Fear, uncertainty, doubt — III

If the wave of reports of mystery aeroplanes after late April 1918 wasn't sustained by newspaper reports (i.e. because there were none) then how was it sustained? Why did people from all over Australia come to hold the same belief, that German aircraft were filling the skies? There are several possible explanations. One is that to interpret odd things in the sky as aeroplanes was simply obvious. But as I argued in the previous post, most Australians had never seen a real aeroplane before, so why would they start thinking like this now? A related explanation is that the press played a role in initiating the scare, but by the time it stopped reporting on the mystery aeroplanes it was no longer necessary: the idea had taken root and the scare was now self-sustaining. That is certainly possible. But there is another vector which, although often hard to trace definitively, did play an important role: rumour.

I don't think Australians are any more prone to rumourmongering than anyone else; on the other hand, we apparently did invent the bush telegraph. And there is some evidence for rumour in a number of the naval intelligence files contained in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066/378. Here are three.

The first is a letter from James French, Maffra Shire Secretary, to 'The Officer in Charge, Intelligence Department, MELBOURNE'.1 French hadn't seen any mystery aeroplanes himself, but was quite keen to pass on the stories he had heard, to volunteer the use of his 'look-out' at Seaspray 'for observation purposes', and to suggest that 'it would be desirable to have the Ninety Mike beach patrolled':

I have just heard that a plane flew over the Maffra Station about 11 p.m. a couple of weeks ago the S.M. [stationmaster] rang up the keeper at the Stratford Junction, and at that moment the plane was going at a good bat with bright lights, making very little noise and there was no mistaking it, one or two others are unmistakably reported having visited Sale and the Heart. For some time the residents of Seaspray on the Ninety-Mile Beach see bright lights westward of that place; supposed to be in the Carrajung Hills, and it was from here that Mr. J. M. Maclachlan, M.L.C., saw the raider "Wolf" standing out for many hours one day.2

He then makes his offer to lend his look-out to the Navy, and then goes on to relay more rumours, beginning with a non-sequitur:

It is quite evident that the material is carted into the bush and the planes are there fitted up. A friend of mine here met a lady from Healesville, who said she frequently noticed cars going up into the bush in that direction loaded up and returning empty.3

There's a mixture here of potentially verifiable stories and unadulterated friend-of-a-friend stories about lights and aeroplanes and cars and ships, all rolled up into a theory where German agents are operating secret inland bases (Healesville is in the hills northeast of Melbourne, a long way from Seaspray) and flying aircraft out to meet enemy raiders off the Gippsland coast at night. At least, that's about as much sense as I can make of it.

The origin of my second example is a bit more mysterious. It is an extract from a naval 'Intelligence Report' which was forwarded on to 3rd Military District military intelligence.4 Who actually wrote the extracted text is not disclosed, but it was evidently somebody with commercial interests in the Mallee region of northwestern Victoria:

In conversation with Mr. Random (wife, German; sister in Germany) of the Mildura Irrigation Trust, he informed me that several people in the district have seen what they believed to be aeroplane signalling [sic], and also mentioned one case where a returned soldier employed on the Irrigation Works channel inspecting, distinctly saw one machine. I could not get this man's name, nor could I get an interview with him -- the whole thing being heresay [sic].

There are all sorts of rumours from Tutye to Murrayville of seaplanes having been seen, but these are viewed very sceptically by the residents. The Constable (Wright), who is believed to have seen two aeroplanes, or seaplanes, over Tutye, is a man who is looked upon as a very sensible, and sober man, and I understand his statements have been carefully investigated. He had conversation with one of our clients in Murrayville in connection with this matter, and left no doubt in the mind of our client that he had seen the machines.5

Again there is the tantalising mix of almost-firsthand accounts and stories from nowhere: the source even uses the word hearsay (well, 'heresay'). The locals are described as being sceptical of the rumours floating around, yet PC Wright, who clearly was going around telling anyone who cared to listen about his sighting of nearly two months previous, was very highly respected.

My final example came the other way, from 3rd Military District's military intellection section to Captain Thring of the Navy. It could be from private mail intercepted by censors (though I've looked at the mail censorship reports for this period and didn't notice this one), or maybe it was forwarded on to the authorities by yet another concerned citizen. The writer is an A. Gardner of Bairnsdale, and the addressee is Annie Gardner of North Carlton (presumably a relative):

Dear Annie,

All Bairnsdale had a great excitement the other day an aeroplane went over. I was just making the afternoon tea and Dad in the Garden called to come quick. I got quite a fright but saw it high up. Some say it coame from Cape Hower and everyone thinks it went straight over there.

The first I have seen --

(signed) A. Gardner6

Even though this is an eyewitness account, it still mentions rumours -- it sounds like the aeroplane was the subject of much local gossip. More importantly the letter itself was a vector for information about mystery aeroplanes, in this case from the country to the city. From other evidence I think this sighting took place on 1 May 1918, and since the letter was dated 8 May the aeroplane's visit was evidently still on the writer's mind a week later. There's no suggestion, however, that the witness interpreted the machine as hostile (she does say she had 'a fright' but that was before she saw it), and in fact it was an Australian aircraft -- McNamara VC yet again. That didn't stop William Begg Irvine, a grazier at nearby Nicholson, from thinking he saw 'a black cross on the bottom' when he watched it through binoculars.7

So it's clear that rumour played a key role. None of these sources even mention newspapers in any way. It's people talking (and sometimes writing) to other people about mystery aeroplanes. That still leaves the question of why they were talking about mystery aeroplanes at all, but it does show that the bush telegraph was in operation both before and after the press blackout on 23 April.


  1. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066/378, James French, letter, 24 April 1918. 

  2. Ibid. I think 'J. M. Maclachlan, M.L.C.' is actually J. W. McLachlan, MLA; I don't have a record of his supposed sighting of the Wolf, which would have been around July 1917 (the only time it came close to the Australian coast, when it laid mines off Gabo Island, more than 200km from Seaspray), but in August 1918 he sent a telegram to the Navy to say that he'd seen lights from the same place, some at sea, some in the hills, apparently in communication with each other: 'should say lights indicate presence enemy vessel [...] send man Seaspray and telescope'. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/0580, Thomas Trumble (Secretary, Department of Defence), memorandum, 26 August 1918. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066/378, [Naval Board?], letter, 16 May 1918. 

  5. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066/378, 'Extract from intelligence statement', 14 May 1918. 

  6. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066/378, A. Gardner, extract from letter, 8 May 1918. 

  7. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066/378, Sergeant G. D. Williams (Victoria Police, Bairnsdale), 'Airoplane passing over Bairnsdale', 1 May 1918. 

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