', asking if anyone else had seen 'a well-lighted aeroplane late at night south-west of Christchurch? Repeatedly, during the moonlight cloudless nights lately, the members of our household have watched this visitor, and towards morning apparently as far south as the Ninety-mile beach it was seen distinctly'.8 On 11 March, it was reported that 'For several evenings, about 7.30 o'clock, a bright light has come from the east, starting near Sumner, and going rapidly west [...] On Friday night [8 March 1918] it appeared between 7.15 and 7.30, passed over the southern part of the city at a great height, and gradually disappeared in banks of western cloud'.9 However, by now scepticism had set in, as it was said that fire balloons were 'evidently' the cause: 'There appears to be no doubt that the liberation of fire balloons recently has given rise to tales of mysterious aeroplanes'.10 The reports were met with amusement in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, where the Observer's 'They Say' column (a mixture of jokes, gossip and commentary) reported that 'Mysterious aeroplanes have been seen flying over Christchurch. Travellers from the south report that Christchurch is importing a brand of whisky warranted to create Zeppelins, let alone Gothas'.11
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  1. Bay of Plenty Times (Tauranga), 4 January 1918, 2

  2. Colonist (Nelson), 2 March 1918, 2

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Press (Christchurch), 6 March 1918, 6

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 8 March 1918, 7. I'm not sure which 'Ninety-mile beach' this is -- it's obviously not the famous one at the northern tip of the North Island. 

  9. Auckland Star, 11 March 1918, 4

  10. Ibid. 

  11. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 16 March 1918, 7

John Horne, ed. A Companion to World War I. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. A collection of essays by an international group of experts who provide a comprehensive overview of the war: origins, strategy, combat, the home fronts, memory, and so on. In many cases the essays are written by exactly who you'd expect, and want. The chapter on the air war gives rise to mixed feelings, however. It's by John H. Morrow, Jr., the author of The Great War in the Air (1993), which twenty years after publication is a classic and still the best general survey available. So the obvious choice, then. Except that he's largely moved on from aviation history since the mid-1990s, and the citations in his chapter reflect this. So maybe not the obvious choice, then. Except that I'm struggling to think of many essential works on airpower in the First World War that he's missed out on. From my own narrow interests, probably only Biddle's Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (2002), and maybe fellow contributor Susan Grayzel's At Home and Under Fire (2012), though only parts of these deal with 1914-1918. Maybe the real problem, then, is that not enough historians picked up where Morrow left off.


One of the most intriguing things to emerge from my post-blogging of the Blitz a few years ago (but which sadly didn't make it into my Blitz article) was the notion of reprisals after notice, that is to say, of publishing a list of German cities which would be bombed intensively until the Luftwaffe ceased attacking British cities. This attracted some support from newspaper columnists and the public as a middle way between humanitarian restraint and all-out reprisals, and I've suggested that 'it was strategy from below, folk strategy', since it was 'not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war'.

But it was part of the official private discourse on the bombing war. On 11 September 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Charles Portal, wrote to the Air Staff proposing that twenty German towns be warned by radio that they were targets, with one to be bombed after each indiscriminate Luftwaffe raid on London. Other options for attacking German civilians were canvassed, for example that they be bombed without any no warning.1 Peter Gray notes that on that same day the War Cabinet discussed the same proposal:

Discussion followed on a suggestion that we should threaten Germany with reprisals by bombing any one of twenty German towns (to be named) if the indiscriminate bombing of London continued.2

The decision was that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, 'consider the question of reprisals at some future date', but that 'for the present our bomber force should continue to be used to attack military targets'.3
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  1. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4. 

  2. The National Archives, CAB 65/9/9, W. M. (40) 247, War Cabinet conclusions, 11 September 1940. See Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 171. 

  3. CAB 65/9/9. 


Colin Dobinson. Building Radar: Forging Britain's Early Warning Chain, 1935-1945. London: Methuen, 2010. Looks like a useful complement to David Zimmerman's Britain's Shield (2001). This covers the scientific and institutional side of the British development of radar in detail too (and adds some texture to the role of death ray desire), but is more concerned than is Zimmerman with the operational and technical side of the programme, as well as with the physical survival of radar sites (since the book is part of an English Heritage series).

Stuart Hylton. Reporting the Blitz: News from the Home Front Communities. Stroud: History Press, 2012. A thematic exploration of the non-London Blitz as seen through the provincial press: the black-out, evacuation, anti-gas drills, entertainment, war aims, and even air raids. Some chapters stray outside the Blitz, for example one on attitudes towards Britain's allies (mostly meaning the Soviet Union and the United States, though at least Canada gets a mention). Well-illustrated with relevant newspaper advertisements.