Flying saucers over Alice Springs

by on 17th December 2019
Flying saucers over Alice Springs

Extract from Robert Pullen’s ‘Freedom Lost?: A history of newspapers, journalism, and press censorship in Australia’

Release date January 2020.



Led, fed and inculcated by U.S. journalists after World War Two, 1950s newspapers in the West reflected and generated readers’ anxieties about aliens and cold war paranoia. Suppressing fears of meretricious narrative, reporters and editors reasoned from the governing principle of Western journalism — to be first with the story — that if you withheld a flying saucer story on the grounds that it was specious, the opposition would publish and you would look like a newshound who couldn’t sniff out a story until it applied Man Bites Dog and bit you.


While no God-bothering sky-pilot could prove flying saucers existed, neither could a theoretical physicist or existential philosopher prove they did not. Besides, since many Australian newspaper readers looked into the purple night around the Southern Cross and perceived rockets, saucers and aliens, flying saucers were as big as the sun in yellow journalism. There were sources for saucers in the smallest camp on the Nullarbor Plain. George Adamski, a Polish American, claimed to have interviewed, by an extrasensory means he dubbed telepathy, a man from Venus in the Mojave desert in California. The Venusian, according to Adamski, had travelled on a cigar-shaped UFO which shed a silver disk carrying him, dressed in a one-piece suit, into the desert strewn with the gold ghost towns of the old West such as Leadfield and Darwin and Dublin Gulch; Adamski, who had audiences with European royals and the Pope, led UFO research and publishing.


No reporter believed you could interview a man from Venus. That was axiomatic: believing would define you as lacking scepticism, the essence of an Aussie journalist. In January 1954, after four Aborigines heard a ‘strange and sinister noise hiss across Harts Range field’ and next day six Alice Springs residents saw ‘a strange craft’ streaking across the early-morning sky, Jim Bowditch, editor of the Centralian Advocate, thought he, the paper and the town needed a flying saucer story. The witnesses Bowditch tracked down were bashful. If he reported their names they would deny the whole thing. Bowditch knew the sceptics in the Advocate’s audience would read the story as he did himself, like an atheist in a cathedral. In the red centre as in coastal capitals since an authentic UFO yarn was necessarily a fairy story, the word ‘fake’ had to appear somewhere. 


On 5 February Bowditch published a photograph of what looks like a garbage-bin lid above jagged Mount Gillen, 15 kilometres west of Alice Springs, captioned ‘fake’ or ‘flying saucer’ (no question mark) with a page one story quoting a note signed ‘Unknown’.


Men from Venus, secret flying machines from Russia, meteorites, optical illusions or just plain fakes and lies — what are these "flying saucers” reported to have been seen in many parts of the world, including Alice Springs? Below we have published a photograph claimed to be that of a "flying saucer”. 


With the picture, this note was pushed under the door of the Advocate office:


For several reasons, one of which is because I can hardly believe it myself, I refuse at this stage to come forward and allow my name to be used. But study this picture of a flying saucer yourself.

I was taking a picture of Mt Gillen on the day that a number of Alice Springs people said they heard something strange pass over the town (Friday, January 15). Suddenly an enormous round-looking object appeared from behind Gillen. It went high, then dropped to come quite low between the mountain and the town it was not travelling fast at this stage in fact it appeared to be almost hovering. That was when I took this picture almost automatically I focused and clicked the camera. It would have been possible to take more shots, but I just looked, then suddenly the thing moved off very fast, it gained speed until it must have been travelling at terrifying pace, going high and to the West.

 I did not hear much of a whistling sound. The saucer looked to have been anything up to 50 feet across. I don’t know. Maybe Adamski had something about those men from Venus.


Bowditch wrote: ‘The only comment the Advocate is prepared to make at this stage is that the picture could easily be a fake. On the other hand one would have to go to considerable trouble to make it up. If genuine, the saucer looks to be a very large affair, although distance would make all the difference in this.’


By mid-February, he found an expert prepared to vouch that the flying saucer photograph was authentic. A member of the South Australian Astronomical Society, Mr F. Churchman, told Bowditch: ‘these cartwheel pattern saucers are not uncommon.’ He knew of eight similar sightings dating back to 11 June 1855. ‘I for one do not think for a moment it is a "fake” and would like to get in touch with the man that took the photo privately, through your paper, and will keep his name a secret if he wishes.’


Bowditch wrote (in bold) in the Advocate of 19 February 1954: ‘Mr Churchman is not alone in wishing to contact "unknown”, so in the words of the poet we ask "come out, come out wherever you are.” The photographer has nothing to fear, but may have a considerable amount to gain; there are rewards for this picture.’


Beneath the headline WHAT IS IT? he published the photograph again on 5 March asking whether it was ‘genuine, as one South Australian observer believes,’ or a button, meteorological balloon, bottle top, or part of a washing machine, as mentioned by the cynical?


Curious about the picture, two young men found a box with the word ‘radiosonde’ a radio and set of meteorological instruments carried by a balloon at the base of Mt Gillen and brought it to the Advocate. English author Harold Wilkins, writing Flying Saucers on the Moon, said two boys in the Westmoreland Lake district had photographed a similar saucer. The British, French, American and possibly the Australian War Department knew ‘certain facts’ about flying saucer reports dating from 90 BC. Some saucers were ‘definitely hostile’. Bowditch published the letter on 12 March, saying his mind was open, but he would appreciate readers’ reports.


The whole story was an exemplary fabrication. 


Bowditch wrote the letter from ‘Unknown’, pushed it under his own office door, then acted as if it were from a reader. (He briefed a local woman photographer who took a picture of an object on a string, and superimposed it on an image of Mt Gillen.)


It opened the door to a legendary career. A few weeks later Canberra journalist Don Whitington hired Bowditch as editor of the Darwin afternoon bi-weekly Northern Territory News, policy ‘truth, decency and a fair go’.


Extract from Robert Pullen’s ‘Freedom Lost?: A history of newspapers, journalism, and press censorship in Australia’