The Airship Wave Of 1909
Less well known than the 1896-97 spat of sightings, the 1909 wave is still worthy of mention. This wave occurred at the true dawn of air travel and appropriately enough had a much more international flavour.
The "scareships" appeared across Britain that year causing panic and fear. We must remember that the early years of the 20th Century spelt the end of Britain's splendid isolation thanks to the invention of controlled, powered flight. The British truly were scared of what that could mean, and sadly we all know we Brits were quite right to fear what lay ahead. So "scareships" was the phrase the papers coined for that year's mystery airships.
The first ascent of the Zeppelin LZ1 in 1900
The Airship Wave Of 1909 - Dr David Clarke is a rather brilliant article about the scareships and their immediate historical setting. I'll give you a few examples of the sights Dr Clarke mentions:
In May 1909, the skipper of the Suffolk-based fishing smack Superb, J.H. Stockman, reported how in October the previous year, when fishing in the North Sea 35 miles out of Lowestoft he had seen what at first appeared to be "a large star rising out of the water" and approaching his ship. After calling one of his crew, Stockman decided to signal to the "airship" with a red flare, and to his surprise he was immediately answered by a red flare from above his ship. He then showed a white flare, and received a blue flare in response! The "airship" appeared to be sausage shaped, and carried a single light; it eventually disappeared out to sea in the direction of the Continent
No German Zeppelin would have been able to make such a crossing and the report is remarkably similar to many latter day UFO sightings.
From the point of view of the London newspapers, however, the scare can safely be said to have begun with the sighting made by Police Constable Kettle in the Cathedral city of Peterborough, early on the morning of 23 March 1909. It was this sighting which was the first to appear in a London evening newspaper, the Daily Mail, and was subsequently noted by Charles Fort in his account of the airship scare.
In his original statement, published in the Peterborough Citizen and Advertiser, Kettle said: "I was on duty in Cromwell-road at 5.15 am when I heard what I took to be a motorcar some 400 yards distant. It was quite dark at the time, and I looked along Cromwell-road expecting to see the lights of an approaching car. Nothing appeared, but I could still hear the steady buzz of a high-powered engine. Suddenly it struck me that the sound was coming from above, and I looked up. My eye was at once attracted by a powerful light, which I should judge to have been some 1,200 feet above the ground. I also saw a dark body, oblong and narrow in shape, outlined against the stars. When I first sighted the machine it was not straight overhead but appeared to be over the railway in the direction of Taverners-road. It was travelling at a tremendous pace, and as I watched, the rattle of the engines gradually grew fainter and fainter, until it disappeared in the northwest."
The Daily Mail's account mentions that a second policeman in another part of Peterborough had corroborated Kettle's account, but no further reference has been located referring to this fact in the local Press. Newspaper reporters, however, were quick to locate other witnesses in the town who claimed to have seen a similar object in the sky over Peterborough at around the same time. One of these was a Miss Gill, daughter of the city electrical engineer, who upon returning from the theatre with friends that same night saw "a brilliant flashing light in the sky...apparently attached to some dark object moving slowly in the direction of Cromwell Road.
This was to be the first in a series of sightings in East Anglia and soon enough fevered reporters and onlookers descended on the counties thereabouts in search of the lights in the sky. Soon the craze moved further afield...
"a report was made by a police constable Day, of the Lincolnshire force, to the effect that he had seen an airship hovering over Immingham Dock at night. PC Day claimed he was patrolling on the banks of the Humber at 2am when his attention was attracted to a bright light hanging over the river nearby.
"Having been in the navy for several years, the officer states emphatically that it was not a searchlight," maintained the Sheffield Telegraph. "He also states that he distinctly saw the outline of a car, which was swaying gently in mid-air. For an hour the mysterious body and light remained visible until, in fact, the officer went off duty."
As usual there may well have been a less sensational explanation for this sighting, for the account went on to say: "It so happens that there was a remarkable display of the Northern Lights early [on the morning of 22 May] and it is quite possible that this may afford an explanation."
I just imagine him staring at this strange sight, amazed and bewildered than seeing his watch and thinking "Wooooo... what am I doing standing around here, it's time for a beer!" Typical Brit... ;)
At Herne Bay in Kent, five independent witnesses in different parts of the town observed the passage of an airship shaped like "a big cigar" or a sausage, carrying a brilliant light, which travelled inland from the sea between 9 and 9.30 pm on 13 May.
On the same night hundreds of miles to the north in Hull, on the East Coast of Yorkshire, Mr A. Walker was walking home when he observed a flash of light in the sky above the Humber at 11pm. "It was working to the west and seemed to be tracking a little as if going against the wind which was forcing it back," he told the Hull Daily Mail. "It was a luminous body seen through a cloud, and appeared arc-shaped, and I also heard a peculiar whirring noise. The light was high up, about a mile up, I should think. It was dark and cloudy at the time and I had the light under observation for about two minutes. I immediately called my father and mother who were in the house, and they also both saw the light as it travelled westwards."
Several other Hull residents also came forward and claimed they had seen an airship hovering over the Humber the following night, and that "for a brief space, a piercing searchlight was directed on the river."
Did you think Kent would escape a mention? Never!
That is just a few of many sightings in Britain that spring and I've left out some actual encounters with "Germans" and even a few Men In Black stories too mentioned in the article which I really urge you to read. Given the huge amount of publicity and the sheer quantity of witness statements it's quite astonishing that so few people have even heard of the scareship wave, whether it was aliens, pre-WWI delusions or German recon flights it's still a fascinating phenomenon. The reports continued right up until the outbreak of the First World War and the first waves of real "scareships" which brought misery to our isles. In fact one incident in 1912 when the sounds of an airship were heard flying over Sheerness in Kent (trust me, if you are of right mind you'd want to ensure you flew above Sheerness and not ever touch down there...) lead to questions being asked in Parliament.
Another place that was home to a wave of sightings of strange craft was quite a long way away from any possible threatening Zeppelins; New Zealand.
This site has quite a few sightings listed:
New Zealand, Dunedin: On July 28, an airship apparently came down over the city of Dunedin. A resident in the North Eastern Valley reported that he was awakened by a horrible noise at about two o'clock this morning,' he told a reporter. “The noise was like a ship dragging her anchor up or a windlass of a steamer with dry-gear wheels working. I got up and went round to the front and I saw something floating up past Knox College. It was a great black thing with a searchlight attached.'"
• New Zealand, Fairfax: The afternoon of July 31, 1909, a resident reported seeing an airship while he was at Akatore. At 4:55 p.m., he saw a dark object shoot over the brow of the hills in the east and rapidly climb towards the west. He got a side view of the object which he described as cigar-shaped but bulkier, with a box-like structure underneath in the centre.
• New Zealand, Gore: Early the morning of August 1, a resident of Grosvenor Street in Dunedin reported seeing an airship. At one stage, he saw a bright yellow light shoot up what looked like a mast and stay at the top.
• New Zealand, Greenvale: On July 31, there was a UFO incident during the early morning hours at Greenvale, near Gore, South Island. While feeding the horses, a Greenvale farmhand heard a strange whirring sound, which frightened the animals. On looking out, he saw an airship overhead about 150 feet long. It had head and taillights and was moving so fast that, when he woke up his mates, the lights were faint in the distance.
• New Zealand, Kaka Point: New Zealand was repeatedly visited by UFOs, then known as "airships". On July 24, 1909, some half dozen boys were playing on the beach at Kaka Point saw a huge illuminated object moving about in the air. It appeared as if it was going to alight at Kaka Point. The light from it was distinctly reflected on the roof of Mr. Fitzgerald's cottage. The boys thought it was being attracted by their lantern and left it on the beach. The airship then glided around the rocks at the old pilot station and nearly came in contact with them. It shortly afterwards disappeared. The boys said it was as big as a house.
• New Zealand, Kaitangata: On Sunday night July 25, the mysterious object again made its appearance at the beach and was seen by Mr. George Smith and Mr. Poulter about 8:30. Mr. Smith viewed it through a very powerful night glass. It was apparently over Mr. Aitkenhead's house when he first saw it, but it glided high in the air and sailed north in the direction of Kaitangata, swooping west and east and finally disappearing over the horizon. About 10:30 Mr. Smith was called out by Mr. Poulter to see the airship, which again had made its appearance. This time it headed out to sea and eventually disappeared. As seen through the glass, Mr. Smith said it appeared to be a fair size, dark superstructure with a powerful headlight and two smaller lights at the side.
• New Zealand, Kelso: On July 23, a small group of schoolchildren and some residents reported that an airship came down and bobbed around in the sky over the school for a few minutes.
• New Zealand, Lambourne: On July 27, about 10 a.m., Mr. Allan Mitchell and Mr. Alex Riach, while working at Lambourne near the mouth of the Pomehaka River, saw high in the air a large boat-shaped structure floating in the air.
• New Zealand, Oamaru: On July 19, three residents of Oamaru, reported "a flickering light" moving about in the sky.
And just to prove it wasn't just the British Empire losing it's marbles, New England too was host to a fresh wave of American airships.
With sightings also reported in the Middle East and Vietnam the final few years before the First World War truly were the last great mystery airship wave. So what could be behind these reports? Are they lies, or misidentification of other phenomena? Are they steampunk aliens? The work of crazy inventors? A Government conspiracy? Or war machines sent by foreign powers? Next time we'll look at the evidence... Mystery Airships: The Steampunk UFOs Part Three.
Mystery Airships In The Sky - Steven A. Arts (UK Amazon, US Amazon)
Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery - Michael Busby (UK Amazon, US Amazon)