The mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand — II

In a not-very-recent post I discussed New Zealand press reports of mystery aeroplane sightings in the first few months of 1918. I suggested then that around about the end of March there was a change in the way these sightings were reported. This change had two aspects. The first was that there were no longer any straight news reports of mystery aeroplanes being published (no new ones, anyway; some of the earlier stories continued to be reprinted as local newspapers caught up). The obvious explanation for this would be because there weren't any to report. However this seems unlikely because of the second aspect: newspapers did in fact continue to circulate stories about mystery aeroplanes, only now in the indirect form of jokes and rumours.

As far as anything which even vaguely resembles an actual sighting is concerned, in fact there are only a couple of examples from April 1918, both from the New Zealand Observer. On 6 April, the Observer's 'They Say' column informed its readers

That a well-known motor car owner and a cold-feet sufferer reported an aeroplane outside Mangere the other night, but when under the third degree he mixed the Urewera locality with Onehunga, the authorities ducked.1

This entirely lacks the sort of information contained in the earlier mystery aeroplane reports, not even a date; and the jocular tone makes it hard to know how seriously to take it. It could be an offhand way of describing an actual sighting by a local notable, or it could be a humorous allusion to some then-topical incident which had nothing to do with mystery aeroplanes.

The other example from April is equally vague as to details, and is quite possibly apocryphal, but its point is clearer. The Observer's 'Fretful Porcupine' column (where did they get these names?) published a letter on 20 April from one 'Jay Bee' which includes this account of a mystery aeroplane sighting, apparently in a posh Auckland suburb:

Dropped into afternoon tea at a friend's house the other day and found I had fallen into the midst of the wife's day-at-home crownd -- 'first and fourth Tuesdays in the month' business. Took me a while to recover, but when I did come to I sat up and took notice of what the dear women were talking about. And, by Jove, it surprised me. One dear thing held the floor by virtue of the strength of her vocal chords, and she was talking about these strange aeroplanes nervous folk are seeing of nights. 'Yes,' she said, 'it's true all right. Only last night Mrs. So-and-So saw one going over her house just after midnight. She called Mr. So-and-So, and he saw it, too, so there. And my husband knows Captain Dash in the Defence Office, and Captain Dash says there are aeroplanes about [...]'2

So unidentified aeroplanes are being seen by unidentified people at unidentified times and unidentified places. Not terribly useful. But wait, there's more:

'[...] and if there's any trouble at any time not to rush to the station to catch a train to get away from town, because they're bound to try to drop bombs on the station, because they know everyone would go there.' (Pause for breath.) 'And then there are these big guns firing 100 miles. What's to stop a raider coming in behind Rangitoto with one of these guns and firing a shell into our houses in Grafton Road? And they're sending my husband into camp, so there would be no one left to fight them.' I regret that at this stage I fainted outright, and heard no more.3

Obviously Jay Bee is partly joking, but he (the condescension towards 'the dear women' suggests a man) was making a serious point about what he saw as the baleful effect of suburban gossip where the defence of the realm was concerned: 'Really, I'm almost in favour of the introduction of women police if they would only find their way to these afternoon teas and arrest a few of these idiotic scaremongers.'3 The reported speech may well be invented, synthesised, and/or exaggerated for effect, but it seems likely that it is more or less representative of talk that was very widespread in April 1918, not just about mystery aeroplanes in the sky or raiders in the sea, but about the possibility that bombs and shells would very soon be falling on New Zealand. Indeed, I think can show this, and will endeavour to do so in the next post in this series.

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  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 6 April 1918, 7. []
  2. Ibid., 20 April 1918, 16. []
  3. Ibid. [] []

4 thoughts on “The mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand — II

  1. Kym

    Brett, I can help with one small (probable) fact: your jocular newspaper correspondent writes for a column which probably gets its name from a desire to reference Shakespeare.

    'I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
    Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
    Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
    Thy knotted and combined locks to part
    And each particular hair to stand on end,
    Like quills upon the fretful porpentine'

    From Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

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