Post-blogging the 1918 mystery aeroplanes

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!

A. E. Duvanel, 8 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 35 is a copy of a report from Constable A. E. Duvanel of Korumburra Station, Victoria Police. Duvanel gives a blow-by-blow account of his conversation at 8pm on 2 May 1918 with Mr Sandman of the Kongwak butter factory about 'a bright light high up in the sky', which had been there for about one and a half hours, 'moving backwards and forwards in the same place', in the direction of Morwell (meaning to the northeast). Duvanel, another constable and employees from the Post Office all have a look, noting that 'with the naked eye it appeared to move up and down but with the aid of a powerful field glass it could at once be seen it was only a star, which would light up bright and was continuously twinkling'.

From the conversation that passed on the telephone it was absolutely certain these people were watching a star in the sky and imagined it an aeroplane.

Duvanel's conclusion seems sound, though which 'star' it actually was is harder to figure out (Arcturus was my first guess, but it was just rising at 8pm and couldn't have been seen for 90 minutes before then; Mars maybe, though no colour is mentioned and planets don't twinkle as much as stars).

But the real puzzle here is who, exactly, claimed to have seen an aeroplane? In my article I say it was 'employees' of the butter factory, but while that's possible, reading the report again I think that's a faulty inference. (Duvanel doesn't even say Sandman was at the factory when he made the call, just that he was 'of' it; I wouldn't have thought that butter would be made in the evening, though it's possible that a manager would have been there after hours.) Duvanel says that Sandman told him on the phone 'that an Aeroplane was over Kongwak', but when asked 'if he saw an aeroplane' replied 'no one has seen one', only the bright light in the sky. Then there's the 'communication' of a Mr Tate that 'an aeroplane was seen at Kongwak', but Duvanel points out that Tate was at the station two days later and never made mention of it. So nobody is recorded as having claimed to have seen an aeroplane, or even that anybody else saw one -- yet it was reported as an aeroplane sighting. My best guess is that Sandman was reporting a rumour that was passing around Kongwak that an aeroplane was overhead, but didn't see it himself; Tate was either passing on the same rumour or possibly had seen it himself, but made his report directly to military intelligence rather than through the police; this prompted a request for information from Melbourne and so Duvanel had to make this belated -- six days after the event -- and somewhat exasperated report of what he was completely sure was nothing at all.

'Anxious', 7 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 218 and 219 is a letter from 'Anxious' of 'Bundoora', Charles St, Brighton, Victoria, to the editor of the Melbourne Herald:

A mysterious aroeplane [sic] passed over the east of Brighton this morning at 10 past 7 a.m. & went south east towards Gippsland. The machine was a very large one & was flying very low to the ground. About a fortnight ago we heard one at 4 o'clock a.m. I would like to know if you thought this machine might be the German one that is about.

Yours etc.

This was immediately passed by the Herald to the Melbourne censor, who just as quickly handed it on to the naval censor, and it was with naval intelligence later that afternoon. The analysis was just as quick, as NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 217 records: 'A military machine' (i.e. one of ours).

Of course, the reason why I use this letter in my article is because of the glimpse it gives into the writer's thinking and feeling: not only was the immediate (and immediately-dashed off) thought was that the aeroplane 'might be the German one that is about', but it's signed 'Anxious'! Gold.


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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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.
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HB53, 28 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 701 to 709 is a copy of Directorate of Military Intelligence report HB53, 'Aircraft, lights and objects reported seen in the air'. Copies have been sent to various District Naval Officers and the commanders of HMA Ships Brisbane, Encounter and Protector (presumably DMI sent it to the various military district HQs, as well). It consists of two parts. The first is 'a brief diary' of reports received of 'objects seen in the air', between 1 March and 27 April 1918, excluding 'Reports proved to be false'. This is a list of 41 separate mystery aeroplane reports, including place, date, and a summary (and file reference), beginning with Nubeena, Tasmania:

On the night of the 6th/7th of March and on eight successive nights, searchlights and moving lights in the sky were reported by Mr George E. Clarke of NUBEENA.

and ending with Grafton, New South Wales:

Police at GRAFTON report:- 'Informed on good authority that an aeroplane, the body painted white and the planes black, was seen at GRAFTON on 26th instant flying in a north-easterly direction.

A number of the sightings previously discussed appear here: Nyang (no. 4), Terrigal (no. 5), Macarthur (no. 7), Maffra (no. 11), Toora (no. 15), Bunbury (no. 17), Cape Leeuwin (no. 18), Christmas Hills (no. 19) and Ballarat West (no. 23). The last of these took place on 20 April, so the remaining 18 reports date from the last week, demonstrating how fast the mystery aeroplanes are multiplying. (Since the sightings are listed according to when they took place, not when they were reported -- which is why Nyang is at no. 4 -- this will actually be an understatement.)
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Anonymous, 27 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 459 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:

Reports are being received daily of Aeroplanes seen in Victoria and South Australia. Close investigations being made. Latest reports are from Port Lincoln 23rd April and district at back of Cape Nelson. King Island indicated as a possible base. Rockets and other suspicious signals seen. Two and sometimes three aeroplanes sighted at same time. Australian aeroplanes are scouting at Corner Inlet and from BEGA about 50 miles north of GABO. No ships overdue or other indications of a raider. Aeroplanes may be in connection with some inland organisation.
"BRISBANE" ordered to Bass Straits [sic].

This is big. This is the Royal Australian Navy telling the Royal Navy: look, just FYI, we're not completely sure what's going on yet, and nothing has actually happened, but it looks like we might have a problem here. There are all these aeroplanes being reported from Victoria and South Australia, which could be from a raider, or perhaps more likely, might be evidence of an 'inland organisation' or 'a possible base' on King Island, between Tasmania and Victoria. We are looking into it with our own aircraft, and we're sending our best available ship, HMAS Brisbane, to the area...
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James French, 24 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 79 is a copy of a letter from James French, Shire Secretary, Maffra Shire, to the 'Officer in Charge' of the 'Intelligence Department, Melbourne'. French has a lot to say on the subject of 'hydroplanes' that 'have been seen of late in this District at night time', and he thinks 'the subject is worth enquiring into'.
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