Anxious nation? — II

In my previous post, I discussed a mysterious aeroplane seen over Hobart in 1938 which was interpreted in a context of concern about vulnerability to air attack. I said that by contrast a similar incident that year over Darwin was seen as a curiosity rather than a threat, but in looking at it more closely I find that the threat element was present in the press accounts more than I thought. Let's see if there's any discernable pattern.

There were actually two aeroplanes seen (and heard) over Darwin, or perhaps the same aeroplane was seen (and heard) on two different occasions.

Last Thursday evening [3 February 1938] two men saw a machine fly over Darwin at a great height heading south. One of the men is employed at the aerodrome and it is considered unlikely that he could have made a mistake. Another man who is an aviation engineer also heard the drone of an engine and stated emphatically that it was an aeroplane engine.1

The other sighting was initially a hearing. A foreman at Darwin's electrical power plant by the name of Maurice Holtze quite ingeniously used the sound of the plant's diesel engines as a sound detector:

This engine develops about 1000 revolutions at normal speed, and Holtze observed that the presence of any other machine in the vicinity developing more or less than 1000 revolutions is reflected clearly in the exhaust beat of the power house engine. At 4.30 a.m. yesterday [8 February] he was attending the engine when he noticed a distinct change in the note of the exhaust. Accustomed to the departure of air mail planes from the local aerodrome about 5 o'clock on three mornings of the week he at first paid little attention to the antics of his unofficial sound detector. Then he realised suddenly that no machines were scheduled to leave Darwin on Tuesday morning. He rushed outside and saw a machine in the air.2

Holtze couldn't make out any identification marks on the aeroplane, but said that he could see the glow from the cockpit lights; it appeared to be a large, multi-engined machine.3 Apparently inbound from the Timor Sea, it circled over Darwin and then flew south.4 A former superintendent of police named Lovegrove also heard an aeroplane at 4.30am, while a post office employee saw 'strange lights moving across the sky [...] similar to those shown by aircraft'.5 The government was informed of these reports, and while Canberra appeared sceptical it ordered local representatives of the Civil Air Board and the defence forces to investigate.

So much for the mystery aeroplanes themselves. What did people make of them? A number of theories were proposed in the press. The first theory was weather balloons, but none had been sent up on the relevant day.6 Or maybe it was meteors.7 The Flying Doctor, Clyde Fenton, operated the only two private aircraft registered in the Northern Territory, but these were quickly ruled out.8 It wasn't the MacRobertson Miller airmail carrier from West Australia either.9 Checks at Pine Creek and Katherine -- the only aerodromes within 200 miles, apart from Darwin's own -- proved similarly fruitless.4 (However, there were many small airstrips littered about, at which an aeroplane could land unobserved.)10

Yet another theory advanced here tonight was that a small plane could operate from beaches in the uninhabited stretches of the vast Arnhem Land aborigines' reserve. In this reserve there are only five places at which white men are located -- at the Church of England Mission at Oenpelli, and the Methodist Mission Stations at Goulburn Island, Millingimbi Island and Yirrkala, while Constable Stokes is stationed at Elcho Island, off the Arnhem Land coast. All these places, although hundreds of miles away, are in touch with civilisation by means of pedal wireless sets, but they have not reported the passing of any strange

Russell Tapp, a Qantas pilot on the Singapore run, reported that no other aircraft had left there or Koepang in Dutch Timor for Darwin recently.4 It was known the RAF was planning to carry out exercises simulating the defence of an 'an imaginary continental state 1200 miles south of Malaya'; perhaps one of its aircraft had strayed too far south?11 However, this theory was officially discounted because of the distance.12 Another idea was that the aeroplanes were launched from some American cruisers which were on their way to Singapore; but these were still only a few days out from Sydney at the time of the first sighting.13 Nor was it the Tugan Gannett which the RAAF's Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Williams, had just flown to Singapore. (In fact, on his return Williams diverted over Bathurst and Melville Islands to see if anything 'untoward' could be seen.)14 Drug smugglers were officially ruled out as possible culprits.15

So far I haven't mentioned what might seem to be the obvious suspect: Japan. A number of articles did suggest a Japanese connection. Actually, all of these appear to be edited versions of a report from Darwin, which was reprinted in many newspapers around Australia but with key omissions and additions. The fullest version I've found is from the Darwin Northern Standard, though presumably it is not the original as it not the first to be published. References to local defence anxieties were apt to be cut when the article was redistributed; for example a statement that 'The reports have caused one prominent citizen to declare that he will open an agitation for the immediate stationing of a R.A.A.F. squadron in Darwin' does not seem to have appeared elsewhere.16 Other points of this kind made in the article appeared in some versions but not in others, for example the conclusion:

Though it may achieve nothing else, the "scare" will at least precipitate defence work at Darwin. Although this is considered one of the most important and strategic defence positions in Australia, it cannot boast of a single anti-aircraft gun. Emplacements for this type of armaments were completed several months ago and tenders for constructional work on the R.A.A.F. base and aerodrome were called early last year. But nothing further has been done.7

With respect to Japan, the following was in fact widely copied:

it might be mentioned that Palaou [sic], the big Japanese pearling base in the mandated islands is only 1200 miles away. Planes could fly as far as Darwin and return without refuelling.7

One newspaper, from Rockhampton on the Coral Sea, inserted before this discussion a recollection of earlier lights in the sky associated with a visiting Japanese ship:

During the last three months and particularly at the time when the so-called Japanese "fisheries training ship," Kakuio Maru, was in Darwin several residents claim to have seen mysterious lights over and near the town at night.11

This in turn may or may not have been connected with another previous sighting, four months previous, of a 'fast monoplane' without lights or markings flying overhead at the Manston Gap water reservoir ('an essential part of the defence base in the course of construction at Darwin').17 There's certainly a touch here of the same paranoia as was on display in Hobart six months later.

But in the Hobart case, the focus was consistently on defence implications of the mystery aeroplane. Here in Darwin, the few allusions to the possibility of Japanese incursion do seem to pale in comparison to the plethora of alternative theories noted above. Perhaps the difference is in the way the story of the Darwin mystery aeroplanes was picked up nationally, whereas the Hobart incident seems to have passed relatively unnoticed elsewhere. Local opinion in both Darwin and Hobart does seem to have been very strongly concerned with local air defence (or rather the lack thereof), an issue which the other states -- rather parochially -- seem to not have taken much interest in.

Very soon, the official investigation poured cold water on the idea that there had been an aeroplane over Darwin on 8 February, though it surprisingly did allow that the 3 February report may have been due to single-engined (and presumably short-ranged) aeroplane of unknown origin but possibly a 'commercial machine'.18

"The commander of coast defences, the district naval officer and myself consider that it is an exceedingly remote contingency that any strange aircraft was about and that the absence of any fuelling arrangements makes it very improbable that there was any," stated the Administrator [of the Northern Territory, C. L. A. Abbott].7

So for some unstated reason, the idea that aeroplanes had flown from a Japanese mandate or a Japanese ship was dismissed. The full report may still exist in the archives of the Civil Air Board, and it would be interesting to see what arguments Abbott gave for this, if any. But the effect of this official scepticism seems to have been to end all serious speculation about Darwin's mystery aeroplanes, relegating them instead to the domain of the fraud Louis de Rougemont who claimed forty years earlier to have seen 'flocks of wombats rising in the dusk' over northern Australia.19 Almost exactly four years later, of course, Darwin was heavily bombed by aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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  1. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1938, 17. []
  2. Cairns Post, 10 February 1938, 6. []
  3. Argus (Melbourne), 10 February 1938, 1; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 10 February 1938, 7. []
  4. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1938, 17. [] [] []
  5. Morning Bulletin, 11 February 1938, 8. []
  6. Argus, 11 February 1938, 1. []
  7. Ibid. [] [] [] [] []
  8. Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 1938, 11. []
  9. West Australian (Perth), 12 February 1938, 22. []
  10. Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 February 1938, 19. []
  11. Morning Bulletin, 10 February 1938, 7. [] []
  12. Canberra Times, 10 February 1938, 4. []
  13. Northern Standard (Darwin), 11 February 1938, 2. []
  14. Argus, 11 February 1938, 1. []
  15. Canberra Times, 11 February 1938, 2. []
  16. Northern Standard, 11 February 1938, 12. []
  17. Northern Standard, 11 February 1938, 12. []
  18. Canberra Times, 14 February 1938, 2. []
  19. Advertiser, 14 February 1938, 22. []

6 thoughts on “Anxious nation? — II

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  5. Phil Vabre


    According to the Canberra Times, the report on the Darwin incident was received by the Air Board (RAAF), not the Civil Aviation Board. That's where you'd need to look to find it.



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