Wednesday, 24 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.

James French, 24 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 79 is a copy of a letter from James French, Shire Secretary, Maffra Shire, to the 'Officer in Charge' of the 'Intelligence Department, Melbourne'. French has a lot to say on the subject of 'hydroplanes' that 'have been seen of late in this District at night time', and he thinks 'the subject is worth enquiring into'.

Firstly, French has some information:

I have just heard that a plane flew over the Maffra Station about 11 p.m. a couple of weeks ago the S.M. [station master] rang up the keeper at the Stratford Junction, and at that moment the plane was going at a good bat with bright lights, making very little noise and there was no mistaking it, one or two others are unmistakably reported having visited Sale and the Heart.

But also:

For some time the residents of Seaspray, on the Ninety-Mile Beach see bright lights westward of that place; supposed to be in the Currajong Hills, and it was from here that Mr. J. M. Maclachlan, M.L.C. saw the raider 'Wolf' standing out for many hours one day.

He has a theory:

It is quite evident that the material is carted into the bush and the planes are there fitted up. A friend of mine here met a lady from Healesville, who said she frequently noticed cars going up into the bush in that direction loaded up and returning empty.

And he has an offer:

My object in writing is to say that at Seaspray I have a 'look-out' close to the beach and if your department could send to me a good telescope it could be used there for observation purposes, in fact your department can make whatever use it wishes of the look-out for observations.

Finally, he has a suggestion:

I think it would be desirable to have the Ninety Mile beach patrolled from say corner Inlet to the Snowy River, and I have no doubt that persons living along the beach would render assistance; any other information I get I will send on to you.

So, here we have a prominent member of the community who clearly wants to help, despite not having seen or heard any mystery aeroplanes himself. In fact, almost the entire substance of French's letter is based on rumour: the reason for his letter is that he has 'just heard' that an aeroplane was seen at Maffra and Stratford Junction (two weeks ago!); others were 'unmistakably reported' at Sale and the Heart; for some unspecified period, unnamed 'residents of Seaspray' have seen lights in the hills; 'A friend of mine here met a lady from Healesville'. However, some of the information is potentially verifiable: the station master could be contacted, and then there's the suddenly very specific 'J. M. Maclachlan, M.L.C.', whose sighting of Wolf must have taken place the previous winter -- if it took place at all, of course. 'M.L.C.' means 'Member of the Legislative Council', i.e. a member of the upper chamber of the Victorian parliament, so Maclachlan should be easy to track down. As it turns out, though, there's no such person; French evidently means J. W. McLachlan, MLA, that is, a member of the Legislative Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament. McLachlan is in fact already well known to the intelligence services, as he is a regular correspondent on the subject of suspicious lights. Like French, he appears to have been a concerned and overly suspicious patriot. Did McLachlan actually see Wolf standing out to sea off Seaspray? No. Wolf did reach the Victorian coast, on 3 July 1917, but about 300km northeast, near Gabo Island, and spent only one night there laying mines before heading back out to sea.1 In my article I use French's letter as an example of the interplay of rumour and fantasy, and also as evidence for just what (at least some people) thought was going on. The theory of secret German bases in the interior which are either the source of the mystery aeroplanes or their destination is one which is about to become very important in the Navy's thinking.

In fact the Navy is already searching for a possible enemy presence in south Gippsland, and it has had its own man on the ground there since 18 April, Petty Officer G. Benson. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 95 is a copy of a letter from him to a Mr Underwood (who I haven't been able to identify; the only Underwood in the Navy List was the chief bandmaster at Port Melbourne). He's writing from Toora, and it seems from an earlier letter at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 99 and 100 he has been sent to investigate an aeroplane seen there by a baker named Griffin on 16 April (see NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 101 and subsequent pages). As Toora was one of the initial destinations specifically mentioned in the Central Flying School's orders, this is probably the immediate cause for the search. Benson duly reports that the Army's 'plane arrived from Melbourne' the previous Saturday [20 April 1918] but then left for Yarram Yarram; two captains, three 'ratings' and a signaller arrived the same day. It doesn't sound like he was informed of all this beforehand, but reports that he 'kept a strict watch throughout the night' (whether he was more concerned about enemy agents or the Army is not clear).

Benson's letter gives a lot of fascinating detail about his investigations into possible subversives (although his own investigations have turned up nothing, 'there is a pretty strong element of disloyalty among certain people in the district' and 'the people up here are not benevolent at all'), and he also relays another report by 'two telephone linesmen' who on Friday [19 April 1918] 'saw an aeroplane flying low down in the shadow of the mountains of Wilsons Prom', though he thinks that must have to do with 'a camp on the Prom' (though that wouldn't have had any aircraft attached). And while I missed the significance of this previously, it seems like Benson was the first investigator sent out from Melbourne to look into the mystery aeroplane reports, as opposed to relying on local police inquiries, further underscoring the seriousness with which the possibility of a German presence is now being taken. But the actual reason why I cited Benson's letter in my article is for his account of this bizarre incident relating to the aerial search:

The aircraft have [sic] made several flights and it is the talk of the country for miles around. I have to report that whilst the machine was enroute for Yarram she was hit by a bullet .303 and the only place she was likely to be hit was at Welshpool rifle range. There was a match on at the time and she was flying very low over that position. The crew consisted of Captain McNamara, V.C. and W.O. Hendy at the time. I saw Lieut. Lempieiere and he told me she was hit. We have made enquiries but up to the present have not arrived at any definite result. At one time the machine was low down behind the stop butt and it is quite possible that a bullet glanced off the stout railings that are on top of it and struck the plane. I do not think it was the intention of anybody to fire at it because the majority of them were highly excited at seeing the machine.

So while the aerial searchers never saw combat, because there was no enemy, they nevertheless did come under friendly fire -- and from a civilian at that! Still, the response is interesting in that it is quite level-headed: it's investigated, of course, but nobody seems to have assumed it was anything untoward. It's just a bit farcical.

Finally, I cite another document from this day in my article: NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 211 is a copy of a letter from 'M.', the Staff Paymaster [i.e. George Macandie] to the Intelligence Section, General Staff, 3rd Military District. It really just repeats same information about the Ballarat West sighting (and piece of metal) from yesterday's censor telegram, and so I'm not sure why I needed to cite a different document. True, it's from a different, more senior source, and here I am interested in the report itself, rather than the censorship; but I don't use it to say anything much about that. Perhaps it was a relic from an early draft.

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  1. Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorised Australia and the Southern Oceans in the First World War (North Sydney: William Heinemann, 2009), 87-88. []

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