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First published in The Weekly Telegraph, London, 23 January 1909

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-09-11
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A thrilling account of how a foreign war balloon attempted to
blow up London, and met its match in a most unexpected quarter.

ON the night of the 16th of December, 1917, England waited in anxiety and terror for news of war.

The quarrel with her great neighbour had begun prosaically enough in the Extradition Court at Bow Street, had moved west by easy stages to Downing Street, and had finally reached Whitehall, when elderly worried men in mufti sat in council before Ordnance maps marked with tiny flags.

And the presses of Fleet Street thundered out hourly specials, and restless crowds loitered about public offices. In the theatres great audiences suspended their attention to the stage, whilst white-shirt-fronted managers read telegrams and messages conveying the latest intelligence. For England was on the verge of war, and the equipment of three army corps stood parked on Laffan's Plain.

At such a moment, when the judgment of men is likely to take on bias, the usually well-balanced serial correspondent of the Megaphone lost his head. He had seen a little; he had heard a little; he formed a conclusion out of all proportion to the meagre evidence of his senses. So the Megaphone came out with a riotous, flaming, ear-splitting special. And it was all about "War." War, with ten headlines, a map, and twenty-four portraits. War in letters six inches long—and it looked authoritative. Later, a frenzied Foreign Office official motored to Fleet Street at the rate of thirty miles an hour, saw the editor and cursed him. Then the presses were stopped and the pages replated, and half an hour afterwards all the other newspapers in Fleet Street were publishing specials too, utterly and indignantly denying that there was any war, and virtuously reproving the Megaphone for its "rabid sensationalism." The Megaphone said nothing, but published a letter from a certain gifted author, who explained in three columns that the proceeds of his new play would be devoted to succouring the sick and wounded—if any—in the forthcoming campaign.

As a matter of fact there was no war. At the very moment the Megaphone was industriously commencing hostilities the two countries were arriving at a satisfactory settlement of the difficulty, and whilst the subsequent proceedings of "No. 765" were regrettable in the extreme, they were denounced by our neighbour, who disclaimed all responsibility for the acts of Messrs. Stadt and Hein, and paid down a very substantial sum for the damage inflicted by these gentlemen.

The record of the 17th of December is taken to a large extent from the statement made by Mr. Hein—Mr. Stadt, being unhappily no longer with us—and is augmented by the testimony of eye-witnesses. As our quarrel with the other Power so prosaically began at Bow Street, it is perhaps peculiarly fitting that it should end in the notebook of Detective-Inspector Falmouth of Scotland Yard.

This book is before me as I write, and in the report that commences with the conventional "On the night of the 17th inst... I was informed by telephone that... I immediately proceeded... I informed him tat that I was a police-officer and should take him into custody on a charge... he made the following statement...." I regard with sorrow the end of a romantic bogy that has overshadowed Europe for ten years.

The Megaphone presses were roaring with their tremendous tidings on the night of the 16th of December when a man with a damp newspaper in his hand walked into the New Bridge Street post-office and handed in a telegram addressed, "The Harp Hotel, Salisbury."

It was an innocent enough message, and referred to a racehorse, "Back Mimint for Cambridge"—a splendid illustration of the criminal carelessness of conspirators—and the enterprise of Messrs. Stadt and Hein might have ended there and then had the clerk been a racing man. For, being a racing man, and consequently suspicious, he would have known that the Cambridgeshire Handicap was run two months before the telegram was handed in, and that no such horse as Mimint was in training. As it happened, the clerk took the message from the foreign-looking gentleman, looked up at the clock in a bored way, scribbled some hieroglyphics on the form, and said, "Sixpence."

On the edge of Salisbury Plain stood the works of the Artois Electrical Engineering Company. The company was of recent formation, and apparently did no local business—I am taking Inspector Falmouth's statement literally. Huge packing-cases used to arrive, and the manager, who called himself Jones, but was later identified as Hein, with a dozen silent men who lived on the premises, constituted the company.

On the early morning after Mr. Hein had received his cryptic telegram, a cyclist constable, passing over Salisbury Plain, heard a strange far-away whirring, and, looking round to locate the sound, could see nothing. The whirring grew nearer, and he jumped from his machine and climbed a slight rise to make a better observation. Something induced him to look upward. What he saw gave him, as he afterwards stated, "a bit of a start," for sailing over his head was the largest balloon he had ever seen.

In shape it was that of a gigantic cigar, with a curious sail-like contrivance at the stem, and two sets of aeroplane wings curving outwards from the boat-shaped car. He heard the pulsation of a motor engine, and saw the huge spinning propeller blades fore and aft; but it is possible that what induced the palpitation which he afterwards so graphically described was the shape and colour of the flag that floated at the rear of the balloon car. It was the war flag of the country with which England at that moment—as he believed—was engaged in hostilities.

He rode for dear life into Salisbury, a hot, dishevelled constable bursting with his news. His incoherent report reduced to writing by his inspector reached the War Minister of Great Britain as he sat down to breakfast, woke the Minister for Foreign Affairs from a much-needed sleep—and brought all London into the streets in an agony of apprehension. The dreaded thing had come to pass. London was to be at the mercy of an aerial warship. Then came the news of the police raid on the balloon factory at Salisbury, the arrest of the workmen, and the discovery of the melinite canisters, and the fact that the balloon carried fifty of these deadly torpedoes.

Downing Street was paralysed. There was no doubt at all about the bona fides of the other Power, which was even less anxious for war than Great Britain. The Ambassador himself, walking distractedly up and down the Foreign Minister's room, was in a condition of despair bordering on dementia. "I know nothing, I know nothing—I have telegraphed to my Government," he repeated again and again. At Frederichsstraas [sic*] a pair of spurred heels clicked to attention before an irate Highness.

[* Presumably an intentional misspelling of "Friedrichstrasse." —R.G.]

"Who are these ever-to-be-cursed-and-confounded Hein and Stadt?" asked the owner of a pair of steel-grey eyes.

"It was an idea of the Intelligence Department, Highness," stammered the other; "it was of necessity—before—arranged."

As a lady-in-waiting (the publication of whose scandalous reminiscences a few years later created so tremendous a sensation) remarked in that book. "Never have I seen His Highness in such a temper. He kicked Graf X—'s little dog down two flights of stairs, and threw a priceless beer jug at the head of the Imperial valet." Doubtful comfort for Londoners to know that the coming bombardment was entirely unauthorised, and was apologised for beforehand. It was enough to realise—its every new edition of the newspapers reminded them—that London was to be annihilated by means of high explosives dropped from the skies.

London had risen that morning to go about its work in an ordinary everyday fashion. Outlying districts were unconscious of the danger that threatened until they witnessed the remarkable spectacle of the arrival of the soldier-police. For Scotland Yard and Whitehall had combined forces for the occasion, and a police regulation, hastily drawn and as hastily issued, first cleared the streets of all vehicular traffic, then sent every man and woman post haste back to his or her home. The newspapers with their small army of runners and cyclists were pressed into service that day. The publication of news regarding the balloon was prohibited, and in place of the news-sheet the runners, east, west, north and south, distributed Mr. Commissioner Melfort's proclamation. By noon London was placarded with the bills:—


Whereas, in view of contingencies that have arisen it is deemed expedient to issue regulations for the safety and security of the inhabitants of the City of London and the suburbs adjacent thereto. Therefore I, John Francis Melfort, Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, by virtue of the authority vested in me, direct and command in the name of His Majesty:

1. That every person whosoever and whatsoever shall immediately repair to his or her home by the nearest route and shall remain indoors until further orders.

2. That every constable or soldier employed in constabulary duty shall have authority to enforce this order by whatever means he thinks best.

3. That every constable or soldier shall be indemnified for each and every act of common assault committed in the execution of this order.

(Signed) John Francis Melfort.

God Save the King.

What the authorities did that day to save London very few of us knew. There was some ingenious young man at the War Office who carried out unthinkable schemes.

"Let them have their way," said His Royal Highness the Duke of Antrim, President of the Council; "we are in a peculiar position, and I am not particular as to the methods we employ in getting out of it."

So young Chalders of the Guards called up a Variety Agent at Effingham House, and found that gentleman just on the point of locking up and retiring to the seclusion of Maida Vale. The result was a rapid scouring of London on a motor-car and the picking up at odd places of six gentlemen whose names have been starred on the bills of every music-hall of note in Great Britain.

A battery of Horse Artillery came flying down Fleet Street at a hand gallop and swung to a standstill in St. Paul's Churchyard.

The Commissioner of Police explained the position to the officer in charge.

"We are going to get a gun up to the gallery." He pointed to the platform at the top of the great dome of the Cathedral.

"But—but—" said the bewildered officer, "we have no tackle—"

A staff officer galloped up.

"Get your gun dismounted," he shouted: then to the occupants of a waiting car, "Now, Mr. Nathan where are those six weight-lifters of yours?"

So it happened that Messrs. Samson, Hercules and Co. gave a matinée to a limited audience, and an hour later a quick-firing gun on an improvised carriage dominated London from the dome of St. Paul's.

Scarcely had it been fixed and the "strong men" gathered in the street below receiving the congratulations of all kinds of distinguished strategists, when a telegram announced that the airship had been sighted from Harrow, and with the telegram's arrival came the Sceptic.

He was a young man with long legs, and he drove his own car slowly toward the group of grave men who were assembled in the shadow of St. Paul's.

His coming was greeted with marked geniality. The Chief of the Staff permitted himself to smile, and the youthful aide winked surreptitiously. Mr. Montagu Septon—it was that great inventor himself—stepped lazily from his car and carefully lifted a big box from the tonneau.

"Any sign of the balloon?" drawled the young man—he was a grey-headed young man, by the way. "Any sign of the aerial nightmare that is affecting the traffic of the city of London and causing all kinds of people to die of heart disease?"

He directed his queries to the dapper Commandant of the Balloon Section, R.E., and that distinguished aeronaut frowned.

"The danger is very considerable, Mr. Septon," he said stiffly; "the car of the balloon is loaded with torpedoes of melinite, and before the night London may be a city of wreckage."

The other man grinned and tapped the polished box.

"I've been waiting for this balloon invasion." he said significantly, "and training for it. What is this silly gas bladder going to do—fire down shells at St. Paul's? Why, there isn't a balloon that was ever made or that ever will be made, no, nor aeroplane either, that will stand the recoil of a seven-pounder."

He eyed the Colonel with some amusement.

"How many men were killed by shell-fire in Ladysmith?" he asked. "Month after month, with tons of high explosives being pumped into the town, day after day ceaseless missiles of death being dropped into an area smaller than the city of London—how-many thousands were slain, how many hundreds?"

"London is different; there is the counter-force of resisting—"

"Grandmothers!" the Sceptic said, snapping his lingers, and then he proceeded to expound his theories.

Up, up, up in a white fog "No. 675" thudded Londonward. Through the cloud bank that obscured the sky above and the world below the great airship, steering by her compasses, beat a steady course, the fog wreathing about her hows in a thousand fantastic shapes. Stadt, a thin-faced man with an eager pinched face, crouched on the floor of the swaying car, his deft fingers nursing the tiny engine that controlled the propellers. Neatly arranged, end to end and four abreast, were the green canisters that were to lay London a heap of smoking ruins. Hein, with a small steering-wheel at his hand and the compass between his knees, sat like a man in a canoe shaping the airship's course. Stadt flung a question forward and Hein answered him without turning his head.

"We are over London," he said, speaking in his own tongue. "From the glimpse of the earth that we secured an hour ago I should imagine that we were somewhere about Kensington—if only this cursed fog would lift!"

He grasped a valve-line that led to the huge silken bulk above, and something hissed.

Then the fog below thinned, and he released the cord, having, as his instruments told him, descended 500 feet.

Thud, thud, thud, thud—with monotonous regularity the engine pulsated, and the frail car shivered and swayed.

Then the blurring damp mist cleared, and the two men, looking down, saw the great town beneath them.

It was a view to take away the breath. The winding trickle of water that bisected the picture; the neutral jumble of browns and greys; the rectangular patches of green that stood for the lungs of the great city—the two mm looked with something of awe in their souls at tho immensity of this man-made creation.

The buildings that were to be destroyed had been marked out. First, the Houses of Parliament.

The immense edifice was easily distinguished, and towards it the airship's prow was directed.

Steadily the balloon swung round. They were immediately above the river, and they struck a bee-line for their objective. Hein uttered an order, and the screws slowed.

"We arc immediately above," he said, and poised the deadly canister carefully. He waited a moment, then turned to his companion. "It will be better to make sure. Take a shell, and when I give the word—we will let them fall together."

The mechanician crawled forward and, lifting one of the heavy bombs, waited.

"Now!" cried the other, and let it go.

They were in the fog again and ascending rapidly. The world was blotted out in mist.

The Sceptic's theory that one could not jettison a sixty-pound weight from a balloon without it performing tricks was exemplified, and Hein groped wildly for the valve-rope to steady the upward flight of the great machine.

"Did you hear?" he gasped, and Stadt, manipulating his little engine, shook his head.

"I heard nothing." he said.

Hein was silent for a moment.

"But—the explosion," he almost entreated; "there was an explosion—in the rush upward we must have missed it."

"There was no explosion," the other said phlegmatically, "or we should have heard."

Almost savagely Hein pulled the valve cord again and the balloon dropped below the cloud belt. They had drifted a little eastward. Through his glasses he surveyed the object of his attack.

"There is no sign," he said in despair.

He was more cautious with the next petard. He rolled it to the edge of the car and steadied it with one hand as he held the valve-line with the other.

Below him was a straggling building which he noted as Somerset House. They were directly over the centre. He gave the canister a little push and jerked the valve. No doubt about the explosion this time. The parapet that runs along the river edge of the Embankment suddenly burst into white flame, and the deafening crash of the explosion came up to them with startling distinctness.

Hein wrung his hands in despair.

"How—how," he stammered, "how did it miss—it fell true—the wind could not affect it."

From the gallery of St. Paul's the Sceptic was explaining to the General Staff just the very thing that Hein wished to know.

"What you balloon cranks forget," he said rudely, "is that it isn't any easier to chuck a bomb on a given spot from the height of a mile than it is chucking marbles into bottles from a distance of sis feet."

He was a slangy young Sceptic, with a taste for coarse illustration.

"It looks easy enough when you're leaning over the edge of a cliff to drop a stone on a given spot—but try it!"

He chuckled.

"These young fellows are wondering why their bombs won't fall straight—it's because they are too high, and they dare not come any lower."

As if to falsify this utterance the balloon reappeared from the clouds above their heads and came sinking down.

There was a general stampede amongst the assembled officers, but the Sceptic held his ground.

"They are more likely to be above Fleet Street than above us," he roared after the scurrying staff.

There was a tremendous report, and a cloud of smoke and steam arose over the houses by the river.

"Upper Thames Street," murmured the Sceptic approvingly; "not bad."

When the staff returned the balloon had disappeared in the clouds and the Sceptic was still talking to himself.

The record of that day is a record of minor accidents; of shells that burst in builders' yards, of one that exploded on a temperance hotel in the Euston Road—it was evidently intended for a great terminus—of a shell that fell on Wandsworth Common, and one that, aimed at the Mansion House, hit a bucket shop in Moorgate Street.

Toward the evening the circling airship came again above St. Paul's. It flew considerably lower than before.

"Shall I try a shell, sir?" asked the artillery officer controlling his one-gun battery on the dome.

"Don't try it," said the cheerful Sceptic; "you can't hit the balloon, and you'll probably do more damage in five minutes than these, chaps have been doing all day."

It was His Highness himself who turned impatiently upon the inventor.

"I understood, Mr. Septon, that you had some ideas." He looked down at the big polished box that all the day had rested by the inventor's feet.

Septon nodded—he was a very casual person.

"And now is the time," he said confidently, glancing upward.

The balloon was sinking lower and moving in a circle. Maddened by the failures of the day, Hein was intent on making sure.

The Sceptic took a leather glove from his pocket, put it on, then, sliding aside a door, inserted his hand.

"What on earth?" cried the dumbfounded Inspector-General.

"My idea," replied the inventor calmly; "some are trained for pheasant, some for pigeon, but I've trained this chap and a dozen like him to go for big balls in the sky—started him on toy balloons and got him educated up to fire-balloons; now he'll tackle anything that's big and round and wobbly."

Deftly he unbonded the great hawk that sat on his wrist, and with all the skill of the practised falconer he slipped the bird.

Up in the air Hein prepared for his coup. Through his glasses he had seen the group on the parapet—his ready wit told him its composition.

"The General Staff," he cried in exultation and made ready. It was worth the risk. He brought the balloon lower still. He did not fear the gun, the muzzle of which he had long since located.

"Send her forward slowly," he shouted over his shoulder—then from under the car, swooping upward on motionless pinions, came a bird. Twice it circled the car then it disappeared from view above.

Hein looked back at his companion in perplexity.

"What in heaven—" he began, when—


A noise of ripping and tearing—a screech of escaping gas, and he sprang to the big ballast valves.

Before he could reach them the balloon lurched and crumpled before his eyes—he had time to be vaguely thankful that the river was below.

The Sceptic was an interfering man as well as being a very annoying man. He superintended the recovery of the balloon from the river and gave directions regarding the artificial respiration of Mr. Hein. Also he directed the river police where they might find the body of Mr. Stadt.

But the man he most annoyed was the Commandant of the Balloon Section, R.E.

"Ballooning's all right for fun,", the Sceptic said, buttonholing that gallant officer, "or if you've too much money and don't know how to spend it. But mid-air flirts and all that sort of rot—millions of pounds' worth of 'aerial navies' at the mercy of blooming sparrow-hawks. My dear feller—!"


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.