Post-blogging the 1913 scareships

Press interest in airships, January-April 1913

'Everybody's Doing It' was the name of a popular revue which opened in the West End in February 1912; the music and lyrics (including a near-eponymous song) were co-written by Irving Berlin. It was also the Manchester Guardian's stab at a contemporary pop cultural reference to describe just how widespread the phantom airship scare had become by the start of March 1913. There are more concrete ways to express this than ragtime. Geography is one; chronology is another.

The graph above shows two things. (After relying on Plot for many years, I've switched to DataGraph, which is not free but is more powerful and much easier to use.) The blue bars represent the number of British periodicals (mostly daily newspapers, London and provincial) which mentioned mystery airships on each day in January-April 1913, while the red bars represent the number which mentioned airships, whether mysterious or non-mysterious (for example, the activities of German or British military dirigibles). It doesn't matter whether a newspaper mentioned scareships once as a humorous aside or devoted half a page to a topic, both are counted equally here. Three phases can immediately be distinguished. (I must admit to having fudged the data a little bit: I've assumed that every issue of the Aeroplane would have mentioned airships, as I don't have access to copies to check. Flight certainly did.) The first, from the start of January through the third week of February, is characterised by a relatively low level of press interest in airships, in which references to mystery airships predominate (though not so much towards the end of this period). The second phase is clearly the peak of the phantom airship scare, the last week of February and the first week of March, when more than two or three times the usual number of periodicals talked about airships, overwhelmingly the mysterious kind. The third phase extends from the second week of March until the end of April. There are far fewer mentions of scareships here, even compared to the first phase. But interestingly, the amount of attention paid to airships in general remains very high: several times that of the first period, and not too far short of that in the second, peak period.
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Western horizon from London, 21 February 1913, 8.30pm

The planet Venus normally sticks close to the Sun and so can only be seen very shortly after sunset, to the west (or before sunrise, to the east, when it is a morning star). But every 584 days, when it reaches maximum elongation in its orbit, it is far enough from the Sun in apparent terms that it remains visible for quite some time after dusk. It also relatively close to the Earth at this time and so unusually bright: only the Moon is brighter. At such times Venus dominates the western sky and it can be very startling, especially for the infrequent stargazer.

As it happens, Venus reached maximum elongation on 11 February 1913, right in the middle of the phantom airship scare. The above thumbnail probably isn't very clear, but the full-size version, made with Stellarium, shows the western horizon from London at 8.30pm on 21 February 1913, the beginning of the scare's peak. (London without any buildings, light pollution or clouds, admittedly, but the view would have been roughly the same from anywhere in the British Isles.) Venus can be seen low above the horizon, almost exactly due west, and extremely bright (apparent magnitude -4.1, though extincted by the atmosphere to -3.2). Anyone who happened to glance in that direction would see a brilliant light hovering in the distance, very different to the other stars and even planets. If they watched it for a few minutes they might see it drifting northwards and perhaps sinking lower; if there were clouds scudding by or trees waving in the wind the effect might be enhanced. It would be very easy to think an aircraft was flying about, equipped with a searchlight.
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View Scareships, 1913 in a larger map

Here's where the 1913 phantom airship sightings took place. Actually, there are a few from late 1912 (including the Sheerness incident), the blue ones. Red indicates sightings in January 1913, green February, cyan March, and yellow April.

A quick visual inspection shows that the density of sightings was greatest in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in a belt running from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. However, this perception is skewed somewhat by the cluster of reports from about a dozen places in and around Selby on 21 and 22 February. Clearly something happened there that night, and whatever it was can in no way be discounted, but Yorkshire would stand out far less otherwise (though there would still be the sightings from around Hull and Grimsby, including that from the City of Leeds, about the last of the whole scare to generate widespread interest in the press). By contrast, the clusters around Manchester and Liverpool, though smaller, are also more sustained, with reports spread out over four or five weeks. Other significant groupings include the south-east of England and, relatively late in the scare, the east coast of Scotland. And, of course, the coastline either side of the Bristol Channel, which featured prominently in the scare from almost the first to almost the last. Cardiff was the place most frequented by mystery airships, with four visits recorded at long intervals; that the Chief Constable of Glamorganshire was one of the first to see it and was willing to publicly appeal for witnesses to come forward may help explain why hundreds or even thousands of people saw them there. Only Hull presents a similar example of a mass sighting, though there were others where smaller crowds gathered to watch the scareship. It's also worth noting that there were occasional reports of mysterious airships from Ireland and from the Orkneys.
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Yesterday's post was, thankfully, the last entry in my post-blogging of the 1913 phantom airship wave. I've searched the available (to me) primary sources up until the end of April 1913 and can find no further references; and Watson, Oldroyd and Clarke's exhaustive compilation of phantom airship sightings has only 7 entries from May onwards. In fact in terms of people seeing scareships it really was over by mid-March, but I'm also interested in people talking about scareships, which lingered a little longer. It's definitely time to draw a line under the exercise, and to start analysing what I've found in preparation for my AAEH paper. There'll be more posts along those lines in future, but here I'll comment briefly on the post-blogging as post-blogging.

By some measures this was the most extensive attempt at post-blogging I've yet carried out: 69 posts over nearly four months. That's nearly twice as long as the Sudeten crisis series, and nearly four times as long as the 1909 scareship wave posts. Still, there wasn't a post every day and the scareships only briefly dominated the news, for about a week at the end of February 1913, so researching and writing the posts wasn't as gruelling a task as for the Sudeten crisis or the Blitz. The latter series in particular was quite tough to write as there was so much on-topic material that I had to be very selective. Also, I wanted to give space to non-Blitz news when the press gave it priority. I decided not to do that this time for a couple of reasons. One was, obviously, to save time. The other was that I wanted to focus squarely on the phantom airships themselves; with very few exceptions I only quoted from newspaper articles which mentioned them in some way (even if only in passing), and talking about other things would have obscured the scareship signal. I'm not sure that this was a wise choice, as this means that so much of the context is missing. For example, there was a lot of discussion of airships and the menace they posed in this period that didn't refer to mystery airships at all: the phantom airship scare was only one part of a greater airship scare. Hopefully a sense of this came through. Of course I noted all these other airship references for my own purposes and will use them for writing my paper. There's also the wider European military and diplomatic situation, particularly the fighting in the Balkans and things like France's move to a three-year conscription period and increases in German military spending. This is all obviously relevant background, and again some of it snuck into the posts. But apart from the expansion and activities of Germany's Zeppelin fleet, few explicit links were made in discussions of scareships. Likewise for all the other preoccupations of the press at the time, though intriguingly suffragettes seem to get jokingly mentioned alongside scareships reasonably often, which perhaps suggests they both had this combined aspect of menace and mirth. But that's getting perilously close to analysis, so I'll end this here.

Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22 April 1913, 4

A rather belated mystery airship report appears in today's Aberdeen Daily Journal (p. 4):

It was reported a few days ago that on the evening of the 9th April [1913] an airship, steering north-west, was seen from the island of Stronsay, Orkney. Doubt was felt at the time as to the reliability of the report, but information has since been received from other parts of Orkney of an airship having been seen about the same time and proceeding in the same direction.

It may be significant that the Orkneys are the location of Scapa Flow, an important naval base used for fleet exercises. An airship was seen from the neighbouring island of Sanday in late February.

The Economist follows up last week's third leading article about the airship scare with the fourth leading article today (an extract from which also appears in the Manchester Guardian). This time around the subject is 'THE "DAILY MAIL'S" MANSION HOUSE MEETING FOR AIRSHIPS' (925), which is planned for 5 May and will feature speeches by 'Mr. A. J. Balfour, Lord Roberts, Lord Rosebery, Lord Brassey, and "other leaders of our public life."' It quotes at length the Daily Mail's own announcement from 12 April:

The Lord Mayor (Sir David Burnett) will be supported at the meeting by a representative gathering of eminent sailors, soldiers, statesmen, and leaders of commerce. All shades of politics will be represented.

Resolutions will be put urging that Supplementary Estimates should be prepared to provide for at least a two-to-one superiority over the airships and aeroplanes of the next strongest naval Power. That Power has at present 28 first-class airships, of which we have none, and a marked superiority in aeroplanes.

The announcement of the meeting has drawn a chorus of approval from many parts of the country. Among the many letters received at the offices of the Navy League in Victoria street yesterday was one from Lord Selborne, who wrote:-- 'The urgency and importance of aerial defence cannot easily be exaggerated.'

According to the Economist, 'the Daily Mail's campaign, if successful, will add enormously to the burden of the taxpayers (to say nothing of the loss of human life*), and, incidentally, in all probability, will promote a flotation of companies for the manufacture of airships and aeroplanes'.

Now the Stock Exchange is beginning to talk of an airship boom, whose sole basis will be the prospect of diverting huge sums of money from the pockets of the public into those of existing or prospective airship concerns. We cannot help thinking that the sensational Press has been going to work in a very improper way. National defence, national credit, and national taxation are serious matters. And yet, just before the Army and Navy Estimates were produced, lying reports were circulated in all parts of the country that German airships were hovering over the East Coast. It is very difficult even for the most simpleminded and credulous citizen to believe that these reports were manufactured and circulated with purely patriotic motives. It is already known that airship plants are being laid down by well-known constructors with the Admiralty and War Office for the purpose of securing Admiralty and War Office contracts.

While allowing that 'those interested in company promotions and in the movements of armour-plate shares' may believe themselves to be motivated 'solely by patriotic anxieties', and that 'The Press, indeed, may be pure', the Economist hopes that

the Lord Mayor will not preside at the meeting of May 5th for the purpose of forcing a Daily Mail airship programme upon the Government, unless he is convinced (1) that the national expenditure and taxation will admit of supplementary estimates; (2) that Consols are not sufficiently low and the Sinking Fund not sufficiently small; (3) that a Government which has added in four or five years at least 12 millions sterling to the annual cost of the navy, and has raised the income-tax to 1s 7d in the £ on high incomes, requires further stimulus from the City, and (4) that a ratio which has never been applied to the Navy should be applied to airships.

The City may want the Government to spend more on defence, but does the City want to pay more in taxes?

If it does the Daily Mail has pointed the way. If it does not, then let us pause before we join in promoting the wholesale manufacture of new and costly toys whose value in war is highly problematical, whose commercial utility is certainly nil, and of which we already have a supply large enough to provide a weekly list of deaths, injuries, and other excitements for the Yellow Press.

Some experimentation 'is no doubt necessary [...] But to fritter away public money on practically useless types is merely a waste of national resources'. And, according to 'an English expert, just returned from Berlin [...] of the 16 Zeppelin airships which have been constructed in Germany six only remain, the other ten having perished miserably'.

* A military balloon accident near Paris on Thursday left two officers dead and a third critically wounded: 'Would airship promoters be so zealous if compulsory service in airships were applied to them?'

The Manchester Guardian reports today on Germany's naval aviation plans, as revealed in an official memorandum recently released to the public, which it judges to be 'important as marking the first step from tentative experiments to a period of ordered growth' (9). An 'explanatory statement' is likened to 'the famous Introduction to the Navy Bill of 1900':

Experience, we are told, has taught the Admiralty that the new weapon is of great value 'in strategic and tactical reconnoitring,' and that 'under certain circumstances it may be used with advantage as a weapon of attack.' In consequence, the Admiralty has decided to take up aviation more seriously than was at first intended, 'lest it should be left behind in the race with other nations.'

The memorandum itself proposes that Germany

construct, within the five years 1914-1918, a fleet of airships and aeroplanes to be used solely for naval purposes, acting quite independently of the military aviation department. The airship section is to be made up of two squadrons, each containing five ships. One ship from each squadron will serve as 'material reserve' -- that is to say, will remain laid up in its shed; -- the other eight will be kept on active service. The same station is to serve as headquarters for both squadrons, and is to be fitted up with four double revolving halls, together with two stationary halls for the 'material reserve.'

What sort of airships will be built is not specified:

At present the naval authorities possess one airship, the Zeppelin L 1, notorious in England through the scare raised last October, when it was asserted that the vessel had been sighted over Sheerness during the night in which its long-distance trials were made. A sister ship to the L 1 is nearing completion, but, as far as is known to the public, no further naval Zeppelins are under order at the moment. It may be taken for granted that the main body of the future fleet will be made up of vessels of this type [...]

The Guardian's correspondent is puzzled as to why the Admiralty has decided to put all of its airship hangars in the one place (where is not stated in the memorandum, but 'it is accepted as a matter of course that this will be Cuxhaven'). The Army is planning to build a network of hangars across Germany, which will minimise the chance of one its airships having to moor in the open and being wrecked by wind. In an emergency, naval airships will have to take that risk or hope that they are within range of home or Königsberg, the only nearby military hangar.

As for aeroplanes, 'the scheme outlined in the "memorandum" seems less ambitious, especially when compared with the plans of our own Admiralty'.

It is proposed, during the same period of five years, to bring together a squadron of 50 machines. Fourteen are to serve as 'material reserve'; the remaining 36, divided into six groups of six each, will be kept on active service. [...] As in the case of the airship section, one station is to serve as headquarters for all six groups. There are, it is true, to be six branch stations, each with accomodation for ten machines, but these are to be occupied only during occasional manœuvres and in time of war.

Again, the type of aeroplane is not specified, though in previous experiments 'The machine aimed at has been of the type that can rise both from land and water'. But at present 'Germany is far behind our own naval authorities in this branch of aviation'. The aeroplane squadron is likely to be based 'at Kiel or Wilhemshaven, each of which is within easy reach both of the North Sea and the Baltic'.

Finally, the Guardian's correspondent considers 'the possibility -- even if remote -- of the naval air-fleet being reinforced by military vessels'. The Germany Army is less forthcoming on the subject of future aviation plans, but anyway by their nature military aeroplanes will not be particularly well suited to naval service, so that leaves the military airships. It is known is fifteen airship companies are planned in total, each with a rotating hangar capable of holding two airships. If the Army fills these to capacity as the Navy is to do, then that makes thirty military airships by the end of 1915:

We must, then, to the proposed ten vessels for the navy, add a possible reserve of thirty more military vessels, a formidable enough fleet if once the value of the airship in naval warfare is admitted.

An unusually alarmist conclusion for the Guardian, it must be said.

The third leading article in today's Economist is entitled 'Airship fiascos and preliminary puffs' (p. 868). It begins by casting back to 'A FEW weeks ago, just before and after the Army and Navy Estimates were introduced', when 'a section of the Press was filled with lurid accounts of the danger in which Great Britain stood from the immensely powerful air fleet of Germany, and from our own unpreparedness':

A very timely warning was found in the mysterious apparitions which hovered over quiet English fishing towns and villages by night, displaying bright lights. Evidently, said the alarmist Press, this was a German airship come over to spy out our secret defences, and the flesh of the public was for some days made to creep, until the mystery dissolved in a planet and a fire balloon. So the panicmongers were covered with ridicule, and the whole airship scare appeared to die down after Easter.

But now, 'in the last few days [...] we again have impressed upon us the "Peril of the Air," and the menace which German airships constitute to our naval supremacy'. The Economist detects 'a commercial background' to all this, 'as there was to "Daily Mail bread"':

for aught we know, the anonymous experts who clamour for public money may be acting in close association with airship company promoters. Certainly much of the stuff we read is exactly like the preliminary puffs that would be sent out if the circumstances are as our information suggests. In that case, Colonel Seely and Mr Churchill may well be cautious, remembering that the Marconi business was largely promoted as a great measure of Imperial defence.

It then goes on to undermine the claims being made for the awesome power of the airship, pointing out 'it is never possible for long to exaggerate the power or reliability of any kind of air craft, for almost every day some accident occurs to prove how limited is man's conquest of the air'. For example, only three weeks ago the new military Zeppelin Ersatz Z1 -- 'Curiously enough, this was the very airship which was supposed to have made the surreptitious trip to England, referred to above' -- broke in half on the ground, after being subjected to a strong wind for an hour.
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A prominent headline on the front page of the Daily Express today rather startlingly refers to the 'BOMBARDMENT OF LONDON', a 'NIGHT VISIT FROM A DIRIGIBLE', and a 'WAR LESSON' (p. 1). It turns out that the capital has not been destroyed by a sudden Zeppelin raid; rather, Londoners are promised that tomorrow night an airship will give 'a remarkable [but peaceful] demonstration of the ease with which a great city like the metropolis can be bombarded from the air' (p. 1):

The 'Express' is in a position to state that a powerful dirigible -- the whereabouts of which is at present a strict secret -- will manœuvre over the centre of London between 10 and 11.30 p.m. The dirigible will be equipped with brilliant searchlights, which will be flashed on many of the principal buildings, and will be strong enough to enable the aeronauts to distinguish pedestrians and vehicles in the streets.

This airship will, quite intentionally, be a scareship:

For months past accounts have been received from all parts of the United Kingdom recording the presence of mystery airships with lights attached. The reports came from places as far apart as Cardiff and Hull, Chester and Sheerness. Now, for the first time, if weather conditions permit, the people of London will be able to realise the terrifying possibilities if a foreign airship were cruising overhead, and raining explosives along its course.

The plan is for the airship to 'make a circuit of the centre and West End of London'. A 'special representative' from the Express will be aboard to record 'every incident and impression of what will be one of the most striking proofs of the part which can be played by aircraft in nocturnal warfare'.

The Yeovil Western Gazette, a weekly newspaper, has a report of the Lunéville incident, which copies the widely-published Reuters cable noting the previous rumours of 'the mysterious flight of airships over the Eastern frontier' of France (p. 8).

Manchester Guardian, 9 April 1913, 9

It's been a while, but after three previous visits the mystery airship has returned to Cardiff. From the Manchester Guardian (p. 9; above):

Our Cardiff correspondent sends a report that again last night [8 April 1913] an aircraft was seen at Cardiff, where one was reported to have been seen frequently at the beginning of the recent airship scare. The Chief Constable of Glamorganshire (Captain Lindsay), who previously issued a description of the circumstances under which he saw a supposed airship, and asked for reports from anyone who had made observations, is said to have seen the one last night, with the Deputy Chief Constable and others, from the county police station. It is stated that it travelled at a high speed, and passed over the western district of Cardiff. It was first sighted at 8 23 coming from the north, and was lost sight of at 8 25, going in a south-westerly direction towards Weston-super-Mare. It had a powerful searchlight beneath it, and its speed is estimated by the police as being from 60 to 70 miles an hour.

A few other newspapers carry a briefer account: the Aberdeen Daily Journal, the Irish Times, and the Manchester Courier. The latter's version is longest (p. 7):

Great excitement was caused at Cardiff last night by the passage over the city of an aircraft, whether dirigible or aeroplane could not be discerned. The vessel carried a brilliant light and disappeared over the Bristol Channel. Great crowds of people watched the vessel from the streets.

The Courier's headline claims that the Cardiff object was 'WATCHED BY THOUSANDS'. Only on one previous occasion, just over two months ago, has it been claimed that such a large number of people witnessed a phantom airship, and that too was in Cardiff and environs.