A conspiracy of boodlers

The default explanation for the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 was a conspiracy theory:

they were enemy aircraft, deployed by German merchant raiders operating off the Australian coast, or perhaps flying from secret aerodromes deep in the bush. Either way they were thought to be collaborating with German spies on shore, as evidenced by the lights sometimes seen flashing signals out to sea. It was feared that Germany was undertaking reconnaissance in preparation for an attack of some kind, perhaps on shipping or even on the nation’s cities and industries.1

If you didn't buy this -- and after all, it wasn't actually true -- then what other explanations were there? Well, you might find a different conspiracy theory to be attractive: that the mystery aeroplanes had been faked by the Australian government on behalf of corrupt politicians and profiteering manufacturers.

That, at least, is the suggestion made in a letter to the editor of the Windsor and Richmond Gazette published on 3 May, just after the peak of the panic. The letter is signed 'Oxbro' (which seems to be an old nickname for the Hawkesbury district northwest of Sydney). Oxbro begins by noting an apparent contradiction:

Rumours are flying round about aeroplanes having been seen over Sydney and as far inland as Parramatta and the police have been so notified. Yet the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Navy, Messrs. Hughes and Cook leave for England either just before or coincidentally with the appearance and report of aeroplanes, seaplanes, and cruisers off the coast, etc.2

Oxbro has questions (though not as many question marks):

Now, as an ordinary man in the street, I ask myself--if all these dangers are about away out to sea, are not Mr. Hughes and Sir Robert Garran, and the two other accompanying and highly-paid Federal Civil Servants, wondrously brave men to brave these dangers on the latter's own particular ocean--or is the whole 'fake' about the aeroplanes, etc. etc. a transparent attempt to give the 'boodler' some sort of a shadow of an excuse for mobilisation for home defence and the never-to-be-overlooked consequent profits to the 'boodlers'.3

A 'boodler' is a corrupt politician, and indeed Oxbro points to evidence of corruption and coverup in the military procurement process:

Are we to hear in years to come of another two millions [pounds] gone astray, and another hundred thousand expended on useless waggons, as appeared in the recent Military Report that was pigeonholed from November of last year [1917] till February of this. By the way, also, nothing was done about the £68,000 that went astrary in the military accounts.3

Particlarly suspect is 'Mr. Watt, the Melbourne politician' and acting prime minister in Hughes' absence, given that 'a Forty-two Million [pound war] Loan has been successfully made; and is not Melbourne to get some of it for uniforming'? (Ibid.) Oxbrow implies that the boodlers, having missed out on profiteering from 'those whom they would have conscripted for over-sea service' (i.e. if the second conscription plebiscite the previous December had not failed), are now 'fixing up those that they can and intend to "mobilise for home defence."'3 Hence the need for a defence panic. And, by the way:

Query: How many aeroplanes are there at Point Cook, in Victoria?3

The answer would have been: not nearly enough and too remote to explain the vast majority of aeroplane sightings. (Oddly, Oxbro seems unaware that the the only other aerodrome in Australia, i.e. the NSW state aviation school at Richmond, was actually in the Hawkesbury district.) There was a mobilisation for home defence, but it was mainly limited to the deployment of units already in service rather than calling out the militia, so there doesn't seem to have been much opportunity for boodling. And, having access to then-secret files, we know what Oxbro could not: that military and naval intelligence were just as puzzled as to the origin of the mystery aeroplanes as everyone else -- until, that is, they weren't.

Oxbro's conspiracy theory is mild and sane when compared with some things some people believe today. For that matter, it's mild and sane compared with the idea that German spies were flying aeroplanes from secret bases in Gippsland. But in cases like these it's still usually safest to swing Hanlon's razor.

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  1. Brett Holman, 'Dreaming war: airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', History Australia 10, no. 2 (August 2013): 180–201, at 185; doi:10.1080/14490854.2013.11668467 (free: submitted version, before peer review). []
  2. Windsor and Richmond Gazette (NSW), 3 May 1918, 10. []
  3. Ibid. [] [] [] []

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