Post-blogging the 1918 mystery aeroplanes


Finlayson, 23 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 212 is a telegram from Captain C. Finlayson, censor for the 3rd Military District (Victoria), to 'Intelligence', Navy Office. He is passing on a newspaper article which has been submitted for censorship:

A man named Lewis living at the corner of Frank and Mills Streets, Ballarat West, has reported to Sub-Inspector Nicholson of the Police that at mid-night on Saturday last [20 April 1918], he and his family heard a whirring noise, saw a bright flash, heard a loud noise, and the following morning, found a piece of iron, yellow in colour, -- or stained yellow, on the ground near his house.

Finlayson adds that he has 'not allowed publication', and this is why I cite this document in my article. This date, 23 April 1918, seems to mark a turning point or watershed in the panic. Before this date, it's easy to find newspaper articles reporting mystery aeroplane sightings; after it, they are very rare. In addition, after this date, it's quite common to find in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066 notices from the censor saying that they have stopped publication of newspaper articles reporting mystery aeroplane sightings. So, while I was never able to find direct, written evidence of this, it seems clear that on or around this date censors were directed to prevent further reports of mystery aeroplanes from being published. (In fact, given that yesterday's entry also involved a censor's report, that may have been the actual start date, or perhaps somebody in Perth jumped the gun.)
...continue reading


DNO Fremantle, 22 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 403 is a copy of a telegram from the District Naval Officer (DNO), Fremantle, Western Australia. He is passing on information from the editor of the Bunbury Herald (by way of the military censor) that at Bunbury

a girl reports having seen a balloon or zeppelin at 2200 21st April in direction of Picton. Observing that at 2200 it was not daylight the weather conditions stormy and dark.

It doesn't seem like this was published in the Bunbury News at the time. Some other telgrams add further information: NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 402, a decoded telegram from military intelligence at Perth, that the girl was 14 (and also that Cape Leeuwin lighthouse reported seeing an 'aerial object' on the same date); NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 404, a telegram from the Fremantle censor, that she worked for W. S. Hales. But they also both say that the girl's sighting took place at 6am, not 10pm as the DNO reported; the former says it happened on 18 April, not 21 April.

In my article, I used this as a more or less random example of one of the many mystery aeroplane reports beginning to arrive on the desks of bemused intelligence officers at this time -- though the fact that it took place in Western Australia, rather than Victoria, also helps to show the geographical spread of the reports. I must confess to being a bit casual in my referencing here: whereas I have quoted from and hence cited the DNO's telegram as above, in the text I also give the girl's age and the date as 18 April, which are from the military intelligence telegram. Properly speaking, I should have cited that instead, or as well. It was probably in the interests of concision that I didn't use both sources (given that it's not a particularly important example), and I suspect that I couldn't resist quoting the DNO's telegram because it uses the word 'zeppelin'! Aeroplanes are one thing, but whatever the girl saw it certainly wasn't one of those.


A. J. Boase, 20 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 468 is a copy of an order to the Officer Commanding, Central Flying School (i.e. Point Cook), from Major A. J. Boase on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff (i.e. Major-General J. G. Legge). It orders the detachment of two aircraft:

(a) one aeroplane to TOORA, South GIPPSLAND or to some other suitable place in that vicinity, and
(b) one aeroplane by H.M.A.S. "PROTECTOR" to TWOFOLD BAY.

Each aeroplane is to be sent today with 'the necessary complement of air mechanics and a Lewis Gunner with one Lewis gun and reserve ammunition', the guns themselves (with 4000 rounds Mk VI and 1500 rounds Mk VII ammunition) to be supplied to CFS from HQ 3rd Military District. Two relief pilots (Lieutenant M. J. Clarke, RFC, and Lieutenant W. B. Tunbridge, AFC) have also been assigned.

The pilot of the aeroplane sent to TOORA will reconnoitre WILSON'S PROMONTORY and the vicinity for hostile raider or seaplanes and will take his orders from, and report to, "Defence, Melbourne" [the following is added in handwriting], subject to special instructions issued by D.M.I. [Director, Military Intelligence, i.e. Major Hogan]

The pilot of the aeroplane detached with H.M.A.S. "PROTECTOR" will take instructions from, and report to the Navy.

It should be obvious why I cite this in my article: it is unambiguous evidence that the Australian military did not just monitor the mystery aeroplane reports (as the existence of NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066 itself demonstrates), but that it interpreted them to mean that there was a possible threat to Australian security and therefore undertook action to locate this threat: namely, an armed aerial reconnaissance along the Victorian coast extending east from Gippsland into the southern coast of NSW. And the order came from the top: Major-General Legge, the Chief of the General Staff, is the most senior officer in the Army. So this is very significant for establishing the impact of the Australian mystery aeroplane panic. It also shows how the military authorities were interpreting the sightings at this time: they aren't sending any aircraft to the west, which is where the mystery aeroplanes were first seen; they're sending them to the east, which is where they are starting to be seen. This makes sense if you are thinking in terms of a raider (with seaplane) sailing along the coast -- it's not going to be hanging around, so you need to send your forces to where you think it's going to be, not where it was.
...continue reading


G. T. Moyle, 19 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 183 is a report from Constable G. T. Moyle of the Hamilton police station, in the Western District of Victoria. It concerns 'an aeroplane' seen near Macarthur in the early hours of 11 April 1918 by John Sutton, a drover. Sutton had told several people in Hamilton of his strange encounter, but had not yet informed the police because 'he was in charge of a mob of cattle and that he could not get away, and he though [sic] people would make fun out of it'. Nevertheless, Moyle finds him to be 'of good character and most reliable', and his account matches what he had been saying in Hamilton.
...continue reading

A. E. Mclean, 17 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 191 and 192 are a report submitted by Constable A. E. McLean of Dartmoor police station. He is passing on information about a mystery aircraft and a ship offshore, seen or heard by multiple witnesses at Nelson, on the southwestern coast of Victoria, near the South Australian border. His informant is 'Mrs Vaux, licensee of the Nelson Hotel'. According to McLean, she has claimed that 'one afternoon last week an airship was observed by two boys who was [sic] returning home from School', and that they were 'able to give a good description of the machine'.

They state that the machine was travelling from the land and went out to sea and that a large vessel was visible at sea and the machine flew in the direction of the vessel.

In addition, some of her employees 'heard the noise of the engines, but thought it was one of the Motor boats on the river, and took no notice of it at the time'; however it later was found that 'no boats was [sic] out at the time'.
...continue reading

AM Black, 4 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 109 is a copy of a letter from A. M. Black to Major Hogan of the 'Intelligence Service'. It's undated, but NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 108 (a cover letter from military intelligence to naval intelligence) says that it was written on 10 April 1918; the incident it relates to seems to have happened back on 1 April. Black's letter is terse and doesn't bother to explain who he is or why he writes, just that he is passing on some notes from 'E.V.G.' (a scrawled annotation here says, I think, 'Greenway') who is 'now at Tarwin but who was down at Woodside last week'. These notes are on the following page, NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 110, and read:

1st. April Ls [lights?] in Hills also L on Hummock east of our place
Air Craft flying from West to East at 9 o'clock fired Star Shell burn over sea.
Report from E.V.G.
Newlands also sending report.

The last two lines are presumably added by Black, who also adds some further details in his letter:

  • E.V.G. 'also mentioned a light in the shape of' (here there is a typed representation of an L-shaped group of 5 or 6 dots)
  • E.V.G. 'said the noise of the plane was quite distinct & well as it being clearly seen' (presumably '&' is meant to be 'as')
  • 'Light in hummocks referred to was signalling by code (unknown to E.V.G.)'
  • 'Next day on searching the spot was seen -- hole in sand and fresh marks'

Who is Black? He's clearly a civilian and not writing in any official capacity; he wanted E.V.G. to write a fuller report, but instead only got a few 'remarks' from him 'just before leaving for my train'. He writes from St Kilda, a Melbourne suburb (the house is still there and looks quite grand); there is an 'A.M. Black, Tarwin' mentioned in The Age in May as the seller of some dairy cows. So I would guess he is a grazier. From his brevity I suspect he had already been in contact with Major Hogan, though not enough to warrant informality. He could have been following up an earlier letter which mentioned E.V.G.'s sighting, or perhaps he had been in more regular contact, patriotically alerting the 'Intelligence Service' to anything which he thought warranted their attention. Certainly on this occasion Hogan not only thought Black's information interesting, but worth passing on to the Navy (for his part, Lieutenant-Commander Latham, the head of naval intelligence, 'should be glad of further information'). E.V.G. (and Newlands) is probably a farmer too, but it's hard to say for sure.
...continue reading


Morris, 3 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 1011 is a police report from Sergeant W. Morris of Gosford, north of Sydney in the NSW Central Coast region. It's an account of a mystery aeroplane sighting made by Lily Moir, a 23 year old woman living with her mother on a farm 1.5 miles east of Gosford. Shortly after 4am on the night of 23 March, Moir 'saw a light up high above the horizon, apparently a little north of Terrigal Haven over the sea border'. It 'appeared like a star travelling towards her, and seemed to swerve up and down like sea waves for an instant, and then disappear downwards'; yet (rather contradictorially) 'the light was unlike a star', and could not have been a meteor because it 'travelled horizontally towards her in waves'. Though Morris sought confirmation, there are no other reports from other witnesses.
...continue reading


War Intelligence No. T4 (extract), 30 March 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 556 is an extract from a weekly military intelligence report compiled for the Australian section of the Imperial General Staff, which has been forwarded on to the Navy. (It contains information up to 30 March, but it's possible that it was compiled a day or two later.) It summarises a report by D. Burke, a schoolteacher from Raminea, Port Esperance, near the southern tip of Tasmania, of sounds heard in the air on 22 March (the day after Constable Wright's sighting at Nyang). Out of the 11 or so witnesses, 10 thought it sounded like 'an immense flock of birds', but one that 'resembled the sound of an engine', travelling south to north. After whatever it was had passed, two guns were heard firing far off to the south-west. It was a cloudy day and nothing could be seen.
...continue reading

1 Comment

Anonymous, 25 March 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 871 is a copy of an anonymous letter sent to the Minister of Defence in Melbourne in reference to reports 'in the press on Saturday that two aeroplanes were seen flying over Nyang' -- likely either the Argus or the Age. Probably the latter, since it added a report from the Central Flying School at Laverton (well, Point Cook) saying it wasn't one of theirs, and the letter writer says 'This may only have been a trial flight by our own men, and again it may not'.

But the aeroplanes are not the real point here; they're not even mentioned again. Instead the writer informs the Minister of 'the fact that a late Officer in the German Army, by the name of Schefferdecker (Farmer) lives either at Cow Plains or Murrayville -- a few stations further on' from Nyang. He had only arrived in Australia a few months before the war. The writer wants the Minister to see 'that the matter is thoroughly investigated' -- though what, exactly, Schefferdecker is supposed to have done is never specified. Still, something must be done about it:

I have given you the information which I know to be a fact, and it remains with you to see that the enemy officer is interned and not allowed to enjoy the same privileges as the parents of the boys from that district who are now at the front fighting; doubtless many more would enlist if it were not for the fact that so many Germans are permitted to profit by the freedom we are fighting for.

This seems to be the heart of the matter: this Schefferdecker may not have actually done anything wrong, but he is a German and the fact that he remains free is an affront, and it's no wonder that new recruits for the AIF are drying up. This month in fact saw the lowest recruitment figures for the war to date -- only 1500 across the entire country -- so perhaps the writer was getting at some confluence of fears to do with the war draining manpower away and leaving the nation defenceless. Or else they had very cannily happened on a theme which was already creating much official alarm and despondency down in Melbourne, especially after the failure of the bitterly divisive second conscription plebiscite in December 1917.
...continue reading


report, J. Wright, 22 March 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 878, is a report submitted by Constable J. Wright of Ouyen police station, in the Mallee region of northwestern Victoria:

I have to report that whilst I was in the vicinity of Nyang about thirty miles from Ouyen at 4 30 pm on 21.3.18 I saw two flying machines pass overhead. They were up an [sic] great height & appeared to be about twenty yards apart. I did not hear the noise of the machines. They proceeded in a Westerly direction & as the sky was particularly clear, the machines were easily discernible.

And that's all Wright wrote. His superiors forwarded his report down to Melbourne, where, three days later, it was received at the Navy Office. There, Lieutenant-Commander J. G. Latham, a former lawyer (and future chief justice) who was head of naval intelligence, read it and commented: 'Reads true'.
...continue reading