Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

Broadgate, Coventry, 25 August 1939

From Alan Allport's excellent new book, Britain at Bay 1938-1941, a couple of sentences about the IRA's 1939 bombing campaign which were guaranteed to catch my attention as imaginary air raids:

Some witnesses to the Broadgate bombing interviewed by the police were convinced that they had seen aircraft in the sky moments before the explosion, and that they had actually been attacked by the Luftwaffe. When, back in May, the IRA had set off a magnesium bomb in a Paramount cinema in Birmingham, there had been pandemonium inside the auditorium as members of the audience panicked, thinking that the long-dreaded German aerial Blitz had begun. 'Keep calm -- it's only the Irish again,' someone shouted to reassure the crowd (whether they added 'and carry on' is unknown).1

There's a little more detail available in the contemporary press about the first incident, which killed five people and injured seventy more in Broadgate, a major shopping street in Coventry, on 25 August 1939 (as shown above). The Birmingham Post reported that

There was chaos for a time after the Coventry explosion. A bomber aeroplane was passing over the centre of the city at the time, and the first thought of many people was that a surprise air attack had begun. This fear, indeed, led to an ugly scene. One of three men standing near a car was heard to say 'Let’s get away' or 'Let’s get out of this.' Some hearers jumped to the conclusion that the men were responsible for the explosion, and a threatening crowd began to collect. It was with difficulty that the police got the three men away to the police station, to be detained for a time for their own safety. The men’s credentials were found satisfactory, and they were afterwards released.2

The link between the three men and the belief that an air raid was under way is a bit cyrptic here, but is clearer in the Dundee Courier and Advertiser's account:

The men explained that they had been standing near their car when the explosion occurred. The eldest of the men, who was with his son and grandson, shouted, 'The war has started -- let's get away,' and ran to his car, whereupon the crowd shouted, 'Lynch them.'3

So the grandfather, at least, was one of those who believed that the knock-out blow from the air had arrived. This was just one week before the declaration of war on Germany. Britain was already beginning to move to a war footing -- the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act had received Royal Assent the day before -- and Coventry was an important heavy manufacturing centre, so you can see why the first thought might have been of a Luftwaffe bomb from the sky, rather than an IRA one on the ground. The surprise, perhaps, is that more people didn't make this assumption. At least some people seem to have understood that it was a terrorist attack, or else they wouldn't have made to grab the three men just for trying to flee the scene (this was in fact the seventh IRA bomb in Coventry since February, though by far the most damaging). Though it's also possible that the idea was the men were spies who had directed the supposed bomber to its target somehow. Or both, or neither: mobs aren't really known for their cool logic.

Image source: Leitrim Observer.

  1. Alan Allport, Britain at Bay 1938-1941: The Epic Story of the Second World War (London: Profile Books, 2020), 13. []
  2. Birmingham Post, 26 August 1939, 16. []
  3. Courier and Advertiser (Dundee), 26 August 1939, 3. []

The first air raid on Britain during the Second World War is usually held to have taken place on 16 October 1939, when a dozen Ju 88s struck at the Royal Navy base at Rosyth, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. But there was in fact an earlier attack, on 27 September, also in Scotland, at Bellochantuy (variously spelled Bellochanty, Ballachantuie or Ballachantuy):

MACHINE-GUN fire from the air sprayed the Ballachantuy Hotel, ten miles from Campbeltown, Argyllshire, yesterday [27 September 1939]. A window was broken and the roof of the garage belonging to the hotel was also struck. No one was hurt. An aeroplane was heard roaring high overhead, and there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.1

Some 'nickel-cased bullets' were found around the hotel. But no aeroplane was seen, even though a gamekeeper 'focussed a powerful telescope on the sky [and] the sun was brilliant and there were no clouds'.2 An aeroplane was heard again a quarter of an hour later, along with 'three rapid bursts of machine-gun fire', but again nothing was seen. Then peace returned.
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  1. Daily Mirror, 28 September 1939, 20. []
  2. Birmingham Gazette, 28 September 1939, 1. []


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
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  1. Washington Post, 16 April 1916, 11. []
  2. Washington Times, 16 April 1916, 19. []


Sydney, c1941

In the Second World War, Japanese aircraft carried out over one hundred air raids on Australia, the most deadly of which, by far, were the first Darwin raid on 19 February 1942, which killed 236 people, and the raid on Broome on 6 March, which killed 88. The major population centres further south were never bombed, mainly because they were much further south. (The only other town of any sized attacked from the air, in three very small raids in July, was Townsville, 1350km north of Brisbane.) But after the fall of Singapore on 15 February, there was certainly an expectation of attacks, if not invasion. One indication of this is the civil defence schemes from the early years of the war that were beefed up and put into action now. All those things that Australians had learned about in the news from the 1940-41 Blitz -- blackouts, shelters, air raid wardens -- now became familiar here, if on a smaller scale. (Though the blackout was usually more of a brownout.) We don't know what would have happened had the southern cities been hit by air raids, but we can guess at how things would have started, based on behaviour during false air raid alarms which occurred early in the war with Japan.
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In May 1911, two policemen were sent out from Yamba, a logging town at the mouth of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales, to investigate something odd which had been found on 'top of a sandhill near Ryan's waterhole, about six miles [away] and about 400 yards in from the beach':

a rudely-constructed aeroplane, 30 feet in length and 4 feet wide, with a wing on one side about 2 feet wide. Extending the full length in the middle was a sort of platform with a seat roughly fixed with fencing wire and padded with old bagging. Scores of fine wires were fixed to the platform and extending to all parts of the structure. There were two keels braced together with split bamboo rods, every six inches, like the timbers in a boat. Every joint was securely and neatly capped with fine wire. Only two nails were used in the whole construction [...] The most peculiar thing about the craft was
that it could be plainly seen that the only tool used in preparing the timber had been a knife [...] The whole floor of the structure was covered with newspapers pasted together, forming a very thick pad.1

None of the newspapers was dated later than 3 May 1911, and the aeroplane 'appeared to have been only a short period of time at the spot where it was discovered, as the papers were quite fresh and not discoloured'.2 Another odd detail was

that from low water mark on the beach near the sea is a deep and narrow track from the water's edge up the steep sandhill to where the airship was lying, appearing as if something from the sea had been dragged up to the spot where the structure was lying.3

One report suggested that 'the plane had evidently been damaged, since one of the flaps had been damaged', though here 'plane' should be taken to mean 'wing' rather than 'aeroplane'.4 Since 'There is no trace of any engine about', it was surmised that the machine was a glider:

The builder had evidently taken an aeroplane for a model, and attempted to construct a single plane, which would allow him to float with tbe wind from the top of one of the sand hills of the Terrace.3

But who was this mysterious builder? Suspicion quickly fell on 'an elderly man [...] a stranger to Yamba, who bought stores and papers a few times from local people' and who 'has since disappeared'.3 Within a few days of the initial story, it was being regarded locally as 'a hoax'.5 That can't be ruled out, though the possible motivation (other than sheer perversity) of leaving a fake aeroplane for somebody to stumble across is unclear.
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  1. Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55. This is a fairly close (and much easier to read) paraphrase of the original story in Evening News (Sydney), 13 May 1911, 5, 8. []
  2. Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55. []
  3. Ibid. [] [] []
  4. The Age (Melbourne), 15 May 1911, 6. []
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1911, 9. []

Western Mail (Perth), 1 March 1951, 10

I've made a new Trove bot to accompany @TroveAirBot and @TroveAirRaidBot: @TroveUFOBot. The name is somewhat misleading, since it doesn't search Trove Newspapers for the keyword 'UFO' at all, which turns out to be a bad keyword. Firstly, it's so short that it frequently turns up whenever the OCR is bad and a random string of u, f, and o appear, and so there were just too many false positives. Secondly, it was only coined in 1953, which is only a couple of years before the Trove copyright wall, so there aren't many good hits to find anyway.

Instead, I've gone with the following:

flying saucer
flying saucer
flying saucer
flying saucer
mystery airship
mystery aeroplane
mystery light

The obvious substitute for 'UFO" is 'flying saucer', which was a very popular term right from the start of the modern UFO era in 1947. This should pick up most of the available articles from the 'classic' UFO era.

However, that restricted the results to a narrow range between 1947 and the mid-1950s. That was a bit boring, and also outside my own period of interest, so I decided to introduce some keywords related to what I see as a related, if distinct, historical phenomenon: mystery aircraft, including mystery aeroplanes and mystery airships. (Helpfully, Trove looks for plural forms, as well as 'mysterious'.) This does come at the cost of another set of false postives, in which aircraft can be mysterious but not that mysterious.

Because those keywords are all very technological, though, I decided to add a more neutral phrase, 'mystery light'. I'm hoping this will find lights-in-the-sky, including natural phenomena like ball lightning and will-o'-the-wisps. But again, there are all sorts of mystery lights that aren't in the sky. So I may end up removing this one.

Finally, in the above list of keywords 'flying saucer' appears three times. That's a crude attempt at weighting, so the bot will select that three times as often as each of the other keywords, which only appear once. That means that those interesting but low-yield keywords don't dominate the results, and about half the tweets will end up relating to what most people would recognise as UFOs. And, as there are going to be relatively few articles in total compared with my other bots (about 19,000) I've turned down the frequency a bit, to one tweet an hour, so it should last a couple of years before recycling.
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Duprée and Ashley, Britannia Must Rule the Air

This stirring scene is the cover for the sheet music for a song published in 1913, Britannia Must Rule the Air, written by Frank Duprée and composed by Charles Ashley. It shows a reasonable (if stubby) approximation of a Zeppelin in the process of being destroyed by gunfire from two aeroplanes, a Farman-type biplane and a monoplane.

The lyrics are a little more subtle:

When wooden walls and straining sails bore Britain's flag afar,
The Nation prospered well in peace and feared no foe in war,
For Britain's might was ev'rywhere and ruled the endless waves,
Proclaiming to the world at large 'we never shall be slaves.'

And when the ironclad replaced the ships that caught the breeze
Britannia still retained her throne up on the charted seas,
For frowning fleets and giant guns outnumbered two to one
The navies of all other lands beneath the sov'reign sun.

And now that ev'ry cloud conceals a lurking bird of prey,
Which threatens our supremacy in peace and war today,
Britainnia must be equal to the peril and prepare
To hold our Empire sacred from these dreadnaughts of the air.


Britannia must rule the air
As still she rules the sea,
To guard this realm beyond compare
And keep her people free.
Britannia, Britannia must like the eagle be;
Britannia, Britannia must rule both air and sea!
Britannia, Britannia must rule both air and sea.1

The message is clear enough: just as Britain's naval superiority has kept it safe from the Napoleonic Wars through the ironclad era to now, so must it have a superiory aerial superiority to safeguard its freedom in the new century. This was exactly the comparison and the message of the Navy League in response to German aerial superiority, as supposedly revealed by the phantom airships supposedly seen flying all over Britain.2
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  1. Frank Duprée and Charles Ashley, Britannia Must Rule the Air (London: Laurence Wright Music Co., 1913). []
  2. Brett Holman, 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War', Journal of British Studies 55, no. 1 (2016): 99–119 (free). []

[With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez and Ben Wilkie.]

It's not that long ago that I was posting about the Australian bushfires; now it's the turn of the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, and it's worldwide. Social media is an essential tool in such times of crisis, but it also can be a misleading one. Here's a fairly trivial example relevant to my own interests.

Kathleen tweeted this on 13 March:

The Italian airforce gives a big emotional lift to their nation with Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma (let no one sleep)and where lyrics say venceremos(we will overcome)they have their planes dramatically facing and overpowering the single plane (virus) with their National Flag!

As of 16 March, the attached video has been viewed 10.6 million times. And why not? The display is beautiful, the music inspirational, and it fits in with other videos we've all seen of quarantined Italians singing together from their balconies. Unity and culture will defeat the pandemic! Viva Italia!
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The default explanation for the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 was a conspiracy theory:

they were enemy aircraft, deployed by German merchant raiders operating off the Australian coast, or perhaps flying from secret aerodromes deep in the bush. Either way they were thought to be collaborating with German spies on shore, as evidenced by the lights sometimes seen flashing signals out to sea. It was feared that Germany was undertaking reconnaissance in preparation for an attack of some kind, perhaps on shipping or even on the nation’s cities and industries.1

If you didn't buy this -- and after all, it wasn't actually true -- then what other explanations were there? Well, you might find a different conspiracy theory to be attractive: that the mystery aeroplanes had been faked by the Australian government on behalf of corrupt politicians and profiteering manufacturers.
...continue reading

  1. Brett Holman, 'Dreaming war: airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', History Australia 10, no. 2 (August 2013): 180–201, at 185; doi:10.1080/14490854.2013.11668467 (free: submitted version, before peer review). []