The phantom phantom air raid — II

Junkers A.35b

So if there were no mystery aeroplanes over Berlin on 23 June 1933, and nobody who even saw any mystery aeroplanes, why did the German government and press say otherwise? There are three-ish reasons, that I can see.

The first is the most obvious. It was strongly implied in the original English-language reports that the whole affair was fabricated in order to justify revising the Versailles ban on German military aviation. For example, it was reported that as a 'sequel' to the raid, 'the Nazi Government is to claim equality in the air at the disarmament discussions' in Geneva.1 Hermann Göring, in his capacity as 'Commissioner of Air', or air minister -- and also Prussian minister-president, though not yet commander of the Luftwaffe, since that didn't formally exist until 1935 -- told a British press representative that:

We are denied military aeroplanes under the Versailles Treaty. I am prepared to renounce bombing and aggressive machines of all kinds, but we must have defence aeroplanes. There is not a single machine in all Germany that we could have sent aloft yesterday. The incident shows how defenceless Germany is. Communist machines might come over at any time from Czechoslovakia or Poland. It is grotesque that a great Power, in the heart of Central Europe, should be so defenceless.2

This rather gave the game away. How convenient that the supposed injustice of the Versailles ban on aviation be so clearly demonstrated so soon after the Nazi seizure of power, and by such a conveniently nebulous bogey as Communist air forces in Czechoslovakia or Poland (neither exactly known as bastions of Soviet influence).

The raid may also have served as cover for the actual acquisition of military aircraft. Göring claimed that as a consequence of the raid he had 'decided to order the construction of two police aeroplanes immediately'.3 From some extremely patchy and possibly sketchy information found online, it seems the Luftpolizei (or air police -- actual police, rather than the international air police force I'm more usually interested in) acquired two Junkers A 35bs (civil registrations D-2472 and D-2473; similar to the one shown above) in June 1933, i.e. the same month as the raid. How accurate that information is or what it means (ordered? purchased? built? transferred?) is unclear, but it seems likely that these are the aircraft Göring was referring to. The A 35 was a civilian type but could be militarised as a fighter quite easily. Their actual usefulness in any combat situation would have been low, but the principle was the thing, here. Göring also tried to buy British aircraft for the police: 'as Great Britain had supplied police aeroplanes to Austria, the Nazi Government wanted some as well'. However, the British government denied both the claim and the request, pointing out that both were illegal under the 'Paris Treaty of 1926'.4 In any case, this was only part of the rearmament strategy, already in train long before Hitler arrived, with fighters and bombers being developed in secret or as Luft Hansa transport aircraft. And in 1935, of course, this secret became an open reality.

The second reason is related to the first, but with the target being domestic, rather than foreign, opinion. This is the frame Peter Fritzsche uses.5 Many press reports noted that the 'handbill air raid' took place just before the start of 'Aviation Week', which suggested that it was made to impress the public of the necessity for air armaments'.6 The raid seems to have such an effect: the League of Nations received 'Over seventy protests [...] from municipalities and private persons in Germany against the flight of foreign aeroplanes over Berlin, demanding 'that Germany shall be treated on equality of footing with other countries with regard to her rights of protection of her territory against foreign aeroplanes'.7 The 'Aviation Week' seems to have been a big affair,

accentuated by every resource of Nazi propaganda, including an exhibition of specially built cellars as refuges against aerial bombs and gas.8

It also featured 'exhibitions in many cities of models of aeroplanes'.9 But again, it was just part of a wider pattern, this time of civil defence propaganda highlighting Germany's vulnerability to aerial bombardment. According to Fritzsche:

All summer [1933] long, Germans found themselves drilled, evacuated, and otherwise put throught [sic] the paces of civil defense. Shoppers in Gleiwitz earned the approbation of local authorities by evacuating a department store in less than four minutes. In countless other German cities, huge dummy bombs, eight feet long and painted black with an eye-catching yellow stripe, swung overhead from street lamps and streetcar wires, ominous, dangling reminders of the imminence of air war. In addition, the Reich Civil Defense League [Reichsluftschutzbund or RLB] distributed hundreds of thousands of posters and leaflets.10

This included something like aerial theatre -- it's not clear if any actual aeroplanes were involved, but it did have involuntary audience participation!

At the 'Air Defense Show: "Kiel in Flames,"' for example, a small wooden village, built especially for the purpose, was torched while voluntary firemen, Red Cross officials, and members of the Technical Emergency Aid hurried through the ruins, rescuing victims and combating the blaze. The entertainment ended with tear gas fired at unsuspecting spectators. 'The effect was quick and dramatic. Suddenly a sea of handkerchiefs were in motion.'11

A more fully-fledged mock air raid took place at Munich in August:

Munich was the scene of 'visiting air raids' by 'enemy aeroplanes' on Saturday morning (states Reuter's correspondent). The 'attack' had been well advertised in advance, and crowds numbering several thousand strong collected in all the principal squares and streets. At five minutes to eleven, the main 'air raid' was carried out by squadrons of about ten aeroplanes, which were heralded by the blowing of syrens and the pealing of church bells and by Nazis in motor-cars and single patrols, some members of which wore gas masks.

The patrols raced through the town urging the public to flee in to the cellars. Each of the 'enemy' aeroplanes dropped quantities of paper bombs, most of which were carried along by the wind to the outskirts of the town.12

The third and final possible reason was as cover for German propaganda activities against Austria, high on the Nazi agenda for Anschluss:

Simultaneously [with the raid on Berlin], a real German (Nazi) aeroplane showered Austria with anti-Dollfuss leaflets, so Austria also wants police planes.13

This is admittedly a bit vague (where in Austria, exactly?), but similar stories surfaced a month later:

The 'Guardian's Vienna correspondent says that seven German aeroplanes flew over Salzburg and dropped leaflets attacking the Austrian Government in vile language. The 'raid' was intended as a prelude to an anti-Austrian demonstration at the opening of the Salzburg festival.14

The German government soon gave 'vague assurances' that it would 'do its best to prevent German aeroplanes dropping propaganda in Austria'.15 Really, this was projection: the Nazis were doing the exact same thing there that they falsely claimed was being done to them, giving them a plausible excuse.

This post has gone on far too long already, but despite, or rather because of, this mystery aeroplane scare never occurring -- because nobody actually claimed to have seen any aeroplanes -- it does highlight how useful they were for emphasising an aerial threat. Just as in Britain in 1913, Germany in 1933 had little in the way of an air force -- with the key difference being that in the latter case, it was the government, not the people, who were feeling the lack. Hence the fake scare. But it does make me wonder if there were any real (so to speak) phantom aeroplane scares in Nazi Germany before the Luftwaffe came along?

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  1. Northern Whig (Belfast), 26 June 1933, 7. []
  2. Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1933, 12. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Daily Herald, 25 July 1933, 9. []
  5. Peter Fritzsche, A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 208. []
  6. Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 26 June 1933, 1. []
  7. Aberdeen Press and Journal, 27 June 1933, 7. []
  8. Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 26 June 1933, 1 []
  9. The Age (Melbourne), 26 June 1933, 9. []
  10. Fritzsche, A Nation of Fliers, 208-209. []
  11. Ibid., 211. []
  12. Belfast News-Letter, 7 August 1933, 7. Dietmar Süss describes a very similar event but places it in 'spring 1933', rather than August: Dietmar Süss, Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 36. []
  13. News Chronicle (London); quoted in Herald (Melbourne), 26 June 1933, 5. []
  14. Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah), 1 August 1933, 6. []
  15. Armidale Express, 7 August 1933, 1. []

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