Saturday, 20 April 1918

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. See here for an introduction or here for a list of all posts.

A. J. Boase, 20 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 468 is a copy of an order to the Officer Commanding, Central Flying School (i.e. Point Cook), from Major A. J. Boase on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff (i.e. Major-General J. G. Legge). It orders the detachment of two aircraft:

(a) one aeroplane to TOORA, South GIPPSLAND or to some other suitable place in that vicinity, and
(b) one aeroplane by H.M.A.S. "PROTECTOR" to TWOFOLD BAY.

Each aeroplane is to be sent today with 'the necessary complement of air mechanics and a Lewis Gunner with one Lewis gun and reserve ammunition', the guns themselves (with 4000 rounds Mk VI and 1500 rounds Mk VII ammunition) to be supplied to CFS from HQ 3rd Military District. Two relief pilots (Lieutenant M. J. Clarke, RFC, and Lieutenant W. B. Tunbridge, AFC) have also been assigned.

The pilot of the aeroplane sent to TOORA will reconnoitre WILSON'S PROMONTORY and the vicinity for hostile raider or seaplanes and will take his orders from, and report to, "Defence, Melbourne" [the following is added in handwriting], subject to special instructions issued by D.M.I. [Director, Military Intelligence, i.e. Major Hogan]

The pilot of the aeroplane detached with H.M.A.S. "PROTECTOR" will take instructions from, and report to the Navy.

It should be obvious why I cite this in my article: it is unambiguous evidence that the Australian military did not just monitor the mystery aeroplane reports (as the existence of NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066 itself demonstrates), but that it interpreted them to mean that there was a possible threat to Australian security and therefore undertook action to locate this threat: namely, an armed aerial reconnaissance along the Victorian coast extending east from Gippsland into the southern coast of NSW. And the order came from the top: Major-General Legge, the Chief of the General Staff, is the most senior officer in the Army. So this is very significant for establishing the impact of the Australian mystery aeroplane panic. It also shows how the military authorities were interpreting the sightings at this time: they aren't sending any aircraft to the west, which is where the mystery aeroplanes were first seen; they're sending them to the east, which is where they are starting to be seen. This makes sense if you are thinking in terms of a raider (with seaplane) sailing along the coast -- it's not going to be hanging around, so you need to send your forces to where you think it's going to be, not where it was.

It's true that these patrols were a precaution only, and should not be taken as evidence of a definite belief in German raiders in Australian waters. But two aeroplanes represented a maximum effort: these were about the only combat-capable aircraft available, and even then they were only F.E.2b trainers. Notably, they weren't armed with bombs of any kind, only machine guns which wouldn't do much to stop a warship, even one converted from a merchant vessel. Of course, if the presence of a raider had been confirmed, the Navy would have been the first line of defence, not the Flying Corps; but most of its best ships are serving overseas. Apart from HMAS Brisbane, a modern light cruiser which was then deployed in the Torres Strait far to the north, Protector was about the most powerful remaining vessel: a colonial era gunboat, commissioned in 1884. On paper its armament was probably about a match for the average raider, but its 6 and 4 inch guns were mostly elderly-to-antiquated, and it's slow and would need luck to run the enemy down. Nothing else the Navy had in the area comes close to matching Protector, so this is desperate stuff. Probably the best that could be done would be to divert any maritime traffic out of harm's way.

It's interesting that this decision to search for a raider comes fairly early in the panic, which has been rumbling along at a fairly low intensity since the Nyang incident a month ago. It's only from just slightly prior to this point, in fact, that the panic proper begins and the sightings begin flood in. Some of those sightings, ironically, will be due to the reconnaisance flights themselves, as NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 253 shows. It's a copy of a telegram from the police at Hastings: 'Aeroplane seen here four p.m. today flying high going direction San Remo'. More significant is the additional text: 'On inquiry Major Hogan advised that this would be one of OUR Aeroplanes' (emphasis in original). At least this shows that some people were capable of recognising an aeroplane when they did see one!

Mrs Conway of Christmas Hills might not be one of them, though. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 256 and 257 (typescript at page 255) is a copy of a telegram from Yarra Glen police station. She has reported that on 18 April

at about 8.15 p.m. she saw an aircraft fly over Christmas Hills, that there were two persons sitting side by side in the aircraft, that they had caps pulled down over their ears [...] the aircraft was flying very low, & as it was moonlight she could see the two persons seated together, that the machine was flying in a North-Westerly direction.

Constable Ramsay can find nobody else who saw this aeroplane, and says 'I do not take Mrs. Conway's story seriously as I know she romances but I am unable to break her story in any way under cross-examination'. I find it hard to believe too, which in fact is why I included it in my article: the detail about seeing the 'caps pulled down', in particular, suggests a strong element of imagination, or romancing as Ramsay puts it.

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