Suspicious minds

I've recently begun some research at the National Archives of Australia (the Melbourne reading room of which is conveniently only about half a kilometre from my house) into the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare. It's always exciting to get to work on a new set of primary sources; and this is my first time working in a state archive so it's doubly interesting. I can already see that there's a lot of useful material, and my original idea of a short, simple case study is already starting to seem optimistic.

The main file I've looked at so far is NAA: MP367/1, 512/3/1319, 'Reports from 2nd M D during War Period on lights, aeroplanes, signals etc.', a big fat dossier of reports from the public and the results of military and police investigations into them. 2nd Military District seems to have covered New South Wales, so it's actually not what I ultimately want: most of the 1918 sightings took place in Victoria, i.e. 3rd Military District. But as NSW was the other big state (somewhat more people, more important industrially and commercially; but Victoria had the seat of government and defence headquarters) it'll be useful as a control.

There are three main types of reports: signalling, wireless, and aeroplanes. The first is easily the largest, and consists of people seeing lights flashed from houses, from a hill top, on the coast, etc, and reporting them as suspected lights from German agents. For example, in May 1918 Mrs Clara A. Woollard of Pambula wrote that

I think it is my duty to inform you that flashlight signals were being displayed in the sky, to the west, at about eight o'clock last night.

She had seen this light on several previous occasions, and thought that it was 'as if someone were telegraphing messages by that means'. Virtually all of these reports seem to have turned out to be false alarms, often caused by people carrying hurricane lamps late at night so they could see where they were going. Most of the suspect houses turned out to be inhabited by good, solid 'Britishers'.

Nationality and ethnicity was also important in the wireless cases. These were suspected wireless installations, with a big antenna and associated plant, potentially capable of sending and receiving messages to and from -- where? Other secret agents? Ships off the coast? The Fatherland? As with the signals, it's not always clear just what the suspicion was, only that they were suspicious. But who needs something like that, anyway? Conveniently, unauthorised possession of such wireless installations was already prohibited under pre-war legislation, as was pointed out in press notices in September 1914. This led to a rash of reports from the public, which continued at a fairly steady rate until the end of the war. As late as September 1918, for example, the Provost Marshal Office of 2nd Military District investigated the concerns of Mrs Caroline H. Scott of Darlinghurst, who

is of the opinion that there is a Wireless Plant in the vicinity of her residence as she has noticed flashes & also heard the tick tacking [sic] similar to those produced by a Wireless Plant. These noises & flashes occurred about between 3 & 4.o.clock in the mornings & she considered it her duty to inform the Authorities of same.

Often there was a suspicious foreigner involved. Sometimes the wireless installations were real enough (one man was using his to carry out research into the effect of radio waves on plant growth!) but none seem to have been to have been used in espionage or subversion.

And then there were the aeroplanes. This is the smallest category in 2nd Military District's files, nineteen cases for the whole war: seven in 1914, when you might expect some war jitters, and another seven in 1918, mostly after the Hindenburg offensive on the Western Front and the reports of raiders off the coast. A very few were actual aeroplanes, generally sitting in somebody's workshop somewhere. At Hay in November 1914, V. B. Sylvander's activities were investigated by a police detective. Sylvander and his son had already built one aeroplane, which had been damaged in testing; a second one was being built but lacked an engine. Sylvander wisely proposed to give this to the government when it was finished, which perhaps influenced the detective's judgement that he was 'a loyal Britisher' despite being a 'naturalised Russian Finn'. Most others were the more usual lights in the night sky, as seen over Britain, New Zealand and Australia in 1909 and elsewhere/when.

Some were more substantial and unusual: in June 1918, Miss McCann of Beckom was sitting in her room at 1am when she 'heard the buzzing noise of an aeroplane and a ray of light shot across her bed like a searchlight and seem to be going south'. She said that it didn't sound like a motor car (though later she admitted that it might have been just that). In this case, it wasn't just the sound and the light: McCann seems to have suspected a local family of disloyalty. She mentioned to the policeman interviewing her that a 'strange man' had visited the Groth farm nearby, and it turned out that they had recently had a large box of ammunition delivered to them. Three of the family's sons, of age and medically fit, had claimed conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds. The Groth brothers were born in Australia, but their parents were from Germany, and this combined with their 'disloyal' attitude denied them the status of 'Britishers'. A number of followup investigations led to the reluctant conclusion that the Groths weren't up to any mischief (the ammunition was for hunting and pest control), but one suspects the damage to their reputation was done.

One mystery aeroplane stands out because it was actually a phantom airship: a Zeppelin seen at Young in July 1918 by W. G. Rogers, a professional photographer. In a letter to the Minister for Defence, Senator George Pearce, Rogers said that

I saw what appeared to me be [sic] an airship of the Zeppelin type due west from this town in size it appeared to be about 40ft. long but no doubt it was much larger as it was some miles distant. It was steering zig-zag course as though it was having trouble with the heavy wind which was blowing that morning.

It sank out of sight to the west at around 8am. Just what a Zeppelin would be doing at Young, more than 250 km inland from Sydney, is not clear. Rogers's account was taken seriously, but a police sergeant detailed to investigate reported that nobody else had seen the Zeppelin. Furthermore,

Mr Roger's [sic] is a very respectable resident of Young, but very near sighted and I am of the opinion that he saw a snow cloud, and believed it to be an airship.

About the time mentioned by Mr Roger's [sic] there was a strong wind blowing with rain and snow.

My favourite find, though, is the one that made me laugh inappropriately at the archive. The Captain-in-Charge of His Majesty's Australian Naval Establishments, Sydney, wrote in December 1917 to 2nd Military District's Military Intelligence Officer about a purported illegal wireless installation at St Ignatius College:

I would point out the peculiar merits of this supposed apparatus,

1. Peculiar flashes.
2. Finding imaginary earthquakes.

I would suggest it might also be applied for finding the supposed brains of the Prime Minister's correspondent.

As the writer was John Glossop, formerly commander of HMAS Sydney and victor over the raider SMS Emden in 1914, he probably had good reason to feel his time was being wasted. But scepticism didn't stop the reports of strange signals, illegal aerials, and mystery aeroplanes. Only the end of the war did that.

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