Dreaming war, seeing aeroplanes — II

At the end of March 1918, the NSW Minister for Education, Augustus James, gave a speech at North Sydney Boys' High School's prize day. No doubt with an eye on the press, he spoke rather gloomily about the war situation, especially in light of the continuing German offensive on the Western Front:

"We know to-day," he said, "that we are face to face with a crisis. At any time we may hear of the British forces being broken. The Germans may capture a portion of the French coast which the Allies are at present holding, and from it deal a blow at England. The safety of Australia depends on England. Where will Australia stand if England is beaten in this war? What would we be able to do in the event of an invasion by a foreign army? We have neither the rifles nor the trained men, nor have we a submarine or aeroplane capable of use in any attempt to drive off any enemy."1

James was not far wrong. After nearly four years of war, you might think that Australia was a vast armed camp, but in fact most men and materiel were sent overseas, to Europe or the Middle East, as soon as they were ready; much of the balance was used for training. It's unlikely that James had any inside knowledge, but at this time there was only a single aeroplane in Australia 'available for any offensive action', an F.E.2b purchased with funds donated by Alfred Muller Simpson of South Australia.2

And while I don't know for a fact, it's hard to imagine that New Zealand's defences were in any better shape. As we've already seen, however, the government there took the reports of mysterious aeroplanes seriously. But it was also trying to damp down alarm. An article on '"Aeroplane scares" and regulations' in the Poverty Bay Herald on 8 April noted that

Since the disclosure of the boast by an officer of a German raider that 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 aeroplanes 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 alarm. If New Zealanders see any more mysterious visitants in the sky their best plan will be to carefully verify the sight, and 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.3

This is quite interesting. It places the blame for the sightings on the German claim that the Wolf's seaplane had circled over Sydney; but this can't be true, for the mystery aeroplanes preceded that news by at least a couple of weeks. There is also the suggestion that some sightings were not reported in the press, so clearly we can't rely on newspapers for the full story. Finally, and this suggests that this story is officially inspired, there is the warning that as press reports were causing 'somewhat of a scare', anyone who 'circulates without good cause any such report likely to cause public alarm' will be prosecuted under the War Regulations. Yes: a government cover-up! It seems to have worked, too, as I haven't found any other press reports of mystery aeroplanes over New Zealand until very late May. Henceforth the (reported) action took place in Australia.

Specifically, at Toora in eastern Victoria. Between 4 and 5am on the morning of 16 April, a Mr Griffin

was astonished to see a large aeroplane making a circle close to the town and over Port Franklin. It manoeuvred about for an hour, and then departed in the direction of Wilson's Promontory.4

The Minister for Defence was notified of this 'strange aeroplane' the following day; he promised to make enquiries.5 It did not belong to the Central Flying School at Point Cook (which anyway is not nearby). The article in the Adelaide Advertiser notes that while 'civilian aviators were not forbidden to traffic in the air in Australia they were forbidden under regulations to fly over certain areas'. Unhelpfully, it doesn't say whether Toora was one of these areas!

That same night, possibly a few hours earlier, lights in the sky were seen in the Goulburn Valley, in the north of the state near the border with NSW:

Early on Tuesday morning [16 April], when returning from a dance at Wunghnu several Tallygaroopna residents aver that they saw mysterious lights in the sky. One of them a returned soldier, is positive that they were night lights from an aeroplane.6

And the Advertiser also reported on 19 April that

Several residents of Casterton declare that they have seen, and others that they have distinctly heard, aeroplanes passing over the town during the past week.7

Casterton is way over the other side of Victoria, near the South Australian border. So at this point the mystery aeroplanes have been seen in the east, the north-west, the south-west and the north of the state, mostly in the last few days. All of a sudden it's a genuine mystery aircraft scare.

However, the Casterton sightings were very quickly dismissed. The Defence Department got the local police to make enquiries, and the result was that 'there does not seem to be any satisfactory evidence of any aeroplanes being actually seen or heard in the district'.8 From the very sparse nature of the initial report compared with most of the others, it seems to have been just a rumour, then. But a rather more concrete sighting was reported from a place about 80km south-east of Casterton. The date is not given, but the first mention I've found was on 20 April; the following report was reprinted in the Portland Courier from the Hamilton Spectator on 22 April and refers to a 'morning or two ago', so I'd guess the sighting took place around 18 April.

While camped with a mob of cattle in a cleared paddock between Byaduk and Macarthur, Mr Sutton, a drover, was a morning or two ago awakened about two o'clock by the animals moving about. It was apparent that they had been frightened, and shortly afterwards Mr Sutton saw two rockets shoot into the air. This was followed by a bright light in the sky, and he was amazed to see an aeroplane descend, and soon after go up again. It is also reported that an aeroplane has been seen and heard by people in other neighbourhoods near Hamilton.9

Okay, that last bit is more rumour. But if Sutton's story was accurate then it's quite a spectacular one. That the cattle were frightened by something suggests that he wasn't simply imagining things (although they could have been startled by something else). Rockets? That suggests a signal from the ground to the aeroplane, presumably to arrange a rendezvous, and so we're moving from reconnaissance from sea raiders to some sort of enemy within. Then again, how did Sutton 'see' an aeroplane at in the middle of the night? Was he only guessing that it was an aeroplane, or was it illuminated by the rockets? All very puzzling.

As might have been expected, there's too much material left to cover to do it justice in this post, so I will save the promised discussion of the invasion (?) scare for another day.

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  1. Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 1918, 12. []
  2. James Kightly, 'Australia's first domestic battleplane', Flightpath 20:4 (2009), 54. I'm indebted to James for providing me with a copy of his article. []
  3. Poverty Bay Herald, 8 April 1918, 2; reprinted in Ashburton Guardian, 6 April 1918, 3. []
  4. Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 April 1918, 7. []
  5. A brief notice in the Portland Guardian says that the Defence Department was investigating the sightings in other parts of the state too: 19 April 1918, 2. []
  6. Broadford Courier, 19 April 1918, 3. []
  7. Also reprinted in Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 19 April 1918, 2. See also Portland Guardian, 19 April 1918, 2. []
  8. Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 April 1918, 12; also in
    Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 20 April 1918, 4. []
  9. Portland Guardian, 22 April 1918, 2; see also Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 April 1918, 12. []

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