Thursday, 13 February 1913

This post is part of a series post-blogging the phantom airship scare of 1913. See here for an introduction to the series, and here for a conclusion.

Daily Mail, 13 February 1913, 5

The Aeroplane today suggests that 'The visits of the various "scare-ships" have evidently not been without salutary effect', if they have given rise to the present Aerial Navigation Bill (p. 162). The Daily Mail would tend to agree, but hopes for more. It devotes both its first leading article and nearly a column's worth of articles on the opposite page to the bill and to the mystery airship danger (much of which are reprinted in the Dublin Irish Independent, p. 6, and the Dundee Evening Telegraph, p. 4). To take the Mail's reportage first (p. 5; above):

The Government has awakened to the fact that foreign airships have several times recently appeared over England. The result is that a Government Bill is now being rushed through Parliament to meet the danger.

The operative word here is 'rushed'. The bill was introduced into the House of Commons only on Friday (according to the Mail, but Hansard says Saturday; the text seems to have been published on Friday), but

will be the law of the land before many days have passed. Read for the second time on Monday, its remaining stages in the Commons were passed in a single session. During Tuesday's session it was, in the terse language of the orders of the day, considered in Committee, and reported, without amendment; read the third time, and passed. The Bill will be taken in the House of Lords early next week.

There was practically no discussion in the Commons. The proceedings took place after midnight in the sessions both of Monday and Tuesday [...] Thus a Bill of considerable importance to national defence has been hurried through with hardly a word of discussion. The Opposition were asked, and agreed, not to delay the Bill in any way.

Colonel Seely is reported to have told the Commons that the bill 'is not aimed at the aircraft of any foreign Power, but rather at preventing mischievous persons -- possibly from over-sea [sic] -- from hovering over places where there are combustible stores, to the great inconvenience of the people of this country'. This would not seem to explain the haste with which it has been conducted through to the Lords, unless the scareships are taken in account:

The reasons for this urgency are to be found in the frequent reports published in The Daily Mail, of the appearance of unknown airships over various parts of England.

(Though in fact the reports have not been nearly so frequent in the Mail as they have been in the Standard or the Express.) There then follows a summary of the Sheerness incident from last October (which was thoroughly investigated by the Mail) and eight sentences from yesterday's Times on the more recent airship visits and their presumably unfriendly purpose. The Mail then concludes by revealing that

It is understood that the 'sky guns' for firing at aircraft for which contracts were given some time ago will be stationed round the coast for the purpose of carrying out the new regulations.

An accompanying article notes, apropos of nothing, Seely's answers to a question in Parliament about airship construction in both Britain and Germany. By the end of 1912, the German government was said to own the following (the figures are in cubic feet):

One of 63,569
One of 141,267
One of 183,646
One of 282,528
One of 353,160
One of 423,792
One of 516,495
Two of 635,688
One of 688,662
One of 776,600
One of dimensions unknown.

For comparison, the size of the British airships were given as follows (oddly, with fewer significant figures than for the German ones):

Beta 33,000 cubic feet.
Gamma 75,000 " "
Delta 180,000 " "

Seely also stated, with regards to future large airship construction, that 'It is not considered desirable to make public the steps that have been and are being taken'. He also said that 'I am not aware of any privately owned airships in Great Britain', whereas there are ten in Germany.

These figures are grist to the Mail's mill. While it supports the new legislation in its first leading article (p. 4):

Five or six years ago the idea of a foreign military airship flying over this country would have been dismissed as a jest or a vision of romance. Yet now the uninvited visit of the foreign air-cruiser is not a jest but a grim reality. How real it is is is shown by the Aerial Navigation Bill [...] This is an excellent Bill, similar in effect to legislation already existing in most Continental States.

it goes on to argue that the problem is that the law, excellent though it may be, cannot currently be enforced:

But it is one thing to issue orders to foreign aircraft and another thing to enforce obedience. There is nothing to prevent such craft from shaping their course so as to avoid the points where their crews suspect that guns of the special type needed to attack dirigibles and aeroplanes are mounted. Or, again, the airship may come by night, when in all probability it will not be seen.

It would in fact be folly to rely on guns to defend against airships: 'The only effective means of dealing with them is by a patrol of British aircraft of superior force'.

But it is a bitter and extraordinary fact that this country possesses no such airships. The small Army dirigibles are little more than models. The Navy has not one single airship complete, and it has nothing building to compare with the huge German Zeppelins. This is an ignominious position for a great nation, and it would mean grave danger in war.

That foreign airships during recent months have visited this country without receiving permission appears to be generally accepted. To what Power these airships belong is unknown. The point is that in present conditions they can come and go as they list, and that their commanders need not pay the faintest attention to the orders of the British Government.

Along these lines, but in much greater detail, there is an article in today's Standard by the Conservative MP William Joynson-Hicks. He alleges that the Liberal government has, despite its promises, dangerously neglected the RFC: there are not enough pilots and their machines are too few, too antiquated, too foreign. He wants the military wing to be more than tripled from 7 squadrons currently to 25 squadrons, 300 aircraft with 200 in reserve). The 'safety of the Empire' ultimately rests on 'our aerial defence force': 'What is the value of an Insurance Act or even a smashed and robbed Church if Germany reigns supreme at Whitehall?' (p. 5) Joynson-Hicks doesn't mention the phantom airships directly, but perhaps there is a playful reference to them in his article's title: 'OUR PHANTOM SQUADRON'.

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4 thoughts on “Thursday, 13 February 1913

  1. The spurious accuracy in the German airships must be the common trap of over-precise conversion -

    One of 63,569 - 1800 cu m
    One of 141,267 - 4000 cu m
    One of 183,646 - 5200 cu m

    Some poor Civil Service clerk no doubt had to work these out, and wanted to give us the benefit of their calculations!

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  4. Post author

    Well-spotted, Andrew! You're right, it's that eternal trap for young players, the significant figures problem. I was wondering how well, or whether, significant figures were taught in public and grammar schools by this time, but a brief trawl through Google Books shows that the concept was common in 19th century arithmetic textbooks (and has been around since 1614 according to the OED) so we probably could expect a junior War Office clerk to have been exposed to it at some point. Of course, that doesn't mean they were likely to remember it; most people today don't seem to!

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