Wednesday, 26 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 Express, 26 February 1913, 1

There's a slew of new phantom airship reports today. From Hornsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire (Daily Express, p. 1; above):

The coastguards at Hornsea first saw a bright light about eight o'clock [on 25 February 1913]. It appeared to be travelling in a westerly direction. They kept it under observation through their glasses, and have reported the occurrence to the Admiralty.

Mr. Jameson Falconer, one of the principal residents of Hornsea, also watched it through his glasses, and says he succeeded in making out the outlines of an airship, which was carrying two lights -- one white and the other red.

Another resident of Hornsea says that the craft came from the direction of the North Sea, and travelled westwards.

From nearby Hull shortly afterwards:

A little later the airship appeared over the city of Hull. Crowds of people assembled in the centre of the city and outside the Paragon Station, and watched with keenest interest the movements of the mysterious craft for upwards of an hour, when it disappeared in a westerly direction.

The airship's lights were easily distinguishable. At time they appeared to be quite bright, while occasionally a patch of red was visible. The ship altered her course frequently, while at times she appeared to remain stationary.

The lights were first visible coming from the eastwards about 8.30, and it was an hour later before they disappeared from view.

From Ipswich in Suffolk (Standard, p. 7):

the Press Association says that Mr. Edgar Moore, of Highfield, Henniker-road, Ipswich, reported yesterday that on Monday evening [24 February 1913] at about half-past nine he saw an airship manœuvring to the west of Ipswich. He stated that it carried a powerful searchlight, and after moving about in a methodical manner it disappeared at a great speed in a south-westerly direction. Mr. Moore, who lives on the outskirts of the town, declares that several persons saw the aircraft at the same time.

From Hunstanton in Norfolk (Globe, p. 2):

about 8.30 last night [25 February 1913] a postman, walking from Old Hunstanton, saw three bright lights approaching rapidly from the eastward at a considerable heigh [sic]. His statement is verified by numerous reliable residents. The body of an airship was not discernible, but the lights, which attracted considerable attention, remained in view for some 30 minutes, hovering over the town. They finally disappeared seawards in a north-westerly direction. Similar lights were observed on Wednesday [19 February 1913] and Friday last [21 February 1913].

From Beningbrough in North Yorkshire (Daily Herald, p. 3):

John Ripley and T. Clarke actually saw the body of the airship. At about 9.30 on Friday night [21 February 1913] they were leading a barge with sand at Beningbrough on the River Ouse. They assert that they saw lights, which circled the country for some time.

At 4 a.m. the next morning they distinctly saw the body of the airship over Linton Locks. Ripley says, 'I am certain it was an airship because we could see the outline faintly. It was almost like a cigar, except that it bulged out very much in the centre.

'We could see three wheels, one at each side of the centre and one at the rear. A lamp or searchlight at the left-hand side was being used in all directions. We could just hear a faint throbbing noise.'

From Riccall in North Yorkshire (Standard, p. 7):

Mr. George Daniels, a grocer, of Riccall, some five miles from Selby, stated that between nine and ten o'clock last Friday night [21 February 1913] he was at the village reading-room when a noise like that of an aeroplane was heard. On the party going out they saw a bright light approaching, and as the airship was travelling fast it was soon right over them. The night was very clear, and he and the others could easily discern the shape, which he described as a long envelope, like a cigar. The ship was using a searchlight, which it flashed in several directions. It also carried a small rear light, like that of a motor car. The craft was going in the direction of Market Weighton.

From nearby Cawood:

Mrs. Schofield, wife of the manager of Singer's Machine Company, Selby, stated that on Saturday night [22 February 1913], at twenty minutes to eight o'clock she was being driven to the village of Cawood. When approaching the village she looked out of the car window, and was astonished to see a very powerful light, something like the headlight of a motor car, approaching them, with a smaller light about 30 feet to 40 feet behind -- that is as near as she could judge the distance. The aircraft was at a height of from 1000 to 2000 feet (which she also judged by the Army airmen she had seen pass Selby on Friday). The lights, she said, bobbed up and down, and then turned parallel with their car, and within two or three minutes the airship, or whatever it was that was carrying the lights, had passed out of sight.

And there are also further details of the Gosport airship reported yesterday (Daily Express, p. 1):

A number of people in Portsmouth are positive that they saw a mysterious airship pass over Gosport on Monday night [24 February 1913].

Soon after eight o'clock a very bright light was noticed in the sky in the direction of Fareham. The light approached towards Forton Barracks, where the Royal Marine Light Infantry is stationed.

Scores of people claim to have seen the light, and to have noticed it hovering over the neighbourhood of St. John's Church and Forton Barracks for about an hour.

The light was seen to turn in various directions and to move about over a considerable area.

Finally it disappeared, after making an apparently straight course in the direction of Hardway and Portsdown Hill.

The variety of newspapers carrying these (and in some cases yesterday's) stories is dizzying: apart from the ones cited above there is the Aberdeen Journal, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror (London), the Dundee Courier, the Freeman's Journal (Dublin), the Manchester Guardian, the Manchester Courier, The Times, and the Western Times.

As before, a great deal of commentary focuses on the possibility that the airships are German. The Daily Express explains that the Committee of Imperial Defence is currently going through its annual review of 'the progress of military science in other countries, and the ever-changing possibility or likelihood of an invasion of Britain', and (p. 1)

understands that the mysterious appearance of an airship at Selby, in South [sic] Yorkshire, on Friday night last is regarded by the authorities as being distinctly a factor for their consideration. The theory held by highly placed experts -- in view of the official denials made in Germany concerning such a flight by a German 'service' dirigible, and more particularly in view of the fact that the movements of such vessels are closely watched by unofficial observers -- is that the dirigible in question was one of the privately owned airships of which Germany boasts ten or a dozen.

The Standard's military correspondent demands that the government 'take immediate steps to prevent any further unannounced and unauthorised visits of foreign airships to our shores' -- though 'by now it is quite likely that the experimental journeys have given the German airmen all the essential information that they require' (p. 7).

We have the evidence of our own eyes to tell us that Germany has developed a type of airship which possesses remarkable efficiency. We know what this vessel can do: that it can come over to this country in practically any weather during the hours of darkness absolutely unperceived; that it can manœuvre as it likes over the towns and forts and dockyards which constitute the vital organs of our defensive arrangements; and that it can inflict fatal injury on those organs.

The conclusion drawn is that 'We must have airships to meet the German Zeppelins just as we must have Dreadnoughts to meet the German Dreadnoughts, and the standard of strength in the one case must be the same as the other'. The Dundee Courier likewise demands the formation of 'A strong and efficient air fleet', which 'would be a powerful factor in securing the inviolability of these islands' and 'restore the balance of international power which the pioneering efforts of France and Germany have so rudely upset' (p. 4).

There is not the slightest doubt that this country is being made the object of a systematic aerial reconnaissance [...] When all the data which Germany acquires has been collected she will have the assurance that she can despatch a fleet of Zeppelins on an errand of destruction which would inevitably succeed. Within eight hours our arsenals and dockyards could be laid in ruins and our fleet crippled. Britain would then be at the mercy of her foes.

The Globe declares itself 'strongly indisposed to lay ourselves open to the charge of "scaring"' (p. 7). And yet:

The 'mystery airships' of which we have heard so much may or may not be mythical, but it has to be remembered that some of the reports have come from quite unimpeachable sources (such as at Eastchurch, where the trained men of the air station should be fitted to recognise an airship, even with no other guide than the sounds of its engines). Again, on the night of the Eastchurch incident it has since been definitely ascertained that no English airships (this somewhat grandiloquently suggestive phrase refers to the three small craft which are at once the pride and sorrow of those in charge of this particular section of the Army Air Battalion [sic]) were aloft. Nor was any English aeroplane responsible for the overhead noises. Strange, then, that on that same night the greatest of the German Zeppelins was making a possibly historic flight, of which the full details are even still unknown outside the confines of the German Government offices. We fear the fact must be accepted that our country lies open not only to the incursions of the secret fly-by-night, but equally to the invasion of a determined enemy. We have not the slightest means of guarding against the detestable intrusion of either.

The Manchester Courier's contribution is to reprint its article from Monday purportedly proving that Germany was behind the Sheerness incident. But it has also added two illustrations helpfully showing its readers just how big these Zeppelins are. This is 'A German airship compared with a British battleship. Both are the same length':

Manchester Courier, 26 February 1913, 7

And here is 'A German airship compared for size with the Manchester Town Hall':

Manchester Courier, 26 February 1913, 7

No doubt the Manchester Courier is also disinclined to open itself to the charge of scaring.

After all of this alarming talk of German Zeppelins destroying British vital organs, it comes as a surprise to realise that -- even leaving aside the semi-official and unofficial German denials reprinted widely -- there is a great deal of scepticism in today's papers, not just about the possibility that Germany is testing its new aerial terror over Britain but about the existence of the phantom airships at all. The Manchester Courier even reprints the following cartoon and caption from the Daily News and Leader, though not without calling it 'ill-timed' and 'stupid':


Manchester Courier, 26 February 1913, 7

From time to time there are attempts to make our flesh creep by the circulation of dark stories of a mysterious airship hovering over our ports. Curiously enough, it has never been seen in daylight, but invariably late at night. We offer the above as a solution of the mystery.

The Dublin Freeman's Journal's London correspondent says that 'The Unionist Press is again making itself ridiculous over the reported flights by German airships over this country', pointing out that 'nobody has ever seen the airships crossing the sea, though there are hundreds of British steamers passing up and down the East coast every night' (p. 6).

Nor have they ever been observed by anybody on the seashore. It is only apparently when they get inland that they become observable. Why it is that after preserving their invisibility during all the rest of their flight they should commence to make their presence known in the very place where one would expect them to proceed most secretly is another point that has yet to be explained.

The Irish Independent's London correspondent declares that (p. 4):

The stories of mysterious airships flying by night over Yorkshire and Portsmouth Harbour, though splashed in the Tory Press with alarmist sensationalism to support the demand for vastly-increased expenditure on armaments, have utterly failed to frighten the public. These vague but fearsome details of the foreign 'fly-by-nights' are regarded by the average citizen with incredulity, and in many instances with ridicule.

Most sceptical newspapers don't blame the sightings on scaremongering by the conservative press, but instead focus on trying to explain what witnesses were actually looking at. The (decidedly non-sceptical) Manchester Courier quotes (by way of the Morning Post) 'One of the best known aeronautical authorities in France', who is quoted as saying that 'these reports are simply due to hallucination.It is extremely easy to for a person who is not an expert to persuade himself on any dark night that it is an airship and not cloud which has passed between him and a star' (p. 12). An astronomical explanation for the Hull sightings is offered by the Daily Mail (p. 6):

Our Hull correspondent states: 'I watched what appeared to be a bright light high up in the heavens west of Hull for about an hour, and noticed that it did not move. There was no sound of the whirring of machinery. The light grew dimmer after an hour, and eventually disappeared. I believe it was a star.'

The superintendent of the fire brigade expressed the opinion that the light was that of a star, possibly Venus. One man stated that he had seen the light in that quarter on three successive evenings.

The Liverpool Echo prints a letter from 'Astro' suggesting that Venus was also responsible for the Selby sightings (p. 7):

'To lay a ghost' is a pleasant occupation. A Selby solicitor sees an airship in the direction of Hambledon at 9.15 p.m. on Friday last -- it finally passed off 'at a rapid rate in the direction of Leeds.' A glance at a map of Yorkshire shows us Hambledon W. to S. and Leeds W. of Selby. These are precisely the azimuths of the planet Venus at the times given. At 10 p.m. Venus set on February 21 (see Whitaker). Venus is just now particularly bright, and suddenly appearing and disappearing behind wind-blow clouds, she gives the illusion desired. To hear the engines, shut your eyes, and a motor-car will rarely fail you. All the same, it's 'rough' on dear old Venus.

But there's a competing explanation for the Yorkshire sightings. According to the Derby Daily Telegraph (p. 3), today's issue of the Middlesborough North-eastern Daily Gazette

attributes the airship scare on the Yorkshire coast to the operation of the powerful military searchlight at the mouth of the Tees, which has a radius of some 80 miles. The light was being worked by Territorial Engineers last Friday during the hours when the airship was said to have been seen.

The most interesting of all the sceptics is the Daily Mirror, because only yesterday it declared that 'There no longer seems to be the shadow of a doubt that England is being continually and systematically surveyed by the aerial scouts of a foreign Power' (25 February 1913, p. 5). Today its headlines speak of 'ENGLAND'S EPIDEMIC OF "AIRSHIPITIS"' and asks 'Are Mysterious Night Visitors Only an Hallucination?' (p. 4). It quotes 'a well-known mental doctor' as saying that

Hallucination by suggestion is quite common. So many stories of airships are going about that it is more than possible that people might build in their minds from some suggestively similar but commonplace sight of an airship.

It also interviews an equally anonymous 'hard-headed business man' who has 'got utterly sick of reading about the nocturnal visitations of this phantom airship', believing 'a kite to which electric lights are attached' or 'a bright star' to be responsible. He makes many of the same points as the other sceptics have, and also supplies a pertinent historical precedent:

'During the South African war there were many references to the appearances of balloons with searchlights sailing through the darkness over the veldt.

'The Boers possessed no balloons, and subsequently it was discovered that certain stars of magnitude diffused their light by refraction in the clear atmosphere and created the semblance of a powerful searchlight. Imagination easily supplied the balloon.'

The Mirror's conclusion is that 'Imagination, indeed, probably supplies a good many of the "visions".'

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