Fear, uncertainty, doubt — V

So, to the mystery aeroplane sceptics. Again, there are some sceptical opinions to be found in the press and police reports, but relatively few. Very early on, the Age, one of Melbourne's leading newspapers, wrote on 25 March 1918 that

the defence authorities are inclined to laugh at the story told by Police Constable Wright, of Ouyen, that at Nyang on Thursday last [21 March] he saw two aeroplanes flying in a westerly direction at a high altitude. The constable insists that he was not mistaken, but the authorities, being able to account for the movements of all Australian aeroplanes, jokingly suggest that the constable's story is on a par with those told about the Tantanoola tiger. 1

It did go on to say that 'the authorities very rightly recognise that it would be unwise not to investigate [...] and inquiries into the reported occurrence are being made by special intelligence officers'. 2 This was true, though in the event the 'special intelligence officers' (actually Detective F. W. Sickerdick, Victoria Police, and Lieutenant Edwards of the Royal Flying Corps) weren't despatched from Melbourne until 13 April as part of a broad sweep around western Victoria interviewing witnesses and suspects which took several weeks to complete. The conclusion of Sickerdick's report was unsurprisingly negative:

In my opinion and from the observations taken and from information received, the opinion of the residents, and the country travelled through, I do not believe that aeroplanes ever flew over the MALLEE, and I believe the objects seen at different times and by different people, were either hawks or pelicans. 3

Another sceptical policeman was Constable Duvanel of Korumburra in Gippsland. When, at 8pm on 2 May, a Mr Sandman rang from the Kongwak butter factory to report an aeroplane had been hovering overhead for an hour and half,

Const. Marchesi myself and the Postal Officials at the Post Office soon found the light mentioned and with the naked eye it appeared to move up and down but with the aid of a powerful field glass it could at once be seen it was only a star, which would light up bright and was continuously twinkling [...] From the conversation that passed on the telephone it was absolutely certain these people were watching a star in the sky and imagined it an aeroplane. 4

More sustained analysis can be found in the military and naval discussions. The General Staff's Directorate of Military Intelligence, in particular, prepared an irregular series of appreciations of the mystery aeroplane reports (five in total, between late April and mid-May 1918) in which it is possible to trace the evolution in attitude from bemusement to disbelief. The first such report, dated 28 April, tried to puzzle out which of the various sightings might refer to the same aeroplanes as they flew around Australia, and so determine how many enemy ships or bases might be about:

Accepting all the reports as correct, and assuming that some or all of the aircraft are from vessels at sea, there must be at least four such vessels. This minimum is arrived at by assuming a fast vessel, entirely favorable air conditions, no mishaps, and several craft from at least one of the vessels. If any one of these conditions is doubtful, there must be more than four vessels. 5

But even here it was thought 'improbable that there can be so many vessels on the Coast sending out aircraft' and so allowing for some false reports 'one vessel or two vessels' was more likely. 6 As for the possibility of secret aerodromes,

[...] If the aircraft come from land bases must be at least four, and almost certainly several more than four. 7

All this would require 'a very extensive organisation (including supplies of oil)', and 'no indication (from any source other than these reports) of such an organisation, is known'. 7 So again there is doubt, and the conclusion was not that the aeroplanes existed but that they must be investigated with 'The utmost resource and vigilance' to guard against false conclusions. 7

The third appreciation, written only six days later, was much more sceptical. In part this was because of the aerial reconnaissance along the coast (from Gippsland, but also south of Sydney and around Tathra in NSW) had by now turned up nothing; and the investigation by Sickerdick and Edwards in the Mallee had thrown up all sorts of problems with the witness reports. But the sheer number of reports was also troubling:

If flying is occurring on the same scale which these reports suggest, it may be expected that there would be occasional forced landings as well as the voluntary landings which the truth of the reports would presuppose; but not a single instance of a landing has been established [...] 8

The very fact that so many of the aeroplanes were seen at night was also suspicious:

Night flying is dangerous, and aircraft flying at night usually keep at a great height. Aircraft do not usually show lights, except when about to land, and hostile craft not wishing to disclose their whereabouts would be especially careful not to have lights [...] unless there are special circumstances a statement that an aeroplane or other object showing lights has been seen at night in the sky should not be accepted as sufficient evidence. 9

Within a week it was concluded that there weren't any mystery aeroplanes after all. A cable from the Navy Office to the Admiralty (copied to the China Station, Wellington and Sydney) reported that:

Majority of aircraft reports have proved to have no foundation. No definite proof of existence of aircraft obtained. Exhaustive enquiries have failed to trace any indication of raider or inland organisation. Many flights made by Military aircraft but nothing suspicious seen. Consider that news of initial reports in spreading caused people to anticipate aircraft thus stimulating imagination. 10

While the mystery aeroplanes still had their partisans, the official position was now definitely sceptical. In my previous post I noted Commander Fearnley's belief that Germany was preparing to carry out an air raid somewhere along the Australian coast; as a last word on this topic I will quote from the withering reply he received from none other than the Naval Secretary himself:

An enemy wishing to make an aerial reconnaissance would hardly send four planes together to fly over a hostile country where there are no hostile aircraft to interfere with them, and even if there were, unless he intended to bomb or carry out some other hostile operations, he would not be likely to advertise his presence by sending so many planes [...] it is considered almost incredible that an enemy machine, flying in and out across the coast line, should land and take off again during the night, even in bright moon-light, in a strange country without suffering damage at least on one occasion [...] Further, if these enemy machines are aeroplanes they will only make one flight on arrival alongside the ship they would have to land in the water. If seaplanes, it is difficult to know where they would land inland as they certainly cannot land on the ground without coming to grief. 11

Despite such scepticism, mystery aeroplanes kept on being seen, even if less frequently. The last report I have is from King Island in Bass Strait on 1 November, when two aeroplanes seen flying southeast; it was still being investigated as late as 18 November, a week after the Armistice. 12

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  1. Age (Melbourne), 25 March 1918, copy in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066. The article also refers to reports 'earlier in the war of a mythical fleet of eight enemy aeroplanes which flew over Hobart'. This would seem to refer to an incident in October 1914 when 'a battery of artillery in training near Hobart observed "several aircraft"': NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, minute, Director of Military Intelligence (Major E. L. Piesse) to Chief of the General Staff, 'Report of aeroplane at Towamba, N.S.W.', 16 May 1917.[]
  2. Age (Melbourne), 25 March 1918, copy in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066.[]
  3. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, report, Detective F. W. Sickerdick (Victoria Police) to Major F. V. Hogan (Intelligence Section, General Staff), 1 May 1918.[]
  4. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, report, Constable A. E. Duvanel (Victoria Police, Korumburra), 'Relative to Supposed Aeroplane over Kongwak', 8 May 1918.[]
  5. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, Directorate of Military Intelligence, General Staff, HB53, 'Aircraft, lights and objects reported seen in the air', 12.[]
  6. Ibid. 13.[]
  7. Ibid.[][][]
  8. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, Directorate of Military Intelligence, General Staff, HB56, 'Aircraft, lights and objects reported seen in the air -- summary and appreciation no. 3', 4 May 1918, 17.[]
  9. Ibid., 18.[]
  10. It also noted that 'Orders for vessels to navigate without lights are cancelled', which I otherwise wouldn't have known had happened. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, telegram, Navy Office to Admiralty, 9 May 1918. See also NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, Directorate of Military Intelligence, General Staff, HB64, 'Aircraft, lights and objects reported seen in the air -- summary and appreciation no. 4', 11 May 1918, 17.[]
  11. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, Naval Secretary to Sub District Naval Officer, Newcastle, 14 June 1918.[]
  12. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, Lieutenant Commander George D. Warren RANR (HMAS Coogee) to Commanding Officer, HMAS Cerberus, 18 November 1918.[]

3 thoughts on “Fear, uncertainty, doubt — V

  1. Bob Meade

    Interesting to note that Detective Sickerdick was, in 1916, attached to the Military Police. ( http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article8713532 ) and searching for his name in the National Archives of Australia's Recordsearch brings up a few files where he investigated military/intelligence matters. the dates of the files suggest that he did work associated with the military police up to 1918. But I can't tell how much of his time was dedicated to military work.

    Amongst them the intriguing item MP16/1, 1916/865 which has the note: "[Item] marked 'Out to Const. Sickerdick 26/7/17' [no file]".

  2. Post author

    Thanks, Bob, I hadn't looked at Sickerdick in detail. I hazard a guess that he was attached to military intelligence in Melbourne for most of the war as the sort of things thrown up in Trove Newspapers fall within its purview, mostly investigating suspect Germans. In April 1917 he is described as 'Detective Sickerdick of the intelligence section of the 3rd (Victorian) Military District' which fits with his role here, in 1916 he is Constable Sickerdick of the 'police force' (incidentally, while pursuing a libel action against the Argus regarding the shooting incident in your link), and in 1915 he was 'attached to the Intelligence Branch of the Defence department'.

    In fact, it looks like he was of German descent itself. Sickerdick is an unusual name, and mainly occurs in South Australia (and actually, as far as I can tell, nowhere else in the world outside Australia, so it must have been extremely rare in the homeland, or else anglicised). His full name is given in the press as Frederick William Sickerdick, and someone of that name was born in Charleston, SA, in 1888, about right for someone who was a constable by 1912, and died in Malvern in 1979, which fits somebody who moved to Victoria. But this same person is listed elsewhere as Friedrich Wilhelm Sickerdick. If this is the same F. W. Sickerdick, then he was a third-generation migrant: his parents were born in German settlements in SA (Schoenthal and Lobethal) and his grandparents in Prussia and Silesia. Presumably, then, he was attached to military intelligence because he could speak German and/or was familiar with German migrant culture. I wonder how he felt about that.

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