Fear of Floating

Diagnosis: Collective Panic Attack. Cause: Count von Zeppelin.

Two decades after the scare, a zeppelin over the Thames was a fact of life. Here, the Graf Zeppelin, a commercial passenger ship, plies London’s skies. NASM (A-48287-A)

That spring, no true Englishman could enjoy an evening stroll without spotting a zeppelin. “My eye was at once attracted by a powerful light, which I should judge to have been some 1,200 feet above the ground,” said Police Constable Kettle of his March 23, 1909 sighting, reported in London’s Daily Mail. “I also saw a dark body, oblong and narrow in shape, outlined against the stars.” His observation was seconded by a Miss Gill, who told the Evening News of “a brilliant flashing light in the sky.”

Zeppelins had been flying for nine years, but this was the first time one had been spotted over England. Designed by Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, the rigid airships were marvels of engineering: 446 feet long, built of 16 linked duralumin rings braced with wire and girders to hold bags of hydrogen in place, the whole structure covered with a cotton skin. But they had also proven fragile, skittish, and prone to catastrophe: Of the first 10 built, six crashed or burned. By 1909, only two, LZ 3 and LZ 4, had enjoyed some success. LZ 3 made 45 short hops totalling 2,733 miles, while in 1908, LZ 4 made a 12-hour trip of more than 600 miles. But had one really flown from the zeppelin hangar at Friedrichschafen, Germany, to Peterborough, England, and back—a trip of 1,036 miles?

British newspapers continued to report airship sightings: one in Cambridgeshire, another by two constables in Ipswich, an egg-shaped ship over Suffolk. In May, says historian Brett Holman of the University of Melbourne in Australia, who has catalogued the reports, London newspapers carried 49 sightings, including a May 18 account of railroad signalmen seeing “a boat or cigar shape” over Cardiff, in Wales. A zeppelin was even spotted over Ireland, where, according to the Belfast Telegraph, “the aerial visitant was thousands of feet light [high], and came steadily in the direction of the city.”

The sightings caused the British terrible anxiety. At the time, Germany and the United Kingdom were locked in an arms race. In 1906 the British had commissioned the Dreadnought, the fastest battleship in the world, and the most sophisticated in firepower. Germany would launch a fleet of formidable Kaiser-class battleships, but it hoped to shore up its naval power with airships. In 1908, German privy councillor Rudolph Martin bragged to Daily Mail readers that in the event of a war, a zeppelin fleet would “transport 350,000 men in half an hour during the night from Calais to Dover…. [W]e would conclude no peace until a German army had occupied London.”
Popular culture reflected Germany’s threat. The year before the airship reports, the British magazine Pall Mall had serialized H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air, a novel in which a fleet of German dirigibles bombs New York. The following year, Martin elaborated on his boasts, publishing World War in the Air, a book that imagines zeppelins bombing block after block of Paris (“Even at high altitudes,” says one character, “I heard the sounds of hundreds of people crying for help”) and defeating England.

The British “woke up to the idea that the Germans had created this dreadful weapon capable of breaking the [protective] barrier of the British navy,” says folklorist David Clarke of the University of Sheffield. “[F]or the first time in its history the island was vulnerable to invasion from the air.”

The sightings went on for four months, with several hundred people throughout the United Kingdom reporting lights and zeppelin-like objects in the sky. Were they on to something?

In truth, the odds of spotting a real zeppelin over the British Isles in 1909 matched the likelihood of seeing Kaiser Wilhelm dancing the can-can at a Paris burlesque house. “No airships could have possibly invaded then,” says historian Guillaume de Syon, author of Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900–1939. The engines were reliable only in failing, he adds. Furthermore, zeppelin pilots navigated “by observing the roads or looking for landmarks like a church steeple,” says de Syon, and those would have been in short supply as a London-bound zeppelin crossed the North Sea. The journey would also carry the ship over Belgium and France in daytime (zeppelins then did not fly at night), creating an international incident at a time when every visit of dirigibles to Europe’s skies brought thousands of people streaming into the streets.

Many historians, Clarke says, think the airship scare was worked up by newspapers such as the Daily Mail, owned by Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, known as Lord Northcliffe. The phantom airship reports spiced up the paper’s usual fare and put pressure on the government to increase military spending (one of Lord Northcliffe’s preoccupations). And with papers reporting airship spottings day after day, says Clarke, “you get this huge popular delusion.”

On the other hand, some papers were openly skeptical about the reports. The Weekly Dispatch noted that in one case, an airship was seen at Stamford and 20 minutes later over the coast at Southend; “this would give the airship a speed of 210 miles per hour seeing as the two places are seventy miles apart.” For airships of the day, a speed of 40 mph was more like it.

Newspapers also reported cases in which witnesses refuted zeppelin sightings. Daniel Blight told the South Wales Daily Post, “The airship was of quarter-circle shape, with two bright lights, one at each end of it…. I drew the attention to it of Constable No. 440C., who was passing at the time, and no doubt he will report it.” But the paper also quoted Constable 440C. saying that what he saw that night was “a particularly bright star, and it was there again on Thursday night.”

Lord Northcliffe himself eventually called for a halt to the airship craze: In a May 21, 1909 Daily Mail column telegraphed from Berlin, he scolded: “Germans who have so long been accustomed to regard Great Britain as a model of deportment, poise and cool-headedness are beginning to believe that England is becoming the home of mere nervous degenerates.” He added that the airship reports distracted from “the real German danger, namely the progress of the accelerated German naval programme.”

After Lord Northcliffe’s call to sanity, “[t]he airship panic began, by degrees, to subside,” writes historian Alfred Gollin in a journal article about the 1909 scare. Newspapers turned from reporting the frenzy to explaining it; the London Daily Chronicle quoted an official from a “lunatic asylum” ascribing the panic to “aviation insanity,” common among his charges. Another “lunacy expert” told the Morning Leader: “In every thousand men there are always two every night who see strange matters, chromatic rats, luminous owls, moving lights and fiery comets, and things like those.” And a letter writer in the Cambridge Chronicle  suggested, perhaps inevitably: “Might not the nocturnal visitor which has so disturbed many of the inhabitants of this peaceful Isle be the invader from a neighbouring planet?”

Some explanations were more mundane. Like the UFO scares later in the century, Clarke says, reports of airships armed with spotlights often coincided with evenings when Venus shone brightly in the sky. In Wales, pranksters released six-foot-wide fire balloons to spark airship reports. And the Northampton Mercury reported a hoax involving an airship model used for advertising motorcars. As for the first sighting, a representative from Constable Kettle’s own constabulary told the Peterborough Express that “for some days and nights before PC Kettle’s vision there was a very fine kite flying over the neighbourhood of Cobden Street.... [T]he kite would have been moored at night, and have a Chinese lantern attached to it….”

“But how do you get over the whirring and beating of engines?” asked the
Express reporter.

“Oh, that was the motor which goes all night in the Co-operative Bakery in Cobden Street.”

At least England’s fear of zeppelins was based on real concerns. The same year, other countries that seemed far less vulnerable began getting airship jitters. Says Brett Holman, “People saw [airships] in New Zealand, New England, India, and even parts of Germany.” The zeppelin’s sheer gigantism—something the size of a battleship hanging in the air—seized the public mind. Milk bottlers, tire makers, postcard manufacturers—all brandished pictures of zeppelins. Freud saw them as expressions of sexual fantasies, writing in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1916-1917) that in dreams, “the remarkable characteristic of the male organ which enables it to rise up in defiance of the laws of gravity…leads to it being represented symbolically by balloons, flying machines and most recently by Zeppelin airships.” “[T]he skies were transformed into a collective Rorschach ink blot of the collective unconscious,” says sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of U.F.O.’s & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery. “People see what they expect to see in a search for certainty, especially during times of crisis.”

At the beginning of the century, de Syon says, “people had a sense the world was changing, and the airships were a harbinger of things to come.”

A second wave of sightings would afflict the United Kingdom in 1912 and 1913, and then the story takes a grim turn. In World War I, zeppelins did reach London. “The Zeppelins have come at last,” reported the January 1915 London Graphic, “for three of them visited the Norfolk coast on Tuesday night and dropped bombs in the darkness. ‘The Graphic’ anticipated an air-raid so long ago as May 22, 1909, though the present raid was made more fearsome by explosive bombs which killed four peaceful people, two of whom were women.” By the end of the war, zeppelin-dropped bombs had killed 557 people and injured 1,358. Concludes de Syon: “The airship scares were just a little neurosis before
the actual psychosis of the first World War.” 

Dan Vergano is a reporter for USA Today.

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