The Zeppelins of Halifax

The latest post at Axis of Evel Knievel reminds me that today is the 90th anniversary of the Halifax disaster. On 6 December 1917, two ships collided off the Nova Scotian port of Halifax. One, the SS Mont-Blanc, was carrying huge quantities of TNT, guncotton, and other highly combustible materials, destined for the war in Europe. It caught fire and exploded, laying waste to the town for a radius of 2km and killing around 1500 people -- mostly ordinary civilians -- within seconds; about 500 more died from their wounds over the following days. It's still one of the biggest man-made, non-nuclear explosions ever.

Joanna Bourke, in her Fear: A Cultural History, discusses the research of Samuel Prince into the social effects of the Halifax disaster. Prince interviewed many of the survivors (of which he was one!) shortly afterwards; this research formed the basis of his sociology PhD (Columbia University, 1920). Summarising some of Prince's findings, Bourke writes that

Survivors proved incapable of understanding what was happening. Many hallucinated, their eyes tricking them into seeing German Zeppelins attacking them from the air. A man on the outskirts of the town claimed to have heard a German shell whistling past him. Such visions had been stimulated over the preceding months by rumours of the possibility of a German attack. Residents with German-sounding names were set upon. Some survivors still believed that the Germans had something to do with the disaster. 1

Hallucinations of non-existent Zeppelins? Those would be phantom airships, then. Together with the rumours about an impending German attack, this all sounds a lot like the situation in Britain before the war, when non-existent Zeppelins were also filling the skies: people expected the Germans to come, and, given half an excuse, they saw (and heard) them.

Of course, the explosion itself was a unique circumstance, and might be thought sufficient explanation for any hallucinations. But the rumours of a German attack were already circulating beforehand, so the undercurrents of fear and suspicion necessary for a panic were already present, it would seem. And, the explosion aside, there was nothing very unusual about what people thought they saw: Canada had been visited by mystery aircraft before, almost since the start of the war. Most notably, on 14 February 1915, Ottawa was blacked out because four aircraft had apparently been spotted crossing the St Lawrence from the American side; soldiers getting ready to leave for the Western Front were ordered to patrol the roofs of government buildings with their rifles, in order that there would be at least some resistance when the raiders came. (Which they never did.) 2

If anybody ever comes to write the history of the Scareship Age, the Halifax disaster should be part of it.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. Joanna Bourke, Fear: A Cultural History (London: Virago, 2005), 70. Emphasis added.[]
  2. Nigel Watson, The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Worldwide Phantom Airship Scares (1909-1918) (Corby: Domra, 2000), 117-20.[]

9 thoughts on “The Zeppelins of Halifax

  1. Chris Williams

    Actually Brett, I think that the history of the scareships would do just dandy for your postdoc project.

  2. paulie b

    "Together with the rumours about an impending German attack, this all sounds a lot like the situation in Britain before the war, when non-existent Zeppelins were also filling the skies: people expected the Germans to come, and, given half an excuse, they saw (and heard) them."

    They didnt have fridge magnets in those days, so I really dont know how they coped.

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  4. Jon

    The belief that the Halifax disaster could have been a German attack is not so far-fetched, given the July 30, 1916 German attack on Black Tom outside of New York City (which was sabotage on the ground, not a Zeppelin attack).

  5. Post author

    Thanks, Jon -- I didn't know about Black Tom! You're quite right; in fact I would contend that incidents like that are crucial -- fears need to be plausible (subjectively, if not objectively) to turn into panics.

  6. Jon

    After (finally) taking time to learn more about your blog, I should clarify. I don't believe that the Black Tom explosion was known to be an act of sabotage at the time of the Halifax disaster, so it probably did not add to the climate of fear. However, there was extensive sabotage going on in North America. My source is "Sabotage at Black Tom" by Jules Witcover, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1989. Not a scholarly book by any means, but a good read.

    I agree with your point - reminds me of the old saying that lies with a bit of truth in them are the most believable.

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