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. ...continue reading →
Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1950), 31. ↩
Srinath Raghavan, India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945 (Penguin, 2017). ↩
The latest issue of the British Journal for Military Historyis 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.
Yes, it's our old friends, the wooden bombs! A number of people linked either to me or to one of my posts on the topic -- the first one trying to pin down the reality of the story in response to a Snopes debunking, the second one reviewing Pierre-Antoine Courouble's book which, for my money, did just about do that, and the third one passing on an appeal from Jean Dewaerheid, Peter Haas and Courouble for further eyewitnesses, which, as far as I know did not eventuate. From time to time these get linked from Reddit or some listicle site, making them probably the most popular posts on Articles, but it's all heat and no light. However, the Twitter discussion did uncover one new source of information which would seem to confirm the origin of the wooden bomb story as a British psychological warfare operation. ...continue reading →
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 severalblogpostsI 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!
One of the advantages of studying wartime airship panics, like the one in January 1915, is the relative abundance of private archives, diaries, letters and interviews for the 1914-1918 period which have been collected and catalogued. This makes it theoretically possible to compare the press view and the official view with the view from below, a rare combination in this line of work. Actually finding relevant private sources is rather hit and miss, partly because of the general lack of digitisation, partly because of the vagaries of memory and experience, of what seemed important to record or query. But because of the writer (or interviewer) is by definition concerned with wartime experiences, they are rather more likely to discuss scares and panics, spies and Zeppelins than would be the case for a purely peacetime context.
So what is there? Actually, let's start with what there isn't. One of the best-known civilian diarists of the First World War is the Reverend Andrew Clark, who was the parish priest at Great Leighs in Essex. He recorded a vivid account of how the war affected his village, and in particular took a keen interest in rumours of all kinds. As it happens, Great Leighs is only about 7 or 8 miles from Chelmsford, which was the centre of the 'Day of Dupes' rumours on 3 January 1915. And what did the Reverend Clark have to say about this? Nothing whatsoever! There is no entry for that date, and the following day has only some unrelated comments about Territorials and HMS Formidable. This is surprising, to say the least; the Chelmsford rumours reached London within an hour or so at the most, so it's hard to understand why they wouldn't have made it to neighbouring Great Leighs as well, at least within a day or two. However, on 5 January Clark does mention that he was 'still in grip of influenza', and it seems to have struck him on 3 January or so, so perhaps that explains it.1 But it could also be that the Day of Dupes was a victim of Clark's editor, who after all had to cut a lot: there are 92 volumes, 12 by March 1915, with 3 million words in total, compared with less than 300 pages in the published edition. So maybe a trip to the Bodleian is in order. ...continue reading →
James Munson (ed.), Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19 (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1985), 41. ↩
I've established from press accounts that there was a phantom airship panic in January 1915, in two parts: a vaguely-defined one in the first half of the month and a much more clearly-delineated one in the last week or 10 days. What I'm going to do here is look at what evidence there is for this panic in The National Archives and how well it matches up with the newspaper reports.1
There are several files which are potentially relevant. AIR 1/565/16/15/89, 'GHQ Home Forces General Correspondence File re. Movements & rumoured movements of hostile aircraft etc', covers the period from the start of the war in August 1914 to January 1915. Unfortunately the last entry in the file is from 2 January so it isn't very helpful, though it has some miscellaneous reports. Another potentially relevant file, AIR 1/550/16/15/27, contains MT1b's (roughly) weekly Home Defence Intelligence Summaries from October 1914 to April 1915 (thanks to James Pugh for providing a copy of this one!) But it's missing the reports for most of January, and those which do survive provide scant details of aircraft sightings, because those deemed to be false have been filtered out. It does have a couple of useful items. HO 139/43 has an interesting D-notice (a censorship request from the Home Office to the press -- not enforceable, though they were usually followed). By far the most useful file is AIR 1/561/16/15/62, 'Several files containing reports of false alarms & rumoured Air Raids on England', covering the period from December 1914 to August 1918. This has information on about half a dozen seperate phantom airship incidents from January 1915, some involving multiple sightings and defence responses. ...continue reading →
See also Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), 94-95, 168-171. ↩
In my previous post on the possible airship panic of 1915, I used n-grams for 'Zeppelin' and 'rumour' derived from the British Newspaper Archive to try to work out when exactly it was. The answer was that it began in late December 1914 and finished in early February 1915. But is the answer right? Is the method useful? To test that I switched to close reading and checked whether it does indeed relate to an airship panic. The very preliminary upshot is that the principle seems sound, but its application is difficult, or at least more complicated than I've allowed -- while the signals in the data are more or less real, there are a substantial number of false positives and false negatives. There will always be some of these, due to bad OCR or just chance, but there are a couple of systematic reasons increasing the difficulties.
The first problem, an obvious one, is that a wider range of key terms is needed: 'Zeppelin' is pretty sound for this period (though occasionally 'airship' and 'dirigible' appear in its place), but 'rumour' needs to be supplemented by other terms such as 'panic', 'scare', or even a phrase like 'it is said'. And of course ostensibly sober and objective analysis of the prospects of Zeppelin raids won't get picked up by a search like mine which is looking for discussions of panic. So there are these false negatives (things I've missed) -- such as the claim in early January that Germany was planning to send ten Zeppelins to raid London at the end of the month with 'the task of crippling the British fleet, and also cause a panic', or the story that a 'huge box kite' being used to test London's anti-aircraft defences led to speculation 'as to whether [a?] Zeppelin has arrived at last'.1 The second, and less soluble, problem is that BNA isn't always very good at detecting when one article starts and another one begins. In fact, it's quite common to find a dozen or two short articles joined together. This means that BNA could (say) consider an article mentioning Zeppelin operations over France, and another discussing rumours that the Germans have mined Brussels so that they can destroy the city if forced to evacuate it, to be part of the same article.2 These are false positives. ...continue reading →
Western Times (Exeter), 11 January 1915, 4; Daily Mail (Hull), 19 January 1915, 4. ↩
In order to start characterising the possible airship panic of 1915, let's generate some n-grams and do some distant reading to get a basic overview of press interest in Zeppelins during the early part of the war. Here are the number of articles per month in the British Newspaper Archive for 1914 and 1915 mentioning the word 'zeppelin', normalised by the number of issues published each month, to account for variations in BNA's coverage (since, if there are more newspapers in total, all else being equal you would expect to get more articles about Zeppelins).1
There are a few things that are apparent from this plot. One is that the start of the war is really obvious: Zeppelins are mentioned ten or more times more frequently from August 1914 onwards than in the earlier part of 1914. (Even the peak of the 1913 airship panic was only about a fifth of the level of August 1914.) In the wartime period itself, there are a number of peaks. The biggest is in June 1915, which corresponds to the aftermath of the first Zeppelin raid on London. The next biggest are January 1915, the period of interest here, and September-October 1915, in which there were a dozen raids in total. Also of interest is October 1914, when there were no air raids on Britain at all. This was when the possibility of aerial attack began to be taken seriously (and when the Zeppelin panic of 1914 took place, but that's a subject for another day, or article). ...continue reading →
It would be much better to use the total number of articles each month for this normalisation, but I don't know how to get that from BNA. Words common enough to appear in practically all articles, like 'the', are now stop words, so they can't be used to estimate how many articles there are in total. ↩
was told that Mr. Gatty [a London historian] had heard from the Duke of Westminster that Winston Churchill says he expects a fleet of a hundred Zeppelins to leave for England on the eve of the Emperor's birthday, January 26th! He expects seventy to be destroyed, but believes that thirty will reach London and he estimates the casualties at 10,000 to 12,000! Several people are so affected by this tale that they have already sent their children away into the country.1
This sounds very much like an airship panic, complete with rumour, fear and even evacuation. Indeed, Jerry White places this in the context of rumours in the East End on 3 or 4 January that a Zeppelin had reached Colchester in Essex, and the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 22 January passing on the almost unanimous prediction of experts that a raid on London was certain to come within a few weeks (though equally that it would be a failure). He attributes these public fears to an infection by official fears: on 10 January the War Office warned the London Hospital to prepare for air raid victims, presumably informed by the Admiralty's submission to the Cabinet on 1 January that Germany planned 'an attack on London by airships on a great scale at an early opportunity'.2 Indeed, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, threatened Churchill, his political master, with resignation if his proposal to 'take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft' was not taken to Cabinet.3 (It was, and it was rejected.)
White's account is intriguing, but as a glance back at the prewar airship panics of 1909 and 1913 might suggest, there was a lot more going on, which obviously is what I intend to explore in the next few posts!
Susan Lowndes, ed., Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 (1971), 47; quoted in Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014), 124. Emphasis in original. ↩