Fear, uncertainty, doubt — IV

What did Australians in 1918 make of the mystery aeroplane scare? What did they think the aeroplanes meant? This is a question I've already answered in part. There is evidence from the press that in the days before 24 April wild rumours were circulating that Australia was about to be attacked somehow by German raiders, perhaps even to the extent of a landing by enemy troops. These rumours were attributed (at least by the New Zealand press) to anxiety caused by the rash of mysterious aeroplanes seen primarily in Victoria, which were generally presumed to be flying from and hence evidence of said raiders. (The watershed I keep mentioning, the date when the press largely stopped publishing mystery aeroplane reports was 23 April, and this probably is not a coincidence if censorship was involved. Which, alas, I still cannot prove and may not be able to.) In my previous post I discussed some examples of rumours about mystery aeroplanes, which by their nature can give us insights into what people thought the aeroplanes were and what they were doing. James French's letter, for example, shows that he certainly believed that the mystery aeroplanes were connected with German raiders off the coast, but also that he thought they were cooperating with German spies and operating from hidden aerodromes.

Similarly, the Ouyen Mail rebutted 'the usual scoffing reception' to Constable Wright's sighting of two aeroplanes at Nyang on 21 March by noting that 'four independent witnesses have verified the sight of the machines, while a fifth heard them' (and another aeroplane had been seen by four young men over Ouyen three weeks before).1 Without mentioning Germans, spies, raiders or aerodromes, the paper's editor hinted very strongly that the Germans must have been involved somehow:

It is a rather remarkable coincidence that Constable Wright and the four others should have seen the machines the very day the present big offensive started. Think it out. 2

I've already suggested that the German offensive and the Allied reverses also contributed to the climate of fear, and here is somebody at the time who connected the two. (Though why the Germans would be coordinating their flights over tiny, remote Nyang with their attack in France is not clear, it must be said.) As another example, a police report from Healesville about 'signal lights' in a 'dot dash, Code' (so not aeroplanes) seen by a solicitor, Reginald Kelly, and his wife and daughter on 2 June contained this gloss:

The matter of these lights has been reported on by me previously, and the strange thing is that the lights are always shown when a big move is being made by the opposing armies in France.3

While many reports come out and name the Germans in connection with the mystery aeroplanes (like 'Anxious' of Brighton), it was also very common for no such implications to be made, particularly in press accounts (presumably because of the possibility of causing a real scare) and in police reports (just the facts, ma'am, just the facts) But behind closed doors, naval and military officers felt freer to speculate, and these speculations make it very clear that the primary hypothesis on offer to explain the aeroplane sightings was the same raider theory that we've already seen over and over.

The Chief of the General Staff, Major-General J. F. Legge, seems to have believed in the mystery aeroplanes. In a conference in mid-April with senior newspaper editors to discuss a reorganised censorship regime, Legge stressed how unready Australia was to resist a German attack. Rather frustratingly, he didn't mention mystery aeroplanes explicitly, but he did mention the raider threat and the associated aeroplane threat:

These raiders are knocking about and some of them have sea planes. Supposing one came over Melbourne and said "I will drop bombs on your banks I will give you such and such a time to send your money down to a certain place on the beach. If you do not do that I will blow you to smithereens." You have not got a single gun here to shoot at them and you would either have to have your public buildings knocked about or give them your money. That is the position at present.4

He expanded on this theme later in his speech:

[...] German raiders at any time might come here, one has been here. As I have told you it could raid your city and insist on payment in gold. They can do it, there is no get [sic] away from it. I could not swear that they could not even take possession of one your coast towns. A ship with eight hundred men which comes along without any [warning?] out of the blue can do lots of things.5

This was on 18 April, only a few days before the rumours about a German landing caused such a stir; I wonder if Legge started them? He was certainly pushing at an open door: in previous days, the conference had discussed the possibility of invasion, and reports in previous years of mysterious ships and submarines off the coast (but not aeroplanes!); and W. H. Simmonds of the Hobart Mercury had made the claim that the only reason why conscription had failed was because 'the Huns have not "excited public alarm" by dropping bombs in Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane as they have in London and Paris'.6

Only somewhat less extreme were the views of Commander John Fearnley, Royal Australian Naval Brigade, who I think was District Naval Officer at Newcastle. In an apparently unsolicited appreciation prompted by his receipt of NIS 41 and 42 ('Naval Intelligence Summary'? I haven't found these) which noted, among others, the sighting of four aircraft flying over the Cockatoo Island naval dockyard in Sydney Harbour on 28 June, he concluded that if the bulk of reports were true then 'the following deductions therefrom appear to be inevitable':

(a) that the planes are operating from base [sic] aboard one or more enemy vessels off this coast.

(b) that the aerial reconnaissance indicates intended enemy action in one or each of the following directions; (1) mining the coast... (2) attack upon oversea [sic] shipping... (3) aerial attack upon coastal shipping docks, depots, works (such as B.H.P. Cos. Steel Works) etc.7

He himself preferred option (3): 'The number of aircraft apparently available would seem to point to an intended air raid along the coast'.8 As for spies,

The movements of planes reported indicate that the enemy has Agents ashore both inland and on the coast. Doubtless, communication between the raider and Germany (via America or Java) is established in this way.9

This essentially the same theory put forward (if much more hesitantly) in an April cable from the Navy Office in Melbourne to the Admiralty in London, with copies to the Commander-in-Chief, China; Senior Naval Officer, Wellington; and the Captain in Charge, Sydney:

Reports are being received daily of Aeroplanes seen in Victoria and South Australia [...] King Island indicated as a possible base [...] No ships overdue or other indications of a raider. Aeroplanes may be in connection with some inland organisation.10

As this post is getting a bit long, I will look at more sceptical interpretations of the mystery aircraft next time, including a rather scornful response to Fearnley's memo.


  1. Ouyen Mail, 10 April 1918, 1. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/66, T. W. C. Derby (Victoria Police, Healesville), 're -- signal lights being seen at Healesville', 3 June 1918. 

  4. NAA: MP367/1, 437/1/115, Part 1, 'Press Censorship Conference', 16-9 April 1918, 221. 

  5. Ibid., 227-8. Even though Legge had commanded 2nd Division AIF at Gallipoli and Pozieres, this sounds more like Edwardian invasion literature than realistic scenario planning. But perhaps he was trying to scare the editors into accepting the need for broad censorship. His point was that the militia forces remaining in Australia needed to be trained for no less than two months to have some capacity to resist, any less than that would be 'only sending them like a mob of sheep against anyone who can fight': ibid., 228. 

  6. Ibid., 128-9. The same claim, incidentally, has been made very recently by John Connor, Anzac and Empire: George Foster Pearce and the Foundations of Australian Defence (Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 92-3. 

  7. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/66, John Fearnley to Naval Secretary (G. L. Macandie), 'Aircraft reported over Australian seaboard', 4 June 1918. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/66, telegram, Navy Office to Admiralty, 27 April 1918. 

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