On ABC New England last week I briefly mentioned rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the early months of the First World War. So far as I have been able to determine, the stories, which peaked in October 1914, centred on three locations: the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Chiltern Hills.
The one in the Lake District is the best known of these, partly because of the involvement of B. C. Hucks, a famous aviator before the war (he was a regular at Hendon, the first British pilot to loop and, later, inventor of the Hucks starter), but paradoxically it's the hardest to find much information about. According to Cole and Cheesman,
One persistent rumour of a Zeppelin operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere was dispelled only after Lieut. B. C. Hucks -- a highly experienced prewar civil pilot -- had searched the Lake District from a Blériot monoplane.1
Hayward adds a few more details:
In September 1914 a local rumour in Cumberland held that a German airship was operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere, and flew sorties over Westmorland by night. The story was only dispelled after a Royal Flying Corps pilot undertook several patrols above the Lake District in a Bleriot monoplane, and saw nothing but glorious scenery.2
Similarly brief accounts can be found here and there, but they all likewise concentrate on Hucks' search rather than the rumours themselves, and I haven't been able to find any primary sources.3
The second rumoured location was in the Scottish Highlands. In fact it looks like there may have been at least two different sets of rumours. Pennell notes that 'Scottish police spent all of September 1914 searching for a reported German airbase in the remote Highlands'.4 She does give an archival source, from the Secretary for Scotland, which leads to several files relating to a search carried out in Caithness, in the far north-east corner of Scotland, specifically between Thurso and Cape Wrath.5 Actually, the archival descriptions only refer to 'aircraft', so it's just my assumption that the base being searched for was a Zeppelin base. However, there are also some ambiguous press references from October to a police search which may or may not be the same one. 'A British Defender' wrote to the Aberdeen Daily Journal to say
I know that the police have been traversing some of our remote and high hills on the outlook for landing places for Zeppelin airships [...] We hear of lights and rockets being seen at night on some of our highest hills.6
The only clue as to the location of these hills is the suggestion that the Cairngorm Club, a mountaineering group, might 'take this duty' of searching for Zeppelin bases 'upon themselves and thus combine work with pleasure?'7 As the Cairngorm Club seems to have been mostly active in the Cairngorms (naturally enough), which are west of Aberdeen and not near Caithness, perhaps there were also rumours of a Zeppelin base near there. But I suppose there's no reason why the Cairngorm Club couldn't have gone to Caithness, though it doesn't seem particularly hilly. So I'm not sure whether this is a separate rumour or not. Either way, there aren't many details. Another correspondent, Robert Anderson, linked the idea to the 'prevalent anti-German "alien enemy" panic', and ridiculed the idea 'that Zeppelin airships may find landing-places upon or in the neighbourhood of "our remote and high hills"':
What good Zeppelins could do there, either in the way of observation, dropping bombs, or landing soldiers, is not easily perceivable. Scepticism may also be entertained as to the appearance of lights and the discharge of rockets at night on 'some of our highest hills.' One may well ask who and where are the people thus (imaginatively) signalled to.8
The last rumoured Zeppelin base I've come across was in the Chilterns, a range of hills in England (roughly) between Oxford and London. It was a story pushed by the London Star in October but relayed by a number of other papers. This example is particularly fascinating because it provides evidence of people taking matters into their own hands and going on the hunt for the enemy within, driven by the interplay of rumour and news. The story went that in July 1913 a secretive group of Belgians had begun drilling for oil (or so it appeared) two miles from Great Missenden (near Little Kingshill and Holness Green [added: I think this is a typo for Holmer Green], to be specific). Three months later they packed up and left, but not before removing all trace of their operations. Nothing much seems to have been made of this at the time. But after the German attack in the west began, stories emerged 'of gun platforms prepared beforehand by Germans in France and Belgium', after which 'the people of this part of Bucks have been much excited by the recollection of this incident'.9 So,
On Sunday [18 October 1914] the villagers of their own initiative started digging on the spot, and though they made a big hole they found nothing. The difficulty is that no one now knows the exact spot where the borehole was made. There does not seem to be any gun platform here, but the object which is now suspected is that of forming a petrol depot for the supply of Zeppelins.
There is no doubt that the site is very suitable for the rendezvous of a Zeppelin. It is a field in a hollow in the Chilterns, not so much a basin as a pie-dish in the hills. It is within 30 miles of London, and the idea is that a Zeppelin which had raided London in the night might descend there before dawn and replenish its supplies.10
The pipes supposedly used for drilling were now thought to have been used to smuggle in petrol. The Belgians drilling for oil before the war were now believed to have been mostly Germans and Austrians, and anyway 'it is now known that the German espionage system in France and England was largely organised from a bureau in Brussels'.11 One of the Germans had suddenly returned to the area in late July, just before the outbreak of war, supposedly for love of a local girl, but 'the people of the district want to know how it happened that his desire to see her again coincided so oddly with the declaration of war last August'.12 The Bucks Constabulary had received 'So many letters' regarding 'the mystery of the hollow in the Chilterns' that the Chief Constable, Major Mayne, himself had visited the spot 'and is understood to have made a special report to the War Office'.13
A similar story emerged from Totternhoe, about 20 miles northeast of Great Missenden. This time suspicions centred on a group of foreigners, 'of whom the principal was a German-American', who had leased the local chalk quarries three years before the war, but in a year of operations had not shipped anything out.14 Again, despite the sudden cessation of operations, one of the foremen had (suspiciously, it now seemed) remained behind until only three months previously.
The quarries consist of long galleries extending for a considerable distance underground, the outer line opens on to a large basin in the chalk hills, which has evident advantages as a Zeppelin base. There is now a belief in the locality that stores may have been concealed in the quarries, which have a very large capacity, extending in all directions [...] What the inhabitants desire now is to know what those quarries contain.15
However, the press soon turned sceptical about the Chiltern rumours, as it seems the prewar drilling and quarrying turned out to be innocent after all. The Star was mocked for its scaremongering.16 The Manchester Courier anyway claimed satisfaction in the fact that 'the "mystery spot" in the Chilterns is [now] useless as a Zeppelin base owing to its exposed situation'.17
So much for the rumoured secret Zeppelin bases in Britain. But why were there such rumours at all? After all, before the war the Zeppelin menace had been predicated upon its extraordinarily long range, which made refuelling en route unnecessary. I think the answer lies in the news, freely mixed with rumour, coming in from the war, as I'll show in another post.
Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 8. ↩
James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), 18. ↩
Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom Divided: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 104. ↩
Aberdeen Daily Journal, 26 October 1914, 8. Anderson's scepticism may have been coloured by defensiveness, as he took A British Defender to be implying a lack of patriotism on the part of the Cairngorm Club's members. ↩
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