Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

As long-time (and very patient) readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by the historical evidence for what I term air panics. Most obviously this includes phantom airship and mystery aeroplane panics, but also rearmament panics, Zeppelin base panics, red balloon panics... anything and everything which provides evidence for what the British people thought and felt about the danger of aviation.

Perhaps the best-known example of an air panic is the exodus from London in September 1938 at the peak of the Sudeten crisis. Supposedly some 150,000 middle or upper class people fled west in anticipation of a German air attack.1 Such a large movement of people represents impressive evidence for the reality of a fear of a knock-out blow from the air. But I've never looked into this in any detail, and nor, as far as I know, has anyone else. So we don't know much about what actually happened during the 1938 exodus, or why.

The 1938 exodus was not, of course, unique. (People had trekked out to the countryside to avoid air raids in the First World War.) It wasn't the only one in the British Empire. (There was one in Australia.) In fact, it wasn't even the biggest. As I was surprised to learn from reading Srinath Raghavan's India's War, numerous spontaneous evacuations due to the fear of air raids took place in India in 1941 and 1942.2 Admittedly this was during wartime, but some of these panics took place before Japan entered the war, and others from places that were never even threatened by air attack.
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  1. Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1950), 31. 

  2. Srinath Raghavan, India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945 (Penguin, 2017). 


Not a phantom airship

It is seventy years since since 24 June 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw nine crescent-shaped objects flying at high speed past Mt Rainier; in other words, seventy years since the emergence of the UFO phenomenon. Often, when I talk or write about phantom airships, the topic of UFOs comes up, and with good reason. The similarities are obvious: both modern UFOs and the earlier mystery aircraft are to a large extent unknown objects seen in the sky, upon which we project our own fears and fantasies. Once those fears and fantasies reflected the concerns caused by coming of flight; then they reflected the concerns of the dawn of the rocket/atomic age.

And yet, when the topic of UFOs does come up, for the most part I will do no more than note the obvious correspondences, and disclaim any interest in the modern manifestation of the phenomenon. In other words, I run the other way. So why is that?
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British Journal for Military History

The latest issue of the British Journal for Military History is out, and with it my peer-reviewed article 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914':

This article explores the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, so persistently that they were repeatedly investigated by both the police and the military. They were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of an enemy within. They also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasingly obvious likelihood of a long, total war.

As I've explained previously, BJMH is an open access journal, meaning that anyone and everyone can read my article for free, and even reuse it (CC BY-NC-ND). Not that I imagine it's going to have much of an impact at all, but in an age when many people are busy constructing a Muslim enemy within out of sharia, halal, and their own shadows, it's better than nothing.

Image source: British Journal for Military History.

Portable airship hangar, Farnborough

Exactly three years ago I was visiting the National Aerospace Library at Farnborough, the historic home of British military aviation going back to 1904 through the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Cody's first flight, and the Army's Balloon Factory. The site now seems to consist largely of a series of business parks -- though the famous air show is still held here, along with the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust and several large ex-wind tunnels. One of other the remaining remnants of Farnborough's aviation heritage can be seen above: the British Army's portable airship hangar (sans canvas), dating originally to 1912.
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On Remembrance Day, 11 November 2016, I was privileged to be part of a joint seminar with Dr Richard Scully and Dr Nathan Wise, highlighting the teaching and research we do around the topic of the First World War (Richard is the author of British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860-1914, Nathan of Anzac Labour: Work and Workplace Cultures in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War). Richard provided the context and graciously introduced Nathan and I, who each then gave a short presentation explaining our respective reaearch programmes. You can see the whole seminar above. Nathan went first; the abstract for his part is as follows:

Citizen-soldiers: Contextualising military service during the First World War

For decades, the otherworldliness of the First World War has fascinated Australian historians. Since the 1960s there has been a steadily growing genre of social and cultural histories of military environments. This genre analyses people in the military by the same standards that scholars would otherwise use when assessing people in civil society. What did they believe, how did they behave, how did they relate to each other, how did they actively shape the world around them? Part of this approach is designed to challenge the assumptions of the traditional genre of military history, and to attempt to explore these environments through ‘civilian lenses’. In this talk, Dr. Wise explores how this scholarly approach impacts on research and teaching activities at UNE.

And the abstract for mine (which starts at about the 26 minute mark, but listen to Nathan's too!) is:

Zeppelins and Gothas: The British People and the Great War in the Air

As a cultural historian of aviation, I am primarily interested in the ways that people in the early 20th century thought and felt about the new technology of flight and its incredible potential for changing the world. Over the past couple of years I have focused especially on the Great War, during which aircraft moved from being merely entertainment to efficient and deadly weapons. In this talk, I will outline my current research programme which aims to understand how the British people experienced and interpreted what was then a new and terrible experience: the aerial bombardment of London and other cities, first by Zeppelin airships, then by Gotha aeroplanes. This research has already resulted in three articles and eventually will lead to a book, in what is a surprisingly under-researched field.

As you can see, it's essentially a preview of my next book, or what will be my next book if I ever get around to it...


White Australia and the Empty North (1909)

The previous post in this series was supposed to be the last. But in the course of taking two months to write it, I managed to forget about another, earlier association between a White Australia and an Australian airship. This one wasn't a real airship; it was a fictional one which appeared in Randolph Bedford's 1909 play, White Australia; or the Empty North -- effectively an Australian version of Guy du Maurier's An Englishman's Home. Does this shed any light on Alban Roberts' 1914 airship, White Australia?
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So I half-promised a final post in this series about the airship panic of 1915. There are a couple of methodological points I'd like to make.

The first point is that this is an unusually well-attested panic. There are panics with more sources, but not with so many different kinds of sources. Here, there are three overlapping and fairly consistent layers of evidence for phantom airship sightings or rumours of air raids: stories in the press; military intelligence reports and analyses; and private diaries and letters. For peacetime panics, newspapers are normally the only source of information, with scant evidence for official interest -- for example, the 1913 phantom airship panic. In wartime, there is much more in the way of intelligence interest, but less full and/or less frank press coverage, partly due to censorship -- for example, the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand. In both peace and war, presumably private individuals wrote in letters and diaries about the mystery aircraft they saw or heard about, but they're hard to survey on any scale, inevitably hit and miss, and in any case I don't think anyone else has looked.
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1 Comment

Rumours have a bad reputation, especially in wartime. They are at best unreliable, at worst flat-out lies. They are distractions from the war effort, if not actually undermining it. They can create unreasoning suspicion and fear or equally unjustified hope and optimism. In short, nothing good comes from them.

Unless you're a historian, of course. Then rumours in wartime are valuable evidence for what the people who told them thought was important and what they thought was going on, and how these differed from the official or press view. And they're even more important if you write an article about rumours in wartime and it's accepted for publication, which is what has just happened to me! In this case, the article is 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914' and the journal is the British Journal for Military History.

BJMH is published by the British Commission for Military History, which in 2014 hosted a conference at Wolverhampton where I first presented on this topic. It's a new journal: the first issue came out in 2014 and it's still only up to its second volume. It's peer-reviewed, of course; but more interestingly, it's open access (libre). I strongly believe that research should be made available to as wide an audience as possible, which is partly why I have this blog and why I upload whatever versions of my articles I can here. But I've never published in an actual open access journal before, so I'm excited about that.

The article expands upon several blog posts I wrote on the topic of the strange rumours of Zeppelin bases which spread in Britain in the first summer and autumn of the war, which were paralleled by strange rumours of secret German gun platforms, linked by the occurrence of both at Great Missenden on 18 October 1914. I was awarded a UNE grant to further this research, and so this article (and the departmental seminar I gave last month) is the result of that. It's the first time I've stepped away from a strictly airminded topic: while obviously it is still partly about aviation, it is also obviously partly not, and moreover it's ultimately about trying to chart the imaginative shifts from home to home front and from peace to total war. This will, hopefully, be the topic of my next book; it's off to a good start!

1 Comment

On Friday, 1 April 2016, I gave my second Humanities Research Seminar (again introduced by Nathan Wise) at the University of New England, under the title of 'Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret German forts and aerodromes in Britain, August-October 1914'. It was based on a (hopefully) forthcoming article, which in turn is based on a series of posts here as well as a research trip. The abstract:

I will explore the false rumours of secret German gun platforms and hidden Zeppelin bases which swept Britain in the early months of the First World War and climaxed with the fall of Antwerp in October 1914. These were so persistent that they were repeatedly investigated by both thepolice and the military. I argue that these rumours were the latest manifestation of a long-standing myth-complex around the threatening figure of the German enemy within. But they also represent an important moment in the British people's imaginative transition between the cautious optimism of the early months and the increasing likelihood of a long, total war.

I haven't listened to it (and don't plan to!) so can't vouch for its comprehensibility -- especially since since I didn't have as much time to prepare it as I would have liked. It might be safer to wait for the article!