Anxious nation? — VII

I really thought I'd finished with this topic, but the primary sources demand one last post. In discussing the July 1938 Hobart mystery aeroplane, I suggested that it may have been a propaganda stunt by some person or persons worried about Tasmania's lack of air defences. And it turns out that there were precedents for this type of thing.

One was over London a year earlier, in July 1937. It was widely reported in the Australian press, but I haven't been able to find it in a British newspaper. Most of the Australian reports quote the Sunday Referee, presumably from the 18 July edition; and I suspect the Daily Telegraph also carried the story on 16 July. Flight also referred to a 'mystery flyer', though only in passing. 1

The claim was that a 'mystery aeroplane' had 'recently frightened Londoners by mid-night low-flying stunts' on more than one occasion prior to 16 July. It returned on that date shortly after midnight, flying at a height of about 500 feet:

Hundreds saw it at 12.15 passing over Trafalgar Square. The fuselage of [sic, other reports say 'and'] the wings was plainly visible in the glare of street lights. It was still circling over the West End at 12.30, but soon afterwards disappeared northwards. 2

It appeared again the next night. 3 The Sunday Referee reported that the pilot had anonymously telephoned 'defence officials' (possibly at the Air Ministry, which the mystery aeroplane had flown over and which was said to be trying to find out its identity) to say that

"To-night, in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of Britain's defences, I am going to drop flour bombs on the House of Commons and St. Paul's Cathedral. 3

I've found no record of this actually happening, so maybe the call was a hoax. But some reports claimed that questions were to be asked about the mystery aeroplane in Parliament, and this did happen. In fact, the matter had already been discussed twice in the House of Commons, back in June. Then the Under-Secretary of State for Air, Anthony Muirhead, had to admit that the RAF was unable to identify the aircraft involved. But while some of the questions he received might indicate concern about air defence (I'm assuming the one about whether General Franco was involved was frivolous!) mostly MPs seemed worried about the noise. On 21 July he spoke on the topic again; this time he said that one RAF machine had been over London on the night of 13 July, and that the one on the night of 15 July (presumably the one reported as occurring just after midnight on 16 July) was 'believed to have been a civil machine which had been participating in defence exercises in the East Kent area'. 4 So it's not clear if the mystery aeroplane was really involved in propaganda -- but that's certainly how it would have looked to newspaper readers in Australia.

Which makes me wonder if it was an inspiration for the second propaganda flyer, a de Havilland Fox Moth piloted by V. James over Perth in February and March 1938. 5 This one wasn't a mystery aeroplane at all: the people behind it were quite candid about their involvement and their purpose:

The second of the series of altitude flights over Perth designed to draw attention to the possibilities of air attack was made on Monday, when the plane chartered by Mr. Norbert Keenan, M.L.A., Professor W. Murdoch and Mr. C. L. K. Foot flew over the city at a height of 13,000 feet. Numerous reports were subsequently received by Mr. Foot from people who had observed the plane from the ground. A third flight is to be made during the next week when, on a day unspecified, the plane will fly over the city and suburbs at a heigh of 15,000 feet. 6

This is a pretty high-profile group. Keenan was a senior state politician who had been WA's attorney-general before the war, and more recently opposition leader since 1933. Murdoch was a leading public intellectual, writer and broadcaster; Murdoch University is named after him. 7 I'm not quite sure who C. L. A. K. Foot was, but he was evidently a huge aviation buff: he tried to organise trans-Indian flights or routes in 1929, 1936 and 1952, an aerial expedition to the north of WA in 1929, and a circumnavigation of the southern hemisphere via Antarctica in 1949. He also wrote a book entitled Japan in the Rome-Berlin-Tokio Axis, published later in 1938, which apparently argued that the threat from Japan was not invasion but blockade. He owned a sheep property and when war came was active in fundraising for Australia's more beleaguered allies, so I suspect he had a bit of money.

Foot was the spokesman of this little group, explaining that

It has been the principal hope of the promoters to awaken interest in air defence, to accustom people in a small degree to detect and recognise planes at height, to create a greater degree of alertness and to give the civilian population a faint realisation that war in the air largely takes place, almost out of sight, above their heads. 8

Reports of the first flight in February show that propaganda wasn't the only purpose; the flightpath was designed to test just how easy it was for people to make out aeroplanes at different heights. I can't find any evidence that the third, unannounced flight took place.

I was fascinated to find that Foot used mystery aircraft as a justification for the exercise. He explained that if war broke out, 'it is only to be expected that a large crop of rumours will come to the Defence Department of mysterious planes flying at great height over different parts' of the state. 3 He suggested that high-flying large birds like eagles were easy to confuse with aeroplanes, with the only tell-tale being 'the glint from the sun's rays shining on the wings of the plane'. 3 Foot then related a long anecdote about a mystery aeroplane crash near Wyndham. Residents were expecting an airmail delivery and thought they saw the aeroplane circle overhead and then crash behind some nearby hills. They spent most of the evening searching for the crash site only to be informed that the mail aeroplane was safe and sound and hadn't even reached the Wyndham area. 9 It's an interesting idea that mystery aircraft reports from the public would swamp the authorities' ability to filter them, and so training the public in basic aircraft recognition might be useful. The 1918 mystery aeroplane scare perfectly illustrates Foot's point here.

Airminded propaganda stunts like the one over Perth, and possibly London and Hobart too, did have the potential to embarrass governments, but probably worked best to educate, or at least alarm, the public. Diving over cities is a crude way to do this (if that's what London and Hobart were), but Foot and co. at least tried to work through the media to promote their ideas about air defence.

And here ends the series. I promise!

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  1. Flight, 22 July 1937, 107.[]
  2. Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 27 July 1937, 10.[]
  3. Ibid.[][][][]
  4. Which is interesting in itself; I didn't realise that civil machines took part in military exercises.[]
  5. I came across this in Leigh Edmonds, 'How Australians were made airminded'.[]
  6. West Australian (Perth), 3 March 1938, 5.[]
  7. He was also Keith Murdoch's uncle, and hence Rupert's great-uncle.[]
  8. West Australian, 3 March 1938, 5.[]
  9. Foot doesn't give a date other than 'some years ago', but the situation he describes fits 1927.[]

2 thoughts on “Anxious nation? — VII

  1. Edward Fletcher

    I am a West Australian aviation historian and was interested in your story of Mr C L K Foot. His contribution to a new aerial route to Europe across the Indian Ocean has been forgotten in history and I am currently writing an article which will give him long overdue credit.

    I would be eager to know if you have any further information on Foot, particularly a photograph.

  2. Post author

    Unfortunately, I don't know anything about C. L. K. Foot other than what I've written in this post. (I even got his initials wrong!) I'd be interested to see what you find out, though.

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