My peer-reviewed article, 'Dreaming war: airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', has now been published in the latest issue of History Australia, which can be found here. This is the abstract:

Numerous false sightings of mysterious aeroplanes, thought to be German and hostile, were reported by ordinary people around Australia in the Autumn of 1918. These reports were investigated by defence authorities, who initiated a maximum effort to find the merchant raiders presumed to be the source of the aeroplanes. The scare is interpreted in the context of reports that a German seaplane had flown over Sydney in 1917; fears that the German offensive in France would lead to an Allied defeat; wartime paranoia about German subversion; and the growth of negative airmindedness thanks to the wartime press.

As I've previously discussed, this is my first mystery aircraft article, and hopefully not my last!

I'm also self-archiving the version originally submitted to History Australia, that is, before it was peer-reviewed. This can be downloaded for free from here. I don't normally like to do this, since the text usually changes significantly after peer-review. That is indeed the case here: I swapped the introduction with the following section, the graphics have been redone, and there are some other smaller, but important, changes. But, per my contributor agreement with History Australia, this is only version I am allowed to self-archive. Because this mystery aeroplane scare is virtually unknown, I'd like to make the information and ideas in the article widely available, even if not necessarily in the form that I would like. Otherwise, if you aren't a member of the Australian Historical Association or don't have institutional access to History Australia, the final, peer-reviewed (and better!) version should be open-access in 2015.

A. O. Pollard. Epic Deeds of the RAF. London and Melbourne: Hutchinson and Co., 1940. Pollard, a VC winner and former RAF pilot, was mostly known for his crime thrillers (some of them airminded) but occasionally turned his hand to non-fiction. This is a fairly generic account of the first year of the Second World War in the air; the last chapter takes the story up to 15 September 1940 and so Pollard is confident enough to declare victory in the Battle of Britain. The style is exactly what you'd expect from the title.

Robert Tombs and Emile Chabal, eds. Britain and France in Two World Wars: Truth, Myth and Memory. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. France is too often neglected in Anglocentric accounts of the world wars so it's good to have a bit of balance. An impressive list of contributors of the likes of Jay Winter, Elizabeth Greenhalgh and Gary Sheffield look at the military relationship between France and Britain as well as the ways they have remembered their shared experiences of warfare in the decades since 1945. However, it would have been interesting to have some chapters on the interwar period, given that the relationship soured so quickly after 1918, yet remained of critical importance to both countries as they both prepared for and tried to avoid fighting side by side again against Germany.



In between conferencing and researching, I managed to fit in some sightseeing in Wellington. It really was only a day or two, and sometimes the weather was somewhat inclement, but I did see some of the main attractions. Above is a detail of the portico of the beautiful Wellington Railway Station, which opened in 1937. I must admit to only using it for the conveniently-located supermarket inside.
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The main reason for my recent New Zealand trip was to go to a conference, but afterwards I spent a week researching in Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand. My main reason for that was to look into the trans-Tasman counterpart to the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare in Australia. I didn't quite find what I wanted (more on that another day), but I did find many other, unexpected and interesting, things. For example, commercial bombers.

In my commercial bomber article, I focused on the rhetorical use of the threat posed by commercial bombers in British airpower discourse more than the actual use of actual airliners as actual bombers. However, in a recent discussion I suggested that smaller air forces might have been more interested in convertibility, since they would tend to lack the resources to invest in long-range bombing or maritime patrol aircraft. And the evidence from New Zealand seems to bear this out (though the accuracy of my further suggestion that it was only attractive in desperate times is mixed).
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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The Australasian Association for European History XXIII Biennial Conference -- 'Faultlines: cohesion and division in Europe from the 18th Century to the 21st' -- lived up to the high standard set by its predecessor. Wellington was much colder and windier than Perth, but the locals were friendly, the locations historic and the history stimulating.

Sadly, there wasn't a lot of airpower history on offer (apart from my own effort). However, James Crossland (Murdoch) mentioned during his discussion of Britain's participation in the Geneva convention process, noted that as late as 1948 the Soviet Union proposed banning aerial bombardment altogether. A real throwback to the days of the World Disarmament Conference in the early 1930s! There was a tiny bit of aviation in the account given by Andrew Webster (Murdoch) of his intervention as a historian into a matter of law and policy -- well, an aeroplane was mentioned. The question was whether Nationalist Spain was a combatant in the Second World War; at stake was compensation for the family of a Wellington pilot who had been shot down over France but escaped over the Pyrenees only to be interned by Franco's security apparatus. Surprisingly, history (and the family) was the winner. And, as part of her argument that universalist ideals of human rights are being eroded by a reversion to us vs. them thinking, Joanna Bourke touched on the rhetoric used by western air forces about 'accidental' bombing of purely civilian targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere, noting that when you look at concepts such as CEP (circular error probable), the probability of not hitting the target is built in. In other words, accidents are not accidental. I'm not sure about this. It seems to me that the (no-fault) admission of mistakes now is precisely because the weapons have become more accurate; they are much more likely to hit where they are aimed, and so if the wrong target is hit then that requires an explanation, an admission of error.

While the conference was not explicitly about war, there was plenty of it to go around. In fact, one of the speakers -- unfortunately I can't remember who -- criticised its continuing prominence in our narratives. It's not the only thing going on in European history. But so often, even when we're talking about peace we're still talking about war as well (or vice versa). For example, Maartje Abbenhuis (Auckland) looked at neutrality and humanitarianism in the Franco-Prussian War, arguing that it was seen as having been successfully limited, with little risk that it would spread. Separately, Neville Wylie (Nottingham) and Christine Winter (ANU) examined the role of third-party powers in protecting civilians of belligerents in wartime, the former in terms of the big picture and the longish durée, the latter using Swiss oversight of German internees in Australia during the Second World War. Wim Klinkert (Amsterdam) gave a fascinating paper on the Dutch-Belgian defence relationship in the early twentieth century, which was far more complicated than you might think: in 1919 and 1923 there was even serious talk of war. Marjan Schwegman (NIOD) explored the public controversy over a seemingly slight change in the status of her home institution, the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, which originally started out in 1945 as a state archive for documenting the German occupation of the Netherlands. Chloe Ward (Melbourne) reassessed the Left Book Club's intervention in British politics, particularly in post-Munich by-elections. Bodie Ashton (Adelaide) looked at the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War, specifically the little-known, and ultimately doomed, attempt to create a Federation of the United States of Southern Germany to counterbalance the Prussian surge. And Andrew Graham Watson (Adelaide) discussed Anglo-American press reactions to the rise of Gorbachev and the disaster at Chernobyl, a topic which bemused those of us who are old enough to remember the late Cold War!

There was much else going on, including a roundtable in honour of Richard Bosworth (Oxford), contributions by Omer Bartov (Brown) and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chicago), and keynotes by Peter McPhee (Melbourne) and Geoff Eley (Michigan). And that's just the stuff I got to see. Hopefully I can make it to Newcastle in 2015 -- at 390km away, it will be practically next door to Armidale.


Christopher M. Bell. Churchill and Sea Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. I'm on record as pledging to never write a book about Winston Churchill, because there seems to be another new one out every time I go to a bookshop and very few of them can have anything new or even interesting to say about the man. And yet there are exceptions, and this is one of them: his involvement with, interest in and affection for the Royal Navy is well-known but little-studied. Churchill and Airpower, anyone?


Ritchie Calder. Carry on London. London: English Universities Press, 1941. Calder was a campaigning journalist during the Blitz, who exposed many of the official civil defence failures in the New Statesman. They feature here too, but overall he gives the government much credit for eventually getting its act together. Ends with a call for Britons never to lose the sense of purpose and unity gained through fighting the Blitz.

John Crawford and Ian McGibbon, eds. New Zealand's Great War: New Zealand, the Allies and the First World War. Titirangi: Exisle, 2007. Although this is the product of a conference, it manages to be a reasonably comprehensive guide to New Zealand's experience and memory of the First World War: Gallipoli, the Somme, home defence, religion, gender, the naval war, the air war (by the late Vincent Orange), and so on. A few ring-ins from overseas help supply context.

Negley Farson. Bomber's Moon. London: Victor Gollancz, 1941. Another contemporary account of the Blitz by a journalist (apparently, the thing to do when in New Zealand is to buy books about something that happened on almost the exact opposite side of the world). This one is by an American foreign correspondent and portrays the character of Londoners under fire. Almost worth it for Tom Purvis's sketches alone. Dedicated to 'The last Nazi'.

Victor Lefebure. The Riddle of the Rhine: Chemical Strategy in Peace and War. New York: Chemical Foundation, 1923. An influential treatise on the use of chemical weapons during the First World War and the difficulties involved in making sure it never happened again. Lefebure was a company commander in the Special Brigade and then British liaison to the French on chemical warfare. I do wish I'd noticed it was the American edition though, especially since the text is available for free online.

Bob Maysmor. Te Manu Tukutuku: The Maori Kite. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2001. Second edition. I was completely unaware of the Maori tradition of kite-flying so I couldn't not buy this. The Polynesians brought them with them in their migrations and so by the early second millennium they were being flown here in New Zealand. They mainly seem to have been used for divination and for fun. Lots of illustrations.

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I've argued that in 1913 there was a perception that the Anglo-German naval arms race was becoming an aero-naval arms race which Britain was losing, and that there was a response on the part of the Navy League, the Aerial League and others to mobilise public opinion in support of an aerial defence programme in a deliberate echo of the 1909 dreadnought scare. In my AAEH talk I drew out these parallels a bit further. In the traditional naval phase:

  • 1906: launch of radical HMS Dreadnought destabilises existing naval balance
  • Popular/elite perceptions that hostile Germany trying to catch up/overtake Britain at sea
  • 1909 press/Navy League campaign: 'we want eight and we won’t wait' (successful)
  • Naval arms race over by 1912 (Britain won, detente reached)

In the aero-naval phase:

  • 1908: flight of new Zeppelin LZ4 demonstrates long-range capabilities
  • Popular/elite perceptions that hostile Germany has already overtaken Britain in air
  • 1913 press/Navy League campaign: '£1,000,000 for aerial defence' (failed)
  • However, aerial arms race just beginning (Britain losing, detente over?)

I concluded that despite the easing of tensions between the two nations at the diplomatic level, at a popular level the Anglo-German antagonism continued into 1913.1 Perceptions lagged reality. The naval race may have been won objectively, but it had not yet been won subjectively. And now technology again upset the balance, only this time in the air and with Britain starting from behind.

I also briefly put forward a counterfactual: that had the First World War not taken place, more aero-naval scares would have occurred in future years, replacing the more 'traditional' naval/invasion panics. We can't know that, of course. We do know that after 1918 they were replaced by pure air panics: the war both demonstrated the potential of aerial bombardment of great cities and discredited the possibility of an invasion of Britain. Without that evolution I suspect that the two would have co-existed and combined in the 1913 pattern, and the Anglo-German antagonism would have taken on a new complexion.

  1. Which concept in the last few years has come under increasing scrutiny: for a summary of the recent literature, see the introduction to Richard Scully, British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860-1914 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 

Errol W. Martyn. A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation Before the Great War. Volume 1: Ideas, First Flight Attempts and the Aeronauts 1868-1909. Upper Riccarton: Volplane Press, 2012. I mostly bought this for the two pages on the 1909 phantom airship scare, but it also has plenty of fascinating material on early New Zealand airmindedness (of which there was not a little). In addition, there's a full discussion of the claims that Richard Pearse should be regarded as the first to achieve powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight: Martyn, who is probably the leading expert on early aviation in New Zealand, thinks not.

1 Comment

Previously I looked at Excubitor's claim that in 1913 the Anglo-German naval race was turning into a more dangerous aero-naval one, and that Britain, having won the first was now in the process of losing the other. Here I'll look at some related strands of thought in the press more generally, and what the point of it all was.

Excubitor was not alone in suggesting that Germany was concentrating on airships to compensate for its inferiority in dreadnoughts. A leader in the Devon and Exeter Gazette, for example, drew on an article in Blackwood's Magazine by T. F. Farman (the journalist father of aviator Henri Farman), for its argument that Britain could not afford to be complacent:

Without impugning the sincerity of the German Chancellor's assurances, it is, nevertheless, permissible to inquire whether the alleged intention to abandon, for the time being, the project of creating a fleet equal in every respect to that of Great Britain cannot be accounted for by the creation of a German aerial fleet of dreadnoughts, which is at the present moment unrivalled, and which could, in the case of hostilities, render signal service in a naval engagement in the North Sea or English Channel, and be utilised for attack on ports, arsenals, etc. The Germans may be, indeed, justified in calculating that the proportion of ten to sixteen units is compensated for to a considerable extent by the aerial fleet they have already created, and which is being increased with extraordinary rapidity, both in the number of its units and in their power.1

Relatedly, and more commonly, there were a number of commentators who also pointed to the threat posed to Britain's decisive naval superiority by Germany's even more decisive air superiority, but stopped short of claiming that this was a continuation of the dreadnought race (though, arguably, this is implicit). So, for example, an anonymous 'naval expert' interviewed by the Daily Mirror said that

'I think that the strength of the British fleet is unchallengeable [...] if you have regard solely to the old conditions of warfare -- that is to say, that we have a comfortable margin of superiority ship for ship.

'Naval science, however, has recently made such rapid progress that it is not now merely a question of sea ship for sea ship; but sea ship plus the air fleet. Bear that in mind, and you will realise the gravity of the present situation.

'The plain fact is that while Germany can come over and attack us by air, we not only cannot attack Germany, but we have no air fleet to resist their attack.

'Our defence against an air attack by Germany is so insignificant as to be practically worthless.

'I believe that if Germany sent over half a dozen airships they could cripple if not destroy our battle fleet and blow up many of our fortresses, and having reduced us to a state of impotence and panic these airships could head for home again unscathed.2

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  1. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 29 March 1913, 2; cf. T. F. Farman, 'Aerial armaments: dirigibles and aeroplanes', Blackwood's Magazine 193 (April 1913), 433-47. 

  2. Daily Mirror, 14 February 1913, 5.