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 ...
The Times, 19 April 1915, 5. ↩
Ibid., 21 January 1915, 10; 22 January 1915, 34; 23 January 1915, 10. ↩
Ibid., 23 January 1915, 10. ↩
Ibid., 18 June 1917, 10. ↩
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