Thanet Advertiser, 29 April 1916, 5

The above facsimile letter was published in the Ramsgate Thanet Advertiser on 29 April 1916. It reads:

April 7th. The writer of the first 'German messages' has been absent from Ramsgate some time now, so the 'Alien’s post-card' is by another hand. If I did not fear prosecution for "failing to register an alien," I could give the police his address to find him, as he is due to return this Wedy. here. The enclosed I found in his overcoat pocket the night before the raid (after he left here on 18th ult.)
To the Editor.((Thanet Advertiser (Ramsgate), 29 April 1916, 5.))

The enclosure referred to was a second letter, 'another foreign missive, addressed to “Herr Chaney, Burgomeister von Ramsgate.” It states that the Zeppelins have a nightly victory and contains some abusive epithets'.((Ibid., 22 April 1916, 2.))

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Walter Bayes, The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station During a London Air Raid (1918)

Last night I had my first full-on anxiety dream about nuclear war since the 1980s. As ICBM trails arced across the blue sky overhead, I ran for the safety of a nearby shelter -- and confirmed that the Third World War had started by getting out my phone to check my social media feeds.

Of course, I'm quite safe here in Australia. It's not my home town which is being shelled by Russian artillery, not my family which is being killed in Putin's unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. The risk of escalation is not non-zero, but would be increased dramatically if the calls from some quarters for a no-fly zone -- in some ways, an ad hoc kind of international air force -- were heeded. But, despite the dreams of liberal militarists, airpower is not a bloodless panacea; air war always has been real war. It's not a cheap way to avoid fighting. Fortunately everybody with a direct say in the matter seems to be well aware that a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine would be a very bad idea indeed. So, I probably should be able to sleep easier than I am. But there's a very interwar kind of trauma involved in reliving an existential fear all over again. We've all been here before, again.

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Big Ben

As part of a discussion about the worldwide syncronisation of time, Yuval Noah Harari writes:

During World War Two, BBC News was broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe. Each news programme opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour -- the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe. When the British Secret Service discovered this, they replaced the live broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock.1

I'd never heard this story before. Harari doesn't provide any sources. Is it true?
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  1. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), 354. []

A. E. Duvanel, 8 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 35 is a copy of a report from Constable A. E. Duvanel of Korumburra Station, Victoria Police. Duvanel gives a blow-by-blow account of his conversation at 8pm on 2 May 1918 with Mr Sandman of the Kongwak butter factory about 'a bright light high up in the sky', which had been there for about one and a half hours, 'moving backwards and forwards in the same place', in the direction of Morwell (meaning to the northeast). Duvanel, another constable and employees from the Post Office all have a look, noting that 'with the naked eye it appeared to move up and down but with the aid of a powerful field glass it could at once be seen it was only a star, which would light up bright and was continuously twinkling'.

From the conversation that passed on the telephone it was absolutely certain these people were watching a star in the sky and imagined it an aeroplane.

Duvanel's conclusion seems sound, though which 'star' it actually was is harder to figure out (Arcturus was my first guess, but it was just rising at 8pm and couldn't have been seen for 90 minutes before then; Mars maybe, though no colour is mentioned and planets don't twinkle as much as stars).

But the real puzzle here is who, exactly, claimed to have seen an aeroplane? In my article I say it was 'employees' of the butter factory, but while that's possible, reading the report again I think that's a faulty inference. (Duvanel doesn't even say Sandman was at the factory when he made the call, just that he was 'of' it; I wouldn't have thought that butter would be made in the evening, though it's possible that a manager would have been there after hours.) Duvanel says that Sandman told him on the phone 'that an Aeroplane was over Kongwak', but when asked 'if he saw an aeroplane' replied 'no one has seen one', only the bright light in the sky. Then there's the 'communication' of a Mr Tate that 'an aeroplane was seen at Kongwak', but Duvanel points out that Tate was at the station two days later and never made mention of it. So nobody is recorded as having claimed to have seen an aeroplane, or even that anybody else saw one -- yet it was reported as an aeroplane sighting. My best guess is that Sandman was reporting a rumour that was passing around Kongwak that an aeroplane was overhead, but didn't see it himself; Tate was either passing on the same rumour or possibly had seen it himself, but made his report directly to military intelligence rather than through the police; this prompted a request for information from Melbourne and so Duvanel had to make this belated -- six days after the event -- and somewhat exasperated report of what he was completely sure was nothing at all.


F. W. Sickerdick, 1 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 849 through 854 is a report from Detective F. W. Sickerdick of Victoria Police (seconded to military intelligence for the duration, possibly due to German descent) to Major F. V. Hogan of the Intelligence Section, General Staff. Sickerdick had been ordered by Hogan to travel with Lieutenant A. Edwards of the Royal Flying Corps (though it should be Royal Air Force by now. Thanks to his common name, I've not been able to trace him; perhaps an airman invalided home?) to investigate the mystery aeroplane sighting that started this whole panic, the one by Constable Wright at Nyang back on 21 March. Sickerdick and Edwards left Melbourne on 13 April and spent two weeks scouring the Mallee for corroborating evidence, talking not only to Wright himself but seemingly every potential witness they could find in Ouyen, Walpeup, Nyang, Underbool, Pink Lakes, Yellingip, Paigney, Tiega, Sea Lake, Ararat... in other words, they were very thorough. They did find some other people who had seen strange things in the air:

  • Mrs Tilley at Ouyen: 'it had one pair of wings and a very long tail'
  • four 'boys' (some were young men) playing tennis at Ouyen: 'I could see 2 wings, and something like a tail'
  • a 16 year girl at Walpeup: it 'had a red light flying at the back, and appeared to have two white side lights'
  • Mrs McDonald at Ararat: 'an object circling'

Several people also heard odd noises, but did not see anything.
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James French, 24 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 79 is a copy of a letter from James French, Shire Secretary, Maffra Shire, to the 'Officer in Charge' of the 'Intelligence Department, Melbourne'. French has a lot to say on the subject of 'hydroplanes' that 'have been seen of late in this District at night time', and he thinks 'the subject is worth enquiring into'.
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Morris, 3 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 1011 is a police report from Sergeant W. Morris of Gosford, north of Sydney in the NSW Central Coast region. It's an account of a mystery aeroplane sighting made by Lily Moir, a 23 year old woman living with her mother on a farm 1.5 miles east of Gosford. Shortly after 4am on the night of 23 March, Moir 'saw a light up high above the horizon, apparently a little north of Terrigal Haven over the sea border'. It 'appeared like a star travelling towards her, and seemed to swerve up and down like sea waves for an instant, and then disappear downwards'; yet (rather contradictorially) 'the light was unlike a star', and could not have been a meteor because it 'travelled horizontally towards her in waves'. Though Morris sought confirmation, there are no other reports from other witnesses.
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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). []


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.

Update: the URL for BJMH has changed, so it's now here, and my article is here.

Image source: British Journal for Military History.