In June 1935, the Daily Express ran a story about three 'secret British air devices'. The source was a story in the Chicago Tribune by that paper's London correspondent, John Steele:
The devices are declared to be a new "mirage" smoke screen, a new seventeen-foot long anti-aircraft rifle, and a robot airplane which, controlled by wireless, can charge an enemy formation. 1.
The bare descriptions perhaps don't sound so improbable, but the details ... well, judge for yourself. 'Mirage' was composed of different coloured smokes which created a decoy townscape:
"Brick red, yellow, grey, brown, and black smoke fumes, spreading across the landscape horizontally at different heights from the ground, or, as in the case of the black smoke, rising vertically in columns, create a complete illusion of houses, factory chimney stacks, streets, rivers, and gardens. 2
This level of detail and control over smoke seems improbable to me. But supposedly Mirage had been tested in exercises, and had completely fooled some RAF bombers which had been ordered to 'bomb' Croydon; instead they dropped their bombs twenty miles away on open fields!
How about the AA rifle? According to Steele, it was 17 feet long, had a range of 20,000 feet and fired cartridges weighing 39 ounces (2.4 pounds). Again, this isn't too implausible, on the face of it. But wait:
It is precisely like a giant Lee-Enfield with similar sighting apparatus.
"There is an artificial shoulder for the rifle made of rubber, while the rifleman lies on a small platform above the weapon and takes sight. No human frame could support the recoil. 2
It doesn't sound like any AA gun I've heard of, but I suppose it could be a garbled description of some predecessor to the 3.75 inch QF. It's a bizarre mental image though; and iron sights wouldn't be much use at 20,000 feet.
As for the robotic Drake:
This airplane, rising above a bombing squadron flying in formation, can keep up a perpetual hail of machine-gun fire, the firing being done automatically under remote control.
"The robot can be heavily loaded with high explosive and from below made to charge like a bull into a formation, and then be exploded by wireless.
"The explosives, projecting inflammable bullets, would fire the [fuel] tanks of the enemy, or even, if close enough, turn the enemy turtle. 2
No robot fighter aircraft like this existed in 1935 (although the the DH.82B Queen Bee, a radio-controlled variant of the Tiger Moth, was in use by then as a target tug, and became public around then). It does sound something like Ram, a project under development by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s but which was cancelled in 1930. Ram was briefly under reconsideration in 1935, due to advances in radio technology, but nothing came of it. 3
My point here is not so much that these secret weapons didn't exist (though clearly that's what I do think), but that the British press was not interested in the possibility that they did: the Express was the only national daily which relayed the Tribune report (well, nearly all: there are a couple I haven't been able to check). This was only a few months after the existence of the German air force was revealed and the government announced a trebling of the RAF's strength at home in order to maintain air parity. Why was there so little interest in claims that British ingenuity was coming up with clever responses to the bomber threat?
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- Daily Express, 14 June 1935, 8
- See John Farquharson, 'Britain and the flying bomb: the research programme between the two World Wars', War in History 13 (2006), 363-79.