Friday, 21 March 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.

Debate on the Army Estimates continued in the House of Commons yesterday. The Conservatives recovered their composure after Seely's unsettling openness, and set about undermining his reassurances that Britain's aerial defences are in safe hands. Taking the lead was Arthur Lee, a former Army officer and later Civil Lord of the Admiralty. The Times reports that Lee disputed Seely's contention that 'the large airship was not required for military purposes', arguing that 'imperfect as they were [...] they had a radius of action of over 1,200 miles, which would enable them to come from the Continent and cruise all over these islands and return' (p. 8):

They were able to drop a weight approximating one ton, and the moral effect, at any rate, that would be produced in this country when in the throes of mobilization by these vessels cruising over our mobilization centres, dockyards, magazines, and even the House of Commons (laughter) could be easily imagined.

Lee also took Seely to task for his belief that shooting airships down with guns would be quite easy:

The Zeppelins, painted a light grey, were practically invisible against an ordinary grey sky at about 5,000ft. The right hon. gentleman also said that at night they could not see us, but he had been informed that a dockyard working with lights at night made a plainer target than it did in the daytime. (Hear, hear.)

It was at this point that Lee made an oblique reference to phantom airships:

The question was, who was to shoot? And he confessed that he, as an ordinary peaceable citizen, did contemplate with some foreboding the possibility of Territorial artillery being called out for night practice at the planet Venus. (Laughter.)

The Manchester Courier, one of the few other papers to include this passage in their summary of Lee's speech, puts it this way (p. 8):

For his own part, he contemplated with some anxiety the prospect of the Territorials being called out to indulge in night practice at the planet Venus as she hung low on the Western horizon. (Laughter.)

Here he seems to be using the idea of phantom airships to ridicule the Government's aerial navigation regulations, suggesting that they would cause false alarms and possibly endanger the public. There is also probably a criticism here of the Territorials, a Liberal innovation which Conservatives largely discounted in favour of conscription or at least universal military training -- Lee was a former officer in the Volunteers, the militia which the Territorials replaced. Still, it's a bit odd to see a Conservative mocking mystery airships; usually that's the Liberal way.

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