Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Lessons from the Phantom Airship Panic — of 1913 – Responsible Statecraft

Posted by M. C. on February 19, 2023

One newspaper editor even wrote that “without being thoroughly scared, the great British public will not bring pressure to bear on the Treasury” to expand airplane and airship manufacturing.

Written by
Connor Echols

In February of 1913, the editors of the Standard issued a stark warning to their readers: Great Britain was being besieged by mysterious flying objects, and it was well past time to do something.

“There is not the smallest doubt but that this country at the present moment is the object of a systematic aerial reconnaissance carried out at night,” they wrote. The culprit? “There is only one answer to that question […] Germany alone possesses aircraft capable of doing what is being done by the airships that have been seen over England.”

The journalists, like many of their compatriots, were caught up in the Phantom Airship Panic of 1913. Over the course of several months, thousands of Britons claimed to have seen Zeppelins flying overhead, stoking fears that Germany was surveilling the British Isles — and perhaps even threatening to strike them from above.

The episode may sound familiar. Today, the United States is in the throes of its own panic, which started when an apparent Chinese spy balloon flew over the country earlier this month. Politicians and journalists quickly seized on the story, with some speculating that the balloon could be far more than a surveillance threat. “How do we know the next balloon isn’t loaded up with bioweapons?” asked Jesse Waters of Fox News.

The Balloon Panic of 2023 continues to drag on, with reports of new flying objects being spotted — and shot down — for three consecutive days last week.  In hopes of finding some lessons for our current crisis, RS spoke over email with historian Brett Holman, author of a 2016 journal article entitled “The Phantom Airship Panic of 1913: Imagining Aerial Warfare in Britain before the Great War.”

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RS: To start off, can you summarize the Phantom Airship Panic of 1913? Do we know what they were actually seeing?

Holman: For several months in early 1913, thousands of people right across the breadth of the United Kingdom reported seeing hundreds of airships in the skies above where there shouldn’t have been any. This was still very early in the era of flight, and aircraft were still quite rare. Airships were rarer still; the British military, for example, only possessed three small airships, with only a couple in private hands.

The obvious explanation seemed to be that the airships were German Zeppelins, since these were by far the most advanced airships in existence, enormous machines capable of flying hundreds of miles from their bases and back. And, of course, from 1915 Zeppelins did bomb London and other British cities. But Germany denied responsibility for the phantom airships, and no records have ever been found to support the idea that Zeppelins carried out such overflights in peacetime, especially on such a massive scale. We can’t be sure what it was that people were actually seeing, but hoaxes, searchlights, geese, and the planet Venus were all put forward as alternative explanations at the time.

What drove popular British fears about the phantom dirigibles?

See the rest here

Be seeing you


One Response to “Lessons from the Phantom Airship Panic — of 1913 – Responsible Statecraft”

  1. Eric said

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .

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