Monday, July 07, 2008

The phantom airships of 1909


The other day I reported the sighting of a UFO over Market Harborough. A little research turns up another fascinating sighting - this one from the Edwardian era.

In 1909 Louis Bleriot made history by becoming the first pilot to cross the English Channel. As David Clarke writes:

The year 1909 saw the realisation that the British Navy's world-wide supremacy was directly under threat, and for the first time in its history the island was vulnerable to invasion from the air. Bleriot may well have been the first to cross the Channel, but just two months before his flight newspapers had suggested that the Channel had been crossed secretly, and at night, by a far more sinister aircraft - the German Zeppelin airship.

In the spring of 1909 Germany's prototype airships were incapable of night reconnaissance operations over the British Coast. And yet, during four months that spring, several hundred eyewitnesses claimed to have seen "phantom Zeppelins" moving across the night sky, performing manoeuvres which were impossible for any contemporary airship or aeroplane of the day.

In addition, a number of people claimed to have seen this mysterious airship at close range, hearing its whirring engines and observing its cigar-shaped gasbag and dazzling searchlight. A few even claimed to have seen and conversed with its crew.

Later he writes:

The growing cloud of rumour became so widespread early in May that a special correspondent from the Express was dispatched to track down the base from which it was assumed the airship must be flying. The reporter hired a car from a company in Northampton and toured the countryside between that city, Market Harborough and Peterborough watching for any strange light in the sky or whirring noise from above. Other motorists were taking night trips for the same reasons, and the reporter wired back to his paper:

"In every little Fen village along the endless hedgeless roads they are looking out for the night-flier. The fact that it manoeuvres with ease so close to the North Sea has aroused apprehension, and I met many villagers who eagerly asked me for news."

The reporter failed to find the airship's base, but he found a good supply of fresh witnesses who were prepared to say they had seen it in the air. One of these was a Mr C.W.Allen, described as "the pedestrian holder of the 2,000 miles road record" who claimed he distinctly saw the craft whilst driving with two friends near the Northamptonshire town of Market Harborough on 5 May 1909:

"we had been for a night run, and when we were passing through the village of Kelmarsh, we heard a loud report in the air like the backfire of a motorcar. Then we heard distinctly from above our heads the 'tock-tock-tock' of a swiftly-running motor-engine, and we looked up. I was sitting on the front seat, next to the driver, and had a clear view of a dark shape looming up out of the night. It was an oblong airship, with lights in front and behind, flying swiftly through the air. It seemed some five or six hundred feet up, and must have been at least a hundred feet long, although owing to its altitude it looked smaller. The lights were not very bright, but we could distinctly see the torpedo-shape and what appeared to be men on the platform below. We slowed up our motorcar and stopped to watch it. The steady buzz of the engines could be heard through the still air, and we watched it under it passed out of sight in a northeasterly direction towards Peterborough."

That report comes from the Daily Express of 12 May 1909, though I have to point out that Market Harborough is in Leicestershire not Northamptonshire. And Northampton is a town not a city. Clearly, the Express was no more accurate a century ago.

It is a long and fascinating article. There are clear parallels between modern Ufology and this episode, even down to the appearance of Edwardian men in black.

And, as Clarke points out, a few years later, the presence of Zeppelins over England was all too real. The experience seems to have been forgotten in the enormity of the Blitz of the Second World War, but one website that suggests over the country as a whole there were 52 Zeppelin raids during World War I, resulting in 1413 fatalities.

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