Something like a railway carriage

On the last night of January 1916, a large force of seven Zeppelins crossed over the Wash into Norfolk, heading for the industrial cities of the Midlands. Unsure of their location, most of them instead dropped their bombs on relatively unimportant targets. But at least they got home okay. The defending aircraft of the RFC and RNAS had an awful night: 22 sorties resulted in six aircraft being written off, two squadron commanders killed and no contacts with the enemy.

Or at least ... no confirmed contacts with the enemy. Four pilots did report seeing something, but they were well to the south of the probable Zeppelin flightpaths, over London and Essex, and so their reports were dismissed by those higher-up as mistaken identities, phantom airships. At 7.40pm, Lieutenant R. S. Maxwell saw 'an artificial light' north of his B.E.2c while 10000 feet above London, and gave chase before losing it in clouds. 2nd Lieutenant C. A. Ridley, another B.E.2c pilot, also saw a 'moving light' over London at about the same time, and so they may have actually seen each other. Later in the night, at around 9pm, Flight Sub-Lieutenant H. McClelland (also flying a B.E.2c) also thought he saw 'a Zeppelin' by searchlight over London.

Strangest of all was the report of Flight Sub-Lieutenant J. E. Morgan, an RNAS pilot who sortied in his B.E.2c from Rochford in Essex at about a quarter to nine. At 5000 feet, slightly above and to starboard, he spotted

a row of what appeared to be lighted windows which looked something like a railway carriage with the blinds drawn.

(This is apparently a quote from Morgan's after-action report.) Thinking that this was a Zeppelin only a hundred feet away -- and presumably having no time to maneuver for a better shot -- he fired his Webley at it! It then seemed that 'the lights alongside rose rapidly' and disappeared. Morgan then started looking for somewhere to land: he saw some lights below which he thought was Southend Pier but turned out to be a Dutch steamer off Thameshaven. He managed to put down safely and flew back to Rochford the following day.

This episode has been assimilated into UFO lore as an early military encounter, a precursor of the foo fighters of the Second World War. There are a few scanty accounts on the net, but easily the best -- here and here -- is by David Clarke, who lectures in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. He has worked closely with the National Archives in recent years with regards to their release of official documents relating to UFO sightings.

Clarke looked for Morgan's original report, but has not been able to find it. (He did find other documents, such as the Rochford aerodrome log which notes 'Zeppelin' next to Morgan's flight.) So he drew on the (very short) quotes from it given in Joseph Morris's The German Air Raids on Britain, 1914-1918 (Dallington: Naval & Military Press, 1993 [1925]), 81-2, which perhaps could be considered a semi-official history: it was certainly written with privileged access to official records of the services and ministries involved. Morris doesn't venture an explanation for what Morgan saw, other than that it was a 'phantom airship', and if this is all we have to go on it does sound mysterious.

But, looking at Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 83-9 (which Clarke also cites), they provide details which aren't in Morris. For example, they say that when the row of lights 'rose rapidly', Morgan at first thought his B.E.2c was diving, but an instrument check showed that it wasn't. So either Morgan's report was still extant in the early 1980s when Cole and Cheesman wrote their book, or they had another source (or else just made stuff up, which doesn't seem their style). Morgan himself was killed in 1917, so it probably wasn't him. I'd guess they did see the original report, or perhaps a different precis of it, as they give a quote which is similar to that in Morris, but not identical:

a row of lighted windows ... something like a railway carriage with the blinds down.

Maybe this source is still out there somewhere? If so, it might shed some light on what it was that Morgan actually saw. Cole and Cheesman suggest that it might have been the Zeppelin L16 (which theory ufologists don't seem to mention). An airship gondola could well look 'something like a railway carriage with the blinds drawn': it wouldn't be well-lit, but I think there would be some light coming from inside. As noted above, L16 was supposed to have been much further north, but tracing the actual routes taken by airship raiders can be quite hard. The airship captains usually didn't know where they were, the pilots who flew against them often didn't know where they were, and the defenders on the ground often didn't see anything at all. The most reliable indicator of a Zeppelin's position is usually the bombs it dropped, but L16 turned back early due to engine trouble. So perhaps this explains Morgan's sighting. On the other hand, would a Zeppelin captain respond to being shot at by a pistol by climbing rapidly? Unlikely: he wouldn't even have noticed it. He might have seen the B.E. and dropped ballast to outclimb it, though, maybe into a layer of cloud which would explain why it disappeared.

But otherwise, if it wasn't an airship, what might Morgan have seen?

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

6 thoughts on “Something like a railway carriage

  1. Erik Lund

    I'm going to go with: "no-one had a clue what was going on, where they were looking, or what they were seeing. They were all just trying to not die."

  2. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    I would go with the Zepplin explanation - the lit up windows could be explained by the need to repair the craft and the sudden rise by the successful completion of the repairs. I am not too surprised that the original report is missing. Over time these things do disappear. One often comes across references to documents which have got lost or been destroyed but were available to earlier historians. Of course the possibility exists that the quote was 'enhanced' or even made up and this is more common than supposed. Erik's suggestion also has considerable merit.

  3. Post author

    No, I'm not surprised that the report would be missing either, but as I say Cole and Cheesman seem to have had access to it seventy years later, and if it survived that long then it might have survived another twenty-five. Somewhere. I doubt that Morris would have exaggerated/made up this quote, as his is not a sensational approach at all, and I can't see why he'd want to do this anyway when there was plenty of authentic devil-may-care flying foolery for him to write about.

  4. Post author

    Some type of electrical phenomenon, perhaps -- better knowledge of the local weather conditions might help there. A meteor wouldn't work, given that the whatever-it-was climbed up into the sky, which meteors don't do.

  5. Pingback:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *