'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand'

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Originally published as: Brett Holman, ‘The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand’, in Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, eds, Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2016), 71-96. Available from Melbourne University Press. Details here. PDF format.

Text © Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, 2016. Reproduced with permission.

First paragraph: Objectively, Germany posed little direct threat to Australia and New Zealand during the Great War: it was, after all, on the opposite side of the planet. Subjectively, however, it was a different matter. In the public imagination, the two dominions were saturated with German spies, who were passing information back to the Fatherland, carrying out acts of sabotage and subverting the loyalty of ‘British’ Australians and New Zealanders through pacifist and socialist propaganda. This fear of the ‘enemy within the gates’, in historian Ernest Scott’s phrase, is well known. But the fear of the enemy at the gates, the fear of external attack, is not. While the spectre of a German invasion and occupation was frequently employed for propaganda purposes in both Australia and New Zealand during the war, it is not clear how many people saw this as a realistic threat. Perhaps surprisingly, though, at least by the last year of the war, the main danger was perceived to come not on land or from the sea—at least not directly— but from the air. The little-known mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 is the most extreme example of this fear. The hundreds of reports received by the press and the authorities in Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, of otherwise unexplainable aircraft flying over widely separated parts of both countries were widely interpreted as being German in origin, operating from naval raiders off the coast or from secret bases inland. The reports were spurious, misperceptions or hoaxes, but both governments took them seriously; Australia, at least, undertook substantial defensive precautions as a result, turning what otherwise would have been a minor scare into a major panic.

14 thoughts on “'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand'

  1. Thanks for this. I stumbled across it while researching the Swedish mystery airplane flap of the 1930s as part of a footnote to a bit I'm writing about the Swedish Ghost Rockets. I'm looking forward to getting a broader picture this afternoon once I'm finished footnoting and can settle down with my iPad for a read.

  2. Peter Garwood

    I try downloading the Scareship Age and get nothing but pages of indecipherable text.
    What am I doing wrong?

  3. I just tried a bit of experimentation, and attempting to download (clicking on the download button) the EPUB version without an EPUB reader on Firefox got the wall of junk text in a browser window. Downloading an EPUB reader, and trying again solved the problem. (Mac, Firefox).

  4. Post author

    Yes, it's quite possible there's no ebook reader software installed. Amazon makes some pretty slick, free Kindle software for MOBI, and there's Adobe Digital Editions for EPUB, also free. Of course there are others too.

  5. jerrywarriner

    The PDF version refused to download, so I downloaded the document as an EPUB. I found a converter on the Web at http://www.convertfiles.com/convert/ebook/EPUB-to-PDF.html.
    It worked beautifully.

    The Munich crisis is my favorite topic of the interwar years. I have more books, documents, documentaries and articles on that than almost any other subject from the period.
    I'm in Heaven! Thanks for providing this valuable information.

  6. Post author

    You're welcome. Sorry you had problems with the PDF (it downloads okay for me) but I'm glad you were able to find a workaround!

  7. Jenny Sloggett

    Thank you for making these article available. I look forward to the Next War in the Air. I am a PhD student with the University of Newcastle and my topic involves civil and military defence preparations in south-eastern Australia from 1935 to 1945 (NSW, Qld, Vic), particularly the involvement of state and local governments. The impact of the British example and British instructions for defence planning cannot be overestimated.

    Whilst I was in Melbourne last April for the 1942 Shadow of the War conference, I picked up a copy of At Home and Under Fire: air raids and culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz by Susan R Grayzel (Cambridge University Press, 2012). It make a useful supplement to Terence O'Brien's volume of the official history on civil defence in Great Britain because of its focus on popular literature and use of letters and diaries as sources.

  8. Post author

    That's a great topic. I read Kate Darian-Smith's book on Melbourne during the war a while back; Richard Waterhouse is also doing some interesting work on the panic in Australia after the fall of Singapore (which I mentioned here). I'd love to know more.

    I'm actually writing a review of Grayzel's book for a journal at the moment, or not writing as the case may be…

  9. Christopher

    What the article says about the psychological aspects of the scare is fascinating. It might be worthwhile to explore if this links to the paranoia about empire and the threats to the latter.

  10. Post author

    Interesting idea. Of course the danger to the Empire was always implicit in the question of the Navy, and sometimes explicit (particularly in the colonies themselves), but I can't think of any real imperial dimension to the airship panic. It was very much focused on the security of the British Isles themselves. Something to look out for, though -- thanks.

  11. Post author

    Glad you've found something useful here. South Wales was an epicentre of phantom airship sightings in both 1909 and 1913. It's hard to imagine that E. T. Willows isn't connected somehow, though it seems clear he wasn't actually present at the time, so I suspect inspiration more than anything else.

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