Phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes, and other panics

Postcard showing Zeppelin LVI bombing Leige, 6 August 1914

I'm featured in the latest episode of the podcast Tales from Rat City, which is focused on unusual and sometimes bizarre aspects of the history of Ballarat, Victoria's third largest city (if you've heard of the Eureka Stockade, well, that's where that was). It's run by David Waldron (a historian at Federation University who co-authored the excellent Snarls from the Tea-tree, about Australian bigcat folklore), Tom Hodgson and Katrina Hill. As you can probably guess, 'Anzacs and airships: Australian UFO panics in the First World War' is about Australian mystery aircraft sightings in the Great War period. As well as the interview with me, it's based partly on my article 'Dreaming war' as well as the team's own original research. It's a really interesting scamper through early Australian airminded hopes and fears (ranging well beyond Ballarat and 1914-18). I particularly enjoyed the use of actors to read out the primary source quotations, including many mystery aircraft sighting reports. It's a great way to give back to these accounts of strange apparitions something of their original uncanniness.

Bonus: if you happen to be in the Ballarat area on 28 May 2023, why not go along to the Ballarat Observatory and see David's magic lantern show 'Mystery Airships: A Night of Strange Things Seen in the Skies!'? Details and tickets here.

Image source: Tales from Rat City.

Sphere, 1 March 1913, 223

'In the future, every historian will be relevant for 15 minutes', as somebody once said. Here's my 15 minutes, an interview with journalist Connor Echols for Responsible Statecraft on the parallels between the 1913 phantom airship panic and the 2023 spy balloon panic. As I've been busy with other things and have had to watch take after hot take flash by (most interestingly from my point of view was Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian invoking another interest of mine, balloon riots), I appreciated the opportunity to think about what I do think (if that makes sense!)

...continue reading


Queenslander, 8 March 1928, cover

Continuing this miscellany, on 23 August 1913 the Maitland Daily Mercury published a letter from the Reverend G. W. Payne reporting that he, his wife, and a Mr and Mrs Preston had seen 'an aeroplane with searchlight hovering fairly high over Newcastle and the Hunter Valley'. This was just before 4am on 22 August 1913, though Mr Preston had also seen the light at 2am on 21 August. What they were all doing at such an early (or late) hour is unclear, but it was 'A reflection of the light on the still waters of the lake' (presumably Lake Macquarie) which first caught their attention:

The four of us watched it traversing a line from the direction of Newcastle north and west. Though at a considerable distance from us and fairly high in the air, the nature of the light was quite unmistakeable. It passed away in a westerly direction after loitering some time over the Hunter Valley.

...continue reading

Herald (Melbourne), 12 January 1924, 24

After its early showing in the 1909 mystery airship wave, Australia was rarely visited by phantom airships proper. Maybe that's because real airships were even rarer, with none that I know of between 1914 and the late twentieth century: they just weren't a very plausible thing to think you saw. But they did turn up sometimes.

There was one in Western Australia in 1910, another in 1918, and a relatively famous one on 10 June 1931 between Lord Howe Island to Jervis Bay. That last one was seen by Sir Francis Chichester while making the first east-west solo flight from New Zealand to Australia -- though he seems to have only reported it decades later, and even then stopped of short of claiming it actually was an airship. In 1925, another phantom airship was seen, more definitely but equally incongruously, at Myall, near the Murray River in northern Victoria.

...continue reading

FE.2b CF14 at Yarram, 1918

Yesterday marked the centenary of the founding of the Royal Australian Air Force on 31 March 1921. I celebrated in the usual way (buying books, talking about myself):[tweet id="1377043532775493636" conversation=false][tweet id="1377044249552678913" conversation=false][tweet id="1377044649374715908" conversation=false]But I also decided to use the occasion to talk about something that's missing from the usual RAAF origin story, and that's the mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. [tweet id="1377045231397335041" conversation=false][tweet id="1377046196846399494" conversation=false][tweet id="1377046835257253889" conversation=false]

...continue reading

Yesterday @TroveUFOBot found an obviously satirical and wholly invented account of a mystery airship seen at Dobroyd in Sydney in 1910. This is interesting enough in itself, but what got me searching was the inspiration for the article:

Everywhere just now the air is full of mystery -- of airship mystery. This is connected not so much with what is known to be accomplished in the way of aviation but rather what is suspected to have been accomplished, and to be kept secret for use in war time by some one or other of the great nations of the earth. A few days ago there came a rumour from the Pacific (which, by the way is a good wide place to start a rumour from) of traces of the visit of an airship having been discovered on what the late Mr Daniel O'Rourke would have called 'a dissolute' island.

I soon found this 'rumour from the Pacific', which turned out to be an account of (perhaps) two mystery airships seen in the Lau islands of Fiji, then a British colony on 17 March 1910.
...continue reading

Truth was a British political newspaper first published in 1877, founded by Henry Labouchère, a sometime Liberal MP. By the 1930s it was infamous as a scurrilous and often libellous pro-appeasement and often anti-semitic rag; in the Edwardian period it was still Liberal in inclination. At the end of May 1909 it issued no. 1581 of its many reader 'puzzles' on the topic of the recent phantom airship panic -- actually a satirical poetry competition:

One of the most engrossing topics of the past week has been the nocturnal manoeuvrings of the mysterious, but now happily exploded, German airship -- or, as it has been happily christened, 'Scare ship' -- which has been so vigorously exploited by a certain class of imaginative journalists that any number of people's legs seem to have been effectively pulled thereby. The topic is certainly one that lends itself to humorous treatment in verse, and I now present it to my numerous poets to see what they can make of it. That is to say, I offer herewith the usual Prize of Two Guineas for THE BEST ORIGINAL POEM, OF A HUMOROUS, BURLESQUE, OR MOCK-HEROIC CHARACTER, DEALING WITH THE MYSTERIOUS GERMAN BOGEY-AIRSHIP WHICH CAUSED SUCH A PANIC, LAST WEEK, IN THE BOSOMS OF OUR NERVOUS PATRIOTS.

...continue reading

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).

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.

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.'

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.