The airship panic of 1915 — IV

I've established from press accounts that there was a phantom airship panic in January 1915, in two parts: a vaguely-defined one in the first half of the month and a much more clearly-delineated one in the last week or 10 days. What I'm going to do here is look at what evidence there is for this panic in The National Archives and how well it matches up with the newspaper reports.1

There are several files which are potentially relevant. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, 'GHQ Home Forces General Correspondence File re. Movements & rumoured movements of hostile aircraft etc', covers the period from the start of the war in August 1914 to January 1915. Unfortunately the last entry in the file is from 2 January so it isn't very helpful, though it has some miscellaneous reports. Another potentially relevant file, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, contains MT1b's (roughly) weekly Home Defence Intelligence Summaries from October 1914 to April 1915 (thanks to James Pugh for providing a copy of this one!) But it's missing the reports for most of January, and those which do survive provide scant details of aircraft sightings, because those deemed to be false have been filtered out. It does have a couple of useful items. HO 139/43 has an interesting D-notice (a censorship request from the Home Office to the press -- not enforceable, though they were usually followed). By far the most useful file is AIR 1/561/16/15/62, 'Several files containing reports of false alarms & rumoured Air Raids on England', covering the period from December 1914 to August 1918. This has information on about half a dozen seperate phantom airship incidents from January 1915, some involving multiple sightings and defence responses.

So this is what's interesting for the period in question -- the dates in bold correspond clearly to incidents published in the press, and I've filtered out some incidents presumed at the time to be caused by friendly aircraft:

  • 24 December 1914: the first, real air raid on Britain takes place at Dover, doing little damage.
  • 25 December: the second real raid strikes at Cliffe with even less effect.
  • 26 December: at 5.30am, 'three hostile aëroplanes' were seen over Spithead and Hilsea, not far from the Portsmouth naval dockyard. They were flying east; one carried a 'blue light'. The War Office contacted the Duty Officer at the Admiralty shortly after 7.30am; the Navy had taken the 'necessary action' but MA1 decided it was probably a friendly aviator who had lost his bearings over the sea in the night. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff [CIGS], Lieutenant General Sir James Wolfe-Murray, decided no action by the Army was necessary. But at 10.25am, Worthing and an anti-aircraft detachment at Hove both saw 'a hostile aëroplane' heading east. Bad weather at Brooklands prevented an attempt at interception, though at 11.25am the Admiralty informed the War Office that 'the report had no foundation'.2. At 6.20am, a 'civilian' saw 'the lights of some aircraft' over Dunfanaghy, County Donegal, coming from the south and heading southwest.3
  • 27 December: at 5pm at Castlecaulfield in County Tyrone, an 'aircraft' was heard and seen, described as a 'long dark object'. It came from the direction of Pomeroy and headed towards Cookstown.4 The witnesses were 'three respectable young men', named in a fuller account given to Colonel Vernon Kell of MO5(g).5
  • 29 December: at 6.15am, 'air vessels' were seen in East Kent at Ramsgate 'showing a blue light', flying east to west.6 At Brighton, on the Channel, at 1.05pm an aeroplane was seen, possibly one of three which left Portsmouth for Dover earlier in the day (though this connection was not drawn at the time).7
  • 29 or 30 December: in the late afternoon an 'aeroplane' was seen near Catfield in Norfolk, heading towards London.8
  • 30 December: at 9.55am, an 'Aeroplane presumed foreigner' was seen at Whitstable on the southern coast of the Thames estuary, heading east to west.9 Central Force, Eastern Command, 2nd Army, London District, the Admiralty and MA1 were all informed by 11.05am, along with CIGS.10
  • 31 December: at 1.55pm, a 'biplane khaki coloured' was seen from the powder mills at Tedfont in east London, heading northeast to northwest.11
  • 2 January 1915: police report that an airship flew over Sheffield at 6.10am, heading south.12
  • 3 January: A War Office analysis describes this as a 'Day of Dupes', when an Admiralty report of two Zeppelins and three cruisers off the German coast and heading for Britain 'gave rise to an extraordinary crop of rumours'.13 This report was issued at 11.55am, but at 2pm it was followed by another one stating that they had turned back towards Germany.14 Regardless, several hours before the airships could conceivably have arrived, two Zeppelins were sighted at Chelmsford, Essex, with the Royal Bank there informing the War Office Accounts Branch (!) at 12.45pm. At 1.35pm Beckton police tell guards at the nearby oil tanks that two Zeppelins were over Chelmsford, and ten minutes later the crew of a naval biplane (a Sopwith Three Seater, serial W.104, which landed at High Halstow -- presumably RNAS Kingsnorth) also see two Zeppelins over Chelmsford, apparently headed for London and supported by four or five cruisers (how this could possibly be is not entirely clear, since Chelmsford must be 25 miles or more from the coast). At 2pm, two Zeppelins are reported at Crowborough, Sussex, by a captain of the 25th London Cyclists. At 2.40pm the guard at Stevenage report an airship flying slowly over Barking in east London, and that there was firing between Woolwich and Purfleet to the east. At 9.06pm, an aeroplane (possibly a British one) is observed from the West India Docks over Purfleet; at 9.57pm police report it over Guildford in Surrey. In Lincolnshire, another Zeppelin is reported by the Boston police at 9.35pm.13 Also, 'numerous vague reports were received during the day from different places stating that aircraft had been seen'.14
  • 19 January: the first (real) Zeppelin raid attacks targets in Norfolk, killing four people. Late that night, two sentries at Hillington Park, near Sandringham in Norfolk, saw a 'brilliantly lighted' motor car park nearby. Its occupants 'seemed to crouch down' when another car stopped to ask if the sentries needed any assistance, and when it drove off one person got out and 'put what looked like white paper, or something of that kind (luminous paper, perhaps)' on the roof. The first car then drove off.15
  • 21 January: at Westcliffe-on-Sea, Essex, at 11.30am, two 'intelligent special constables' see an airship flying up the Thames in the direction of London.13
  • 22 January: 'A zeppelin passed over East Coast near Cromer [Norfolk] but dropped no bombs'.16
  • 23 January: an Admiralty warning of a Zeppelin off the German coast produces 'the usual crop of rumours', according to the War Office report. Between 10.10am and 11am, the stationmaster at Martham in Norfolk hears 'an aircraft' overhead, though it could not be seen; it appeared to fly north. A Zeppelin was was reported over Breydon Water at 11.55am. At 10pm, the Alien Officer and three customs officials at Tilbury, on the Thames, see ‘three “cigar-shaped objects”’ pass overhead. At 11.30pm, a RNAS armoured car section at Oxted, Surrey, sees an airship to the south, flying west, along with 'the usual "motor-car carrying two brilliant headlights and a light on top'. The War Office analyst concludes that 'There never was any probability in the story'.13
  • before 24 January: Nine aircraft reports off the northeast coast of Ireland, though GOC Irish Command 'attaches little importance to these'.17
  • 24 January: a patrol sees 'an enemy airship' near Purley Oaks Railway Station in South London at 11am, flying from the south to the north-northwest.13
  • 24 January-3 February: 'Numerous reports of supposed aircraft have been received which on investigation have been proved to be imagination'; in addition, 'Several reports on aircraft seen at night have been received from Ireland', though these are yet to be explained. Also in this period, Scottish Command produces a report on 'a supposed aircraft base in Kirkcudbrightshire'.18
  • 26 January: The day before the Kaiser's birthday, which according to 'agent's reports' was to be the occasion for 'a big raid on England'.13 'Special military precautions are being taken in certain of the Eastern Counties during the next few nights, when lights will be extinguished', troops moved around and so on.19 These orders for 'special vigilance' lead to 'a second night of wild rumours', according to a War Office analysis. At 6.45pm, a sentry sees 'an aircraft' crossing the beam of a searchlight at Waltham Abbey in Essex. Ten minutes later, guards on Grosvenor Bridge over the Thames report 'an aeroplane' heading west. Downriver, there was a report of a '"hostile" aircraft' at Grays at 9.30pm. At 11.15pm, the stationmaster at Abbey Wood reports that 'an airship' had dropped bombs on Farleigh, near Croydon (I think). Despite its general scepticism, the War Office analysis notes a 10.40pm report from Dunkirk of a Zeppelin heading towards England, allowing for the possibility of 'a reconnaissance towards the Straits'.13
  • 31 January: 'an airship' is seen heading east at 10.30am at Michaeldever in Hampshire, followed by 'an aëroplane' heading north at 10.40am.20
  • 1 February: the 'wildest reports of all [...] curious because they do not seem to have been inspired by any warning or have had any foundation whatever'. Firstly, between 6.15pm and 6.30pm, '"five Zeppelins"' are seen over Hornchurch, in Essex, heading for London. Then, '"three Zeppelins"' are seen at Dover at 7.23pm heading towards Deal; the defences of Dover Castle fire three rounds at 'these phantom airships'. The Surrey Commercial Docks guard reports '"five Zeppelins"' over Romford at 7.45pm, evidently the result of the Hornchurch sighting nearby. Similarly, the lights at Slough, on the opposite side of London, are ordered extinguished at 10pm because '"five Zeppelins were over LONDON"', according to an artillery officer (although it's not clear if the order was carried out, as the police checked with the War Office and were told this was not true). And at 8.20pm an '"aeroplane"', not a British one, was seen at Purfleet flying in the direction of London.20

There is certainly some correspondence between the press phantom airships and the archival phantom airships. The 'Day of Dupes' on 3 January was evident in newspaper accounts, particularly the centrality of Chelmsford and the threat to London. The mysterious motor-cars seen driving around Norfolk with headlights blazing during the actual raid of 19 January were of some interest (not much) to military intelligence. The Cromer 'raid' on 22 January was reported in the press, along with a quick official denial; oddly, MT1b (MT=Military Training, but it was responsible at this time for home defence and intelligence) reported this as an actual German reconnaissance, although I've found no reference to it in the standard secondary sources (it seems that the next attempted Zeppelin raid wasn't until February). The scare on 26 January appears in the press only as a blackout at Lincoln, supposedly initiated as an erroneous report of an approaching Zeppelin, but that's now revealed to be only a small part of a crop of rumours. It could even be that the Lincoln blackout was part of the precautions for the expected Kaiser's birthday raid. Finally, the 'wildest' night of rumours on 1 February was fairly accurately repreented in the press, with the five Zeppelins over Hornchurch heading for London and the Dover defences going into action. The only major scare evident in the archives but not in the press is the one on 23 January, which mostly took place in East Anglia, while the only newspaper reports I've found from that period relate to Scotland and Yorkshire (though that doesn't mean there aren't any others yet to be found). The multiple if scattered mystery aircraft sightings in late December don't seem to have made it to the press, either.

The press and military views of the phantom airships are complementary in another, quite useful way. The military was interested in establishing who saw what, where and when, so its analyses and summaries tend to focus on verifiable reports. Some files even contain copies of eyewitness letters or police telegrams. But respectable sources are privileged, and it's not always clear how far news (or rumours) of these mystery aircraft had spread beyond the original witnesses. By contrast, newspapers tended to report rumours of sightings, raids, responses, which are valuable for tracing the way that information about the scares spread. They also tend to contain more colour and context, revealing the roles played by canons and cinema managers, for example, in spreading rumours.

It's interesting that some of the scares do display some consistency: the two Zeppelins over Chelmsford, for example, or the five over Hornchurch, feature in multiple reports. It could be argued that the reports are consistent because they were accurate -- maybe there really were two (somethings) over Chelmsford that day. (The relative prevalence of daytime sightings is interesting; mystery aircraft tended to be seen at night. It's also interesting that the main RNAS airship station at this time, RNAS Kingsnorth, was near the Thames Estuary, not far from many of these sightings. But presumably somebody checked into this at the time.) It could equally be argued that this was expectation and/or rumour leading people to report or relay the same numbers. The amusingly acerbic (but unfortunately unknown -- other reports in the same hand have both R. Cox and H. R. Hall written on them, but these could be distribution lists) War Office analyst argued that:

The aeroplane raids of Boxing Day and Christmas Day 1915 [sic] in Kent and of Jan 19-20 in Norfolk had their aftermath of false alarms of raids, most of them of a wild and senseless nature which did not say much for the intelligence of the 'observers'. Very few of these people seemed to have asked themselves whether it was possible for enemy airships to be in the positions assigned to them, and there seems to have been no very clear idea of what an airship looked like or indeed of the difference between an airship and an aeroplane. Some people were under the impression that the word 'Zeppelin' was the German for an aeroplane.20

In two cases, the scares were caused by Admiralty reports of Zeppelins approaching from the North Sea (which further raises the question of just who would have been aware of these reports), and in another by the defensive precautions taken for a major attack (at least from the air, perhaps from the sea as well?) supposedly planned on or about the Kaiser's birthday.

In the next post in this series, I'll examine a third layer of sources: contemporary diaries. There aren't many, but there aren't none!

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  1. See also Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), 94-95, 168-171. []
  2. TNA, AIR 1/561/16/15/62, 'False reports of air-raids on South Coast, Dec. 26, 1914', undated. []
  3. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, Inspector-General [Sir Neville Chamberlain], Royal Irish Constabulary, 26 December 1914. []
  4. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, HQ Dublin [Irish Command], 28 December 1914. []
  5. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, letter, Major I. H. Price [Intelligence Officer, General Staff, Irish Command], 30 December 1914. []
  6. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, [unclear], 29 December 1914. []
  7. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, Chief Constable, Brighton Police [Sir William Gentle], 29 December 1914. []
  8. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, Barry, undated. []
  9. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, J. Clark [duty officer, Whitstable], 30 December 1914. []
  10. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, Fuller [?], 30 December 1914. []
  11. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, message, Captain [unclear], London District, 31 December 1914. []
  12. TNA, AIR 1/565/16/15/89, telegram, Sheffield Police, 2 January 1915. []
  13. TNA, AIR 1/561/16/15/62, 'False alarms in January 1915', undated. [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  14. TNA, AIR 1/561/16/15/62, H. A. Nisbet, 'Report on rumours of Zeppelins in North Sea & at Chelmsford etc on 3.1.15', 3 January 1915. [] []
  15. TNA, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, report, Major Acland Hood, undated. []
  16. TNA, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, intelligence summary for week ending 20 January 1915 [sic, probably 24 January 1915]. []
  17. TNA, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, intelligence summary for week ending 20 January 1915. []
  18. TNA, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, Home Defence Intelligence Summary, 24 January-3 February 1915. []
  19. HO 139/43, D144, 26 January 1915. []
  20. Ibid. [] [] []

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