1908 was the year that aviation, and its possible consequences, burst into British consciousness. In July, the British press reported on a long-duration flight over Germany of the Zeppelin LZ4, which proved that controlled lighter than air flight was practical, and in August, on the flights in France of Wilbur Wright, which very publicly proved that controlled heavier than air flight was too. 1 At home, H. G. Wells' The War in the Air was published in January and the first controlled heavier than air flight took place in October. 2
In amongst all these, culminating a century ago today, was Britain's first (very minor) air panic. 3 (Well, the first since the Napoleonic Wars, perhaps, but I'm not sure what impact that plan had in Britain.) On 11 July 1908, the Daily Mail published an interview with Rudolf Martin, a civil servant who had recently been dismissed from his position in the German Imperial Statistical Bureau for publicly predicting the imminent collapse of the Russian Empire. 4 In 1907 Martin had written a novel called Berlin-Bagdad, which foresaw a German empire of the air, which tolerated and even helped Britain in its own imperial difficulties. However, in 1908 he was less friendly: he predicted that Germany could conquer Britain by airlanding troops in waves of 350,000, delivered by thousands of Zeppelins.
In my judgment it would take two years for us to build motor-airships enough simultaneously to throw 350,000 men into Dover via Calais. During the same night, of course, a second transport of 350,000 men could follow. The newest Zeppelin airship can comfortably carry fifty persons from Calais to Dover. 5
I'm not sure that France would be altogether pleased at having 700,000 German soldiers assemble at Calais, but then Martin seems to have thought that one way or another, Germany's aerial power harnessed to its mighty army would make everyone else fall in line behind it:
The development of motor-airship navigation will lead to a perpetual alliance between England and Germany. The British fleet will continue to rule the waves, while Germany's airships and land armies will represent the mightiest Power on the Continent of Europe.
This interview was paired with comments from a British aviation expert, Major Baden Baden-Powell, on the recent flight of LZ4:
What this great revelation means is this, so far as we are concerned, although the fact is insufficiently realised. In time of war we should no longer be an island, and our mighty fleet would cease to be our first line of defence. A dozen great Dreadnoughts would be helpless when faced with the task of repelling a swift fleet of foreign airships sailing high above the earth.
He demanded that the government spend at least £100,000 on British airships, at least as fast as the German ones, if not faster, for
Of two opposing airships the faster will be able to outmanœuvre the adversary and hold it at its mercy.
The leading article in the same issue said that both Martin and, to a lesser degree, Baden-Powell were guilty of allowing their 'imagination to run a little too fast'. 6 However, it too considered it wise 'to appropriate money to enable us at least to keep abreast of Continental enterprise.' 7
What's interesting about Martin's proposal, and the reaction to it in Britain, is the obvious link with more traditional invasion panics. His enormous fleet of Zeppelins is not used to rain death and destruction upon London, but to enable a large army to be landed on British shores without having to face the Royal Navy first. The airships are just another way to effect the bolt from the blue, like a Channel tunnel or a secret weapon. Martin apparently didn't even think of landing the invaders anywhere other than Dover, where every second fictional enemy of Britain had landed in the past generation.
It's also worth noting that panics of this type, of invasion by air, were very rare; I can think of only one other in my period, the parachutist panic of 1940. I'm not really sure why, but I'd guess it's a matter of perceptions of relative threat. In 1908, there was no knock-out blow theory: the Mail's leader seems quite sanguine about its conclusion that dreadnoughts would be safe from bombing whereas 'a good deal of damage could be done to great industrial centres'. 7 In mid-1940, the bomber threat had not materialised, for whatever reason, 8 but the Germans were dropping paratroops all over the place. Momentarily, these dangers may have seemed more worrying than bombing. Or maybe they were just too silly to be believable.
Anyway: along with Wells, Martin is why I start in 1908 and not any other year.
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- Admittedly, LZ4 was wrecked at Echterdingen in August, but the massive and spontaneous response of the German people, raising funds to fund a replacement Zeppelin, more than made up for this.
- Depending what you think of Horatio Phillips' multiplane hop in 1907.
- See Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (London: Heinemann, 1984), 334-9.
- Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 295. The Mail calls him a Privy Councillor, but that seems unlikely: he is described as 'low-ranking' by Wohl, 76.
- Daily Mail, 11 July 1908, p. 5. All quotations from this source unless otherwise specified.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Not over Britain, anyway, though it had over Warsaw and Rotterdam, of course.