Adelaide Twist, 18 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 138 is a statement made by Adelaide Twist, a bookkeeper from Macarthur in the Western District of Victoria, to Mounted Constable J. C. Pickett. She states that on 11 May 1918 she and her sister were walking home at about midnight, and

Just as we were about to go in our gate my sister noticed one big light in the sky, and drew my attention to it. This light at first was very faint and afterwards became much brighter. This light appeared to move about and then a similar light appeared. I should say the second light was about 100 yards distant from the first. They then came closer together, I should say half-a-dozen yards apart. They then appeared to get higher and closer and more brilliant. They then became very faint, one went to the left towards Portland and the other disappeared. My sister and I watched these lights for about ten minutes [...] I should say the lights were twenty or thirty times larger than stars.

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 139 is the statement of her sister, Maud Twist, a music teacher (their white collar occupations are why I cite this report in my article). It broadly matches Adelaide's statement, but there are some discrepancies, most glaringly that 'The lights I did not notice come any closer to one another', a direct contradiction. Where Adelaide says Maud was the first to see the light, Maud says that when she remarked 'What is that peculiar light in the sky?', Adelaide's response was 'I was just looking at that'. Maud also provides some additional information (or remembers things differently):

Both lights appeared to be moving about and one in particular seemed to be coming straight towards us. These lights were not as brilliant as motor car lights [...] I did not hear any sound, only the wind blowing.

Both women note that there was lightning about that night, but were certain that that was not what they had seen; Maud adds that 'The lights appeared too brilliant and were moving [so] that satisfied me they were not stars'. Nor they say they thought they had seen aeroplanes; however, in Pickett's earlier report (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 136), he says that 'they were under the impression that as the lights were travelling they were from aeroplanes'.
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J. M. Jenkin, 16 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 842 is a copy of a statement by Joseph Jenkin, a farmer from (or near) Woomelang, witnessed by Mounted Constable J. C. Thornton, Victoria Police. It reads:

that at about 8 a.m. on 11th May 1918 I was inside my house gettinh [sic] ready to go to Woomelang when I heard a noise similar to that of a motor car which seemed to be quite close to the house. I went outside to see who it was and what they wanted; but could not see a motor-car in sight, I can see a distance of about 1 mile in any direction from my house and am posively [sic] sure that there was not a motor-car about. I did not think to look into the sky for an aeroplane, but I now feel confident that it was one. At 9.5 a.m. on the same day I again heard the noise which did not last for quite a minute. I looked again to see a motor car approaching but could not see one in sight. I put my horse in the gig & went to Woomelang and there were no fresh motor car tracks on any of the roads. On my way home I took particular notice of the cross roads and could not see any fresh motor car tracks. The first noise I heard lasted a little longer than the second and both sounded alike which sounded like a motor engine being eased off. If there had been a motor car on the road the tracks would have been conspicuous as there had been rain during the night previous.

Thornton also took statements (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 841) from three other Woomelang residents, John Kelly, who had also heard an engine at the same time as Jenkin without being able to see the source, and Alice Ussing and Mary Harper, who at 8.45pm the night before independently saw a bright light to the south, high above the ground. (Achernar was setting then to the south, but maybe Canopus, at about 40 or so degrees above the horizon, fits 'high'.)

In my article, I use Jenkin's statement as evidence for the thought process witnesses might have gone through when seeing or, as in this case, hearing something unusual. It's clear that the sound of a combustion engine was sufficiently unusual in a rural area like this for Jenkin to go outside to look when he heard one; but equally, he was familiar enough with motor cars to know what their tyre tracks looked like. So they were not all that rare, just uncommon. Conversely, aeroplanes were almost literally unimaginable: Jenkin didn't at first that the engine noise could be coming from the sky, so he didn't look there. Kelly, his neighbour, said much the same thing. In fact, as Thornton's own report (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 843 to 844) reveals, it was only after discussing the mysterious sound with each other that 'They afterwards came to the conclusion and now believe that the noise was that of an Aeroplane passing'. Similarly, neither Ussing nor Harper seem to have thought that the light they each saw was anything to do with an aeroplane at the time; it seems that it was only 'after hearing what Mr Jenkins [sic] had said' that they came forward with their information (though Harper, at least, did think it sufficiently strange at the time to point out to her husband). So 'hearing/seeing an aeroplane' in this case was a social construction, a mutual conclusion arrived at after the fact through peer discussion.

K. O. Mackenzie, 13 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 325 through 327, is a report from Lieutenant K. O. Mackenzie RANB (Royal Australian Naval Brigade), though in fact the bulk of it is his rendering of a statement made by James Aitken, a 'mail contractor' from Waratah Bay, regarding an aeroplane he had seen at Cape Liptrap on the Gippsland coast:

on 25th April [1917] at 12-45, p m, was having dinner at Cape Liptrap Lighthouse. I saw what looked like a seaplane about a mile seaward having a long torpedo shaped body of grey colour, weather was hazy with no sun. When heading towards me the seaplane was hard to see; looked like a beer barrel, two wings on either side being difficult to see when end on, at times looked to have a long tail [...] He appeared to keep close along shore flying low; at times he went up about six hundred feet judging by height of Lighthouse which is 210 feet high. Could not make out figure in seaplane - he turned very rapidly and when rising sent out black smoke [...] he was in view for about 25 minutes - lost sight of him at ten past one.

All very interesting. I could go on, and when I started writing this post I did. But this report is not from 1918 but 1917. Why is it here at all?
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Frank Shann, 12 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 202 is a letter from Frank Shann, headmaster of Trinity Grammar School, Kew (a suburb of Melbourne), to Commander F. G. Cresswell (the Navy's Director of Radio Service -- no connection to Rear Admiral W. R. Creswell, the Navy's senior officer). Shann is reporting 'an extraordinary and possibly suspicious occurrence':

One night during the week ending the 4th May [1918], I think on the night of the 3rd, my wife observed from the window of our bedroom, which faces nearly due south, what appeared to be a search light being operated from a point approximately at the corner of Riversdale and Glenferrie Roads [Hawthorn]. The light appeared to be used for the purpose of signalling, but as I do not understand the morse or any signalling code, I was unable to make anything out. On that occasion the light was turned towards my house on one or two occassions only. The time of the occurrence was about 3 a.m.

Shann observed something similar on two subsequent occasions: at about the same time on [I infer] 11 May, 'when all lights along the Prahran and Malvern Tramways and along the Hawthorn Tramways lines were out, and only the main lights at the principal intersections remained', and at 2.10am last night [presumably meaning the morning of 12 May] 'a similar light appeared on the southern horizon apparently just to the right of the Malvern Town Hall [...] but the signalling seemed to ease with the coming of a heavy rain storm'. It reappeared again at 4am 'when Mrs Shann was attending to baby's bottle'. Shann has been in touch with Cresswell about these signals before, and has promised to call him when he sees them; he did so on the second occasion, which since it was early in the morning suggests that they might have known each other socially (Cresswell lives about 1.5 miles away, as NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 203 reveals).
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HB64, 11 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 668 through 671 is a copy of Directorate of Military Intelligence report HB64, 'Aircraft, lights and objects reported seen in the air -- summary and appreciation no. 4'. It is a continuation of the last such 'summary and appreciation' HB56 of a week ago. But whereas HB56 was 17 pages long, HB64 has just 4 pages, a sign either of a lack of new information, or a lack of interest, or both. (The next and final report in this series, HB68, will make it to just over 3 pages: see NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 660 through 663. The Navy War Staff's parallel series of aeroplane sighting catalogues -- sans analysis -- which began on 25 April at page 615, ended on 8 May at page 600.) It contains summaries of 12 new aeroplane reports, including that from Kongwak (no. 68), and updates on 4 earlier sightings. (It's actually as source for one of the new sightings, when W. A. R. Cave 'saw a sea-plane fly over HOBART' back on on 30 April 1918, that I cite this document in my article.)

The last page of HB64 contains further information and some analysis. A summary of the 'air reconnaissances along the Coast' is provided: these were 'In the vicinity of WILSON'S PROMONTORY' on 4 and 5 May, and 'In the vicinity of TATHRA, NEW SOUTH WALES' on 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 May. Not only has 'No sign of any aircraft or suspicious vessel' been found, but 'The aircraft making these reconnaissances have now been withdrawn'.

The 'Commonwealth Weather Bureau' has examined the weather conditions 'at the various places from which reports have been received', 'but no information of any assistance has been obtained'. This sounds a bit harsh, but what it presumably means is that the weather conditions are no help in ruling out mystery aeroplane sightings, since 'With scarcely an exception', it was always flyable.

Finally, the 'appreciation' section of HB64 merely notes that 4 of the reports from HB56 now 'may be regarded as unreliable or as explained', and of the new reports,

Most of these are of similar character to those discussed in previous Appreciations. Inquiry is in progress into those which seem to require it.

And that's all. So definitely a lack of interest, then.

C. Kingsford Smith, 10 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 997 is a copy of a report from 2nd Lieutenant C. Kingsford Smith RFC on 'investigations made at Gosford and Terrigal, re aircraft seen there at night'. Kingsford Smith has been sent up from Sydney on the basis of his experience as a pilot on the Western Front. His account can largely be divided in two parts. First, there is his account of what other people said they'd seen, including 'Miss Moir, who subsequently impressed me as being very reliable' and

who stated that she distinctly heard the noise of an engine, and on a previous occasion saw a light in the air travelling fairly rapidly and flashing (probably signalling in Morse Code) and an answering signal from a hill near the coast, and a little north of Terrigal. The position of Miss Moir's house is extremely favorable as a lookout Station.

as well as Mr Wood, 'who is in charge of the Boy's Reformatory' and who

asserts that about 4 weeks ago, the whole of the staff and inmates were awakened by the noise of an engine passing overhead. The [Gosford Police] Sergeant informed me that Mr. Wood has an excellent reputation and is absolutely dependable.

Then there are Kingsford Smith's own observations, especially the one made from Terrigal Beach 'opposite Mr. Lewis's house':

At 2.30 a.m. [8 May 1918] I saw what was extremely like a white Verey [sic] light fired from a point about 3000 feet up and a mile north of us. At the same time I saw a small black object rapidly going inland. I could hear no sound as the Surf there drowns any other local noises. I would not attach any grave importance to this episode, as I know how easily one can be deceived at night by falling meteorites, and passing birds, but I certainly think it was a machine. We were not in a position to see any answering ground light.

Kingsford Smith's conclusion is that

There is most certainly a foundation for all these reports, and I think that someone should be stationed in that locality (for a couple of weeks or more) who has some experience in connection with aircraft and observation.

In my article I cite Kingsford Smith's report primarily, I admit, because of his later fame as a pioneer aviator, but also for his open-minded conclusion as a counterpoint to the scepticism of Sickerdick and Edwards, the latter of whom was, like Kingsford Smith, an RFC officer (though whether a pilot or not I'm not sure). But as I've gone into Kingsford Smith's experiences as well as the previous Terrigal sightings -- including the suspicious ubiquity of Miss Moir and Gunner McNaughton -- in much more detail previously, I'll say no more here.

Anonymous, 9 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 457 is a copy of a telegram sent from the Navy Office to the Admiralty, London; Commander in Chief, China; Senior Naval Officer, Wellington; and Captain in Charge, Sydney. It reads:

Majority of aircraft reports have proved to have no foundation. No definite proof of existence of aircraft obtained. Exhaustive enquiries have failed to trace any indication of raider or inland organisation. Many flights made by Military aircraft but nothing suspicious seen.

Consider that news of initial reports in spreading caused people to anticipate aircraft thus stimulating imagination.

In addition, the following telegram has been sent to SNO Wellington and Garden [Island], Sydney: 'Orders for [merchant] vessels to navigate without lights are cancelled'.

Like the telegram sent to the Admiralty on 27 April, this is also big, but for the opposite reason: whereas the previous message informed London of possible enemy activity in Australia, this one is saying 'You know what, don't worry about that, it's all fine, actually'. Clearly this follows on from the scepticism expressed in the last military intelligence analysis, HB56, which seems to have only strengthened in the subsequent five days. While the investigations are still continuing -- there's an out, in that only the majority of reports are baseless -- this date can probably be safely regarded as the end of the mystery aeroplane panic, as far as the government is concerned; which is of course why I cite it in my article.

When discussing the earlier telegram, I idly wondered how to interpret the numbers after 'Time Signal or [number]'. Comparing the numbers here, it's pretty obvious: they are just the number of telegrams sent to that particular recipient since some date (the start of the war? ever?) So this is the 303rd telegram sent from the Navy Office to the Admiralty; the previous one was the 292nd. Which should have been obvious!


HB56, 4 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 674 through 690 is a copy of Directorate of Military Intelligence report HB56, 'Aircraft, lights and objects reported seen in the air -- summary and appreciation no. 3'. It is a continuation of the first such 'summary and appreciation' HB53 of nearly a week ago (no. 2 was an interim update issued on 30 April 1918; see NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 694 through 699). It includes summaries (by my count) of 21 new mystery aeroplane reports made in that time, including several at Terrigal and Casterton, and some already discussed, West Footscray (no. 35), Mornington Junction (no. 43), Hunter's Hill/Cremorne (no. 51 -- an extraordinarily long summary, fully 2 pages instead of the usual few sentences), Newcastle (no. 52) and Cockatoo Island (no. 54). There are also updates on earlier cases, including Nyang and Ouyen (based on the investigation made by Sickerdick and Edwards); Terrigal ('there is a small beach near TERRIGAL where a seaplane might land'; written comment: 'Why should a seaplane land on a beach?'); Macarthur ('The spot on which an aeroplane was reported to have landed has been visited and has been found to be a most unsuitable place for a night landing'); Toora ('The informant is reported to drink heavily and consistently').
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Sam. R. Dawson, 2 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 33 is a copy of a letter from Sam. R. Dawson, 'Roseneath', Meerlieu, Victoria, to 'The Military Officer' at Sale:

I notice by the papers that persons are asked to report any aeroplanes seen to the nearest military officer.

On the 22nd. March we heard an aeroplane which seemed to be going east but the weather was too cloudy to see it, on the night of 2nd. April, we heard a plane and saw flashes of light at intervals going west on the morning of 4th. April we again saw an aeroplane going West yesterday afternoon [1 May 1918] one passed over also going west and making a tremendous noise such as a motor-car makes when stuck up or has heavy going this was about 4.30 in afternoon and last night 1 a.m. we heard another which seemed to be going east.

In my article, I use this as an example of an aeroplane heard shortly after Constable Wright's encounter at Nyang; in fact, if the date given is accurate then it must have been before his claim hit the press. But Dawson (a grazier) has only reported it nearly six weeks later; hearing and even seeing other aeroplanes in the weeks that followed evidently didn't make him think to tell the authorities about it. So even if he's got the date right, he presumably wasn't very alarmed about it at the time -- that is, did not think it was the enemy -- but also, quite possibly, did not think it was an aeroplane at all until later. It's only this last aeroplane sighting along with a call in the press to report sightings that has prompted him to take action.

Meerlieu (so small it doesn't even get a Wikipedia page) is in the Gippsland Lakes region, near the coast. It seems likely that the last aeroplane seen was the Army's one out searching for raiders: according to NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 488, 'Air reconnaissance report no. 5', it was indeed flying that afternoon and would have been returning from Lakes Entrance to Yarram, along which line Meerlieu lies, roughly (except that according to the flight log at the time specified by Dawson the aircraft was actually over Stradbroke, probably about 50km further along the flight path). The first ones in March and April, however, definitely was not; nor was the one heard in the early hours of this morning. By differentiating between 'real' sightings and 'false' sightings, it might be possible to get a better handle on the role played in these reports by imagination and expectation. Maybe?


F. W. Sickerdick, 1 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 849 through 854 is a report from Detective F. W. Sickerdick of Victoria Police (seconded to military intelligence for the duration, possibly due to German descent) to Major F. V. Hogan of the Intelligence Section, General Staff. Sickerdick had been ordered by Hogan to travel with Lieutenant A. Edwards of the Royal Flying Corps (though it should be Royal Air Force by now. Thanks to his common name, I've not been able to trace him; perhaps an airman invalided home?) to investigate the mystery aeroplane sighting that started this whole panic, the one by Constable Wright at Nyang back on 21 March. Sickerdick and Edwards left Melbourne on 13 April and spent two weeks scouring the Mallee for corroborating evidence, talking not only to Wright himself but seemingly every potential witness they could find in Ouyen, Walpeup, Nyang, Underbool, Pink Lakes, Yellingip, Paigney, Tiega, Sea Lake, Ararat... in other words, they were very thorough. They did find some other people who had seen strange things in the air:

  • Mrs Tilley at Ouyen: 'it had one pair of wings and a very long tail'
  • four 'boys' (some were young men) playing tennis at Ouyen: 'I could see 2 wings, and something like a tail'
  • a 16 year girl at Walpeup: it 'had a red light flying at the back, and appeared to have two white side lights'
  • Mrs McDonald at Ararat: 'an object circling'

Several people also heard odd noises, but did not see anything.
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