Mock attack!

The first real air raid on Australia was against Darwin on 19 February 1942. I don't know when the first fake air raid on Australia was, but there was one against Melbourne on 14 October 1929:

An aerial attack was made on Melbourne to-day by a group of seagull [sic] machines, which had been sent up from the aircraft carrier, Albatross. Overcoming opposition from a fleet of land 'planes, the raiders dropped several bombs, scoring vital hits, according to the attackers. The attack was part of air force exercises. The Albatross was outside the Heads, when the Seagull machines were depatched [sic], and three of these machines managed to reach the city, in spite of the efforts of 'planes from Point Cook aerodrome.1

A more detailed (but harder to read) account reveals that that Albatross, representing a 'hostile seaplane carrier' outside Port Phillip Heads, launched a force of six Supermarine Seagulls and one Wackett Widgeon, which was sighted by a defending Supermarine Southampton off Brighton. The attackers were intercepted by aircraft from Point Cook, but

three broke through and flew over Melbourne from the direction of Port Melbourne, circling over Victoria Barracks and turning back to sea from a point presumably above Princes Bridge.2

A later newspaper report suggested that 'Under war conditions, the city would have suffered many casualties'.3 The official result of the exercise does not seem to have been published in the press, but it seems like it might have been fudged in favour of the defenders:

Bringing 1929 to a close, Albatross took part in a combined RAN-RAAF exercise in Port Phillip Bay in October. The point of this exercise was to test the carrier in making an air raid, along with assessing the efficiency of RAAF cooperation with Navy in repelling a seaborne air attack. According to reports on the exercise, the defence against the carrier attack was only successful because scouting Southamptons set off from Point Cook, without orders, some time before warning was actually received of approaching enemy aircraft. In fact, as noted by the CO of No. 1 FTS, aerial patrols had failed to sight the approaching naval force. Strikes had then been mounted against these ships off Frankston, involving Moths (representing single-seat fighters) and Wapitis. One RAAF pilot whose part in the scheme entailed simply flying over the Melbourne dock area probably summed up the feelings of many of those involved when he noted in his log-book that the exercise was 'A farce—nothing done or to see'.4.

There was something of a vogue from the late 1920s for mock air raids on large cities. The RAF's Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB), the precursor to Fighter Command, held annual exercises from 1927 simulating an attack on London's defences. For example, in 1931

Three hundred fighting aeroplanes, including giant night bombers, the world's fastest day bombers, single-seater fighters, multi-engined biplanes, capable of carrying four tons of bombs, and fighters flying at 220 miles an hour, will attack and defend London during an air 'war' lasting a week, which will begin on Monday [20 July 1931]. The attackers' force from 'Blue Land,' a hypothetical Continental power, will attack 'Red Land,' of which London is the capital. The attackers' plans are a secret, but it is known that the first move will be a determined and powerful onslaught aiming at achieving the maximum damage.5

Territorials with sound detectors, special constables with searchlights, and 'a squadron of the defending fighters' would attempt to defeat 'the invaders 5,000 feet above St. Paul's Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and the House of Commons'.6 Suburbanites were said to be already 'complaining against the anticipated noise'.6

Meanwhile, in the United States:

The city was a target to-day [9 May 1930] for 131 bombing and fighting planes of the United States Navy, which engaged in a theoretical raid to reveal how vulnerable New York is from the air. Huge triple-englned Martin bombers, each capable of bearing tons of high explosives, lesser bombing 'planes, battle 'planes for the protection of these, and swift pursuit 'planes to drive off attacking enemy 'planes, participated in manoeuvres over Times Square. The armada swept southward, carrying out theoretical attacks elsewhere on its way to berths aboard the aeroplane carriers Lexington, Langley, and Saratoga, at Hampton Roads, Virginia.7

These kinds of exercises were designed -- at least sometimes -- to be serious tests of air defence systems.8 But in taking place over large cities, they were also highly public events, which air forces and newspapers both capitalised upon for their mutual benefit. So, these air exercises were therefore also aerial theatre.

By their nature, air exercises are inherently militarised -- except when they are not. Because (in parallel fashion to the militarisation of air displays) where air forces were absent or unwilling, mock air raids could be carried out by civilian aircraft, in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of the nation's air defences. One example might be the mysterious aeroplane which dived on Hobart in July 1938. A better one is the simulated attack on Brisbane on 16 May 1930:

A practical and most realistic demonstration of the havoc that could be wrought by an air raid was given to Brisbane residents last night when six mock 'bombs,' dropped from a single aeroplane, recorded imaginary hits in the heart of the city [...] The 'plane, an Avro-Avian, piloted by Captain Ronald Adair, left Eagle Farm aerodrome about 8 o'clock, just after the moon had risen, but long before that hour the defending detachment from the 15th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant W. E. G. Roberts, was stationed on top of the Heindorff building in Queen-street, with anti-aircraft machines ready for action. Three searchlights were in use, the most powerful one, with a range of a mile, being controlled by Mr. H. Anderson, of the Regent staff.9

The only formal military involvement here was the Militia detachment; there was no RAAF aerodrome in Queensland at this time (and would not be until the end of the decade). Adair was a civilian pilot (though ex-AFC) with his own aeroplane, and the 'powerful' searchlight was on top of the Regent Cinema, which had arranged the whole stunt in order to publicise its screening of a film about the Zeppelin raids on London, The Sky Hawk! Nevertheless, the exercise seems to have been taken seriously by the participants:

the roof was a scene of tense activity. To the soldiers this was no matter for joking. They were living through a period of grave danger, and they forgot the mockery in the stark reality of the situation. They realised, also, that theirs was the distinction of 'defending' an Australian City from 'enemy' aircraft for the first time in its history.6

The public seems to have been entertained, at least:

Crowds of people were viewing the spectacle in the city and suburbs, Queen-street being particularly crowded, and Captain Adair gave them their thrill by disclosing his whereabouts from time to time.6

The militia didn't have permission to fire blanks from its Vickers, but

distinct hits were recorded by means of a special sighting device. This, however, was simply a process of deduction with little basis for proof, and it had to be admitted that the honours for the night were with the aviator.6

Adair indeed seemed to evade the searchlights with ease, and found the city at his mercy:

He fired Verey lights, where he considered direct 'hits' were possible, over the heart of the city, over the Town Hall, the Trades Hall, the power house at New Farm, the Shell petrol dump, Central Railway Station, and the city wharves. The T. and G. Buildings and the post office offered open targets.6

Coincidentally, or not, on 13 May Air Commodore Richard Williams, Chief of the Air Staff, had given a speech in Melbourne where he said that 'a 'plane of the type of Kingsford Smith's could take off from a Pacific Island owned by an enemy Power, bomb Brisbane, and return again non-stop'.10 He added (with considerable exaggeration) that 'No troops could be landed in Australian territory until the Air Force was defeated', and that (much more accurately) 'He wished the Australian people to take an interest in the Air Force'.6 It's possible that this was the inspiration for Adair's raid on Brisbane on behalf of the Regent, though three days' notice seems a bit tight (unless they had advanced warning of Williams' speech...) Either way, the RAAF didn't have to perform all the aerial theatre on its own behalf: it seems that civilian pliots were eager to help.

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  1. Townsville Daily Bulletin, 16 October 1929, 4. []
  2. Herald (Melbourne), 14 October 1929, 1. []
  3. The Call (Perth), 25 October 1929, 1. []
  4. C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother: the Royal Australian Air Force 1921-39 (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991), 218. []
  5. West Australian (Perth), 20 July 1931, 9. []
  6. Ibid. [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  7. The Queenslander (Brisbane), 15 May 1930, 22. []
  8. See John Ferris, John, 'Fighter defence before Fighter Command: the rise of strategic air defence in Great Britain, 1917-1934', Journal of Military History 63, no. 4 (1999): 845-884. []
  9. Brisbane Courier, 17 May 1930, 10. []
  10. Warwick Daily News, 14 May 1930, 1. []

2 thoughts on “Mock attack!

  1. Fascinating stuff. The 'Seagulls' would be Supermarine Seagull III type ( ) which did a good deal of other useful work for Australia, and were one of the key types in the tug of war between the Royal Australian Navy and the newer Royal Australian Air Force, about control of Australian naval or marine aviation.

    The Seagulls, a few years in service, had just been deployed with the newly commissioned HMAS Albatross in 1929, so perhaps this was also a factor in the timing of the event. It's worth mentioning that the Seagulls were generally launched and retrieved by Albatross from the water, and that needed to be sheltered or calm, their hydrodynamic qualities being very limited.

    Obviously the whole exercise was highly theoretical, but if it is to be analysed the payload of the 'attacking' aircraft matters - the Seagull III was never armed with bombs, not intended as a bomber to attack a defended target, but a general purpose type. It could, of course have been bombed up (requiring some kind of sighting device, notoriously inaccurate until mid World War Two; racks, release gear, et cetera) but in reality the payload would've been small (I've not found any meaningful numbers that could make a bomb load for the type, and that would've also been progressively reduced by greater distances flown for the attack) and the bombs of the period were highly inefficient. What is certain, with hindsight on the technologies and capabilities of the time is that even a complete surprise attack would've had very limited physical effect, and the argument that the Seagulls were just stand-ins for more serious attackers breaks down on the question of 'what types, from where?'. Few genuine bomber types of 1929 could do much real damage, and there's no conceivable type with the range from a 'hostile' base (outside the texts of thrillers) that could have attacked mainland Australia then, or until the real attacks did happen. On the other hand, it's also certain there was no real chance of any meaningful defence, perhaps the fundamental point.

    As with most of these exercises throughout military aviation history, much theatre, much propaganda by the interested parties, and very little meaningful data.

  2. Post author

    Thanks for that. It would be interesting to see what the 'lessons learned', if any were; but it's clear that this was a pretty notional simulation of an attack from Japanese carriers? mystery raiders? Excercises like this can be useful, rather than reinforcing preconceptions, but they need to be carried out methodically and repeatedly -- the ADGB exercises are a good example of that, judging from the analysis by Ferris.

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