Secret Zeppelin bases in Britain — III

So, in the previous post in this series, I explained why (at least to a proximate cause) in 1914 people around Britain started worrying that German spies had gone around the country building concrete platforms for heavy artillery, as supposedly had been done before the war near Maubeuge and Antwerp. But what I didn't do was explain the concurrent (and in the case of Great Missenden, overlapping) belief that German spies had also gone around building Zeppelin bases, which after all is where I started. This seems especially puzzling since, thanks to their long range, Zeppelins certainly didn't need any such bases to launch air raids on London or elsewhere in Britain; this was well-known and was the basis for the phantom airship panic the year before the war.

What I think was happening here is essentially the same as happened with the Maubeuge platforms: people were reacting to the rapidly developing war situation, particularly the German advance to the Channel coast: Antwerp fell on 10 October 1914, Ostend on 15 October. The next major ports to the west, Dunkirk and Calais, were to remain in Allied hands for the rest of the war, but this couldn't have been known at the time. Already in late August, the Channel ports were being identified as potential forward bases for Zeppelins: 'While [the Royal Marines] hold Ostend there need be no fear of the town being made a Zeppelin base as was suggested a day or two since'.1 The Western Daily Press thought that

it is plainly the object of the enemy to establish themselves on the coast, and to find there more than one point d'appui for delivering attacks on England by means of aeroplanes and Zeppelins. It has been obvious that, during the past few weeks, the Germans have determined to make the fullest use of their aerial flotilla, quite irrespective of the regulations laid down in the second Hague Convention. The performance of a Zeppelin over Antwerp the other day stands in proof of this conviction.2

By 16 September it was being reported as rumoured in Berlin that 'Germany is preparing to invade England with a Zeppelin armada [...] the stories all agree that the base from which they shall start is Calais. As soon as the French army is disposed of, according to the German plan, a strong force will capture Calais'.3 A week later, there was more confidence, with the Aberdeen Daily Journal suggesting that 'If the Germans had succeeded in establishing a Zeppelin base at Dunkirk or Calais, there is no doubt the danger to London would have been real from a panic point of view'.4 The RNAS raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf on 22 September may have allayed fears, although whether it had done any significant damage was not clear, and the very fact of the raid and its daring nature itself proved that the government was taking the Zeppelin threat seriously. In fact it was assumed to be a reprisal for the bombing of Antwerp.5

However, the fall of Antwerp, the Belgian national redoubt which had been strongly reinforced by British forces, changed the situation. According to the Birmingham Gazette, 'What most people would like to know and the point on which speculation is keenest, is why the Germans should show such a desire to reduce and occupy Antwerp'.6

There is, of course, the theory which found acceptance in some quarters when Ostend was threatened that it might be coveted as a Zeppelin base for a raid on England.7

Again, rumours were imported from Germany, in this case by repatriated Englishwomen who had been trapped there since the start of the war:

The Misses Brock expressed the fear that the English people do not realise that there is a real danger of a Zeppelin invasion of England. 'There is not the least doubt,' said Miss Brock, 'that they mean to visit London, and they are straining every nerve to increase the Zeppelin fleet. We were told that the fall of Antwerp was preliminary to the taking of Calais, which would be used as a Zeppelin base. From what we were told, there are now about forty Zeppelins in the country, and they are said to be turning out one every fortnight. Large numbers of men have been taken from business firms solely for the purpose of assisting in the construction of Zeppelin engines. The Zeppelin can fly 1,000 miles and stay up thirty-six hours, so that they assert that the destruction of London is possible and will be attempted.'8

Other reports from Germany were less worrying: people there were said to be depressed by the failure on the Aisne, and even the idea that 'the Zeppelin fleet [could] operate from Antwerp as a base' provided little immediate cheer, since poorer weather was setting in and airships wouldn't be much use until the spring.9 Even so, reports from neutral Holland suggested that '"Three Zeppelin sheds are building at Brussels and four at Antwerp"'.10

So what I am suggesting may have happened is that the German occupation of Antwerp and to a lesser extent Ostend was 'explained' by their need to use them as launching points for Zeppelin attacks. This in itself is not self-evidently silly, since a shorter distance to the target is of course advantageous in air operations; though I doubt it was a primary consideration in German strategy in 1914. But people might have taken that idea to extremes: if a Zeppelin base in Antwerp was advantageous for an attack on London, how much more so would be one in the Chilterns?11 The press speculation also 'confirmed' that Germany was about to attack Britain using its Zeppelins. With the fears about spies (and Maubeuge platforms) reaching their peak, linking these to the impending Zeppelin attacks was logical enough. The exact dates of the secret Zeppelin base stories are hard to pin down; my secondary sources say September, but all my primary sources are from after the fall of Antwerp in October. Either way, there was speculation about encroaching Zeppelin bases in both periods.

There might be another vector for Zeppelin fears in the Great Missenden case. I've already noted how rumours from Germany were passed on by the press, but Great Missenden was host to two families of Belgian refugees, who had in fact escaped from Antwerp just before its fall. A visiting journalist asked if they had seen any Germans:

'No, not the army,' replied Mrs. Van Kerschaver, joining in the conversation. 'But we saw several of their large Zeppelins which hovered over the town and dropped bombs.'

'Yes,' added the daughter; 'and all the time the place was being bombarded [by artillery?]. We left Antwerp at four o'clock in the morning. We lived on the quay side, and just after we left the [artillery?] bombardment set fire to the houses, and nearly all of them were burnt down.'

'Did you witness any casualties?' we inquired?

'Oh, yes,' was the reply. 'We saw three policemen killed with bombs,' and, added Mrs. Kerschaver, raising her hands in horror, 'we saw one lady lying half out of a window with her head off.'12

A Zeppelin also apparently bombed their ship as it was leaving the quay, fortunately without success. It's quite possible that the Kerschavers were playing to their audience; when asked if she had knew anything about German atrocities, the daughter claimed to have personally seen a 'a lady who had her hands cut off by the Germans. They not only did this, but then rubbed the stumps in salt, inflicting the most awful agony on her'.13 While German soldiers undoubtedly committed atrocities on a large scale in during the 1914 invasion, claims of mutilation like this were not endorsed by the Bryce Committee, or by recent scholarship.14 It's not clear when exactly the refugees arrived in Great Missenden, but they were well-established by the time of their interview on 22 October, just four days after the Maubeuge platform/Zeppelin base hunt the previous Sunday. As they were 'well-known to nearly everyone in Missenden', 'who feel honoured at being able to show hospitality to the natives of a country to which we owe so much', it seems quite possible that stories told by the Belgian refugees had helped inspire the rumours which gripped Great Missenden and led to the extraordinary scenes of people digging up a field in search of evidence of German subterfuge.15 And when one of the rumours imported from Belgium didn't fit the evidence, because there was no concrete platform for siege guns, the mob switched to another one, because at least there were pipes which could perhaps be used to store fuel for Zeppelins.

So this kind of transnational rumour-swapping may be one way in which folk strategy is created, alongside the presumably more usual attempt to divine what was going on in the war by reading the newspapers.


  1. Birmingham Gazette, 28 August 1914, 4

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 29 August 1914, 4

  3. Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 16 September 1914, 2

  4. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22 September 1914, 4

  5. E.g. Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield), 24 September 1914, 2

  6. Birmingham Gazette, 10 October 1914, 4

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury, 19 October 1914, 12

  9. Birmingham Daily Mail, 21 October 1914, 2

  10. Ibid. 

  11. I should point out that the idea in that case, at least, seems to have been a refuelling base rather than a base of operations. 

  12. Bucks Herald (Aylesbury), 24 October 1914, 8

  13. Ibid. 

  14. See John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (London: Yale University Press, 2001), 200-204. 

  15. Bucks Herald (Aylesbury), 24 October 1914, 8. 

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12 thoughts on “Secret Zeppelin bases in Britain — III

  1. Andrew Reid

    So it seems to me there's an obvious reason why zeppelin bases in England are useless -- while the range to target is of course reduced, the length and vulnerability of the supply line is greatly increased. And the Germans had a supply line that could deliver armaments and fuel to England, they wouldn't need the zeppelins at all.

    Consequently, I like your idea that it's really fear-driven -- "scary thing is closer than you think!" -- rather than analytically arrived at.

  2. Also people just aren't "...straining every nerve...", any more. So that's clearly the cause of civilization's decline.

    Always wondered.

  3. Slightly more usefully, is there something about the Wilder film 'Five Graves to Cairo' there? It's a great 'mystery reveal' plot, but when you think about it rather than being immersed, it makes little sense and expects excess planning and precision for a relatively mundane advantage.

  4. Post author

    Oh yes, there's no doubt it's an idea which doesn't bear close inspection. Even the logistics of handling a Zeppelin make it difficult to imagine any such base being useful. In theory a Zeppelin could land anywhere where there was a big enough space, but they were hundreds of feet long, so that's a VERY big space. It would take a ground crews of dozens of men to secure once it had landed. A small valley or dale might seem like a safe harbour, but strong winds could easily damage or even destroy the airship. Hardly seems worth the risk.

    Fear is one thing fuelling the rumours, but also I think anger, a desire on the part of civilians to do something. There were also some anti-German riots

    One thing which I might have emphasised more had I not been finishing this post at 4 in the morning is the extent to which it was the beliefs and even demands of civilians which seem to have been driving the actions of authorities (who perhaps should have known better) in raiding suspect factories and searching for Zeppelin bases. There are not just spontaneous affairs like the one at Great Missenden but maybe also at Bo'ness and Edinburgh there are hints of some sort of public unrest. There were also anti-German riots in some areas in October as well as a lot of spy hysteria generally at this time. (Pennell has an appendix in A Kingdom United which lays out the chronology of this pretty well.) I'm not sure how far the government shared in these fears, but it couldn't afford not to be seen to take them seriously.

    The other really interesting aspect of Great Missenden is the fact that having gone looking for concrete gun platforms they switched to believing they'd found a Zeppelin base. It's as if they too had to be doing something, anything, to find and fight the enemy.

  5. Post author

    JDK:

    Haven't seen that! But could well be. I think it ties in with the idea of the efficient, thorough Prussians who leave nothing to chance, have been planning this for years and so it's exactly the sort of minor detail that more amateur powers like Britain would overlook. That characterisation was of course around long before 1914 and it's present in some of the press reports about the Maubeuge platforms and so on.

  6. "The Misses Brock expressed the fear that the English people do not realise that there is a real danger of a Zeppelin invasion of England."

    "Invasion" is a curious word to use here; I wonder if the journalist (or Miss Brock?) quite intended it.

    Silent airships gliding over, touching down in Chiltern clearings or Sussex scrub, and disgorging tidy lines of slightly airsick Prussians, possibly with the spikes on their helmets wrapped neatly up to avoid puncturing anything on disembarkation. I can see the Illustrated London News articles now...

    (in all seriousness, was this something the scaremongerers ever suggested, or was it a bit outlandish even for them?)

  7. Good points, Andrew. I think there's even a W. Heath Robinson cartoon of a Prussian puncturing his airship with a Pickelhaube...

  8. Post author

    Andrew:

    I don't read that as meaning an invasion in the sense of landing soldiers in Britain (although certainly that menacing idea would have popped into readers' minds). It's more a consequence of the evolution of the language around airpower, people were still working out how to talk about this stuff. Think about 'air raid', which is now an utterly normal term, but before 1914 a raid would have been understood as a seaborne invasion by a relatively small force, with the intention to damage rather than conquer. During the 1913 airship panic, invasion was used quite often; sometimes the context isn't clear (i.e. it could be referring to landing troops) but in others I think it clearly means just an incursion (e.g. here, here). Even as late as 1934 you could call a novel Invasion from the Air featuring nothing but air raids (plus revolution, but no airborne landings).

    All of that said, yes, sometimes literal invasions from the air were contemplated, though there were quite rare. In fact the very first (and very minor) airship scare in 1908 was occasioned by the claim of Rudolf Martin in Germany that Zeppelins could be used to land 350,000 soldiers in Britain in a few days. And one of the things I am interested in with my current research is the intersection between different types of scares, so that might turn up more examples. But still, the fact that the idea of an actual invasion from the air was so rare before 1940 suggests that scaremongering did have its limits.

    JDK:

    That rings a bell, though I haven't been able to track it down! It's not one of his 'Incidents of the coming invasion of England' published in the Sketch in 1910. It's exactly the sort of thing he would do, though.

  9. Found it, and more. It's entitled "Spiked! Unfortunate mishap to a Zeppelin through a Lack of Proper Caution in Descending." Mine is in Heath Robinson at War published by Duckworth, 1978, 0715613819, which also has "The Enemy in out Midst! An Extra Special Constable Discovering a German Waiter in the Act of laying the Foundation of a Concrete Gun-bed."

    Probably best to discuss with http://www.heathrobinson.org/ for repro rights if used...

  10. Post author

    Great, thanks! Heath Robinson had a keen eye for ridiculous scaremongering, so if he was poking fun at Maubeuge platforms then there was clearly something going on.

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