I'm featured in the latest episode of the podcast Tales from Rat City, which is focused on unusual and sometimes bizarre aspects of the history of Ballarat, Victoria's third largest city (if you've heard of the Eureka Stockade, well, that's where that was). It's run by David Waldron (a historian at Federation University who co-authored the excellent Snarls from the Tea-tree, about Australian bigcat folklore), Tom Hodgson and Katrina Hill. As you can probably guess, 'Anzacs and airships: Australian UFO panics in the First World War' is about Australian mystery aircraft sightings in the Great War period. As well as the interview with me, it's based partly on my article 'Dreaming war' as well as the team's own original research. It's a really interesting scamper through early Australian airminded hopes and fears (ranging well beyond Ballarat and 1914-18). I particularly enjoyed the use of actors to read out the primary source quotations, including many mystery aircraft sighting reports. It's a great way to give back to these accounts of strange apparitions something of their original uncanniness.
Bonus: if you happen to be in the Ballarat area on 28 May 2023, why not go along to the Ballarat Observatory and see David's magic lantern show 'Mystery Airships: A Night of Strange Things Seen in the Skies!'? Details and tickets here.
Take off for a discussion of “airmindedness” with contributors to Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain (Palgrave 2020). What did it mean to be “airminded” in interwar Britain? How did airmindedness encapsulate the possibilities and potential dangers of aviation? How was it an expression of military and industrial power as well as aerial theatre? Join Rinni Haji Amran, Brett Holman, and Luke Seaber for a discussion of aviation, Croydon aerodrome, and the work of W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, and T. H. White, among others. Rinni Haji Amran is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University Brunei Darussalam. Brett Holman is a Professional Associate of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra in Australia. Luke Seaber is Senior Teaching Fellow in Modern European Culture at University College London and the co-editor with Michael McCluskey of Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain (Palgrave 2020).
Stories from the Space Between is the podcast of the Space Between, a society for the interdisciplinary discussion of studies in the interwar and wartime periods covered by 1914–1945. It's only up to episode 5 but has already covered everything from psychogeography to Poland! You can listen to the airmindedness episode here.
I'm a bit of a podcast sceptic, meaning not that I don't believe in their existence but rather that I don't really get the appeal (which probably puts me in a similar position to a blog sceptic about 15 years ago). Since they aren't actually going away any time soon, I guess it was bound to happen eventually that I would be asked to speak on one...
The podcast in question is Big If True, which is for kids and is about big things -- in my case, airships. It's hosted by Maggie and her mom, Abby Mullen (a naval historian and one of the people behind Tropy, an excellent tool for organising and annotating archival photos). And, of course, despite my scepticism I had a great time talking about airships with Maggie and Abby, who had some great questions. And yes, we did get to phantom airships! So please have a listen if you have a spare 20 minutes or so, and then maybe check out some of Maggie and Abby's other episodes too (such as aircraft carriers, with Carlton McClain, and World War II, with Kim Guise).
For my twelfth (and last?) contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I spoke about what was undoubtedly the most important battle to take place in late April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres in Flanders. The reason why this was so important is because it opened with the first successful, large-scale poison gas attack in the history of warfare (the first unsuccessful attack had been at the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front at the end of January). I looked how the particular gas used by the Germans, chlorine, worked in chemical, biological and military terms, the role played by Fritz Haber in developing it, the shattering effect it had on the French lines, and the unreadiness of the German army to do much to exploit its success. I also noted briefly the prewar laws against the use of poison gas and its subsequent career in the war and after, including in the present Syrian civil war.
I'd forgotten that today was the 70th anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, but luckily the producers of Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 Live remembered. I spoke to presenter Dotun Adebayo and fellow historian Raymond Sun this afternoon (just before 5am Greenwich Mean Time), and for the next 29 days you can listen to our conversation here (the recording is the whole programme, 4 hours long, so skip to about 3:47:15).
Today I made my ninth contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, talking about U-boats (AKA 'the Zeppelins of the sea') and their advantages and disadvantages in warfare. More specifically, I spoke about the German declaration on 4 February 1915 of unlimited submarine warfare in the seas around Britain, switching from their previous Kleinkrieg strategy of targeting warships in order to reduce the British surface superiority (U-9, above, sank three armoured cruisers in one engagement alone). I put this into the context of erosion of international law with the British imposition of a North Sea blockade the previous November, as well as the increasing readiness to attack civilian targets directly, as evidenced by the naval bombardment of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby in December and the aerial bombardment of Norfolk in January.
Back to back Roads to War! This week's topic is the most airminded yet: the first German air raids on Britain. I had to cheat slightly to fit them in, as technically I'm supposed to talk about the centenary events in the week leading up to the broadcast date, i.e 23 December, but the first German bomb didn't fall on British soil until 24 December. However, if you count bombs falling pointlessly into the sea off Dover pier then 21 December 1914 was the date of the first German air raid on Britain. That's not exactly exciting, so I also talked about the slightly more interesting Christmas Eve raid (which famously destroyed a Dover cabbage patch) and the even slightly more interesting Christmas Day raid (which led to the first aerial combat in British skies). Even so, that wasn't enough to fill up 15 minutes, so I also talked about the fear of aerial attack and (of course) phantom airships, including one over Hartlepool the second night after the bombardment which led to a rumour that the Germans were back and this time had landed, and hence to a minor exodus as people fled to the relative safety of Middlesbrough.
Image source: Online Bicycle Museum (!) Note the injunction for members of the public in country districts to report hostile aircraft to the authorities.
Chatting to Andrew Gray the other day, I realised that I'd never got around to posting about a small discovery I'd made about one of the most sensational sightings from the 1909 phantom airship scare. This is the claim by a Welsh showman named Lethbridge that he had actually seen an airship on the ground, seen its crew, seen them board the airship and take off. Here's how I summarised this incident when I postblogged 20 May 1909, quoting from the London Standard (and ultimately the Cardiff Evening Express):
a travelling Punch-and-Judy salesman by the name of Lethbridge was walking back home from Senghenydd to Cardiff over Caerphilly Mountain. At about 11pm [on 19 May 1909] he saw an airship which had landed on the mountain, and its crew. At least, that seems to be the implication of the interview he gave to the Cardiff Evening Express yesterday.
At the mountain's peak, he saw 'a long, tube-shaped affair lying on the grass on the roadside, with two men busily engaged with something near by'. The men wore 'big, heavy, fur coats, and fur caps fitting tightly over their heads'. When he got within twenty yards 'they jumped up and jabbered furiously to each other in a strange lingo -- Welsh, or something else; it was certainly not English'. They picked up something from the ground, and the object started to rise into the air. The men then 'jumped into a kind of little carriage suspended from it', with wheels. Once it had cleared some telegraph lines, it turned on two lights and headed towards Cardiff.
Three authors (from Belgium, Germany and France) have been working for years on a bizarre subject: the dropping of dummy wooden bombs on wooden airplanes.
In order to deceive the Allies during the Second World War, the Germans built fake airfields on the continent, often with runways and sometimes with buildings, but always with fake wooden planes, called "Attrappen". Strange stories can be heard in which allied airplanes made fun of them by dropping wooden bombs on which they had sometimes painted remarks like "Wood for Wood".