The mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand — IV

Talk in the New Zealand press of mystery aeroplanes and the German threat died down by the beginning of May 1918. At the end of the month, though, mystery aeroplanes returned, followed a few weeks later by the German threat -- albeit both in a more muted fashion.

At Greymouth (on the west coast of the South Island) 'A report was circulated in town last evening [29 May 1918] that an aeroplane had been seen over the sea near the hospital last evening' [sic].1 Unfortunately there are no further details, but on the same night at about the same time, near Hokitika, 40 km to the south,

Several people, including a member of the [Hokitika] 'Guardian' staff, saw in the far roadstead last evening [29 May 1918], a number of vessels just before dusk. A pair of field glasses were obtained and nine vessels were counted. It is also stated that an aeroplane could be seen circling around in near vicinity to the ships. Quite a number gathered on the sea beach to view the interesting sight, but the fast approaching dusk soon hid a further view.2

At neither Greymouth nor Hokitika is any speculation recorded regarding the identity of these aeroplanes or ships.

About three weeks later, a story emerged, not of a new mystery aeroplane sighting, but of one which took place more than a year earlier. There were few details; it was only said that 'in the early part of last year [1917] a Clutha farmer stated that he had seen an aeroplane over the land, and that it had disappeared northwards'.3 This was suggested as 'corroboration to some extent' of reports that the German raider Wolf had sailed right around the New Zealand coast, carrying out aerial reconnaissance of various harbours.4 Further evidence that Wolf had been in southern waters at the time came from the crew of a trawler, who saw a light which they took to be another vessel (which turned out to be back in port), and local Māori, who saw searchlights playing over Stewart Island, again presumed to be from a ship (no government steamers were so equipped).5 This belated report prompted G. H. Lysnar to inform the Poverty Bay Herald and 'the authorities at Wellington' that 'in March or April last year [1917] [...] he saw the aeroplane or seaplane [...] from his station a few miles beyond Parikanapa, and it was travelling from Poverty Bay in the direction of between Mohaka and Wairoa':

Mr Lysnar says he regrets not having reported the occurrence at the time, but there then was no talk or thought of a raider with a seaplane visiting New Zealand, and he came to the conclusion at the time it was one of the flying machines from the Auckland Flying School paying a visit to either Napier or Wellington, and which preferred taking the coast line so as to be over cleared country; otherwise in the event of engine trouble it might have had to land in the back ranges in the bush.6

It's an interesting index of how much more probable a German aeroplane visit now seemed, that Lysnar felt compelled to give an elaborate explanation of why he hadn't thought to report what he had seen.

On 13 August, the Wanganui Chronicle broke a big story under following the headlines:


It noted that while in some parts of New Zealand aeroplanes are 'common sights, but the appearance of aircraft in Wanganui is something so strange as to cause more than comment', and so it was that

Quite a lot of excitement was caused shortly after 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon [12 August 1918] that an aeroplane -- supposedly a seaplane -- had been seen flying off the Wanganui coast. Two ladies were looking seaward through a window in a house on Durie Hill, when one noticed a moving object, which she at once recognised as an aeroplane. She called the attention of her friend, and they both watched the flight of the flight of the visitor for a few seconds. Then, getting a pair of binoculars, they went on to the verandah, and a better view of the strange craft, which was moving swiftly above the sea some distance off the South Spit. It apparently came from the west, and was heading south. The ladies were naturally excited, and they called to other members of the household to join them on the verandah, but by the time the significance of the call was realised, the aircraft disappeared when over Landguard Bluff.

Nobody but the two ladies seems to have seen the strange visitor, but they are absolutely confident that they are not mistaken.4

The Chronicle then speculates:

If the ladies really saw an aeroplane -- and there is no reason to believe they did not -- it must have come from somewhere. Whence? That is the question. The most likely source, of course, is an enemy raider. Is there a raider in the vicinity? That, also, is a question.4

It then refers to yet another 1917 mystery aeroplane sighting:

In this connection it is interesting to recall, a settler in the neighbourhood of Dunedin once declared that he saw an aeroplane flying over Otago harbour. The report was pooh-poohed, but when the German raider Wolf reached Germany, the commander reported that the airman belonging to the raider flew over Otago harbour, about the time mentioned by the Otago settler.4

At least eleven other newspapers reported the Wanganui sighting, though without the inference that a German raider was at work. In fact, several also added a paragraph giving 'A more reasonable, and the generally accepted theory [...] that a flock of black swans was mistaken for an aeroplane, as a flock of birds was seen the previous night at the same time, flying in the same direction'.8 This report was filed from Wanganui, but evidently did not originate from the Chronicle itself, for it soon followed up the original report with an impressive number of other eyewitness accounts of mystery aeroplanes in the vicinity. In reverse chronological order:

  • The (or at least, an) aeroplane was seen 'Last evening [13 August 1918], about 5.30' by 'Mr and Mrs Jefcoate and daughter, of St. John's Hill'.

    Mr Jefcoate first saw the aeroplane, and, calling his wife and daughter, they watched the craft for fully three minutes. Mr Jefcoate says it first appeared a little to the south of the flagstaff on Durie Hill, and flew across out to sea, crossing the river in the vicinity of the Imlay freezing works. The party are emphatic in their statement that what they saw was an aeroplane or seaplane.9

  • The original Wanganui sighting was corroborated 'by two well-known residents on No. 2 Line, who state that they also saw an aeroplane about 5.30'.4
  • A Patea man saw 'what he thought was an aeroplane, about 5 o'clock on Monday afternoon [12 August 1918]. It was heading towards Wanganui'.4 Indeed, before the issue of the Chronicle carrying the news had even reached Patea he had called the newspaper's manager to ask if an aeroplane had been seen there.

    The visitor was seen off Wanganui at 5.30, so that if it really were an aeroplane, it would just about have been off Patea at 5 o'clock.4

    Though that would obviously depend upon the speed of the supposed aeroplane. And for that matter, the witness evidently had access to a telephone, so news of the Wanganui sighting wouldn't have had to wait until the newspaper arrived in Patea.

  • A 'reputable farmer at Opunake' made a report to the police regarding the 'presence of an aeroplane off the coast a few days ago'.4
  • Not an aeroplane, but possibly related: 'a well-known Gonville resident' states that on (implicitly) 10 August they were 'one of four who saw a searchlight playing on the sea off the South Spit [...] the rays were very powerful, and they were seen wor [sic] quite a long time'.4 The Chronicle speculates that this may have been the harbour pilot 'sending messages to a steamer in the roadstead' using a Morse lamp that Saturday.4
  • 'two young ladies' were 'returning from the pictures a fortnight ago' [c. 31 July 1918] when

    they saw a bright ligth [sic] in the sky, moving in a manner which suggested its emanation from an aerial vehicle of some kind.

    The young ladies were going to different houses, and each agreed to tell her respective household about the vision. However, fear of being laughed at caused each to preserve silence.4

The Wanganui aeroplane was no nine day wonder -- it was at least a fifteen day wonder, to judge from its later use by the Chronicle to ridicule the completely unrelated suggestion that a branch railway line be opened to Marton.10

Wanganui is on the south coast of the North Island. About 130km to the northwest is New Plymouth, where an aeroplane, or something, was also seen around this time by C. Rawlinson, a resident of Carrington Road who works for the Sash and Door Company.

Mr. Rawlinson was cycling to a dance at Carrington Road on Tuesday night [13 August 1918], and noticed what he took to be a bright star in the direction of the ranges (about six miles away). Suddenly the light seemed to shake, and, flashing alternately red and white, it swooped forward and downward. The light then rose four or five hundred feet, then falling again and describing various other movements. Mr. Rawlinson hastened back to his home and told his sisters of the occurrence, and they also saw the light swinging about until finally, at about half-past eight, they saw it going to the westward (the direction of the sea). The watchers are quite positive about the spectacle, and declare that at one stage during the half-hour they were watching the light disappeared behind the ranges and then rose again. Mr. Rawlinson thinks a flying machine is a possible explanation, for, although he heard no noise, he states there is a bare patch about the spot where the light was, and an aeroplane would be able to land there.11

One version of the New Plymouth report also appends the account, prompted by news of the Wanganui aeroplane, of 'A young and very keen-sighted resident of Hill-street, Wellington' who 'had seen an aeroplane on three occasions during the last few months':

On each occasion it was flying very high. Once it went right over the harbour and back towards Tinakori Hills and in each case it disappeared in a northerly direction. On one occasion he called his mother out to look, and they watched it for some time. On another occasion he drew the attention of some workmen to the 'plane, which was visible for several minutes.12

After this flurry of mystery aeroplanes in mid-August, there is a lull for a more than a month. There then came a curious report, via 'The police at Port Chalmers' who received it from 'the constable at Portobello on Sept. 19 [1918]', who in turn got it from 'a farmer and his wife at Hooper's Inlet'.13 They

saw what they believed were two aeroplanes flying out at sea about 6.30 p.m. on the 18th. The observers also allege that a smaller object was hanging from the supposed aeroplanes, to which it was apparently attached.4

If this is accurate, then both aeroplanes were jointly carrying a single object, presumably string on a wire or something, between them. Sounds rather unlikely.

That appears to be the end of the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand, at least as far as the press is concerned. Apart from the Wanganui Chronicle's commentary, there's little to suggest just how these aeroplanes were interpreted, except, of course, that they were highly unusual and worthy of comment. In the last post in this series I will assess the archival evidence of the government's response to the reports of aeroplanes of unknown origin flying in New Zealand skies -- or rather the lack of it.

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  1. Grey River Argus (Greymouth), 30 May 1918, 2. []
  2. Guardian (Hokitika), 30 May 1918, via Press (Christchurch), 3 June 1918, 6. []
  3. Otago Daily Times, 20 June 1918, 4. []
  4. Ibid. [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  5. Ibid., 26 June 1918, 4; Nelson Evening Mail, 27 June 1918, 4. []
  6. Poverty Bay Herald (Gisborne), 2 July 1918, 4. []
  7. Wanganui Chronicle, 13 August 1918, 4. []
  8. E.g. Evening Post (Wellington), 13 August 1918, 7. []
  9. Wanganui Chronicle, 14 August 1918, 4. []
  10. Wanganui Chronicle, 29 August 1918, 3. []
  11. Taranaki Herald, via Dominion (Wellington), 14 August 1918, 4. []
  12. Nelson Evening Mail, 15 August 1918, 6. []
  13. Otago Daily Times, via Thames Star, 25 September 1918, 1. []

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