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England Is No Longer an Island: The Phantom Airship Scare of 1909

  • Alfred M. Gollin


The British people and their rulers have always been concerned about the possibility of an invasion of their island home by a hostile power striking at them from the European continent. Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister who did so much to modernize the defense arrangements of his country in the early years of the present century, was especially concerned with this problem of invasion. He called it “This eternal and most important question of our safety against invasion.” In 1908 an entirely new element was introduced into this area of strategic thinking when it was realized, for the first time, that Britain might be invaded from the air. Until this year the British could take comfort from the often quoted words of Admiral Lord St. Vincent to a group of nervous fellow peers at the time of the French invasion danger early in the nineteenth century: “I do not say they cannot come, my Lords, I only say they cannot come by sea.” Now, as a result of unprecedented technological developments it was possible for a vigilant and forward-looking observer to contemplate an air assault upon the United Kingdom that would put Lord St. Vincent's pithy maxim in an entirely new light. Eventually, the fear of air attack assumed a dominating position in the minds of British defense planners; but the origins of this problem have not been studied closely by scholars, even though they deserve attention.



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1 Dugdale, Blanche E.C., Arthur James Balfour, 2 vols. (London, 1936), 1:365.

2 Quoted in Marder, Arthur J., From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London, 19611970), 1:347.

3 Memorandum, 8 February 1908, Wright Brothers Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

4 P.R.O., Air 1/1608, 15 December 1904.

5 Walker, Percy B., Early Aviation at Farnborough, 2 vols. (London 19711974), 2:18.

6 Memorandum by W. Wright Esq., 8 February 1907, Wright Brothers Papers, Library of Congress. See also Gollin, Alfred, “The Mystery of Lord Haldane and Early British Aviation,” Albion 11 (1979):4665.

7 See Walker, , Early Aviation, 2:376.

8 Gibbs-Smith, Charles H., The Rebirth of European Aviation (London, 1974), p. 222.

9 See Pound, Reginald and Harmsworth, Geoffrey, Northcliffe (London, 1959), p. 301.

10 Daily Mail, 17 November 1906.

11 Ibid., 15 November 1906.

12 Wallace, Graham, Flying Witness, Harry Harper and the Golden Age of Aviation (London, 1958), p. 44.

13 Undated document entitled “Lord Northcliffe,” written during the 1st World War, Beaverbrook Papers, c/261, House of Lords Record Office.

14 For the relationship see Norman, and MacKenzie, Jeanne, H.G. Wells (New York, 1973), p. 222. Dunne, and the Wrights also, are actually mentioned in The War in The Air. Walker, (Early Aviation, 2:163ff) has an excellent account of Dunne's work. See also P.R.O., Air 1/1613/204/88/10 for Dunne's diary and his flight trials in Scotland.

15 Wells, H.G., Experiment in Autobiography (New York, 1934) p. 569.

16 Wells, H. G., The War in The Air (London, 1971), p. 161. The power of Wells' novel is stressed in Halévy, Elie, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Centur—VI, The Rule of Democracy, 1905-1914 (Book II), (London, 1952), p. 411.

17 P.R.O., Cab. 16/7. “Report and Proceedings of a Sub-Committee of The Committee of Imperial Defence on Aerial Navigation,” dated 28 January 1909, and marked “Secret.” See Minutes of Second Meeting, Tuesday 8th December 1908, p. 41.

18 Gibbs-Smith, Charles H., The Invention of the Aeroplane (London, 1966), p. 122.

19 New York Herald (Paris Edition), 6 October 1908.

20 Marder, , Dreadnought, 1:136.

21 Sweet, D.W., “Great Britain and Germany 1905-1911,” in Hinsley, F.H., ed., British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey (Cambridge, 1977), p. 221.

22 Gollin, Alfred, The Observer and J.L. Garvin (London, 1960), p. 33.

23 Halévy, , The Rule of Democracy, p. 394. The standard work on the naval rivalry of this period is Woodward, E.L., Great Britain and the German Navy (London, 1935); see also Mackay, Ruddock F., Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford, 1973), p. 350ff.

24 The Daily Mail, 11 July 1908.

25 Gibbs-Smith, , The Rebirth of European Aviation, p. 279.

26 The Observer, 16 August 1908.

27 See The Aeronautical Journal, July 1906, pp. 37-38.

28 For comment on SirMaxim's, Hiram idea see The Times, 21 December 1908.

29 The Daily Mail, 11 July 1908.

30 See also The Times, 23 December 1908, also owned by Northcliffe.

31 Parliamentary Debates, (Commons), 4th series, 192 (21 July 1908), col. 1735.

32 The best published account of Captain Bacon's initiative is in Higham, Robin, The British Rigid Airship, 1908-1931 (London, 1961), pp. 35ff. See also Roskill, Stephen W., ed., Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service (London, 1969), p. 6; Marder, Arthur ed., Fear God and Dread Nought, 2 vols. (London, 1956), 2:186; and also a privately printed Vickers history, Scrope, H.E., Golden Wings, The Story of Fifty Years of Aviation By the Vickers Group of Companies (London, 1958), p. 7. For Admiral Fisher's influence on Bacon's activities in this connection see P.R.O., Air 1/2442/614.

33 P.R.O., Cab. 16/7. “Report and Proceedings of A Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence on Aerial Navigation,” dated 28 January 1909 and marked “Secret.” The members of this Sub-Committee were appointed in October 1908.

34 For the final report see P.R.O., Cab. 4/3. C.I.D. 106-B. “Aerial Navigation Report of Sub-Committee,” 28 January 1909, marked “Secret.” For the Committee of Imperial Defence's approval of the Report see P.R.O., Cab. 2/2, “Committee of Imperial Defence. Minutes of 101st Meeting, February 25,1909,” marked “Secret.”

35 P.R.O., Cab. 4/3. C.I.D. 106-B. “Aerial Navigation. Report of a Sub-Committee …,” p. 5, 28 January 1909, marked “Secret.” See also Roskill, , Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service, pp. 11ff; and Walker, , Early Aviation, 2:284ff.

36 Halévy, , The Rule of Democracy, p. 403.

37 Marder, , Dreadnought, 1:149.

38 Hale, Oron James, Publicity and Diplomacy (New York, 1940), p. 341.

39 Marder, , Dreadnought, 1:169; Hale, , Publicity and Diplomacy, p. 363; Halévy, , The Rule of Democracy, p. 403; Hirst, F.W., The Six Panics (London, 1913), p. 94.

40 Marder, , Dreadnought, 1:181–2.

41 For a full account of the speech see Westminster Gazette, 5 May 1909.

42 See Haldane to Northcliffe, 4 May 1909, B.L. Add. MSS., Northcliffe Papers.

43 20 May 1909.

44 17 May 1909.

45 Parliamentary Debates, (Commons), 5th series, 5 (17 May 1909), col. 6.

46 From the report in the Morning Post, 20 May 1909. All the newspapers carried these accounts which were sent to the London papers by the Cardiff Correspondent of the Press Association.

47 Hale, , Publicity and Diplomacy, p. 354.

48 Steiner, Zara S., Britain and the Origins of the First World War (New York, 1977), p. 168.

49 Daily Mail, 21 May 1909.

50 Northcliffe to Garvin, 22 May 1909, Garvin Papers, University of Texas.

51 Parliamentary Debates, (Commons), 5th series, 5 (24 May 1909), col. 812. The questioner was Sir John Barlow, Liberal M.P. for Frome in Somerset. He asked if it were true that there were sixty-six thousand trained German soldiers in England or if there were “in a cellar within a quarter of a mile of Charing Cross, 50,000 stands of Mauser rifles and 7-1/2 millions of Mauser cartridges ….” For further details about these rifles see Marder, , Dreadnought, 1:181.

52 Collier, Basil, The Defence of The United Kingdom (London, 1957), p. 1.

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