Australian Flying Corps
In 1911 the Aerial League Secretary George A. Taylor was agitating the Australian Government in both parliament and the press for the creation of a Military Australian Flying Corps. Taylor campaigned openly for Military Aviation, Military use of Wireless and an Aviation Engineer Corps. These desires by Taylor and others fitted in with the new Australian Commonwealth’s desire for complete self reliance in defence matters and by 1913 the Australian Government established an Australian Flying Corps base at Point Cooke. The creation of a separate and independent Flying Corps matched the Government’s decision previously in July of 1911 to create the Royal Australian Navy as an independent Naval Arm.
An order was sent to England for two BE2a Biplanes and two British built Deperduissan single-seaters. In December a further aircraft was added when a two seater Box-Kite was ordered for training. Unfortunately a combination of distance from Europe and red tape held the new flying school back and the first flight wasn’t made until the 1st of March 1914, the first four pupils of the Central Flying School didn’t start training until later in 1914.
The first aircraft to arrive for the Flying School, called and marked Point Cook so often that the name without the ‘e’ stuck, were originally shipped to Sydney and had to be reshipped to Melbourne. When the crates were opened it was discovered the fabric had rotted enroute due to tropical mildew. By now the Australian Flying Corps, despite an early start was far behind the operational status of other nations’ Air Services.
The first role the Australian Flying Corps was to play in the Great War as part of the Australian Military Forces was in the invasion of German New Guinea on September 11th of 1914 by the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Forces [AN&MEF]. Two more recently purchased aircraft, a BE2a and a Farman Shorthorn Floatplane were crated as part of the AN&MEF, but German resistance was light and Rabaul fell quickly without needing the aid of the Australian Flying Corps and aircraft never got out of their crates. The aircraft however took a long route on the way home and were significantly delayed at a time when the Australian Homefront required every aircraft it could get.
Many young Australian men, eager to join the Australian Flying Corps, were rejected; not on the basis of ability but due to the fact there just weren’t sufficient facilities in Australia to train them. Many of these men, such as Robert Little and Roderick Dallas, were to travel to England and join the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service. One man, Oswald Watt, joined the French Aviation Militaire. Norman Brearley wrote of the situation, “ There were only two serviceable planes in Australia and I guessed that there could be at least two thousand young men eager to fly those planes, so I decided to go to England where the competition might be easier. “ Brearley was not alone, nearly 200 Australians and many New Zealanders flew with the British Flying Services during World War I.
Mesopotamian Half Flight
The first Airmen trained by the Australian Flying Corps went to war on April 20th 1915, as the Mesopotamian Half Flight. The Half Flight was formed at the bequest of the Indian Army operating against the Turkish Armies in what is now Iraq. The Australian Government replied they would be able to supply pilots and ground staff but due to a shortage of suitable aircraft in Australia, the Indian Army would need to supply the machines. The Indian Army agreed and supplied three Maurice Farman aircraft. Captain H.A Petre, Lieutenant T.W White, Lieutenant W.H Treloar and Lieutenant G.P Merz were the four pilots in the flight who flew the aircraft on operations from Basra. Later two Caudron were to arrive to complement the Farmans. The aircraft in the theatre were having serviceability problems due to the harsh environment, adding to the problems the under powered aircraft were having in the thin hot and often wild air. The Australian, Lt Merz was the first Australian Flying Corps casualty in the First World War, another Australian Aviator with the RNAS was the first Australian aerial casualty. The New Zealander, Lt Burn was his country’s first aerial casualty. Their Caudron was forced down due to mechanical problems and landed in amongst a group of heavily armed and hostile Arabs. The pair armed in only with revolvers put up a fight but were both killed in the ensuing gunfight. The story was related to the Half Flight later by friendly Arabs. The Caudron was later found cut to tatters. A Second Half Flight was to be sent to Mesopotamia but the fall of Kut to the Turkish, focused the British and Turkish efforts towards the Palestinian Front.
No 1 Squadron AFC in the Middle East
The first complete Australian Flying Corps Squadron to form was 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. In early 1916, 28 Officers and 195 NCO’s and Aircraftsmen of 1 Sqn AFC departed aboard the troopship Orsorva for Egypt. The Squadron received 17 Sqn RFC’s BE2s six weeks after its arrival as 17 Sqn had been posted to the Macedonian Front at Salonica. The BE2’s were not the greatest offensive machines, lacking forward firing armament, but the squadron, and in particular the later Sir Lawrence J. Wackett, devised forward firing mountings for the Lewis machine gun allowing the BE2 to operate in the scouting role. Hackett also used one of the squadron’s Bristol Scout aircraft to test an interrupter gear he had devised. Another man in the squadron Allan Bettering, built a hydraulic system similar to, and pre-dating the Constantico interrupter gear. Bette ridge’s invention though developed within the squadron was not adopted or further developed officially by the AFC or RFC.
1 Sqn’s BE2s began to be supported by the arrival of Martinsyde G.100 and G.102 Elephants which replaced the unsuccessful attempt to use Bristol Scouts as escorts for the BE2s. Up until the Martinsydes arrived the Australians hadn’t possessed an aircraft powerful enough to catch the superior German Rumplers in the theatre. Aerial clashes were few however and the Squadron for the most went about reconnaissance, photographing and bombing. The mapping of the theatre was inadequate, inaccurate and inconsistent. 1 Sqn Australian Flying Corps spent most of 1917 mapping large areas to give accurate maps for the Armies on the ground. Apart from the danger of facing a German Flieger-Abteilung with faster and more modern aircraft, the other great danger for the squadron came from the aircraft suffering mechanical failures; potentially leaving a pilot stranded in an inhospitable desert, dominated by hostile Turkish soldiers and Arab tribes. Making attempts to reach allied lines on foot an extremely difficult and hazardous task. Many successful attempts were made to pick up downed airmen, the most famous of these earned Lieutenant Frank McNamara a Victoria Cross, the only Australian Flying Corps VC of the war, when he picked up Captain D.W Rutherford while under Turkish fire. McNamara despite being wounded flew the 70 miles back to the Squadron’s airfield and fainted due to loss of blood as he taxied in.
In late 1917, 1 Sqn Australian Flying Corps began to receive the Bristol F2b Fighter. The aircraft was long ranged, powerful and when flown aggressively extremely capable as a Scout aircraft. The Brisket matched perfectly the multiple roles and long range required of the theatre’s operations. Along with complementing the aggressive mentality of the pilots and observers of the squadron, the Bristol Fighter or ‘Biff” as it was known in the theatre was to sway air superiority to the allied side. Captain Ross M. Smith (later knighted for his London to Australia flight in 1919) became the leading ace in the theatre with 11 victories. No mean feat considering the enemy activity in the theatre never numbered more than one Jasta and four Flinger Abteilungs. Other men such as Lieutenant Paul “Ginty” McGinness and Lieutenant Hudson Fysh earned their names in the air above the Middle East and post-war took the skills learnt over Palestine’s harsh terrain to Australia’s own unforgiving landscape to start the outback flying service QANTAS. The New Zealander Lieutenant Carrick Paul and his observer Lieutenant W.J Weir were often to be found flying with Smith and Mustard causing Turkish horses to stampede and chasing German aircraft to the ground where they were strafed. An aircraft forced down in the desert was difficult to recover and make serviceable again, to ensure the enemy aircraft they forced down were wrecked, the Australians would strafe the downed aircraft and aviators. In one case in September of 1918, Ross Smith landed next to the D.F.W he had forced down and burnt the German aircraft with a Very Light.
The squadron took part in what came to be known as the “Battle of Armageddon”. This is the first known instance where airpower destroyed and demoralized an army’s ability to fight as an effective fighting force. A precursor to how airpower was to be used in later wars and conflicts. The squadron also took part in support of the Arab Irregulars who were led by Colonel T.E Lawrence better known as Lawrence of Arabia. 1 Sqn Australian Flying Corps also received the only two-engined aircraft in the theatre in the form of a monstrous Handley Page 0/400, which was used for bombing as well as impressing the Arabs. By the time of the Turkish surrender, the squadron had notched up over 100 victories and been the only squadron to participate in the campaign from the Suez Canal to Syria. 1 Sqn Australian Flying Corps left behind a proud record for future Australian aviation arms to match in the Middle East. The next Australian Squadron to arrive in the Middle East after 1919 was 3 Sqn Royal Australian Air Force in 1940 which was to follow 1 Sqn AFC’s example.
The New South Wales Aviation School
In Australia the New South Wales government in a mixture of concern for the Australian Flying Corps being centralized in Victoria and in the vision of Australia needing Civil Aviation after the war, set up the New South Wales School of Aviation on Ham Common at Richmond, outside of Sydney. The New South Wales government purchased four Curtiss Jenny trainers from the USA, as well as two Caudrons from Europe. The government then proceeded to fund and build a massive hangar, which survived until the 1980s. The first course began in August of 1916 and lasted 12 weeks. The most notable graduates from the course being Lieutenant J. H Weingarth and Lieutenant R Smallwood, both to distinguish themselves with 4 Sqn Australian Flying Corps in France.
The Australian Flying Corps Squadrons On The Western Front
The Australian Flying Corps raised three squadrons for operational service on the Western Front in France. The first of these, 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps was raised in Australia and was the first AFC squadron to arrive in England. 3 Sqn was initially called 2 Sqn Australian Flying Corps but this was changed to 3 Sqn AFC. 2 Sqn Australian Flying Corps was raised in Egypt from a mixture of 1 Sqn AFC experienced hands and recruits from the Australian Light Horse. The fourth squadron was raised in Australia as 4 Sqn Australian Flying Corps and arrived in England in March of 1917. Many publications have the AFC squadrons as 67(Australian) RFC, 68(Australian) RFC, 69(Australian) RFC and 71(Australian) RFC. This is due to the British bookkeeping, to avoid confusion with their own Squadrons numbered 1 to 4, giving the AFC squadrons British RFC nomenclature. The Australian Flying Corps squadrons were raised as Australian Flying Corps Squadrons by the Australian Government for the Australian Military Forces and for service in the Australian Imperial Forces. Further these squadrons were always known to the Australian Imperial Force by their correct Australian Flying Corps names. The Australian Government put pressure on the British administration to get their bookkeeping of Australian Forces in line with the Australian nomenclature, and in January of 1918, the British updated their bookkeeping to recognize the Australian squadrons for their rightful AFC names. Unfortunately this decision by the British War Office causes much confusion for the nomenclature of the Australian Flying Corps.
No 3 Squadron AFC
In September of 1917, 3 Sqn Australian Flying Corps flew to a staging airfield at St Omer in France before flying to their aerodrome at Savy the next day. The squadron was equipped with the RE8 or ‘Harry Tate’ as it was known colloquially and was trained as a Corps-reconnaissance and Artillery-spotting Squadron, in support of Army operations. In November the Squadron moved Bailleul in support of the Australia Corps in the Messiness area.
The RE8 is undervalued in most histories as an offensive machine, despite it’s pair of Lewis guns for the observer and the forward firing Vickers on the left hand side of the fuselage. 3 Sqn AFC like most spotter squadrons not only used their aircraft for army corps duties but as offensive weapons as well. The squadron was to be credited with over 50 victories in their fifteen month involvement in the Western Front aerial war. One of the aggressive pairs was Lieutenant A.E Grigson and Lieutenant H.B James, the pair destroyed two German aircraft whilst together and another each while in other crews. Their first victory while paired was when they watched an Albatros Scout attack the British balloon lines near Tromville. Grigson fired into the aircraft with his Vickers until it jammed and then James fired into the aircraft with his Lewis guns until the Albatros crashed.
One of the victories was to end up as a war trophy in the Australian War Memorial, still on display at the Treloar Centre, but it came at the cost of two Australian Flying Corps members, Lieutenant J.L Sandy and Sergeant H.F Hughes. Their RE.8 was attacked by several Albatros DV aircraft; they fought the aircraft off for approximately 10 minutes and forced the Albatros DV of the Australian War Memorial to land behind allied lines. Another RE8 of 3 Sqn came, and soon another RE.8 from the squadron saw the fight and joined in, driving the German Scouts off, but not before Sandy and Hughes had been killed by a single bullet. Their aircraft was to circle, slowly being blown west by the wind until it gently landed out of petrol, 50 miles away from the initial combat.
The squadron was involved in many of the pivotal and historic moments in the aerial war on the Western Front. On the day Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the “Red Baron” died, the first aircraft he attacked on his last patrol were a pair of 3 Sqn RE8s. The two RE8s saw a formation of nine German Scouts and were attacked by a pair of red nosed Fokker Triplanes, one being fully red. After exchanging shots, the red Triplane dived away, the second Triplane was seen with splinters flying off its wings due to fire from the RE8’s. Major D.V.J Blake after discovering the combat and putting two and two together thought 3 Sqn AFC may have been responsible for the death of Manfred von Richthofen, though when it was realized the fatal shots which brought Richthofen down were later in the day, the Combat Report was withdrawn. Richthofen was brought down in 3 Sqn AFC’s area and the squadron salvaged his aircraft and were to later give the “Red Baron” a full military burial. The last surviving member of the Australian Flying Corps, Howard Edwards, who sadly passed away in 1998, was a guard at Richthofen’s funeral.
The squadron was continually over enemy lines artillery spotting and reconnoitering for the Army, their RE8s were complemented late in the war by “O Flight” a long range flight of Bristol Fighters. Captain John R. Duigan, the first Australian to design, build and fly a powered aircraft in Australia, in company with Lieutenant A.S Paterson discovered the monstrous railway gun firing from Harbonnieres. The gun’s location was now pinpointed and it was captured in the offensive of August and taken back to Australia as a war trophy. One of the Squadron’s aircraft A4397 “D” was to set a record amongst the British forces on the Western Front for the greatest number of hours in enemy territory by completing 440 hours of service flying in 147 flights across enemy lines. The aircraft was shipped to Australia after the war and displayed in Melbourne, but its ultimate fate is unknown. The squadron was to finish its service after the war by flying mail flights through Belgium and France before being demobilized in March of 1919.
No 2 Squadron AFC
Number 2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps crossed the English Channel within two weeks of 3 Sqn, and landed at St Omer on the 21st of September 1917. The complete squadron made the crossing from Harlaxton to St Omer in one day, a record for the Allied flying forces. The squadron was in Warloy the next day ready for operations under the command of the erstwhile Major Oswald Watt, a veteran of the air war including stints with the French Aviation Militaire and 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. The squadron was equipped with the Airco DH5, unusual for it’s backward staggered wings and unfortunately underpowered for the war in late 1917 with a significant drop off in performance above 10 000 feet. Many a Combat Report was to claim the German Two Seater machines just flew away with the DH5 unable to catch it. The DH5 was excellent however in the ground attack and Army support roles, and 2 Squadron was used heavily during the Cambria Offensive. Many times, aircraft came back to land only to be deemed a write off. This was epitomized by Lieutenant Les Holden, a large character in the Australian Flying Corps who earned the nickname, “Lucky Len” due to the number of times his aircraft was written off and the closeness of him receiving bullets.
Number 2 Squadron re-equipped with the SE5a in December of 1917 and were posted to Savy in mid January where they operated as a Scout unit, flying patrols at 15 000 feet and searching out enemy aircraft to engage. Oswald Watt while with the French L’Aeronautique Militaire had his Farman painted with “Advance Australia” on its nose. His influence was to show in the insignia of 2 Squadron, a boomerang aft of the roundel which was mimicked by 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps as well. Even wilder schemes and insignia were to grace the aircraft of 1 Wing Australian Flying Corps while under Watt’s command. The squadron was also one of the first to exercise the Wing tactics starting to come into use in the British forces, by flying in large staggered groups similar to the manner with which the German Jagdstaffels operated. The Australian squadron discovered though that with large numbers in the air the Germans would shy from combat and in periods of lesser enemy activity 2 Squadron flew in smaller patrol groups.
On the 20th of June 1918 Number 2 Squadron joined up with Number 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps as part of 80 Wing under the command of Lt Colonel Strange, famous for hanging upside down from a jammed Lewis gun of his Martinsyde Scout and kicking out the instrument panel of the aircraft to get his legs back in. With the two Australian Scouting squadrons together a rivalry sprung up between the two to see which squadron could score the greatest amount. Wing tactics were used on attacks to enemy airfields around Harboudin and Lille in August of 1918, devastating the aerodromes. As the German Armies began to retreat in September Number 2 Squadron began taking part on more ground attack operations. Their last casualty was Captain Frank Smith, who was shot down two days before the Armistice and walked back to his aerodrome. He arrived to discover the Germans had surrendered in his absence. 2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps produced 16 aces and was victorious over 170 enemy aircraft.
No 4 Squadron AFC
In December of 1917 the last of the operational Australian Flying Corps Squadrons came into action when 4 Squadron crossed the Channel to St Omer and Bruay. The squadron was equipped with the Sopwith Camel, an aircraft destined to be the aircraft with which the most enemy aircraft were shot down. 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps was in no small way to contribute to this record. The aircraft also had a name for being spectacularly maneuverable in the hands of a gifted pilot and potentially dangerous to the novice. 4 Squadron was unfortunate to lose several new pilots to collisions during formation flying. Through the heavy work of the offensive in March of 1918, enemy contacts occurred often in the close support operations and the squadron’s aggressive nature began to build a score which was to be the highest averaging per month of any of the Sopwith Camel squadrons on the Western Front. The squadron was also to build a reputation for aggressiveness epitomized by men such as Captain A.H Cobby, who was the AFC’s top scorer, Captain E.R King, who was the highest scoring pilot of any nation on Sopwith Snipes and others such as the New Zealander Captain H.G Watson, Lieutenant L.E Taplin, Captain G.F Malley and Captain T.C.R Baker.
In June 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps joined with 2 Squadron AFC as part of 80 Wing and together the paired squadrons began flying as a group ranging from 20 000 feet with the SE5a’s to ground level where the Sopwith Camel had greater efficiency. 4 Squadron also began to target enemy balloon installations and a rash of balloon hunting sprung up in the squadron with pilots such as Cobby and Watson, staking out balloon lines very early in the morning and then attacking them in concert with other flights later in the day. Bobby during his period with the squadron claimed and was credited with the flaming of five balloons, the only balloon ace of the AFC. By late in 1918, the Sopwith Camel at higher altitudes was having difficulty competing with the increasingly more numerous Fokker DVII’s.
The squadron became the first Squadron to change to the new Sopwith Snipe, a more powerful, if less maneuverable fighter than the Sopwith Camel. In the torrid last month of the war, 4 Squadron was to claim 35 victories with the Snipe, including 7 by “Bo” King who was the leading scorer on the Sopwith Snipe. The squadron was to meet up with Jasta “Boelcke” with the high performance Fokker DVII. Thus the most effective German Jasta met the Snipes flown by one of the leading Allied squadrons in a dogfight. November 4th, 1918 was to be a black day, despite the squadron claiming four in the combat with Jasta “Boelcke”, including two victories by King, three Australian pilots were lost, including the aces Captain T.C.M Baker, Lieutenant A.J Palliser and the pilot Lieutenant P.W Symons. The German ace Karl Bolle claimed two Sopwith Snipes in the encounter.
After the cessation of hostilities, 4 Squadron hopped aerodromes through Belgium before arriving at Bickendorff, Cologne as part of the Allied Occupational Forces. The squadron was demobilized in February of 1919 and staged through England on the way to Australia. 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps was the highest scoring AFC squadron with a victory score of approximately 220. They were one of the most aggressive allied squadrons on the front and one of the highest averaging allied squadrons in victories per month. The squadron’s scoreboard from July 1st till the end of the war included 19 E.A. Flamed, 57 E.A. Crashed, 36 E.A. OOC, 7 E.A. Driven down and 22 Balloons destroyed.
No 1 Wing AFC
To support the three operational squadrons in Europe, 1 Wing Australian Flying Corps was formed in England. The Wing was to be commanded by Lt Colonel Oswald Watt until it’s disbandment in March of 1919. Four Squadrons were formed in the Wing, including 5, 6, 7 and 8 Squadrons equipped with a multitude of aircraft ranging from SE5a’s and Sopwith Camels, to Avro 504Ks and Armstrong Whitworth FK.7’s. The aircraft were most noticeable for their colors and insignia, including Kangaroos, Emus, Boomerangs, Kookaburras and Dragons. Captain Les Holden’s all red SE5a led to rumors in the local area that the Red Baron’s aircraft had been captured and was being flight tested in England. The Wing at the end of the war continued flying and training until demoted in 1919.
The Return To Australia
Demobilization for all the Australian Flying Corps Squadrons and men occurred under the Australian General John Monash who was responsible for the demobilization of the Australian Imperial Forces. The men of the Australian Flying Corps were to reach Australian shores within a couple of months having left a proud service record of combat in foreign lands.
Dead tree and electronic references:
- Aces and Kings, L.W. Sutherland
- Australian War Memorial Collections
- Australian Flying Corps, F.M. Cutlack
- The Battle Below, H.N. Wrigley
- Recollections of an Airman, L.A. Strange