A widespread assumption in 1913 was that the mysterious airships then being seen in British skies were real and German. The vast majority certainly were not: there were just too many of them, in too many places, for no conceivable purpose. But it remains a possibility that a few of them really were German airships. In particular, competent authorities then and later have concluded that the Sheerness incident on 14 October 1912 was caused by the intrusion of a Zeppelin into British airspace. At a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence in December, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, reported that

There was little very doubt that the airship reported recently to have passed over Sheerness was a German vessel, and this incident had renewed anxiety. 1

At the next CID meeting, in February 1913, Vice-Admiral Sir John Jellicoe stated that 'A German airship of the Parseval type had flown over Sheerness and back to Germany'.2 When the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, asked what the evidence for this was, Jellicoe replied that 'it was known that an airship had left Germany on the day previous', and Churchill added that there was 'information from other sources which confirmed their belief'.3 The nature of these 'other sources' is suggested by a letter written by Churchill to Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson several days earlier, though then the implication was not that it was a Parseval but rather Hansa, a civilian Zeppelin:

14. Visit of 'Hansa' over Sheerness.

One of the pilots of the Bristol and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Mr. E. Harrison, recently visited Farnborough, and stated that he was in Germany on the night of 13th October, and saw the 'Hansa' start on a trip, and he stated that everybody knew that she had been over the North Sea. The 'Hansa' is an older and smaller airship than the German naval airship.

It has not been thought advisable to take the matter up closely with Mr. E. Harrison, but enquiries are being made in other directions to confirm the accuracy of this information.4

I'm not aware of the results of these further inquiries. But in 1931, C. F. Snowden Gamble, an early aviation historian, perhaps drew on Admiralty sources for his flat assertion that Hansa did indeed fly over Britain (though without specifically mentioning Sheerness):

There is every reason to believe that, at the time, the Admiralty knew that the craft was the Hansa -- a Zeppelin airship belonging to the Deutsche Luftschiffahrt A.G. (German Airship Transport Company) but manned by naval officers and ratings. Although the allegations were denied by the German press there is now no doubt that this ship did cruise over part of southern England.5

John Cuneo remarks that Gamble's confidence is hard to understand, 'because the facts are far from being well-known despite the insinuation by the author. No reference is given although the history is otherwise unusually well documented'.6 He attempted to find supporting evidence in published sources, including the Official History and Flight, but was largely unsuccessful.7

No date is given of the cruise or cruises of the Hansa but it seems to place it over England in 1912 or the early part of 1913. It is true that this Zeppelin was used to train navy crews and such training frequently took place over the North Sea but this was only after the explosion of the only naval airship in October, 1913. Of course a special trip was a possibility. It seems peculiar that such a visit was not described by some Zeppelin commander or crew member in the flood of post-war revelations.8

For that matter, it also seems peculiar that no archival records of such a flight have ever turned up. Douglas Robinson, who drew on the logbooks of the Naval Airship Division and other sources, dismisses the phantom airship reports as 'alarmist rumours' and likens them to 'the "flying saucer" craze of our own day'.9 Of course, he might have missed something, or the records might not have survived. Or the crew might not have survived the war to write their memoirs. It would certainly be unwise to dismiss altogether the possibility that evidence from German primary sources might turn up: after all, the contemporary spy scare was ridiculed then and later, but there were some German spies in Britain before the war, just not remotely as many as was claimed.10 In fact, one of those spies published a book in which he claimed that a German airship secretly flew over London in peacetime. Was he telling the truth? I'll leave that for another post.

  1. The National Archives (TNA), CAB 38/22/42, Committee of Imperial Defence meeting, 6 December 1912. 

  2. TNA, CAB 38/23/9, Committee of Imperial Defence meeting, 6 February 1913. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. TNA, CAB 38/23/11, letter from Winston Churchill to Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson, 3 February 1913. 

  5. C. F. Snowden Gamble, The Air Weapon, volume 1 (London: 1931), 205; quoted in John Cuneo, Winged Mars, volume 1 (Harrisburg: Military Service Publishing, 1942), 125. 

  6. Cuneo, Winged Mars, 125. 

  7. He did note a similar statement in George Fyfe, From Box-kites to Bombers (London: 1936), 161. 

  8. Cuneo, Winged Mars, 125. 

  9. Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912-1918, 3rd edition (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1980), 22. 

  10. Thomas Boghardt, Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain During the First World War Era (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), chapter 3. 


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

Xmas Office Party

An interesting Flickr set of photographs evidently taken in the south of England in the last year of the Second World War was recently posted to a WWII mailing list I'm on. Many show aircraft of various types; others are of people and places. The photographer is unknown but judging from the content was in the US Army Air Forces, stationed at RAF Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire.

I've picked out a few interesting aircraft shots: some are aesthetically pleasing, some show unusual types, and one shows something I'd never come across before. But first is one of a person, perhaps the most intriguing. It shows an unidentified, uniformed woman on a bed: the negative is labelled 'Xmas Office Party 1 75w bulb overhead f2 25th sec 02' which says much, but not enough: we are drawn into speculation. Perhaps she has something, or someone, on her mind; perhaps she's just tired and had a bit too much to drink. It's unlikely that we'll ever know, but then that's what intrigues.
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Richard Holmes. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. London: William Collins, 2013. Though the term wasn't around then, airmindedness was about balloons for longer than it has been about aeroplanes. But it's relatively neglected historiographically, certainly in my library, so this will help fill that gap: everyone from Nadar to Babar the Elephant is here, and the last chapter is devoted to Andree's attempts to reach the North Pole by air.


Roland Garros is today mainly known for having given his name to the home of French tennis. But long before then he was famous as a pioneer aviator in both peace and war. In December 1912, for example, he set a new altitude record of 17,000 feet, while in September 1913 he made the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean, from France to Tunisia. On the outbreak of war the following year, he joined the French Army as a pilot flying Morane Parasols and flew his first combat mission in mid-August. After some unsatisfactory initial experiments with a rifle-armed observer, Garros sought a way of firing a machine gun in the direction of flight. By April 1915 he had a Parasol equipped with the first deflector gear, which consisted of an armoured propellor with deflecting plates, the idea being that any bullets which hit the propellor would bounce off and the rest would pour into the enemy aircraft. As insane as this seems, it worked, enough: Garros shot down three German aeroplanes in a few weeks, before being forced down behind enemy lines himself and captured. His war wasn't over, however. He escaped from a POW camp in Magdeburg in February 1918, made his way back to France and then back into the air, and claimed a fourth German victim before being killed in action in October, just over a month before the Armistice.1

Despite never meeting the formal definition of five combat kills (which anyway wasn't settled until after his capture), the ovations awarded him by an adoring press had effectively made Garros the first air ace. He wasn't the first French airman to shoot down an enemy aircraft, but something about the solitary nature of his victories captured the public imagination, and set the template for the more successful aces of all nationalities who followed him. So it's interesting to discover that this narrative was prefigured by a rumour about Garros published in the British press at the very beginning of the war, which had him ramming and destroying a Zeppelin at the cost of his own life.
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  1. Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 203-10, 238-9. 

Press interest in airships, January-April 1913

'Everybody's Doing It' was the name of a popular revue which opened in the West End in February 1912; the music and lyrics (including a near-eponymous song) were co-written by Irving Berlin. It was also the Manchester Guardian stab at a contemporary pop cultural reference to describe just how widespread the phantom airship scare had become by the start of March 1913. There are more concrete ways to express this than ragtime. Geography is one; chronology is another.

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

Despite appearing in the Times Literary Supplement a month ago, Eric Naiman's astounding exposure of independent historian A. D. Harvey's fraudulent scholarship seems to have been little remarked upon by historians. (Naiman's piece is quite long, but worth the read; for a much shorter version try here.) Admittedly, the true extent of Harvey's transgressions, which includes fabricating primary sources and reviewing his own work under pseudonyms, is unclear; but as Naiman argues, from what we do know they are not the sort of thing the academy can let slide:

It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey or Trevor McGovern, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.

Some prominent academic blogs in cognate disciplines have discussed the affair, namely Crooked Timber, Languagehat, and Lawyers, Guns and Money, but with some exceptions the predominant reaction in the these posts and comments seems to be wry amusement, rather than concern, say, or disgust. Harvey himself (apparently) twice commented himself at Languagehat (without quite defending or explaining his actions), but strangely was all but ignored by the other commenters.

Perhaps I feel more strongly about it than most. Harvey is an independent historian and has been for much of his career, apart from some periods inside the academy. I'm also currently an independent historian, and worry that this sort of misbehaviour will make it harder for people in my position to contribute to academic scholarship from outside the academy proper. That's unfounded, perhaps; I've encountered no undue difficulties so far and Harvey's case is probably odd enough to be sui generis. Also, I own one of Harvey's books (Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence) and, I notice, praised him on Twitter. Certainly I was impressed by the range of his research in period, topic and discipline, from sex in Georgian England to literary criticism. So I feel foolish for having been taken in by him. Finally, and most importantly, a significant proportion of Harvey's prolific output comprises military history, and even airpower history (though ironically this is the part of his work I'm least familiar with): Arnhem, Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945, A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War, English Literature and the Great War with France, 'The French Armée de l'Air in May-June 1940: a failure of conception', 'The Spanish Civil War as seen by British officers', 'Army Air Force and Navy Air Force: Japanese aviation and the opening phase of the war in the Far East', 'The Royal Air Force and close support, 1918-1940', 'The bomber offensive that never took off: Italy's Regia Aeronautica in 1940' and so on. To be fair, as far as I know there is no evidence that any of these works is fraudulent in any way. But how can historians extend Harvey the benefit of the doubt now? If we should be patrolling the borders of our discipline against incursions by pseudohistorians, then we should also sound the alarm when there's an enemy inside the gates.

Western horizon from London, 21 February 1913, 8.30pm

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.
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View Scareships, 1913 in a larger map

Here's where the 1913 phantom airship sightings took place. Actually, there are a few from late 1912 (including the Sheerness incident), the blue ones. Red indicates sightings in January 1913, green February, cyan March, and yellow April.

A quick visual inspection shows that the density of sightings was greatest in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in a belt running from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. However, this perception is skewed somewhat by the cluster of reports from about a dozen places in and around Selby on 21 and 22 February. Clearly something happened there that night, and whatever it was can in no way be discounted, but Yorkshire would stand out far less otherwise (though there would still be the sightings from around Hull and Grimsby, including that from the City of Leeds, about the last of the whole scare to generate widespread interest in the press). By contrast, the clusters around Manchester and Liverpool, though smaller, are also more sustained, with reports spread out over four or five weeks. Other significant groupings include the south-east of England and, relatively late in the scare, the east coast of Scotland. And, of course, the coastline either side of the Bristol Channel, which featured prominently in the scare from almost the first to almost the last. Cardiff was the place most frequented by mystery airships, with four visits recorded at long intervals; that the Chief Constable of Glamorganshire was one of the first to see it and was willing to publicly appeal for witnesses to come forward may help explain why hundreds or even thousands of people saw them there. Only Hull presents a similar example of a mass sighting, though there were others where smaller crowds gathered to watch the scareship. It's also worth noting that there were occasional reports of mysterious airships from Ireland and from the Orkneys.
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Peter Bowler. Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2013. I figured I should put my money where my mouth is and at least buy this, and hopefully even read it. Bowler uses a counterfactual approach in an attempt to elucidate how important Darwin was to the development of Darwinism by taking him out of the picture. What I like about this is that it's not a narrative describing one particular possible alternate timeline, which is the default mode of writing counterfactual histories even when done by academic historians. Instead Bowler is deliberate and analytical all the way along, weighing the (real) evidence and explaining his conclusions. If counterfactual history has any value beyond simply pointing out that things might have been different, it's in something like this approach.

Siân Nicholas and Tom O'Malley, eds. Moral Panics, Social Fears, and the Media: Historical Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge, 2013. Lots of good stuff about such things as Edwardian wireless, the enemy within, A Clockwork Orange, and fear in East German television, plus several more reflective/theoretical essays. Turns out that I follow two of the contributors on Twitter (@DavidjHendy and @JohnCarterWood), which is probably not a coincidence. If you're a writer, you really should be on Twitter.

S. C. M. Paine. The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Argues that the Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War, and the Chinese Civil War need to be understood together, as a long cascade of conflicts. It's certainly novel to see all these wars being given approximately equal space, when two of them are glossed over in most of the histories I tend to read and the third is somewhat dominant. The focus is much more political and strategic than operational, and Paine focuses on the prewar decades in China and Japan (and the Soviet Union) as much as on the actual wars themselves.


That Liberty Shall Not Perish From The Earth, 1918

John Ptak recently pinned a 1964 science fiction magazine cover depicting a ruined Statue of Liberty, predating the more famous ending of Planet of the Apes by four years. He wondered about earlier images along the same lines, and after a bit of digging I found not many at all. The above is the only example, but it turns out to be relevant to my interests. It's an American propaganda poster dating to 1918, appealing to the viewer to invest in the latest war bond issue. Lady Liberty is ruined all right -- her head and her torch have tumbled down beside her. Behind her New York City is burning, and the flames and their reflection in the harbour dominate the image. The cause of the destruction is presumably the aeroplanes which can be seen on either side of the Statue. A submarine is also sailing past, which may be responsible for the merchant vessels wrecked on Liberty Island.
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