Monthly Archives: September 2013


In a not-very-recent post I discussed New Zealand press reports of mystery aeroplane sightings in the first few months of 1918. I suggested then that around about the end of March there was a change in the way these sightings were reported. This change had two aspects. The first was that there were no longer any straight news reports of mystery aeroplanes being published (no new ones, anyway; some of the earlier stories continued to be reprinted as local newspapers caught up). The obvious explanation for this would be because there weren't any to report. However this seems unlikely because of the second aspect: newspapers did in fact continue to circulate stories about mystery aeroplanes, only now in the indirect form of jokes and rumours.

As far as anything which even vaguely resembles an actual sighting is concerned, in fact there are only a couple of examples from April 1918, both from the New Zealand Observer. On 6 April, the Observer's 'They Say' column informed its readers

That a well-known motor car owner and a cold-feet sufferer reported an aeroplane outside Mangere the other night, but when under the third degree he mixed the Urewera locality with Onehunga, the authorities ducked.1

This entirely lacks the sort of information contained in the earlier mystery aeroplane reports, not even a date; and the jocular tone makes it hard to know how seriously to take it. It could be an offhand way of describing an actual sighting by a local notable, or it could be a humorous allusion to some then-topical incident which had nothing to do with mystery aeroplanes.

The other example from April is equally vague as to details, and is quite possibly apocryphal, but its point is clearer. The Observer's 'Fretful Porcupine' column (where did they get these names?) published a letter on 20 April from one 'Jay Bee' which includes this account of a mystery aeroplane sighting, apparently in a posh Auckland suburb:

Dropped into afternoon tea at a friend's house the other day and found I had fallen into the midst of the wife's day-at-home crownd -- 'first and fourth Tuesdays in the month' business. Took me a while to recover, but when I did come to I sat up and took notice of what the dear women were talking about. And, by Jove, it surprised me. One dear thing held the floor by virtue of the strength of her vocal chords, and she was talking about these strange aeroplanes nervous folk are seeing of nights. 'Yes,' she said, 'it's true all right. Only last night Mrs. So-and-So saw one going over her house just after midnight. She called Mr. So-and-So, and he saw it, too, so there. And my husband knows Captain Dash in the Defence Office, and Captain Dash says there are aeroplanes about [...]'2

So unidentified aeroplanes are being seen by unidentified people at unidentified times and unidentified places. Not terribly useful. But wait, there's more:

'[...] and if there's any trouble at any time not to rush to the station to catch a train to get away from town, because they're bound to try to drop bombs on the station, because they know everyone would go there.' (Pause for breath.) 'And then there are these big guns firing 100 miles. What's to stop a raider coming in behind Rangitoto with one of these guns and firing a shell into our houses in Grafton Road? And they're sending my husband into camp, so there would be no one left to fight them.' I regret that at this stage I fainted outright, and heard no more.3

Obviously Jay Bee is partly joking, but he (the condescension towards 'the dear women' suggests a man) was making a serious point about what he saw as the baleful effect of suburban gossip where the defence of the realm was concerned: 'Really, I'm almost in favour of the introduction of women police if they would only find their way to these afternoon teas and arrest a few of these idiotic scaremongers.'4 The reported speech may well be invented, synthesised, and/or exaggerated for effect, but it seems likely that it is more or less representative of talk that was very widespread in April 1918, not just about mystery aeroplanes in the sky or raiders in the sea, but about the possibility that bombs and shells would very soon be falling on New Zealand. Indeed, I think can show this, and will endeavour to do so in the next post in this series.

  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 6 April 1918, 7

  2. Ibid., 20 April 1918, 16

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 


A year has passed since my article on the debate in Britain over whether to bomb German civilians in reprisal for the Blitz was published. Under the Australian Journal of Politics and History's self-archiving policy I can now upload my own copy of the final, peer-reviewed text for anyone to read for free. So here it is. And here is the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasizing positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

AJPH's attitude to self-archiving is more generous than some journals I could name. Or at least it was -- its RoMEO entry doesn't seem to suggest 12 months as a standard embargo period, if I'm reading it right, but (maybe) 24. There's nothing I can see about it on AJPH's website either, so maybe it has got worse in the meantime. Hopefully not. In any case, my agreement says what it says.

Thomas Hippler. Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. There are very few studies of Douhet in English, and none since Azar Gat's Fascist and Liberal Visions of War (1998), so I'm very excited to see this. Even leafing through it it's obvious that there is a lot of valuable stuff here: for example, on Douhet's surprisingly pacifistic views before 1914. It doesn't look like there is much on the question of the wider influence of Douhetism outside Italy, but I suspect it will be all the better for it.

David J. Hufford. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982. This and the next two books fall outside of the subject matter of this blog: I bought them as methodological inspiration for the problem of how to approach people claiming to see things for which no objective evidence exists, vis-à-vis my ongoing mystery aircraft project. I actually devoted a whole blog post to this book without having actually read it, so it's about time I owned a copy.

Peter Lamont. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. The 'psychological problem' here is essentially the same one I'm interested in: why do people believe extraordinary things? The 'historical approach' refers to Lamont's use of the history of spiritualism and psychic research to this end. It appears to trip lightly over the decades and centuries in a way I probably wouldn't be comfortable doing, but that's not always a bad thing.

Brian P. Levack. The Devil Within: Possession & Exorcism in the Christian West. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. This is much more traditional history, unsurprisingly since it's written by a historian, not a folklorist or a psychologist. Levack argues that medical or psychological explanations for demonic possession cases are ahistorical, and that we should consider demoniacs as following a cultural script. How useful for me this is idea is, I'm not sure: where did the cultural script for seeing phantom airship come from, how did it arise so quickly? Something to think about.

Matthew S. Seligmann. The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914: Admiralty Plans to Protect British Trade in a War Against Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Back to some air... er, seapower. Actually, this has some relevance for my recent interest in the naval dimensions of the 1913 phantom airship scare, as well as the knock-out blow theory. Also has a very useful discussion of archival sources, including some scathing comments about the Admiralty's archivists who decided to destroy 98% of ADM 1 in the 1950s and 1960s! Ouch.


[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The election of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would 're-prioritise' another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed 'wasteful'. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody's bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation's self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called 'black armband view of history'. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia's past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of 'black armband history' suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history -- my areas of expertise -- may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools 'must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past [...] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War [...]

He's right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn't mean it's unproblematic -- as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can't erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.