UK UFO Cases : 1909 Scareships Flap

Scareship Flap

During the night of March 23rd 1909, Constable Kettle saw 'a strange, oblong and narrow craft passing over the city' of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. The incident was the start of a series of sightings in the United Kingdom throughout April and May of 1909. The majority of sightings came from East Anglia and South Wales.

The London Standard noted :

“With few exceptions they all speak of a torpedo-shaped object, possessing two powerful searchlights, which comes out early at night."

PC Kettle’s statement (above)

Back in 1909 the only thing torpedo-shaped and capable of flight, known to man, was the airship. The national and local press all assumed this the most likely explanation for these machines and some coined the term 'scareships'.

There were actually very few airships operating across Britain and Ireland at this time. Jane's All the World's Air-ships, also first published in 1909, listed only two in operation. Neither was equipped with high power searchlights.

One conclusion was that a foreign power was testing their craft over Britain and surveying the local defensive capabilities. The main suspect was Germany. Zeppelin's airships were as long as a battleship, could stay aloft for hours, and carry more than 10 men and a payload of bombs. No other country possessed craft with anything close to these offensive capabilities. More importantly anti-German feeling was growing in Great Britain as stories of German spies began to grow in the popular, but jingoistic as ever, Daily Mail.

Some sightings supported the idea that Zeppelins were responsible. For example, Mr. Free of Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, saw a long sausage-shaped airship manoeuvring over the cliffs for a few minutes at dusk:

“It hovered at 600 feet for a few minutes, and then departed in a north-easterly direction. "

The following day, Free found 'a curious object', a sort of piston weighing 35 lb and stamped with the words 'Müller Bremen Fabrik'. This was taken to mean that it was made in a factory in Bremen, Germany, and the War Office reportedly confiscated it. But investigations failed to turn up any such factory and it was virtually impossible for airships from Germany to have visited Britain in 1909.

No German records have ever been found to confirm this and any journey would have presented a great risk for the underpowered, slow airships of the early 20th Century.

Reports of these airships invariably included stories of high power searchlights beaming onto the landscape below. This would hardly keep their presence secret.

It could be that Britain was preparing itself for the coming threat from Germany and so stories were placed in the press as propaganda. That seems a little far-fetched. The British press would never subject itself to such sensationalism and fabrication for its own agenda would it? Weapons of mass destruction? The pioneer of democracy would surely not stoop to such tactics?

1909 was not the last year that phantom airships were reported in Britain. There was an incident at Sheerness, Kent, in October 1912 where engine sounds were heard overhead and even provoked questions at Westminster. With tension between Britain and Germany at an all time high, it was suggested that a Zeppelin was involved.

On 27th November 1912 William Joynson-Hicks MP raised the matter in Parliament with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. He confirmed that reports had been received, but said that subsequent investigations had not produced any rational explanation. Perhaps this piqued a long term interest in Churchill?

This was followed by dozens of sightings of mystery airships in February 1913 throughout the British Isles, at times witnessed by crowds of thousands of people. The start of the Great War saw another spate of homeland sightings in August 1914. The MoD (or War Office as it was then) even sent one of its precious few aircraft to search the Lake District for a foreign airship rumoured to be scouting the area.

Unconfirmed airship sightings continued during World War I over mainland Britain. Whilst some can be attributed to mistakes and paranoia the War Office could not ignore unexplained intrusions of their airspace. This would remain a concern, albeit one often concealed from the public, throughout the century.

The scareship cases illustrate how UFO sightings will often appear to a witness to be craft of a technology just slightly beyond the cutting edge of the day. But also remain something of a mystery as to what their origin was.

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