Secret Zeppelin bases in Britain — II

After looking at rumoured secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the first few months of the First World War, I asked what the source of these rumours were. In particular, why did people even think that Zeppelins would need to have a base in Britain, given that the reason why they were so threatening was their long range? In the 1913 airship panic, newspapers and magazines regularly published articles and maps showing how they could menace the entire British Isles from Heligoland or Borkum. It must have been one thing that nearly everyone knew about Zeppelins. So why the idea that the Germans would need bases in Britain itself? We're in the realm of folk strategy here.

Firstly, I should note that this idea of secret Zeppelin bases was not entirely without precedent. In 1909, Roger Pocock, the founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen, wrote in his diary that:

4 mi[les] inland from Stranraer a private firm have meadows but this is a blind. There are German experts [and a] depot for 2 Zeppelin ships -- being tested in a suitably hilly place... For 3 years a wooden airship has been building in a factory at Friern Barnet in London. Germans are opp[osite] an institute called the Freehold.1

Friern Barnet is a suburb in northern London, while Stranraer is in the Scottish Lowlands (the opposite end of Scotland from the bases rumoured in 1914, incidentally). Pocock doesn't say what he thinks these Zeppelins or airships were going to be used for (I haven't seen the original diary, only the above extract). However, given that he was a relentless amateur spyhunter it's safe to assume that he didn't think they were for benign purposes.2 There was also some press discussion in 1913 about Zeppelins having the range to reach targets in Britain, but perhaps not the range to make it back. However, that was very rare, and doesn't seem to have translated into any widespread speculation about secret bases; Pocock's rumour or story is the only example I know of before 1914. However, there is at least one example from after 1914, though not from Britain: in the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918, there was speculation that German agents had established bases inland or off the coast. But there the rationale is obvious: Australia was so far away from Germany that it was impossible for aircraft to fly between the two, so they would have to fly from somewhere nearer (the other option was a German raider or raiders). Again, that wasn't the case in Britain in 1914.

I think there's a clue in the events at Great Missenden on 18 October. There we have some useful evidence for way that people took news from the war and tried to interpret it in their local context. The story that is mentioned in particular is that of 'of gun platforms prepared beforehand by Germans in France and Belgium'.3 This appears to be a reference to a claim published in the Paris Matin about the German siege of Maubeuge, a French fortress city near the Belgian border. Maubeuge resisted for two weeks and fell on 7 September. As reported in the British press,

It was noticed in the course of the siege how soon the German heavy artillery was able to open fire in spite of the fact that elaborate cement gun platforms have to be prepared in order to receive the heavy pieces.4

Le Matin explained this as follows:

The solution of this mystery seems to be that the Germans had the platforms already prepared on private property belonging to the firm of Krupp. In July, 1911, the woods of Lanieres, near the town, were acquired by a certain Gilbert Marty, of Brussels. The "Matin" exposed the fact that the real purchaser was none other than Krupp. Plant for manufacturing railway engines was subsequently erected on the ground. Heavy pieces of machinery could thus be constructed on the spot, and platforms built in suitable places on the property, where they lay concealed until the moment came when they were required for guns.5

This wasn't an isolated story, either. A few days before the people of Great Missenden started looking for gun platforms, there were reports from besieged Antwerp that

as at Maubeuge, platforms of solid concrete on which big guns could be mounted were discovered in the suburbs of Vieux, Dien, and Hove, where many of the German residents had villas surrounded by large gardens. Another big gun had been prepared in a paper mill belonging to Germans.6

Even more significantly, the British government was taking the threat of such Maubeuge platforms very seriously. On 16 October, two days before the Great Missenden search, police raided C. G. Roder, Ltd., a German-owned music printing factory in Willesden in northwest London. The British employees were released, and then the factory was searched and the 22 Germans present were marched to a railway station 'amidst the booing of a large crowd', to 'be interned at Olympia as persons dangerous to the public safety'.7 Just why was not explained, but it was noted particularly that 'The foundations are said to be of very thick concrete, and the roof is of concrete from three to four feet thick', while 'The position of the factory commands three systems of railways -- the North London, the Great Western, and the London North-Western. There is an uninterrupted view across London to the Crystal Palace'.8 Another German-owned factory, in Edinburgh where 'the prepared position could enable big guns to hit Rosyth and the Forth Bridge', was raided by the military on the evening of 17 October.9 By now the Maubeuge connection was clear. The Manchester Courier's London correspondent wrote that 'When the German ante-war preparations at Maubeuge became known, it was natural for us to think of the same possibilities in London':

It is absolutely necessary that the fullest investigations should be made in localities where foreigners do congregate. Hampstead and its environs have for a long number of years been a stronghold of foreign residents in London. Whether by accident or design, it is not easy to say, but it is obvious that in the past German and other alien residents have always favoured suburbs which by their elevation seem to dominate the rest of London and the surrounding country. As these northern heights from Hampstead to Epping Forest have enormous strategic value, it will be reassuring to know that the military and civil authorities have the whole district under careful observation. A gun placed in position on Hampstead could work effectually against any building, bridge, or railway junction.10

That was published the day after the Great Missenden affair, but it shows that the London and Edinburgh raids had got some people to thinking about the possibility of Maubeuge platforms in their own area, and to think back for any prewar construction carried out by foreigners. Someone in Great Missenden must similarly have recalled the unlucky Belgian oil prospectors, and wondered if they were all that they had seemed at the time, and so a great crowd of people set to work digging up the drill site to see if they could find anything which could be called a gun platform.

The Maubeuge platform story continued to kick on: in late October, for example, another story from France claimed that tennis courts built at a chateau near Lassigny were also, it turned out, platforms for German siege guns.11 But Le Matin, under threat of libel, had to retract its original story (Krupp didn't own the Maubeuge factory after all, which anyway was on the wrong side of the town).12 Scotland Yard's own investigations revealed no substance to claims of local Maubeuge platforms:

The tale of a German factory with concrete floors 6ft. thick turned out to be a business that once had a German director on the board and had not a single German workman, while the floors were only 6in., and not 6ft., thick.

Every gentleman with a foreign accent or foreign name who imitated his British neighbours by using concrete for tennis-courts was, under the war scares, accused of having laid down a platform or platforms for German big guns, and to these tales Major-General O'Callaghan gave careful attention. 'Lawn-tennis grounds in all directions,' he says, 'have been reported and their tremendous solidity vouched for by nervous communities, but all turn out on examination to be of the usual type, a few inches of rough concrete and a thin surface of asphalt.'13

So these widespread reports of Germans placing gun emplacements in strategic locations before the war, plus the apparent credibility lent by British government raids on German factories, explains handily enough why the people of Great Missenden thought there might be Maubeuge platforms near their town. (Well, that and their belief that the enemy knew just how important they were obviously were to the whole war effort.) But I still haven't explained why, apparently not having found even a thin layer of concrete, they then switched theories and settled on a secret Zeppelin base instead. I promise I will do this in another post.


  1. Quoted in A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 148. 

  2. Pocock also wrote an airpower novel set in 1980, revolving around the attack on Britain by Germany, France and Russia, with etheric ships drawing on radiant energy for power. Roger Pocock, The Chariot of the Sun: A Fantasy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1910). 

  3. Manchester Courier, 20 October 1914, 6

  4. Daily Record and Mail (Glasgow), 28 September 1914, 3

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Taunton Courier, 14 October 1914, 1. 

  7. Courier (Dundee), 17 October 1914, 2

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Sunderland Daily Echo, 19 October 1914, 7

  10. Manchester Courier, 19 October 1914, 4

  11. Liverpool Echo, 28 October 1914, 4

  12. Edinburgh Evening News, 4 November 1914, 3

  13. Sunderland Daily Echo, 20 November 1914, 3

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9 thoughts on “Secret Zeppelin bases in Britain — II

  1. Perhaps worth noting that as well as being in the back end of nowhere, Stranraer has some significance as the major port for ferries from Scotland to Ireland...

    Very curious to know about the Edinburgh raid in October - do any of the Scottish papers report it, or are there more details in the article?

  2. Erik Lund

    1. Build secret gun emplacement in London.
    2. Slip 420mm howitzer into city. (Neutral shipping + papier mache facade? Needs work.)
    3. Level Crystal Palace with surprise bombardment.
    4. Victory parade down Unter den Linden!

  3. Christopher

    Paranoia? The empire was a very paranoid place and threats were constantly seen. Even when they were disproved new ones cropped up. One is tempted to speculate that these types of scares were an essential factor in maintaining the virility of the empire. The empire needed manliness and you couldn't encourage this if the population was relaxed and enjoying the fruits of imperial rule.

  4. It's interesting, in an Erik Lund-y way, that CONCRETE! was a scary super-secret technology of 1914. I can see the logic:

    1) Huge guns are battering in the walls we rely on for defence!
    2) Huge guns mean huge drawbar weight and huge recoil.
    3) Therefore huge guns mean huge gun platforms, which take time to build.
    4) Therefore someone built them ahead of time.
    5) Traitors are in our midst!

    And, you know, on the defensive it would be a sensible idea. Stable gun platforms would be useful, and pre-surveying even more so. But clearly this was silly, as nobody ever found even one pre-prepared platform, although the guns did indeed batter down the walls. So the Germans (or rather, Austrians) did it some other way...

  5. Post author

    Andrew:

    Thanks for the information about Stranraer's ferry connections -- it's exactly the sort of thing that might have been adduced as evidence by folk strategists for why the enemy would be interested in such a non-obvious place.

    Regarding the Edinburgh raid, unfortunately there few local newspapers have been digitised. But it was reported in the Edinburgh Evening News on the following Monday; nothing untoward was found and no further action was taken. The building in question was the Portobello Chocolate Factory, which still stands; according to a recent BBC article it was pressure from the local community which forced the authorities to act. It seems that exactly the same thing happened at Carriden Mansion House at Bo'ness, a little further up the Firth of Forth.

    Erik:

    You have to ask yourself whether, if the Germans had done that, we'd all be speaking German now? I mean, the answer's clearly no, but you still have to ask yourself.

    Christopher:

    Probably people like Pocock and his Legion would have agreed with that analysis, ditto for Round Tablers, Navier Leaguers, and so on. Certainly the model of masculinity at the time required threats and obstacles to be overcome, the foreigner the better, and that suited imperialism just fine.

    Alex:

    I would modify that slightly and say that it's not that concrete was super-secret, it's that it was visible and new (Google ngram viewer has 'concrete' references tripling in 1901-14 or so) and therefore a bit suspicious and maybe bad (We got along without ferro-concrete in my day, and what's with all those tennis courts anyway? Some people have more money than sense, that's what...) But it's harmless enough until suddenly there's a war on and somebody said they used concrete in France as a gun platform and OMG they could fire on London from here! On the one hand it's a bit like concerns over dual-use technologies, on the other like what is happening in Australia right now, with people freaking out over things that happen all the time but weren't previously interpreted in a terrorism context.

  6. David S

    So is there any evidence that points to the Germans actually doing pre war preparation of suitable concrete gun platforms outside of Antwerp and/or Maubeuge to emplace heavy guns on? Or was this really a case of some German military engineer thinking these concrete pads as great places to locate heavy guns?

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  8. Post author

    That's a good question, by which I mean I don't know the answer to it. There's no evidence I've seen -- apart from the wartime claims, obviously, which eventually were dismissed by Scotland Yard in at least the case of Maubeuge itself were later withdrawn -- of any real gun emplacements being built covertly by Germany. Yet it was perfectly true that the Gamma-Gerät required such a concrete platform to be created before the gun could be put in place (as opposed to the M-Gerät or true Big Bertha, also 42cm but wheeled); according to Wikipedia this process took around 9 days. And two such guns were apparently used at Maubeuge. So what platforms did they use? I suspect the answer is in the chronology -- again, I don't have a detailed one for Maubeuge, but it was first encircled by the Germans on 25 August, with the bombardment beginning on 29 August and the fortress falling on 6 September. So that's actually plenty of time for the concrete to cure: the lighter guns could have started the bombardment on 29 August and the M-Geräts joined in around 3 September. Still, that's speculation.

  9. David S

    Interesting. Thank you for that timeline since artillery operations of this era are not something I'm familiar with.

    Though now I have to wonder if those reinforced/thicker concrete pads still exist and if a chemical analysis of their composition would indicate local sources (possibly pre-war) or German sourcing (possibly during the war). Though that wouldn't work if Germany was the source of the concrete prewar. Something that may never be able to be answered.

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