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World War X-Files

Unidentified lights in the sky, strange noises on the wind, mysterious figures in the dark. Nigel Watson discovers how wartime Britain was gripped by a fear of phantom airships and even stranger things
Reports of unknown aircraft left people questioning who exactly was coming to wreck their lives
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NIGEL WATSON is an author and journalist. His books include UFOs of the First World War and The Origin of UFOs: Phantom Airships 1807 to 1917

“I have caused inquires to be made and have ascertained that an unknown aircraft was heard over Sheerness [in Kent] about 7pm on the evening of 14 October 1912. Flares were lighted at Eastchurch, but the aircraft did not make a landing. There is nothing in the evidence to indicate the nationality of the aircraft.”

It may sound like a modern-day unidentified flying object (UFO) sighting, yet this was a written reply by the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, to Mr Joynson-Hicks, MP for Brentford, who had raised the issue in the House of Commons.

Several witnesses claimed to have seen or heard the strange aircraft, including Lieutenant Fitzmaurice who had been walking from Sheerness Post Office to his lodgings between 6.30pm and 7pm when he had heard an aircraft flying overhead. Other local witnesses also claimed they had heard aircraft motors and seen a bright light flying speedily eastwards.

With no obvious answer as to the identity of the mystery aircraft – and concerned that Sheerness, an important part of Britain’s defences and home to a Royal Navy torpedo school, was under threat – the Admiralty’s Air Department quickly tried to find an explanation. Zeppelin L1, which had entered German naval service in October 1912, was deemed a possible candidate, as it had flown on the date in question – but it had landed in Berlin at 3.43pm. Another suspect was the civilian Zeppelin Hansa, which had also flown that day although had reportedly landed at Gotha in central Germany at 4pm.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Few legends from ancient history have continued to hold us in such thrall as that of the fall of Troy, the epic tale of love and loss; gods and mortals; treachery and truth. But how much of the story is actually true? Michael Scott weighs up the reality and fiction of probably the most famous of Ancient Greek myths. Plus: Ten quirkiest royal traditions, the secrets of the relics in Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Queen who took on the British in the 1857 Indian Rebellion, escapes over (and under) the Berlin Wall, and more.