Anxious nation? — I

At about 5.20pm on Friday, 29 July 1938, hundreds of people saw a mysterious aeroplane diving from high over Hobart. According to Pegasus, the Hobart Mercury's aviation correspondent,

A large crowd collected near the corner of Liverpool and Murray streets, and traffic was impeded. The machine descended to a comparatively low level, yet not low enough to enable the identification numerals to be read. It was a grey biplane, larger than a Gypsy Moth.

As the watchers were preparing to rush for cover to avoid the expected crash, the machine sheered away and disappeared in the evening mists towards the south-west. 1

Some observers thought that they could see the aeroplane's navigation lights. 2 Engine sounds ('described as having a peculiar note') were heard in the posh Sandy Bay area (just southwest of Hobart's centre) soon thereafter, and a single-engined aeroplane was heard over Campania (20 miles to the north) by Dudley Ransom, pilot and owner of a private aerodrome, at 7pm. 3 Enquiries at Tasmanian and Victorian aerodromes found no aircraft aloft that evening. 4 Nor, apparently, did it belong to the RAAF. 5

So where did the aeroplane come from? According to Captain A. Gregory, a flight instructor at Cambridge Aerodrome,

"There is absolutely no technical objection to the theory that that a 'plane could be catapulted from a vessel at sea," he declared, "and it would not be at all difficult for such a machine to fly up the Derwent and over the city before returning to alight on the water alongside the carrier vessel." 6

Pegasus agreed that it was possible that 'the machine was of foreign origin, and was catapulted from a ship at sea for strategic observations'. 5 But for what ultimate purpose? The Launceston Register had a theory:

It has been pointed out that Tasmania would provide an admirable base for an enemy intending to attack the mainland cities, and it has even been suggested in the present instance, when steps are being taken to erect a new fort in the Derwent, an aerial survey of the locality might be of considerable value to an unfriendly power. 6

One reader (using the nom-de-plume Prepare) wrote in to the Mercury expressing concern about the apparent ease with which the mysterious aeroplane had penetrated Australian airspace, hinting darkly that 'foreigners have had too much access here, and know the place better than lots of the native-born'. 7 He or she demanded air raid precautions be put in place now:

before it is too late, and we are caught like rats in a trap, cannot something be done to prepare the people in case of an attack from the air? Safety zones could be prepared and allotted, gas masks made available, and citizens, especially school children, trained how to act if occasion demanded. 8

The Mercury's own Day By Day columnist also believed that 'The Aeroplane That Fled' had worrying implications for Australian air defence, suggesting that

if those organisations pelting the Federal Government with requests for a Citizen Air Force use this incident as an example of how easily Hobart could be wiped off the map, they might find their views receive greater consideration. If that fails, possibly we might induce another mystery aeroplane to come and deliver a few "dud" bombs as earnest to what could be done. Why not try it? 9

Day By Day here alludes to a contemporary political issue: the same day that the mystery aeroplane was seen over Hobart, the Tasmanian Premier, Albert Ogilvie, was pleading for a Citizen Air Force (the Australian equivalent of the Auxiliary Air Force) squadron to be established in Tasmania, which had no RAAF units at all. 10 Airminded Tasmanians agreed with Olgivie. 11 I don't think it's too fanciful to suggest that the mystery aeroplane was in fact a stunt designed to highlight Tasmania's defencelessness, as Day By Day perhaps was hinting. Soon enough, however, the subject was a matter for ridicule: Mercurius (yet another Mercury columnist) suggested it was just as possible that the pilot was a prospector out looking for Lasseter's reef as 'a Japanese airman engaged on one of those peaceable bombing missions which the Japs are so fond of making as a goodwill gesture to China and Russia'. 12 (Lasseter's reef being a fabulous discovery of gold in central Australia which was lost and never found again, and probably never existed at all: a symbol of foolish and overactive imaginations.)

A mystery aeroplane seen amid anxiety about air raids: a textbook example of negative airmindedness (at least if I were writing the textbook). But it's interesting to note that there was another mystery aeroplane in Australia in 1938, one which at first blush might be expected to fit into the same paradigm since the place where it was seen, Darwin, was in fact bombed repeatedly during the Second World War. However, although it was much more widely reported in Australian newspapers, in nearly all cases it was presented as a curiosity rather than a threat, as we'll see in a future post.

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  1. Mercury (Hobart), 4 August 1938, 13.[]
  2. Ibid., 30 July 1938, 9.[]
  3. Ibid., 4 August 1938, 13.[]
  4. Ibid., 30 July 1938, 9; Examiner (Launceston), 1 August 1938, 7.[]
  5. Mercury, 4 August 1938, 13.[][]
  6. Examiner, 1 August 1938, 7.[][]
  7. Mercury, 10 August 1938, 3.[]
  8. Ibid.[]
  9. Mercury, 5 August 1938, 6.[]
  10. Argus (Melbourne), 30 July 1938, 3.[]
  11. Mercury, 1 August 1938, 2.[]
  12. Ibid., 13 August 1938, 8.[]

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