Post-blogging the 1918 mystery aeroplanes

George D. Warren, 18 November 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 416 is a report from Lieutenant Commander George D. Warren RANR, commanding officer, HMAS Coogee, a civilian coastal steamship requistioned by the Navy for use as a minesweeper. Warren is reporting on the results of his investigation of an aeroplane seen from a naval lookout on the northern end of King Island, a large island in Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania. This was seen back on 1 November, first one (NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 426):

Aeroplane sighted 3 50pm to day Victorian time steering south easterly direction skying [sic] very low distance away unc[e]rtain about 7 miles fairly strong wind blowing.

A second report gives a different time (NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 424):

aeroplane sighted 4.50 p.m. north east flying south east lost in clouds 4.58 p.m.

In fact this was originally interpreted as a second aeroplane, but the near-identical descriptions combined with the difference of an hour exactly suggests that this confusion resulted from the new institution of daylight savings time, in force on this date in Tasmana, to which King Island belongs, but not in Victoria, for some reason used as the time reference in the first report.
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P. J. Connolly, 3 June 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 836 is a report by Senior Constable P. J. Connolly regarding 'an aeroplane flying in a Westerly direction' seen at 9pm the previous evening at Charlton, in the Mallee region of Victoria, by William Bannon and no less than 'eight other farmers', who all saw the machine together:

One bright white light could be seen, and the [?] buzzing sound heard.

One of the witnesses, a returned soldier named Kenyon, claims 'that he 'is well used to aircraft, & in his opinion it was about twenty miles away'. Connolly has interviewed all the farmers, and 'they bear out Bannon's statement'. He has also 'wired Secretary of Navy Dept'.
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T. J. Wilson, 31 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 529 is a statement by Captain T. J. Wilson, master of the SS Koolonga, a merchant vessel plying the Newcastle-Port Pirie route. At 8.15pm on 26 May 1918, Koolonga was off Cape Willoughby, Kangaroo Island, South Australia; Wilson was on the bridge when, 'Casually looking aloft, he saw a dark square object, which he took to be an aeroplane'.

This is my single favourite mystery aeroplane sighting of the whole 1918 panic, mainly because of all the sailors swearing like sailors, which Wilson freely relayed in his statement, and Captain Fearnley, Senior Naval Officer Newcastle, just as freely censored in his report:

  • Nicolson, 3rd Officer: 'By C[hrist]! there's an aeroplane'
  • AB McKinnon: 'There's a b[lood]y Aeroplane!'
  • Elms, Chief Officer: 'God spare my days, that's a b[lood]y Aeroplane!'
  • Sullivan, 2nd Officer: 'That's an Aeroplane' (okay, that one's less colourful, but he was called up from his cabin to the bridge in his pyjamas, so perhaps he wasn't quite awake yet)

I was so amused by Elms's exclamation in particular that not only did I quote it in my article as an example of an aeroplane sighting, I used it as a section heading too. But more seriously, especially when taken together like this, like the conversation of the four boys at Ouyen these excited utterances speak to the immediate responses of witnesses: they were startled, amazed, stupefied by what they were seeing, but also very sure about what they were seeing. According to Wilson, he'd just seen what 'he took to be an aeroplane' when Nicolson said 'there's an aeroplane'; he avoided asking Elms and Sullivan leading questions when pointing out the object to them, but they both independently identified it as an aeroplane. Still, we don't know the context for the sighting; perhaps they'd just been discussing mystery aeroplanes at the captain's table and guessed what everyone else was thinking. On the face of it, though, it's an impressive report: five experienced seamen who presumably were familiar with the usual natural phenomena seen at sea, all instantly agreeing that this was not natural.
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C. Joyes, 22 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 134 is a report by Constable C. Joyes, Victoria Police, about an 'Aeroplane seen in the vicinity of Dromana', a seaside resort town about 70km from Melbourne.

Doctor J. G. Weld of Dromana reported to me today that he saw an Aeroplane about 530 am yesterday morning (21st [May 1918]) flying between Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay, and finally flew in the direction of the Naval Base. The Dr was visiting a patient when he saw the lights he called his wife and two male friends, and they also saw the lights, sometimes the lights would disappear as if behind a cloud. The Dr. states he did not actually see the machine nor did he hear any noise.

There's not a lot to say about this one. In my article I use it as an unusual example of someone of a relatively high social status reporting a mystery aeroplane; the typical witnesses were working or lower middle class. Hard to know what they actually saw; perhaps Canopus which was very low on the SSE horizon at the time, but there's not enough information to make a judgement -- and anyway, the report does say lights, plural. Oddly, the report is addressed directly to 'the Minister for Navy', perhaps due to an internal police directive, though the Minister would have been less than interested by this stage. And, in yet another addition for the errata file, I originally read the constable's name as 'Joyce' but looking more closely it's clearly 'Joyes'.

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.