Dreaming war, seeing aeroplanes — I

Wölfchen

While researching a possible British mystery aeroplane in 1936, which turned out to be nothing interesting, I came across a genuine mystery aeroplane scare which I'd never heard of before, from Australia and New Zealand in March and April 1918. I'm sure somebody else must have noticed it before now, as it was trivial to find using Trove and Papers Past. But I haven't been able to find mention of it in my usual sources, so here's what I've got so far.

Firstly, some context. In March 1918, it was getting on for four years since the start of the Great War. The soldiers of Australia and New Zealand had been engaged in combat for just under three of those years, two of them on the Western Front. The armies there seemed to be in a deadlock. All that can be done is to keep the two ANZAC corps supplied with men and munitions; but in Australia it is only a few months since the public rejected conscription for a second time, in a bitterly divisive plebiscite. If victory seemed to be a long way off, at least so did defeat.

On 16 March, most of Australia's big daily newspapers featured prominently a story that an officer of the German commerce raider Wolf, which had been terrorising merchant vessels in the south-west Pacific, had boasted that its 'seaplane flew over Sydney Harbour early one morning and that they knew the disposition of shipping there'.1 (The Wolf's seaplane, a Friedrichshafen FF.33 nicknamed Wölfchen, 'little wolf', is shown above.) If true, this would have taken place in July 1917 and would be the first time a hostile aircraft had reached Australian skies. The Minister for the Navy, Joseph Cook -- a former prime minister and an ardent pro-conscriptionist -- was dubious however, noting that 'the German, throughout the course of this war, had proved himself a frightful liar'.2 He did venture, however, that it might be a good thing if the Germans came back in greater force:

Perhaps a few planes over Sydney dropping bombs would help Sydney to visualise the actualities of war, and stimulate recruiting [...] At the present time, it was humbug to talk of peace. We must wait until Germany was soundly beaten. We should be acting war, thinking war, and dreaming war.

But just a few days later the German armies launched a massive offensive in France. The Allied lines sagged under the strain. All of a sudden, far from Germany being soundly beaten it looked like it might actually win the war.

Now, it would be convenient for my narrative if, after the news about the Wolf's seaplane flying over Sydney and the dramatic change in Allied fortunes in Europe, people began to imagine hostile aircraft in the sky. Reports of mystery aircraft did increase greatly after then, but there were in fact a few earlier ones from New Zealand (and possibly some from Australia, much earlier; see below).

The first was reported in the Nelson Colonist on 2 March. At 7am the previous day, 'A lady who was bathing at Tahuna [...] saw two seaplanes quite distinctly', over Tasman Bay.3

They were flying together near the surface of the water, and then separated, one going in the direction of the eastern hills. She watched this one until it was lost in the clouds. She then endeavoured to locate the other, but it had disappeared.

Also noted was a rumour that 'a few days ago [...] a seaplane had been seen in the Sounds, but the story was scouted', i.e. dismissed. The 'Canterbury headquarters office of the Defence Department of the group commander at Nelson' investigated these reports of 'enemy seaplanes', but 'seriously discounted the story as improbable'.4

On 6 March, the Christchurch Press said that

What appeared to be an aeroplane with lights was seen by several people in the city yesterday evening between 7 o'clock and 7.15. It seemed to be travelling in a south-westerly direction, at a rate estimated at something like 20 miles an hour, and was at a considerable height. To some, at first sight, it looked like a planet, but its fairly rapid movement dispelled that idea. Others surmised that it was a fire balloon, but to other observers it looked like an aircraft under control. It seemed to pass along the edge of a dark bank of cloud in the southern sky, and was finally lost to sight.5

The Aviation School at Sockburn said it that it was not one of their machines, which anyway were not used for night flying. This prompted a reader to write in to the Press to ask

if your readers have seen the occasional visit of a well-lighted aeroplane late at night south-west of Christchurch? Repeatedly, during the moonlight cloudless nights lately, the members of our household have watched this visitor, and towards morning apparently as far south as the Ninety-mile beach it was seen distinctly. If not a Sockburn aeroplane, what was it?6

At this point the mystery aeroplanes disappeared for a few weeks, or at least I can't find any reference to them. They next turn up on 21 March, across the Tasman in Victoria:

While on duty near Nyang on Thursday, Constable Wright, while awaiting assistance to get a car out of the stiff sand, observed two aeroplanes flying very high pass almost due westwards over the route of the railway line from Ouyen to Adelaide. No notification had been received of any projected flight. The day was very clear, and the constable says that he distinctly saw the glint of the machines in the sunshine.7

(Note that this is a daylight sighting, quite unusual for mystery aircraft.) A few days later, another mystery aeroplane was seen back in New Zealand:

Reports were received in Whakatane last night [26 March] that an aeroplane had been seen during the day hovering over Taneatua, nine miles from Whakatane, and the vicinity. Mr. McGougan, of Opouriao, is said to have observed the flight of the aeroplane, which is said to have lifted from the direction of Whale Island, and to have taken a westerly course over the township of Taneatua, towards the Urewera Country. Two other men, employed on Mr. P. Keegan's station, have stated that their attention was drawn by a buzzing noise, such as would be made by the flight of a powerful aeroplane. The report of the appearance of the machine was sent round by telephoned to the inhabitants of the district.8

However, this was apparently a hoax:

The Hon. T. M. Wilford, Minister of Justice, told the Christchurch Sun that the Commissioner of Police had reported to him that enquiries had been made into the story. The particular individuals who were supposed to have seen an aeroplane had been interviewed, and not one of them had heard or seen the alleged aeroplane.9

If nothing else, that the police and the military both investigated mystery aeroplane sightings in New Zealand shows that the government, at some level, thought they were plausible and credible.

As I started this post with Cook's scepticism about the Wolf's seaplane over Sydney Harbour, I'll end it with some scepticism of his, er, scepticism. The Poverty Bay Herald in New Zealand actually printed this story on 30 March, filed at Melbourne on 19 March, but as no attribution is given and I can't find it elsewhere, this seems the appropriate place for it. Intriguingly, it notes rumours of mystery aeroplanes seen in Victoria late in 1917:

One Victorian member of the House of Representatives stated to-day that during the conscription campaign it was stated several times from the platform in the east end of Victoria that a coach-driver in Gippsland and some other persons had seen an aeroplane circling over the country at a great height.10

The implication was that the story of the Wolf's seaplane and the Gippsland reports of a mystery aeroplane somehow reinforced each other. In fact, Wolf had been in Gippsland waters at the beginning of July 1917, when it laid mines off Gabo Island, but that was several months before the conscription campaign began, so Wölfchen couldn't have been responsible.

There's more to come. Next I'll look at April, which is when the real fun begins: Victoria has a rash of mystery aeroplane sightings, Australia has an invasion (?) scare, and New Zealanders poke gentle fun at their bigger neighbour.

Image source: Wikipedia.


  1. E.g., Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1918, 13

  2. Argus (Melbourne), 18 March 1918, 4

  3. Colonist (Nelson), 2 March 1918, 4. Reprinted in Grey River Argus, 8 March 1918, 2; Poverty Bay Herald, 11 March 1918, 7

  4. Poverty Bay Herald, 11 March 1918, 7

  5. Reprinted in Thames Star, 9 March 1918, 4; Hawera & Normanby Star, 9 March 1918, 5; Colonist (Nelson), 9 March 1918, 3; Poverty Bay Herald, 11 March 1918, 7

  6. Reprinted in Thames Star, 12 March 1918, 2

  7. Argus (Melbourne), 23 March 1918, 23 March 1918, 17. 

  8. Poverty Bay Herald, 1 April 1918, 2; see also Thames Star, 28 March 1918, 2; Hawera & Normanby Star, 1 April 1918, 4

  9. Evening Post (Wellington), 5 April 1918, 6; see also Thames Star, 6 April 1918, 2 Marlborough Express, 6 April 1918, 4; Poverty Bay Herald, 8 April 1918, 4). 

  10. Poverty Bay Herald, 30 March 1918, 6

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11 thoughts on “Dreaming war, seeing aeroplanes — I

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  10. david nerger

    The picture of the plane at the top of the page is a picture of the Wolfchen, a plane that my great great great great uncle Captain Karl august Nerger used on his ship the SMS Wolf.

  11. Post author

    An interesting family background! Have you read Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorised Australia and the Southern Oceans in the First World War (North Sydney: William Heinemann, 2009)?

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