The Bass Strait is one of a number of areas - such as the Bermuda Triangle and the Great Lakes area in North America — where many aircraft and ships have mysteriously disappeared. In 1930, witnesses at Warranambool, Victoria, on the north shore of the Bass Strait, reported sightings of unidentified 'aircraft', and the Royal Australian Air Force dispatched Squadron Leader (later Air Marshal) George Jones to investigate. No evidence could be found that the aircraft were either Australian or foreign. On the morning of 19 October 1935, a four-engined Qantas Empire Airways D.H.86 airliner, the Miss Hobart, disappeared inexplicably in the Bass Strait. Strange lights were seen in the sky that night and three nights later, not far from where the plane reported its last position.
In 1933, mysterious but conventionally shaped, unmarked aircraft were sighted over Scandinavia and, to a lesser extent, the UK and USA. Often seen flying in hazardous weather conditions, the 'ghost aircraft', as they were called, frequently circled low, projecting powerful searchlights on to the ground. Although engine noises accompanied the sightings, the aircraft sometimes described low-level manoeuvres in complete silence.
'...there can be no doubt about illegal air traffic over our secret military areas,' said Major-General Reuterswaerd of the 4th Swedish Fly9ing Corps. 'Who or whom are they, and why have they been invading our air territory?' (John A Keel, 'Mystery Aeroplanes of the 1930's' Part II, Flying Saucer Review, Vol 16, No. 3, 1970.)
An Italian government report — dating back to 1936 — was leaked sixty years later to researcher Roberto Pinotti. Purportedly written by 'Andrea', an Italian secret service agent, the report describes observations of unknown flying craft seen near Venice on 17 August 1936:
It was a metallic disc, polished and reflecting light, with a diameter of ten to twelve metres. Two fighters from a nearby base took off, but were unable to reach it... It didn't emit sound, which would lead one to consider an aerostat. But nobody knows of balloons that can fly faster than wind. I know for sure that it was seen by other aviators... Then, after approximately at least an hour and after passing over Mestre, it was seen as a sort of metallic tube, grey or slate.
Benito Mussolini — Il Duce — the Fascist dictator (himself a pilot) took a great interest in this and other sightings at the time, and a report on the incident was also sent to Count Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs.
A sketch by a confidential informant was redrawn by Andrea, who explained that:
[The main object] was described like a kind of aerial torpedo, with very clear windows... and alternating white and red lights. [The two other objects] were to 'hats', hats like those used by priests: wide, round, with a dome in the centre, metallic and following the torpedo without changing their relative positions... the prefecture has opened an inquiry, but you can imagine that it will make little inroad... The Duce has expressed his worries, because he says that if it were a matter of real English or French aircraft, his foreign policy would have to start all over again.
Pinotti and his colleagues received this, as well as many other extraordinary documents, including handwritten notes and telegrams, on original paper bearing the seal of the Senato del Regno (Senate of the Realm), which are published in a book co-authored by Pinotti and Alfredo Lissoni. But Pinotti was not the first to receive the series of documents. Earlier, packages had been addressed to the Bologna newspaper Il Resto del Carlino, for instance, containing a dossier of thirty-four photocopied pages covering various sightings in Italy between 1933 and 1940 — including reports from what was then the Royal Italian Air Force, with the recommendation, 'Say nothing to Il Duce'. Three telegrams related to instructions for the recovery of a flying disc which supposedly had landed in an unnamed location (believed to be near Milan) on 13 June 1933, and counter-intelligence measures including press censorship.
There are frequent references in the documents to a top-secret group — Gabinetto RS/33 — reportedly dealing with the collection, investigation and even suppression of information relating to velivoli sconoscuti (unknown aircraft). Headed by Mussolini, Ciano and airman General Italo Balbo, Rs/33 is said to have included several prominent aeronautical engineers, astronomers and scientists, directed by none other than Gugliemo Marconi, the great inventor, although he never played an active role in the cabinet, preferring to delegate to the astronomer Gino Cecchini. RS/33 had links with OVRA, the Fascist secret police, and Agenzia Stefani, the regime's news agency in charge of disseminating propaganda. As Pinotti elucidated for me:
... All this re-writes the history of 'official' ufology, which started secretly in Italy under Mussolini with the RS/33 (Ricerche Speciale [Special Research] 33) Cabinet in 1933 to study the 'Velivoli Non Convenzionali' (unconventional aircraft) after a possible UFO crash near Milan, and a definite 'reverse-engineering' approach to 'copy' what Fascists considered to be purported English or French secret aerial spy devices. The Italian studies led to different concepts of round flying machines, to be used by the Germans at the end of WWII.
Pinotto told me that the documents he received - originating with the nephew of a member of the RS/33 Cabinet — were authenticated by forensic analysis involving chemical tests on the paper and ink, conducted by Antonio Garavaglia, a top Italian forensic consultant. Checks for historical accuracy by historian Andrea Bedetti, an expert on Italy's Fascist period, indicate authenticity. Alfredo Lissoni discovered additional evidence in the archives of the Prefetturra (Civil Governor's office) in Milan: about 500 telegrams sent to the Prefettura between 1933 and 1938, at least nine of which exclusively concerned velivoli non identificabili (unidentifiable aircraft).
Alfredo Lissoni has unearthed a fascinating reference from a speech by Mussolini to the Federation of Fascist Combatants on 23 February 1941: 'The United States are far more likely to be invaded, not by soldiers of the Axis, but by the not so well known but warlike inhabitants of the planet Mars, who will come down out of space in their unimaginable flying fortresses.'
This was almost certainly the first official reference to alien spaceships — and one that turned out to be prescient. A year later, an extraordinary incident led some American military leaders to wonder if they were indeed being invaded by beings from elsewhere.
- Need to Know: UFOs, the Military and Intelligence, Timothy Good, Chapter 1, Dawn of An Era