The mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand — V

I have previously outlined evidence from the New Zealand press for mystery aeroplane sightings in that country in 1918. I think it is clear that the reports, though not great in number, did amount to a scare. Apart from the claims themselves, and the associated talk of aerial or naval bombardment of New Zealand's major cities, there is also the following overt discussion, published in several papers in early April 1918:

Since the disclosure of the boast by an officer of a German raider than he had passed over Sydney in a seaplane, the authorities in New Zealand have had to cope with quite an epidemic of reports about mysterious seaplanes circling around the more remote parts of New Zealand. In every case careful investigation has to be made, and in every case the report has been found to be without foundation. Some of these reports have found their way into the newspapers, causing somewhat of a scare, and it is intended to prosecute under the War Regulations any person who in future circulates, without good cause, any such report likely to cause public harm. If New Zealanders see any more mysterious visitants in the sky, their best plan will be to carefully verify the sight, and quity [sic; quietly] inform the nearest police or defence officer, avoiding any public mention, for fear that it comes under the scope of the numerous possible offences against these comprehensive War Regulations.1

So this tells us that there were a considerable number of mystery aeroplane sightings, only a fraction of which made it into the press; that the government wanted reports to be made to the police or defence authorities, threatening prosecution if any public statements were made; and that the government took the reports seriously and investigated them. This is very similar to what happened in Australia at around this time (where censorship of mystery aeroplane sightings seems to have been imposed a couple of weeks later), which is promising, because in the National Archives of Australia I found a trove of intelligence files relating to mystery aeroplane scares. So I hoped to find something similar in Archives New Zealand. But I didn't. Here's what I did find.

There is just one mystery aeroplane sighting from 1918 in the files I looked at, relayed to the Naval Adviser, HMS Philomel, in early July from the police in the Northland district. Constable Thornell at Tehapua reported that Wharai Mane, a Maori, had told him that 'he saw an aeroplane in the sky in the direction of Cape Maria V[an] D[iemen] at 1 pm yesterday [2 July 1918] the aeroplane was visible for about one minute and appeared to be travelling fast away from the New Zealand coast'.2 Constable Calwell followed up with Mane's companion, Karena Pene (I think), also a Maori, 'saw a dark object in sky above white clouds at about 5.30 pm 2nd inst. [July 1918]' and that 'it appeared to be travelling from east to west & disappeared from sight in direction of Cape Maria lighthouse'.3 Noting the discrepancy in the times and also that neither man had seen an aeroplane before, Calwell concluded that the sighting was likely in error, but even so 'all natives & settlers warned to report to Police if they should happen to observe anything which may be an aeroplane'.4 As of 6 July, no further information had been obtained from lighthouse keepers or local Maori. No word of any of this appears to have reached the press.

In addition, there was a belated report of an aeroplane seen by George Lysnar, a prominent Gisborne farmer, in 1917. This one was reported in the press as well, as previously discussed, but Lysnar's letter to the Admiralty Office in Wellington, dated 29 June 1918, adds some more details:

One bright sunny morning about 11 o'clock [on 19, 20 or 21 March 1917, according to a later letter] I was at the back portion of my sheep station which is situated about 35 miles from Gisborne on the Gisborne to Wairoa (Hawkes Bay) Coach Road. I was at the bottom of a gully examining a proposed new fence line which ran up a fairly steep hill, when my eye caught sight of a silvery looking object shining in the sky. It was very h[igh] up and was travelling in the direction of somewhere between Wairoa and Mohaka (Hawkes Bay). The direction it appeared to come from was Poverty Bay. The wind at the time was a light southerly, accompanied by a few small clouds. I distinctly saw this plane pass by one of these clouds. I do not think I should have noticed it had it not been for its bright appearance caused by the sun shining on it [...] My opinion now is that while the raider "Wolff" [sic] was engaged laying mines off the East Cape of this coast the seaplane paid a visit to this district, employing her spare time on a fine morning by flying over Poverty Bay, thence on to Hawkes Bay, no doubt to see if any ocean liners were in either port.5

In further correspondence Lysnar suggested that an American vessel which had been wrecked nearby earlier in 1918, the Bertha Dolbeer, had struck a mine laid by Wolf at this time. The Naval Adviser, Captain P. H. Hall-Thompson RN, saw no reason to believe this, but did write back to Lysnar 'stating it is quite likely he saw an aeroplane, as stated'.6 Both Lysnar's report and Mane and Pene's were made to the authorities in the days following the announcement of the sinking of SS Wimmera off Cape Maria van Diemen on 26 June 1918, with the loss of 26 passengers and crew. In fact, the Mane/Pene report is included in a file on the investigation into Wimmera's sinking -- probably as a possible sign of the presence of a raider, though there's an outside chance the aeroplane itself was thought to have been involved in the sinking. (There is discussion in the same file of whether Wimmera had been sunk by explosives dropped from above, but the implication seems to be sabotage rather than bombing.)

So that's a pretty paltry number of sightings -- many more than this were reported in the press, and in the Australian case the latter were just the tip of the iceberg.7 There may be a few mystery aeroplane reports buried in the intelligence files regarding mysterious signals; I haven't checked those in detail yet, but didn't find anything obvious when I looked at them in the archive. (It is interesting, though, when odd lights in the sky are interpreted as signal rockets or lights on a hill, rather than aeroplanes.) It's certainly possible that I missed something, it being my first visit to Archives New Zealand: the mystery aeroplane files may not have been catalogued in an obvious way, or they be scattered across a number of records, or there may be a vein of relevant records I didn't find or think to look for. It's also possible that the files no longer exist.

I don't think it's likely that the files never existed in the first place: there is just enough evidence to show that the authorities were interested in the possibility that unknown aeroplanes were flying over New Zealand and wanted more information from the public. In particular, the following appeared in the New Zealand Police Gazette, an official police circular, on 3 April 1918 (broadly confirming the press report quoted at the start of this post):

Reports have come to hand from time to time that aeroplanes have been seen passing over certain parts of the Dominion, and it is certain that if the objects seen were really aeroplanes they did not belong to the aviation schools at either Auckland or Christchurch. Investigation has failed to elicit sufficient information to decide definitely the nature of the objects seen.

In case of a recurrence of similar reports, either as regard aeroplanes or other enemy rumours, members of the [Police] Force should telegraph at once to this office and to 'Naval, Wellington,' and proceed to investigate promptly. The results of inquiries should be telegraphed briefly in like manner. The Naval Adviser has arranged that whenever there is any likelihood of the necessity arising in connection with matters relating to enemy intelligence, for the telegraph offices to be kept open after normal hours on notice being to such offices.

As the value of the information depends largely upon its general accuracy and the promptness with which it is transmitted to the Naval Adviser, immediate action as above instructed is most essential.

J. O'DONOVAN,
Commissioner of Police

Wellington, 27th March 1918.8

So police records might be one place to look, though these are generally closed. Anyway, they are unlikely to offer much in the way of interpretation, which is the really interesting stuff.

I still have this feeling that there's a cache of mystery aeroplane records buried somewhere in Archives New Zealand -- but for now, I've reached a dead end.


  1. Auckland Star, 8 April 1918, 4

  2. Archives New Zealand [ANZ]: AAYT 8499 N20/6/11, telegram, Jas. Johnston, 3 July 1918. 

  3. Ibid, telegram, Jas. Johnston, 4 July 1918. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. ANZ: ADOE 16612 M1/1176, letter, G. Lysnar, 29 June 1918. 

  6. Ibid., letter, P. H. Hall-Thompson, 16 July 1918. 

  7. A few Australian mystery aeroplane reports from before 1918 turn up here, actually, courtesy of the RAN's Naval Intelligence Summaries. 

  8. ANZ: AAAJ W4928/9, New Zealand Police Gazette, 3 April 1918, 208. 

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