Previously I looked at Excubitor's claim that in 1913 the Anglo-German naval race was turning into a more dangerous aero-naval one, and that Britain, having won the first was now in the process of losing the other. Here I'll look at some related strands of thought in the press more generally, and what the point of it all was.
Excubitor was not alone in suggesting that Germany was concentrating on airships to compensate for its inferiority in dreadnoughts. A leader in the Devon and Exeter Gazette, for example, drew on an article in Blackwood's Magazine by T. F. Farman (the journalist father of aviator Henri Farman), for its argument that Britain could not afford to be complacent:
Without impugning the sincerity of the German Chancellor's assurances, it is, nevertheless, permissible to inquire whether the alleged intention to abandon, for the time being, the project of creating a fleet equal in every respect to that of Great Britain cannot be accounted for by the creation of a German aerial fleet of dreadnoughts, which is at the present moment unrivalled, and which could, in the case of hostilities, render signal service in a naval engagement in the North Sea or English Channel, and be utilised for attack on ports, arsenals, etc. The Germans may be, indeed, justified in calculating that the proportion of ten to sixteen units is compensated for to a considerable extent by the aerial fleet they have already created, and which is being increased with extraordinary rapidity, both in the number of its units and in their power.1
Relatedly, and more commonly, there were a number of commentators who also pointed to the threat posed to Britain's decisive naval superiority by Germany's even more decisive air superiority, but stopped short of claiming that this was a continuation of the dreadnought race (though, arguably, this is implicit). So, for example, an anonymous 'naval expert' interviewed by the Daily Mirror said that
'I think that the strength of the British fleet is unchallengeable [...] if you have regard solely to the old conditions of warfare -- that is to say, that we have a comfortable margin of superiority ship for ship.
'Naval science, however, has recently made such rapid progress that it is not now merely a question of sea ship for sea ship; but sea ship plus the air fleet. Bear that in mind, and you will realise the gravity of the present situation.
'The plain fact is that while Germany can come over and attack us by air, we not only cannot attack Germany, but we have no air fleet to resist their attack.
'Our defence against an air attack by Germany is so insignificant as to be practically worthless.
'I believe that if Germany sent over half a dozen airships they could cripple if not destroy our battle fleet and blow up many of our fortresses, and having reduced us to a state of impotence and panic these airships could head for home again unscathed.2
These fears help why the Navy League and, to a lesser extent, the Imperial Maritime League played a prominent role in the airship scare -- certainly more so than the ostensibly more relevant Aerial League of the British Empire (though it did try). At the Navy League's annual Grand Council meeting in February, the journalist Arnold White 'called attention to the need of immediate action by the Government in the matter of airship defence' (noting the 'airships in the habit of suspiciously visiting this country at night'):
They knew from reports of the enormous progress made in the direction of bombs from airships, and seeing that the Navy League desired to maintain the power of the Navy, it came within their duty to urge on the Government that at all costs this country must catch up other nations which had passed them in this struggle in the air.3
The question was referred to the Executive, which evidently was persuaded, for a month later a memorial to the prime minister appeared from the Navy League's Aerial Defence Committee, calling for the expenditure of £1.16 million 'to initiate a definite national policy for aerial defence'.4 First among its demands was
(1) The provision for the immediate construction of airships and airship stations as the neucleus [sic] of a fleet of dirigible balloons with adequate provision of aeroplanes, hydro-aeroplanes and all essential equipment as a concrete part of naval defence organisation.5
The Navy League also tried to 'influence the country and show the population the vital need of strengthening our aerial defences' by distributing 'many thousands' of copies of a poster 'throughout the country' in April.6 A great deal of effort went into the design and production of this poster -- with 'eight colours', it must have been expensive:
It represents Britannia supported by one of the latest types of dirigible air craft, wrapped in a Union Jack with her left arm outstretched beckoning to the British Islands, a birds-eye view of which is seen beneath her. In the background are many score of air craft -- airships and aeroplanes -- both monoplanes and biplanes rising off the land. These show up splendidly against the azure sea and a blue sky, and in the background against a roll of white clouds. On the North Sea and in the Channel squadrons of British battleships can be seen manoeuvring on the ocean. The letterpress 'Britons, wake up,' and the 'Navy League demands £1,000,000 for aerial defence' is printed in bold type.7
And this was what it was all about. The Navy League had a great deal of experience in using scare tactics on the public in order to place pressure on the government to build more battleships. At its February meeting noted above, Robert Yerburgh, Conservative MP and president of the League, submitted a memorandum on naval construction in which he argued for another propaganda campaign by reference to previous successes:
The League, which succeeded in wringing four extra Dreadnoughts from a hesitating and unwilling Government in 1909, must bring all the pressure they could command on the present Government to secure the laying down of six ships this year and the beginning of all the ships in the year's programme at the earliest date. Their battle cry must be 'We want six and no tricks.'8
The position is briefly this: We have not a tenth enough trained pilots nor a twentieth of the proper number of aeroplanes. Without machines we cannot have the pilots. Without trained workmen we cannot have the machines. Without regular employment we cannot have the right class of workmen to build aeroplanes — a class of work which is a thing apart. Without regular Government orders our aeroplane manufacturers cannot give regular employment. Without money the Government officials cannot give out regular orders. Without the pressure of public opinion the Treasury either cannot, or will not, grant enough money to buy aeroplanes. And without being thoroughly scared, the great British public will not bring pressure to bear on the Treasury, through its various representatives in the House of Commons. Therefore, the more scare-ships which visit our shores, the better chance there will be of moving the English mind and getting something done.9
It doesn't explain why people saw phantom airships themselves, except insofar as they were influenced by reading previous press accounts of similar strange things in the sky. But it does explain why the conservative press in particular took such a great interest in the sightings and reported them in detail, and then went on to keep pressing the government on aerial defence even after interest in scareships subsided. The Germans may or may not have been attempting to continue the dreadnought race by other means, as Excubitor and others alleged; but the 1913 airship scare was certainly the continuation of the naval scares by other means, just as it was also the continuation of politics by the same means.
Ibid. To be fair, the Military Wing of the RFC received only a slightly smaller share of the proposed budget, £490,000 compared to £510,000, with the balance going to shared facilities. ↩
The Times, 20 February 1913, 4. ↩
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 https://airminded.org/copyright/.