After Second Lieutenant Charles Kingsford Smith of the Royal Flying Corps returned wounded to Australia, he spent the night of 7 May 1918 on the beach at Terrigal watching for German aeroplanes. Surprisingly, he saw one – or at least, something he believed was “a machine”, which he described as “a small black object rapidly going inland”. After a second, less eventful night, Kingsford Smith returned to Sydney and, eventually, entered the pages of history for his daring flights across the Pacific. But why was he looking for German aeroplanes on the New South Wales central coast at all?
Kingsford Smith had been despatched by the Intelligence Section of the NSW military district to investigate persistent reports of mysterious aeroplanes seen and heard there on a number of occasions since March – mysterious because only a handful of aircraft were known to be in Australia, whether military or civilian, and none of them were at Terrigal. Their behaviour was also suspicious. In one case a returned soldier claimed to have seen two seaplanes fly in from over the ocean in the pre-dawn darkness late in April: one circled half a dozen times and appeared to be flashing signals, while the other continued inland. In a report to his superiors in Sydney, Sergeant Morris of the Gosford police speculated that the aeroplanes had come from a German raider off the coast, working in concert with agents on shore. For what purpose was unclear, but clearly it was unlikely to be in Australia’s best interests.
If the mystery aeroplanes had been seen only at Terrigal, it might have been easier for the authorities to dismiss them as imaginary. But since March 1918, similarly puzzling reports had been pouring in from all over Australia and are now preserved in the National Archives in Melbourne. By the end of the war, around 200 had been received, half of them between mid-April and mid-May. The first sighting to be reported was on 21 March at Nyang, near Ouyen in the Mallee, Victoria, by Police Constable Wright; the last was still being investigated by the minesweeper HMAS Coogee at King Island in Bass Strait a full week after the Armistice. Sightings were reported from all states, from the big cities as well as the bush, though a majority came from country Victoria, especially south Gippsland. Many witnesses were small business owners, farmers, teachers, labourers. A few were professionals like the doctor who saw a light flying towards the Flinders naval base early one morning in May. Other witnesses included bank managers’ wives, the headmaster of Trinity Grammar, and a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly.
Descriptions of the mystery aeroplanes were equally diverse. Most people were sure of what they’d seen, like the startled merchant navy officer who exclaimed, “God spare my days, that’s a b—-y Aeroplane!” when he and his shipmates observed a “dark, square object” in the sky off Kangaroo Island. One western Sydney family even saw a Zeppelin lit up by lightning during a storm. The typical sighting was simply a light moving in the night sky, or the sound of an engine coming from overhead: “I saw an aeroplane flying very low down … carrying a very bright light in front”, in the words of a 62-year old woman from Footscray West. Perhaps the most puzzling incident took place in April at a secluded location near Macarthur in Victoria’s Western District. A drover named Sutton and his two young assistants told police they had seen what they took to be an aeroplane land in the middle of the night, in response to signal rockets fired from the ground. The pilot got out and met another man, and then took off again, leaving behind three astonished witnesses and many questions. Reports of the mystery aeroplanes appeared in the press, followed by rumours that the war had come to Australian shores. People were understandably concerned, even after censorship was imposed. “I would like to know”, wrote ‘Anxious’ to the editor of the Melbourne Herald after seeing an aeroplane flying east from Brighton one morning, “if you thought this machine might be the German one that is about.”
At Defence Department headquarters in Melbourne, military and naval intelligence officers also tried to make sense of the reports that kept coming in by telegram and letter. Unable to account for so many aeroplanes seen in so many places in such a short period of time in any other way, the Navy Office tentatively proposed that “assuming that some or all of the aircraft are from vessels at sea, there must be at least four such vessels… If the aircraft come from land bases must be at least four, and almost certainly several more than four.” It informed the Admiralty:-
Reports are being received daily of Aeroplanes seen in Victoria and South Australia. Close investigation being made … King Island indicated as a possible base. Two and sometimes three aeroplanes sighted at same time … Aeroplanes may be in connection with some inland bases.
The possibilities were alarming. Major-General J.G. Legge, the Chief of the General Staff, told newspaper editors: “These raiders are knocking about and some of them have sea planes. Supposing one came over Melbourne and said ‘I will drop bombs on your banks…’ You have not got a single gun here to shoot at them.” Two days later, on 20 April, he ordered an air–sea search for the supposed raiders, the first coastal reconnaissance ever undertaken by Australian aerial forces. Two aeroplanes were detached from the Central Flying School at Point Cook, practically all that were available. In addition, virtually all of the Navy’s ships in Australian waters were ordered to assist in the search. Together, the Army and the Navy patrolled the coasts of Gippsland and southern NSW looking for any signs of suspicious vessels or aircraft. Nothing was found. By 9 May, the search had been called off and the Navy Office told the Admiralty that it was now believed that “news of initial reports in spreading caused people to anticipate aircraft thus stimulating imagination”. The scare was effectively over.
If there were no raiders, and no bases, why did people think they had seen aeroplanes, and why did they think they were German? It is no coincidence that a
German naval officer had recently claimed to have flown an aeroplane undetected over a defenceless Sydney Harbour in the winter of 1917. Heavier-than-air flight was little more than a decade old, but it had made great progress since 1914, thanks to the war. When it broke out, aircraft were few and primitive; by its end each of the great powers had thousands of them and their capabilities had increased greatly. Flying across the North Sea, German Zeppelins had first bombed London in 1915; in 1917 they were joined by the giant Gotha bombers, which killed 162 people in a single raid. Commenting on the new phenomenon of air raids on great cities, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that “there are no more civilians, in the sense of non-combatants”: everyone was now a potential target, even, perhaps, in Australia, so very far from the battlefronts.
The aeroplane which had supposedly flown over Sydney Harbour was a Friedrichshafen FF.33 seaplane nicknamed Wölfchen (little wolf) which scouted targets for SMS Wolf, a German merchant raider which had spent most of 1917 sinking or capturing allied shipping in seas from South Africa to the south Pacific – including the SS Cumberland, which struck one of its mines off Gabo Island in July. Despite allied control of the seas, Wolf successfully evaded the warships sent to intercept it, and in February 1918 returned to a rapturous welcome in its home port of Kiel. After the war it emerged that Wölfchen was not even operational when Wolf was closest to Sydney, but in the meantime Australians were alarmed by the possibility that German aircraft could now reach their shores. A Melbourne Herald headline asked “Was Hun raider’s seaplane over Victorian bushland?” At Gosford, Sergeant Morris noted “the rumour that a seaplane was seen over Sydney in connection with the German raider Woolf [sic]” and concluded that Terrigal was “a likely locality for a seaplane to hover and locate ships in the harbour and elsewhere”. False or not, the sensational story of the Wölfchen’s flight over Sydney Harbour made the idea of other German aeroplanes flying over Australia plausible; and it appeared in the Australian press on 16 March, just five days before Constable Wright’s encounter at Nyang.
Events in Europe made the notion of a German attack on Australia even more plausible. From 21 March the German army launched a series of massive attacks against the Western Front, the famous Spring Offensive. With the aid of new stormtroop techniques and fifty divisions freed up by the peace treaty with Russia, Germany broke the allied lines and for a time threatened the Channel ports on which the British and Australian troops depended for supplies. On 11 April, the commander of the Imperial forces in France, Field Marshal Haig, told his men that:-
With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.
After years of stalemate it looked as if Germany was on the verge of winning the war, and if that happened there was little Australia could do to defend itself. Augustus James, the NSW minister for education, told an audience of schoolboys that ‘The safety of Australia depends on England’:-
Where will Australia stand if England is beaten in this war? What would we be able to do in the event of an invasion by a foreign army? We have neither the rifles nor the trained men, nor have we a submarine or aeroplane capable of use in any attempt to drive off any enemy.
It was at this point that reports of mystery aeroplanes began to surge. As the Ouyen Mail in Victoria suggested, it was “a rather remarkable coincidence” that Constable Wright “should have seen the machines the very day the present big offensive started.”
While the idea that Germany could have been at all interested in far-off Nyang or King Island might seem far-fetched, it was widely believed that an extensive network of German spies was at work in Australia, sabotaging the war effort and relaying information to enemy forces. By 1918, with falling recruitment, increasing strikes, and the nation divided over the conscription issue, it was easy to think that Germany was behind the turmoil. Around 7,000 German Australians had already been interned, but suspicions continued. The Cairns Post, for example, imagined “a well-appointed wireless station in some out of the way place, among unfrequented hills, probably, the operator being fed with information by contingents of German spies in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.” Patriotic individuals reported suspicious individuals and strange incidents to the authorities, and the mystery aeroplane sightings were part of
this pattern. In April, James French, the Maffra Shire secretary, wrote to the Defence Department with an elaborate scenario based entirely on hearsay and imagination, involving German spies ferrying supplies to secret inland aerodromes and working in tandem with raiders out to sea:-
For some time the residents of Seaspray on the Ninety-Mile Beach see bright lights westward of that place; supposed to be in the Carrajung Hills, and it was from here that Mr. J. M. Maclachlan, M.L.C., saw the raider Wolf standing out for many hours one day … It is quite evident that the material is carted into the bush and the planes are there fitted up. A friend of mine here met a lady from Healesville, who said she frequently noticed cars going up into the bush in that direction loaded up and returning empty.
This theory may seem bizarre, but it was essentially the same as the one tentatively proposed by the Navy Office to explain the mystery aeroplane sightings. The mystery aeroplanes connected the enemy within and the enemy without.
Mystery aircraft did not appear only in Australia in 1918; similar episodes took place in other times and places. New Zealand experienced one at the same time, probably for similar reasons. More mystery aeroplanes and airships were seen in Britain, Canada, South Africa and the United States in the first years of the war. In peacetime, in 1909 phantom airships were reported in large numbers over Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States, while Scandinavia was haunted by ghost fliers in the 1930s and ghost rockets in 1946. Many of these episodes can be attributed to the same sorts of fears as the 1918 scare in Australia, that the new technology of flight posed a threat to the nation. But some seem to indicate a more hopeful attitude, as the mystery aircraft were interpreted as local inventions, signs that the nation would be at the forefront of the aerial age.
In Australia in 1918, however, the mystery aeroplanes were borne of wartime fears of subversion and defeat. Australia’s distance from the fighting in Europe counted for little when set against the country’s lack of military forces and Germany’s possession of high technology. In a moment of extreme anxiety, Australians feared an attack from Germany – and thought they saw one. While 1918 may have been the year the Allies won the war, for a time it looked as if it might be the year they lost it.
First published in Wartime, Volume 61, Summer 2013.
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