Tuesday, 23 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.

Finlayson, 23 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 212 is a telegram from Captain C. Finlayson, censor for the 3rd Military District (Victoria), to 'Intelligence', Navy Office. He is passing on a newspaper article which has been submitted for censorship:

A man named Lewis living at the corner of Frank and Mills Streets, Ballarat West, has reported to Sub-Inspector Nicholson of the Police that at mid-night on Saturday last [20 April 1918], he and his family heard a whirring noise, saw a bright flash, heard a loud noise, and the following morning, found a piece of iron, yellow in colour, -- or stained yellow, on the ground near his house.

Finlayson adds that he has 'not allowed publication', and this is why I cite this document in my article. This date, 23 April 1918, seems to mark a turning point or watershed in the panic. Before this date, it's easy to find newspaper articles reporting mystery aeroplane sightings; after it, they are very rare. In addition, after this date, it's quite common to find in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066 notices from the censor saying that they have stopped publication of newspaper articles reporting mystery aeroplane sightings. So, while I was never able to find direct, written evidence of this, it seems clear that on or around this date censors were directed to prevent further reports of mystery aeroplanes from being published. (In fact, given that yesterday's entry also involved a censor's report, that may have been the actual start date, or perhaps somebody in Perth jumped the gun.)

There's some support for this in the written comments by 'A. W. J.', which would be Captain A. W. Jose, naval censor. Jose says here that

Censor has instructions to report matters of this kind to Navy Intelligence only: Military Int. not informed.

In fact in this case military intelligence was informed (there's a comment from Major Hogan asking if they should 'Obtain piece of metal?'), but more importantly Jose's remark suggests that that censors had recently been given specific orders concerning mystery aeroplane reports, even if it doesn't actually confirm that they were supposed to be publicly suppressed as well as passed on to intelligence.

There's some further evidence for the significance of 23 April from Jose, albeit much later. As it happens, after the war he wrote the volume of the official history of the war concerning the Royal Australian Navy in the war. In it, he gave a brief account of the evolution of the panic:

Between the 21st of March and the 23rd of April no less than twenty-six aeroplanes and eight suspicious signals were reported to the Navy Office -- one or two over Port Jackson (one was genuine, the aeroplane coming from the Richmond aerodrome), several in the neighbourhood of Port Phillip, some far inland. From the Mallee district of Victoria an excited policeman on one occasion reported two aeroplanes flying together.1

This is reasonably accurate, as far as it goes, but nevertheless quite misleading, in that he implies that there were only a couple of dozen reports and that they stopped coming in after this very point in time. In fact there were about 200 in total, peaking about a week after this point and continuing on until mid-May and even beyond. But of course, Jose knew this better than anyone. I think his omission is best explained if press reports after 23 April were suppressed by the censors; with the files remaining secret after the war (NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066 was not opened until 1979) there was no way for anyone to prove otherwise. It was, literally, the official narrative.

The reason why the question of censorship is worth going into is that, like the air-sea search for the raider, it reinforces my point that the government was taking the mystery aeroplane reports seriously. Again, it doesn't prove that they are being believed, necessarily; in fact even if they were dismissed as fantasy there would have been a concern that stories of mysterious aeroplanes and raiders would create anxiety and fear amongst the public about a German attack, particularly in conjuction with the grave (but now improving) news from the Western Front. And if newspapers were responsible for spreading the idea in the first place, then stopping them from continuing to promote it should halt the panic. In theory.

But still, coming so close together, the search and the censorship do suggest a mounting sense of alarm within the government. It must be no coincidence that it was from this date that many newspapers ran stories about 'WAR IN AUSTRALIA' and the like, following on from a cryptic paragraph in the Melbourne Age published the day before:

Within the past 48 hours information has come to hand which points to the probability that the realities of the war will soon be brought before Australians in a most convincing fashion. The uneasiness of the defence authorities, to which reference was made in "The Age" of Saturday [20 April 1918], has been intensified by certain evidence which has come before them since Saturday morning. Steps have been taken to cope with a situation which may at any moment assume grave proportions. More than this cannot be said for the present.2

I now think this 'certain evidence' was a report and subsequent investigation at Toora, which is where one of the aeroplanes was sent on Saturday when the 'defence authorities' were so uneasy (as will be discussed in the next post); I assume the further 'Steps' taken are the putative censorship order, the reactivation of coastal batteries, an order to merchant vessels to run without navigation nights at light, and even the evacuation of German prisoners of war away from the coast -- though I'm not sure exactly when that all happened either, it seems to be around about now. Trying to construct coherent narratives from scattered, incomplete and inconsistent pieces of information: in some ways the historian's job is not unlike that of the intelligence analyst -- but at least it's not usually as time-sensitive.

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  1. Arthur W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy, 1914–1918 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson 1941), 364-5. []
  2. Maryborough and Dunnolly Advertiser, 23 April 1918, 2 []

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