Must be a Zeppelin raid

Washington Times, 15 April 1916, 19

Here's one for the mock air raid file. On the evening of 15 April 1916, a lone aeroplane circled over Washington, D.C., and -- without warning -- proceeded to (pretend to) attack it. It first flew over the White House, then the State, Army and Navy departments, and then, over the Washington Monument and the nearby polo grounds, it carried out the main part of its display: dropping about 300 small bombs (actually small 'exselsior' fireworks), which detonated about 1000 feet above the ground and could be heard all over the city.

Crowds in the streets, on their way to the theatrers, heard the reports of the explosions and looked skyward. Traffic in Pennsylvania avenue and other streets came to a standstill. People stood dumfounded [sic].

Trails of fire streaked the heavens. The explosions continued. The buzz of a powerful motor could be heard distinctly. 1

The streaks, which can be seen above, were 'the traces of magnesium flares attached in tubes to the wings' of the aeroplane. 2

Given that there was no advance notice of the display, it seems that many people thought it was an actual air raid:

'Sure must be a Zeppelin raid,' shouted a colored elevator operator who had been attracted to the street by the firing [...] The aerial 'raid' was so unexpected that the several hundred people who paraded Pennsylvania stood in abject terror as volley after volley of fireworks was launched from the aircraft [...] terrified citizens ran to the phone and called up police headquarters for information. 1

Or possibly, and less dramatically, they were merely put in mind of an air raid:

Suddenly an explosion was heard. Another and another followed. The people stood still, startled, puzzled and seeing visions of a German raid like those which recently cost the lives of hundreds of people in London. 3

Even President Wilson watched, from 'the south portico of the White House', though what he made of it is not recorded. 1

The pilot was DeLloyd Thompson, a fairly well-known aviator of the day (and the current holder of the passenger-altitude record), but his flight was funded by the National Security League, a patriotic organisation founded in 1914 to promote defence preparedness (and you can take 'patriotic' to mean bigoted and jingoistic). According to Thompson himself,

My purpose in making tonight's 'raid' was to accelerate sentiment for aerial preparedness among members of the House and Senate and the high officials of this country. Until I turned on the magnesium flares prior to looping the loop there was no person who knew I was in the sky [...] Had I used real effective explosives of the deadly order I could have blown the White House and Capitol off the map [...] Aerial attack is the only danger we openly invite by total unpreparedness. Not a single antiaircraft gun is in the entire country. 4

Some of the bombs -- presumably a non-explosive variety -- were found 'in parks, streets, and back yards' the following morning, with the following message:

This 'bomb' is harmless. Suppose it had contained nitro-glycerine and was hurled by the enemy instead of by DeLloyd Thompson, who flew the American flag. Wake up and prepare! 5

But, it may be asked, just where was this aerial threat supposed to come from?

Since the record time in air, without alighting, is twenty-four hours, since airships could be brought within easy distance of American shores on vessels, and since the United States has no guns that would do damage to aeroplanes, they assert that the United States, and every city in it, is exposed to dangers of aerial onslaughts. 6

The possibility of hostile aircraft launched from ships off shore prefigures the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 and the New York hydroairplane-supersubmarine scare of 1918, but it also echoed what the Royal Navy had actually done as far back as 1914.

Thompson's plan was to repeat the Washington 'raid' over twenty big cities in the following eight weeks, beginning with New York:

He will take them by surprise, as he did the National Capital, realizing that the psycological [sic] element in an aerial attack adds to its mysteries and the fear of it. 6

But it doesn't seem that this mock air raid tour was completed in its entirety. There are quite a few reports in Chronicling America of the Washington raid, but not many references to Thompson in the following two months. He did carry out a mock raid on Chicago on 24 April, interestingly partnered with a woman aviator, Ruth Law (soon to become a record-holder herself, breaking the cross-United States speed record):

People of Chicago today heard about an 'enemy' aeroplane which last night dropped bombs on the city, theoretically destroying the postoffice [sic], two railroad stations, a large hotel and several stores in the downtown area before it was driven off by a 'defending' plane [...] After Thompson had started his attack Miss Law rose into the air and gave chase, finally 'driving' him away, but not until the attack had accomplished its purpose. 7

If the people of Chicago had to be told about it the day after, then it can't have been very spectacular, although another (dubious) photograph was produced in evidence of the need for aerial preparedness:

Fargo Forum, 17 June 1916, 1

There's also a report that after Chicago, Thompson travelled to 'Boston, the next point of attack', and that

After that city has been theoretically reduced, Detroit is to be visited.

'When I get to Detroit, I expect to drop bombs on the home of Henry Ford, apostle of pacificism, and show him how easy it would be to attack an unprepared city,' said Thompson today. 8

But neither the Boston nor the Detroit raids show up in a quick search. On 5 May Thompson was in New York where he was involved in a serious flying accident, breaking his right leg in two places, which must have derailed his plans. 9 By early September he was back in the air, where he was advertised as the star attraction of the Minnesota State Fair:

Sweeping in from the north in a gigantic war plane, Thompson will demonstrate a fancied destruction of the Fair Grounds by dropping bombs upon the principal buildings, maiming, killing destroying. It will be a thrilling sight. 10

No doubt, but there's no longer any sign of the National Security League or of surprise attacks on great cities, so it seems Thompson was back on the barnstorming circuit, now with a patriotic preparedness flavour. The mock air raid tour seems like a more aggressive version of Claude Grahame-White's aerial 'Wake Up England!' tour of English seaside resorts in 1912, but civilian aircraft being used to buzz major cities in an effort to highlight defencelessness from the air also happened in Australia at Brisbane in 1930 and Hobart in 1938. So it was a thing.

Image source: Washington Times, 16 April 1916, 19; Fargo Forum, 17 June 1916, 1.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. Washington Post, 16 April 1916, 11.[][][]
  2. Washington Times, 16 April 1916, 19.[]
  3. Washington Herald, 16 April 1916, 1.[]
  4. Ibid., 11.[]
  5. Washington Times, 16 April 1916, 19.[]
  6. Ibid., 19.[][]
  7. Evening World (New York), 25 April 1916, 3.[]
  8. Washington Herald, 26 April 1916, 12.[]
  9. Bennington Evening Banner (VT), 8 May 1916, 3.[]
  10. Grand Forks Herald (ND), 22 August 1916, 2.[]

2 thoughts on “Must be a Zeppelin raid

  1. "could have blown the White House and Capitol off the map"

    I suspect that his claims might have been taken more seriously if they had been more credible. I doubt the bomb load his craft could carry would have been enough to demolish either of those formidable stone structures

  2. Post author

    You're absolutely right, he was wildly exaggerating. And by 1916 it was clear enough that while Zeppelins, for example, could do some serious damage, they weren't exactly laying waste to London. Scaremongering is always a risk!

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