Fear, uncertainty, doubt — I

The title of this post could refer to my own state of mind as I reach a crossroads in this project. As I said in the previous post, it's time to dig deeper into the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane scare, to look beneath the surface. What was really going on? Why did people see mystery aeroplanes at this time and att this place? I have several lines of inquiry which should lead to an answer (if not the answer). One is the comparative and transnational perspective; another leads through airmindedness and the early understanding of and responses to flight. I'll address these in later posts. But the key perspective I need to try to recreate is the fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding the mystery aeroplanes, of which they were (I argue) both a symptom and a cause. Which is the real reason for my choice of title. Really.

Again, there are a number of threads to follow. One is my starting point in all this: the role of the press. As I have already shown, the scare shows up in press accounts only for about four or five weeks after mid-March 1918, even though the number of sightings peaked after then. The terminus date for the press seems to be around 23 April. Up until then there is a steady stream of stories; afterwards I know of nothing until 4 June, when the Melbourne Age reported that about nine or ten people, including a returned soldier, watched an aeroplane fly over Charlton; the story was reprinted the following day in the Ballarat Courier (adding that 'The returned man had considerable experience with aircraft'); and after that there's nothing at all.

One possibility is that the newspapers lost interest in mystery aeroplanes, whether because they stopped believing them or just thought they were no longer newsworthy. Indeed, on 25 April the Adelaide Register declared that it had taken a patriotic stand against publishing 'scare war news'. But that doesn't appear to be the case generally. NAA MP1049/1, 1918/066, the Royal Australian Navy's file on mystery aeroplane sightings, includes at least twenty-nine distinct references to newspapers in a variety of forms, either press clippings or direct or indirect interactions. Four of these date to before 1918 (or at least are indeterminate in date) or relate to New Zealand. Of the balance, twelve are from on or before 23 April 1918, the date after which mystery aeroplane articles stopped appeared, and (logically enough) thirteen appeared afterwards. That suggests that the press were in fact still paying attention to the scare.

A more likely explanation is censorship. Of the twelve references on or before 23 April, ten are to actually published articles, one the WA censor passing on information from the Bunbury Herald's editor about a Zeppelin seen at Fremantle, and one was a notification from the censor that news of a mystery aeroplane sighting at Ballarat West had been suppressed. That is the earliest date for a censored report that I've found, and it's right on the watershed date of 23 April. The thirteen references after that date include only one published article (the Age one noted above), two notifications from the censor of suppressed articles, eight of articles submitted to the censor, and two of direct communications from newspapers to defence authorities regarding mystery aeroplane reports received (including one from the Register, despite its proclaimed scepticism). It's unclear whether the articles submitted to the censors were published or not (at least two were not; the others I'll have to check on microfilm) but even so it's evident that there's a very different censorship regime in this period than there was before 23 April. A check of NAA files relating to censorship should confirm this. 1

Whether there was formal censorship or not, the lack of stories about mystery aeroplanes means that the press was not the primary vector of mystery aeroplane stories after 23 April. I've suggested that it instead helped fuel it in other ways, by creating alarm about possible defeat in Europe and raids on Australia. But I'll still need to try to explain why the scare then continued; or, put differently, how did people 'know' that mysterious aeroplanes were around? I'll tackle that question in a following post.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. A good introduction to Australian censorship in the First World War is Kerry McCallum and Peter Putnis, 'Media management in wartime: the impact of censorship on press-government relations in World War I Australia', Media History 14 (2008), 17-33.[]

6 thoughts on “Fear, uncertainty, doubt — I

  1. Avinash Machado

    Is it possible that some of these sightings might have been of real aeroplanes?

  2. Possible, but mostly not.

    The aircraft in Australia during that period were very, very few, mostly in two military training schools near Sydney and Melbourne, and a couple of other aircraft, for instance an F.E. 2b used to look for enemy ships in the SE Victoria area.

    There was no official civil aviation in Australia in the period, and most pre-war flying machines were either dismantled or unable to fly or be flown (Australia's first, the Duigan was dismantled and Duigan himself was in Europe at the war - like most of his fellow airmen.)

    It would actually be easier to list the activities of the aircraft that were around than the work Brett's been doing!

  3. Post author

    Avinash:

    As JDK says, there just weren't very many aeroplanes around for people to see at all. That's especially problematic in April-May 1918 in Victoria when mystery aeroplanes were being reported from all over the state within a few days of each other. In a small number of cases, however, the intelligence investigators did conclude that military flights were responsible for the sightings. For example, an aeroplane was reported to have flown low over French Island, but the date was unclear. It was subsequently established that it took place on 20 April 1918, and this was matched to an aeroplane which flew from the Central Flying School at Point Cook to south Gippsland on that date. Not unreasonable, as French Island is roughly on the direct line of flight between Point Cook and south Gippsland. Ironically, this appears to be the F.E.2b James mentions that was being used to search for enemy raiders! (See the earlier discussion here.)

    But as I said in relation to astronomical explanations, I'm more interested in finding out why people were now interpreting these aeroplanes (planets, birds, alien spacecraft, etc) as a threat? The mystery aeroplane at French Island, for example, was thought by the locals to be from 'a raider out to sea'. So I'm really trying to explain that belief, rather than what it was they really saw.

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