Tuesday, 30 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.

E. L. Piesse, 30 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 491 and 492 is a letter from Major E. L. Piesse, Director of Military Intelligence, to the Navy Office, informing them of the progress of the Army's aerial reconnaissance of south Gippsland. Unfortunately,

The aeroplane used in this reconnaissance has been unserviceable since 24th inst. No information has yet been received as to when this aeroplane can fly again.

More interestingly (and the reason why I cite this in my article), Piesse includes extracts from the reports made by 'the O/C [Officer Commanding] Air Reconnaissance' (Captain Frank McNamara VC), who apparently has not been given any detailed instructions as to what he should be looking for and accordingly has come up with his own criteria. Over the sea, the general idea is to 'Examine decks of all boats which may be capable of carrying a seaplane'. The bigger the vessel the more attention it receives:

  1. 'Fishing craft': report location only
  2. 'Small steamers or wind propelled craft': 'Report time, position, direction of steering, description'
  3. 'Ships of higher tonnage': as above, 'but examine more closely, particularly the decks'

Any ships passing in sight of the Wilson's Promontory lighthouse will be reported 'and when AEROPLANE-SHIP RECOGNITION SIGNAL has been arranged there will be an additional check'. If the enemy is sighted, then

Upon seeing hostile ship, aeroplane, or submarine, we will be able to convey information rapidly to ground station or ship, provided the distance is not beyond range. (A W/T set is being got ready to fit to the machine).

In the case of 'Floating mines', 'action taken, time, position' would be reported. In the case of 'Hostile aircraft', 'Engagement with which would be reported on COMBAT-IN-THE-AIR REPORT' (!) Finally, a lookout is being kept for 'SIGNALLING by persons of enemy sympathy', whether to 'hostile ships' or 'hostile aircraft', paying close attention to 'changes in the distribution of smoke fires' and 'ground on which [signal?] strips etc. could be seen from the air'. So these ad hoc criteria tell us what the airmen, at least, were looking for. It's interesting that submarines are mentioned, as these have previously been mentioned in connection with the aerial reconnaissance; but there are one or two phantom ones lurking about.

In my article I cite no less than three other documents originating on this date, which is statistically about right since this is around about the peak of the panic. All of them are mystery aeroplane reports, two of them from eyewitness accounts, one which I quote at length as an example of a typical sighting. NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 233 is a copy of a statement by Harry Macdonald, a South Yarra mechanic:

On the 21st April 1918, with my wife I was satying [sic] at my wife’s uncle’s place, Mornington Junction, and from 9.15 to 10.30 p.m. standing at the side of Mr Clipperton’s place watching towards over Langwarrin Camp, I saw an object at a low altitude over the camp, then this object travelled out to sea towards Port Phillip Bay. This object was emitting intermitent [sic] flashes of red, green, and white light, with a flash; sometimes a few seconds elapsed between these flashes, and sometimes up to 2 or 3 minutes. The altitude varied considerably, the low altitude appeared near the water, and then it would rise and appeared to come towards us and then would go away. I cannot give any information regarding noise.

The multicoloured flashing sounds exactly like a star coming up over the horizon. However, even given a specific time and place, it's hard to say for sure which one it was, without knowing where his wife's uncle's or Mr Clipperton's places were (and hence the directions involved). My best guess would be Achernar, low on the southern horizon (and hence in the direction of the sea).

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 236 and 237 is a statement by Emily Bell, 'a married woman, 62 years of age', of 10 Empress Avenue, West Footscray (though this street is now in Kingsville). At 3am on 25 April 1918, sleepless from a pain in her leg, she 'heard something making a noise like a motor bike [...] travelling very fast'.

I got up and looked out of my bedroom window. I saw an aeroplane flying very low down, and going in the same direction as the street in which I reside goes, viz, towards the Geelong road, and about over the Williamstown road.

It was carrying a very bright light in front, and I could see a seat just at the back of the machine. I could not see anyone on the machine. It travelled on and then turned towards the right.

I watched it until the light on it appeared like a big star a good distance up in the sky. I then lost sight of the light and could only hear a very slight noise.

There then follows a rather puzzling passage about how neither she nor her husband knows any police or even where the local police stations are, which is only partly explained by a comment on the accompanying police report (NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 235) that her husband had told 'the Military authorities that he had no time for the police'. The report itself describes Bell as 'a fairly intelligent old lady and apparently respectable'. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that what she saw was Venus, which rose shortly after 3am in the east (which fits with her description of the time, direction and the light); what she heard probably was what it sounded like, a motor bike, as she was near several major roads which even at 3am would have seen intermittent traffic.

Finally, NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 984, 985 and 986 are a copy of a report from Captain W. S. Hinton, Intelligence Section, 2nd Military District (i.e. New South Wales) to the Director of Military Intelligence, on the subject of 'Aeroplanes in the vicinity of Sydney Harbour'. He's following up on an earlier communication about multiple mystery aeroplanes seen by multiple witnesses at Hunters Hill. At about 5.40 or 5.45pm, Mrs Mackie was the first to hear, then see

four aeroplanes circling round, about one mile away. She watched them for a time and saw them at intervals in dense black smoke which obscured them from view for a little while.

She then pointed out the aircraft to Mr Moore, 'an ex-Officer in the Navy', his son and two daughters and they all 'watched the planes until they disappeared about 6.10 p.m.' Moore estimated that 'they were circling [...] about 5,000 to 6,000 feet high and appeared to be about two miles distant [...] The evening was a very clear one and there was not a cloud to be seen'.

Mr. Moore states definitely that they were Biplanes, with butterfly shaped wings, which gave them the appearance of huge insects. When these aeroplanes banked he got a good view of them and they appeared to be of a different construction to our machines. They were too far away to distinguish whether they were seaplanes or not. They appeared to be fitted some smoke producing apparatus, which discharged a dense black screen obscuring them until they moved beyond it.

The aeroplanes were last seen 'going West, which is in the direction of Liverpool, flying in double file. When about nine miles distant another smoke cloud was discharged, which hid them from view'. At 6pm, a third, independent witness, Mrs Knowles of Cremorne, saw 'six aeroplanes flying over Neutral Bay Gas Works', which Hinton estimated would be in about the same position as the aircraft seen by Mackie and Moore. Her account was confirmed by her guests, Mr and Mrs Welsey-Smith, the first of which 'had observed these planes through a pair of glasses and he alleges there were six planes'. None of the military or naval authorities who were contacted by the witnesses, at Victoria Barracks, Cockatoo Island or Spectacle Island, saw any aeroplanes, though using binoculars one saw 'one appeared to him to be small clouds'. Another aeroplane was reported by 'a Signaller' that evening over Newcastle, well to the north; another 'Signaller' saw one from Cockatoo Island on Monday night. An aeral 'reconnaissance' was made on Monday morning:

Lieutenant Stutt flew over Sydney along the Coast to about half way to Newcastle then down South from Sydney about ten miles. He returned about 9.30 a.m. and reported that he had been unable to see anything of a suspicious nature and that he had a view for about thirty miles out to sea.

Stutt flew from the only likely source of aeroplanes in the Sydney area, the state government aerodrome at Richmond, but nobody had 'been fifteen miles from Richmond for the last three months'. Hinton's conclusion is that 'as a precautionary measure it would seem well to assume that there were planes'. This seems reasonable given the multiple, independent witnesses; but nobody else could see anything (except clouds) even when being told where to look. Moore's status as a former naval officer means he probably would be unlikely to be confused by common natural phenomena (definitely not astronomical here; perhaps meteorological or ornithological), but unless he had served within the last few years he wouldn't have had any experience with aviation, and his estimates of height and distance should be taken with a grain of salt. (His initials are given elsewhere as 'A. K.' and he is presumably the A. K. Moore who was then 'Joint Hon. Secretary, Navy League'. There's a photo of what is probably him taken at Dartmouth in 1872, presumably as a cadet; I assume he never rose very high in the ranks, as he is always referred to as 'Mr'.) The 'smoke producing apparatus' is puzzling -- unless they were in fact clouds.

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