The Hydroairplane-Supersubmarine Threat to New York

[Cross-posted at Airminded.] Washington Post, 2 June 1918, SM1

New York waited for an air raid in June 1918. For thirteen nights from 4 June, much of the city was blacked out to avoid giving German pilots any assistance in locating targets to bomb. The New York Times reported the following day that:

Electric signs and all lights, except street lamps and lights in dwellings, were out in this city last night in compliance with orders issued by Police Commissioner Enright at the suggestion of the War Department, as a precaution against a possible attack by aircraft from a German submarine. A system for signalling by sirens in case the approach of aircraft should be detected was devised by the police and signal officers yesterday to warn persons to get under cover.1

While coastal and anti-aircraft batteries readied their guns, aviators went up to check the effectiveness of the blackout, resulting in its extension. After the third night, it was reported that

The lower part of the city was in almost complete darkness, the number of street lights being reduced and those that burned being dimmer. Every downtown skyscraper was almost entirely dark, the shades in the rooms which were lighted being drawn.2

City officials met to discuss other civil defence measures, including air raid sirens and shelters. A particular concern was the evacuation of skyscrapers during business hours:

It was pointed out that in case of such a raid in the daytime the danger of loss of life from panic in swarming down the stairs and into elevators would be greater than the danger of bomb explosions.3

It was decided that the best thing to do would be to designate certain floors as evacuation points. These plans were probably not put into effect, however, as the last night of blackout was 16 June; on 17 June all police precincts were ordered to ‘Resume normal lighting throughout the city until further orders’.4 There was evidently some embarrassment now, as the War Department and the New York Police Department each claimed that the blackout was the other’s idea. In any event, the exercise doesn’t seem to have been repeated.

Washington Post, 2 June 1918, SM1

It’s hard enough to conceive of an aerial attack on New York in the Second World War, let alone the First when aircraft were far more primitive. But for a time, the idea was taken seriously. The context was the campaign of the German U-boat cruiser U-151, one of the largest and longest-ranged submarines of the war, off the eastern American seaboard in May and June of 1918. On 25 May it sank three ships off Virginia, and then on 2 June it had a spectacular run of luck, sinking half a dozen ships off New Jersey. The war coming so close to American shores was understandably concerning, but coupling the submarine menace to the aerial one was something else again.

I’m not sure where the idea came from. A book written after the war implies that a a newspaper article by Admiral Peary on ‘the possibility of seaplanes being launched from an enemy submarine to bomb the large cities’, apparently in a Washington, D.C., newspaper, was responsible, supported by a statement made by the president of the Aero Club of America, Alan R. Hawley.5 I haven’t been able to locate these, but I did find an article in the Washington Post on 2 June by Charles W. Duke entitled ‘Will the U-boats come to America this summer?’ The fact that a German submarine was already operating in US waters was not made public until the following day, so this article — and the accompanying illustrations, which I’ve reproduced here — may actually be the origin of the scare. Duke begins:

NOTHING would so please the fatuous sense of humor and so assuage their truculent egotism as to be able to send some of von Tirpitz’s heralded new supersubmarines across the Atlantic to bomb American coast cities with gas shells and lyddite grenades that might be launched a hundred or more miles off New York, Boston or Charleston from the decks of the U-boats, or possibly fabricated hydroairplanes assembled on the surface of the sea alongside the transatlantic ‘unterseebooten.’6

Duke doesn’t offer any specific evidence that Germany has the capability or the intention to do this. Instead he notes its announcement that it now possessed a fleet of ‘supersubmarines’ similar to the Deutschland which broke the Allied blockade by sailing into Baltimore harbour when the United States was still neutral. He also invokes the pillaging of Belgium, the Gotha raids on London and the recent use of the Paris Gun to argue that:

the German has excelled in the most fiendish form of frightfulness — calculated, in the German mind, to break down the morale of the opposition. Thick-headed Prussianism has thought to break the heart of the enemy by the institution of a reign of terror against women, children and noncombatants.7

He is quite sure that, for example, ‘the explosion of gas shells among several of the sanatoriums for children that dot the Jersey coast from Atlantic City to Cape May’ would fail to achieve this objective just as other forms of German ‘frightfulness’ have failed elsewhere.8 But all the same he seems to actually wish for it:

Nothing would so galvanize the fighting American sprit as the spectacle of a U-boat turret looming up out of the mists of the Atlantic. The rays of its searchlights would shoo the few remaining pacifists out of their dark corners and straighten out the kinks of those minority mollycoddles from Missouri who have yet to be actually shown that there is a war.

Let the super U-boats drop their bombs on Bunker Hill monument, Grant’s Tomb, the Liberty Bell or the White House. Each new symbol of ‘kultur’ is but a fountain of oil poured on the flame of American patriotism.9

On 21 July, another U-boat, U-156, surfaced off Orleans, Massachusetts, and shelled the town, albeit quite ineffectually, so Duke wasn’t completely off base.

What interests me most about all of this is that something very similar but also quite different was happening at almost this exact same moment, on the other side of the world, in Australia. I won’t go into details because I’ve discussed this episode at length before, but the threat there was from seaplanes flying from a German surface raider, which supposedly had already happened once in 1917. Here there was also the hope that the feeling of vulnerability created by the possibility of a German air attack on Australian cities would rally support for the war effort. While coastal defences were activated and scratch aerial reconnaissance patrols organised, Australian cities weren’t blacked out like New York. That may suggest that Australians were less worried about an attack than Americans. On the other hand, Australians, in their hundreds, all across the country, actually thought they saw German aeroplanes flying overhead between March and May 1918. This might seem remarkable, but this sort of thing was actually a surprisingly common reaction to the threat posed by the new technology of flight when primed by the press (including, in the United States, in 1896, 1897, 1909 and 1910, and earlier in the war).10 So what intrigues me is why New Yorkers didn’t, as far as I can tell, also see mystery aeroplanes when they were effectively being told to expect them?

  1. New York Times, 5 June 1918, 1. See also Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 431.
  2. New York Times, 7 June 1918, 2.
  3. Ibid., 15 June 1918, 6.
  4. Ibid., 18 June 1918, 24.
  5. William Bell Clark, When the U-boats Came to America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1929), 78-9.
  6. Washington Post, 2 June 1918, SM2.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See, for example, Stephen Whalen and Robert E. Bartholomew, ‘The great New England airship hoax of 1909’, New England Quarterly (September 2002), 466-76.

2 thoughts on “The Hydroairplane-Supersubmarine Threat to New York

  1. This is a pretty interesting test case for your teratology of the air, Brett.

    You know my take. The sightings are responsive to some kind of social need. People are seeing/willing the future they want, fear or possibly both. If so, the absence of sightings in the New York case points to some kind of sociological difference between Australia and the United States.

  2. Teratology of the air, I’m stealing that!

    You know my take. The sightings are responsive to some kind of social need. People are seeing/willing the future they want, fear or possibly both. If so, the absence of sightings in the New York case points to some kind of sociological difference between Australia and the United States.

    Yes, this is pretty much my take too, which is why I’m extending my research transnationally. The prewar mystery airships in the United States provide some of the best evidence that they could represent hopes rather than just fear, as unlike just about everywhere else they were generally seen by Americans as benign homegrown inventions. But there is a danger in constructing just-so stories to account for how mystery aircraft were interpreted (or not interpreted), which is why I’m interested in New York 1918 as a counter-example. (There’s some discussion of possible countervailing factors Airminded; one possible one I neglected to mention was that by June the German offensives were petering out so perhaps there was less concern about losing the war compared to Australia even a month or two earlier, and of course Americans were not as war-weary as Australians would have been.) Though equally there’s a danger in drawing conclusions from one case; there’s an inherent volatility in mass social phenomena and a mystery aircraft scare might not happen for essentially no reason — maybe some people saw them but the press didn’t get wind of them and so the panic never spread. More research required!

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