The mystery car of Maldon

Here's an interesting inversion of my usual phantom airship scare. The Zeppelin was real enough -- it was L6, raiding Essex on the night of 15 April 1915. The phantom was instead a motor-car:

Since the visit of the Zeppelin early on Friday morning the Maldon district has been full of rumours of mysterious motor-cars with flaming headlights which, passing along the highways, guided the airship to the area where the majority of the bombs were dropped.1

A 'special correspondent' wrote that only one of the stories seems very plausible, presumably because it was the only one with several independent witnesses. Three couples -- two 'London ladies' staying at 'the Hut' near Lathingdon (Latchingdon?), a Mr. and Mrs. Woods who lived at 'the Cottage' also near Lathingdon, and an elderly couple in Mundon, a couple of miles away. They all told a consistent story: the ladies saw the car first, the Woods' bedroom was then illuminated by the car's headlights, and a little later it was heard in Mundon, heading towards Maldon. Half an hour later, after Maldon was bombed, the car apparently retraced the same path but in the opposite direction, and with its headlights now much dimmer.

But there were problems with the theory. Heading into Lathingdon, the car was seen arriving from a road junction, but the people living near that junction were adamant that no car passed the junction in the direction of Lathingdon. And on the other side of Lathingdon, a policeman manning a police station was equally adamant that no car passed him either (although he did see a car coming back from Maldon, the occupants of which were known to him):

Altogether the evidence is very contradictory. If the car really existed it cannot have gone so far as Lathington police station, and there is no side road upon which it could have turned off. It may be said that the lights could have been extinguished and the car taken into one of the fields, but in that case it could never have passed through Mundon, where the inhabitants believe it went to pick up the men who, according to their firm belief, had been signalling to the Zeppelin.2

This was a common story in the aftermath of air raids. After the first airship raid on Britain (19 January 1915), inhabitants of Snettisham in Norfolk reported seeing two cars pacing the airship invader, one to the right and one to the left, with occasional flashes of light upwards or onto a significant target, such as the town's medieval church which indeed suffered some bomb damage. A similar tale was told in nearby King's Lynn.3

We know now that there were no German spies motoring about East Anglia at night giving directions to incoming Zeppelins. It's an operationally pretty absurd idea, for one thing; it was hardly possible to accurately navigate a Zeppelin to a given area of coastline for a night-time rendezvous. And I doubt the church at Snettisham was very high up on German target lists, for example. Instead I'd go with the explanation offered by one anonymous 'official', that the cars 'were driven by persons who followed the course of the airship out of curiosity'.4 Or perhaps by military or police keeping watch on the raider.

Rumours about signalling didn't always involve motorists: they could just consist of a light showing from a house. After an airship raid the Kentish coast on 17 June 1917, The Times reported:

There is an ugly rumour going round to-day that signalling was reported to the authorities to have taken place half an hour before the attack began. It is widely stated that such an incident occurred and that the Zeppelin was most deliberate in its attack. Its engines could be distinctly heard as it went round the coast, and, after going a few hundred yards, the engines were stopped while the commander took his bearings. Then it would pass along another few hundred yards, and it is believed by many that during one of these stops signals were given from the western side of the town.5

The occasional claims of signals to enemy aircraft I've come across from the Second World War are more like this, such as the case of Emil and Alma Wirth I've discussed previously.

So why were these types of claims made about motorists? And why did they stop? It's all clearly bound up with the pre-war spy and phantom airship scares, which indeed carried over into the early war years. More generally, I can imagine a certain type of person (curtain-twitchers, wowsers, what-have-you) disapproving of these newfangled, noisy, expensive cars and wondering if their owners really do need to be driving about at all hours, and no doubt they're up to no good anyway. So when Zeppelins came along and start dropping bombs, and cars were seen on the roads beneath, it was a good excuse to condemn an annoying member of society: the leisure motorist. As for why these suspicions faded, petrol rationing came into effect from August 1916, after which there were far fewer private cars on the roads. (And Zeppelin-chasing may have become passé by then anyway.) So busybodies had to turn to other targets. In the Second World War, car-ownership was much higher (for the middle and upper classes, at least), so driving was now longer such a minority activity, not so easily stigmatised (as the relative complacency over the horrific road toll in the 1930s perhaps suggests). But also petrol rationing came into effect straight away, so there were fewer cars on the roads during air raids, and less enthusiasm for pleasure driving. Moreover, blackout restrictions meant that cars had very little light to show. By the time heavy air raids started in August-September 1940, there would probably have been very few cars in private ownership capable of carrying on the tradition of the mystery car of Maldon ...


  1. The Times, 19 April 1915, 5. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid., 21 January 1915, 10; 22 January 1915, 34; 23 January 1915, 10. 

  4. Ibid., 23 January 1915, 10. 

  5. Ibid., 18 June 1917, 10. 

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10 thoughts on “The mystery car of Maldon

  1. Erik Lund

    Clearly the German zeppelin fleet landed cars to run around illuminating key targets like village churches for them.
    But their main job was abducting folk for espionage-related probing. Repressed Edwardians that they were, the victims never sought counselling, only stood with a foot in a bucket yelling incomprehensibly into the camera.
    Or was that Monty Python?

  2. Snoopy

    Quote;-'We know now that there were no German spies motoring about East Anglia at night giving directions to incoming Zeppelins. It’s an operationally pretty absurd idea, for one thing; it was hardly possible to accurately navigate a Zeppelin to a given area of coastline for a night-time rendezvous.';-
    Yes, it all sounds rather silly, but, history is a funny thing, 'Knowing' and believing are not the same. That said, wars were, and are, full of pretty improbable stories. A few years ago, some cottages near an airfield I used to use a lot in the UK were being renovated. In the lofts an old but complex and carefully-hidden system of aerials was discovered. It was all 1940's vintage. The airfield, being way out west was not exactly in the front-line and only used for training '39-'45. They were obviously clandestine aerials, but there was no local knowledge of any master-spies being unearthed there. One more little mystery, but certainly nothing in the public domain, inless there is some obscure reference at the PRO.
    The Jerries shelled and bombed some other pretty unimportant targets in the UK in both wars. Certainly even small torches were used to signal for SOE drops in the Second World War. Actually, it’s amazing what CAN bee seen at night.
    As for navigation, well apart from airships presumably having the flying characteristics of a proverbial s**thouse-door, there is no logical reason why an airship couldn't be flown and navigated at night. How else did they find their way home...? On a night with any degree of moon, coastlines, rivers, even streams and ponds are crystal-clear and perfectly usable to navigate by, so even with a black-out, it might be easier to fly VFR than a dodgy day.
    Still, 'the phantom cars' sounds like a scenario for Herr von Toad....!

  3. Post author

    It's not just the flying characteristics of the Zeppelins which were appalling, they had an abysmal navigational record as well. London they could usually manage to find, blackout or no (the Thames helped). But there are many examples of them utterly failing to find their intended target. For example, the target for the 15 April 1915 raid was the Humber estuary, over 200 km to the north. Not only did the German commanders not reach their target, they apparently didn't know where they actually were. So they just bumbled around looking for something, anything, which looked bombworthy. That improved somewhat during the war, perhaps: the town bombed in the course of the 16 June 1917 raid I also mentioned (giving the wrong date!) was Ramsgate; the Zeppelin captain claimed he had bombed Dover, so he was only about 20 km out. So simply on a probability basis, for there to have been any German spies available to signal to these wayward airships, there would have to have been a vast espionage network, ready to spring into action whenever one appeared nearby. Very le Queux, but it never existed.

  4. ellie

    is there anymore information about this because i would really like to learn more about as i do live in maldon so if any one has anymore informatin knows any website with more information then please post a link below many thanks ellie

  5. Post author

    ellie:

    Sorry, I don't have any more information, other than what's in the post above. You might try your local historical society, which looks to be:

    http://www.mahg.org.uk/

    Also, the local library might have some pointers. 1915 issues of newspapers serving the Maldon area would be a good place to look, as they may well have more information than a national newspaper like The Times. Good luck, if you find anything else do report back!

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