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Chapter 4: The Western Front

Front label showing a general with the words Australian Flying Corps

Australians in World War I: Australian Flying Corps

This publication was produced by DVA to mark the 100th anniversary of the AFC and is the fourth book in the series about the First World War.

Chapter 4: The Western Front

Each Battleplane was equivalent in fighting value to 2000 men. 30

Towards the end of January 1916 a young Australian artilleryman in Egypt watched ‘half a dozen planes circling, rising, dropping, banking and turning … all at the same time …’ and pondered joining the AFC when he returned home. Not long afterwards he sailed for France, where his gaze once more turned skywards:

… air fights are a several times daily occurrence now and it is good fun to watch ‘em … Our latest planes are wonderful …  to see them go straight up till they stop, then come down tail first, turn a few somersaults, spin around on their own axis, loop the loop … Oh, blazes, don’t I want to be an aviator. I get … green with envy at times.31

A month later Thomas Baker, MM and Bar, transferred into the AFC. He was 21 years old.

Others like Baker felt a similar yearning. Verner Knuckey recalled that as a private in the Middle East he:

… used to lay on the sand and watch German Taubes bombing us or our own machines flying overhead … it gradually got a great hold on me … I wanted to try flying, often wondered if I had the nerve for the game. 32

Not everyone who joined the flying corps, however, shared their passion. Harry Cobby became the AFC’s highest scoring pilot but confessed to having no particular interest in flying when he enlisted in 1916. He, like others, wanting something ‘different from the Infantry’ followed a couple of friends into the cockpit.33

Others chose to become airmen because they wanted to escape the squalid earth-bound world of lice, mud, dust, shells and snipers. However they came to be there, many who filled the AFC’s ranks had fought in the Middle East or in the trenches of France and Belgium before experiencing aerial combat.

In the skies over the front they found themselves in a struggle every bit as pitiless, dangerous and capricious as the war on the ground. Much had transpired since the earliest operational flights in 1914 when unarmed aircraft flew with impunity over enemy lines. From each side’s attempt to deny the other an aerial view of the country beyond their trenches rose the art of aerial combat. As the years passed airmen fought each other in ever more heavily armed and sophisticated aircraft. The advantage swung from one side to the other as tactics evolved and aircraft design and weaponry improved. When the three Australian squadrons reached England during the winter of 1916–1917 the Germans held the upper hand.

Before facing the enemy over France and Belgium, however, the Australians generally faced some eight months of training. Point Cook graduates, like everyone else, had to complete the RFC course before joining a line squadron.34

Their predecessors in the RFC, the Royal Naval Air Service and even No. 1 Squadron AFC, had been poorly served by comparison. Training for the British air forces in the war’s early years rarely prepared men for the rigours of frontline flying. Even later in the war, when training standards had improved, some men still received less instruction than they might have hoped. Cobby was sent to France without ever having done air gunnery while Stan Nunan claimed to have been rushed through a two-month course in three weeks.35 Not everyone lived to reach the front, however. In November 1917 Thomas Edols wrote while training England:

A poor chap was killed here yesterday … I had just looped when his machine shot down in front of me absolutely out of control with the wings folded back … he only missed me by about fifty yards, when I got down to him he was quite dead.36

Such dramatic accidents were hardly rare, but far more common were those from which the pilot walked or was carried away, alive but injured. Royal Flying Corps statistics tell us that the average trainee pilot destroyed two aircraft and wrecked six undercarriages.37 Harry Cobby crashed one of his machines into a stone wall while trying to take off from a small field:

Just as I got off the ground the engine spluttered and I hit the wall with my undercarriage and broke the machine in two, with the tail inside the field and the nose sticking in the ground outside. A piece of broken longeron … stuck into my thigh and made a nasty gash.38

He did not, strictly speaking, walk away, but his injury was not serious.

Nothing could militate against the collapse of a machine’s wings or a trainee’s inexperience, but by the time the Australians arrived in England training had advanced considerably. Most prospective airmen were taught the science of aviation and its many military adjuncts—gunnery, photography, battery ranging for artillery work and how to observe and interpret the ground from above. Experienced pilots lectured them on conditions over the front and on the latest tactics.

At a time when millions were in mortal peril whenever they were in or near the front line, some men weighed up the thrill and excitement of flight against the possibility of dying in an accident or in combat and accepted, perhaps even welcomed, the risks. With such powerful, gravity-defying machines at their command flying could be enormous fun. On one training flight a hesitant Fred Cornish was amused when his instructor:

… spotted some German prisoners working in the open ground. He stopped the engine and sang out ‘I say Old Bean, Give me the machine and we’ll put the bally old breeze up these old boshes’. Then we dived straight down on the beggars my word they did run.39

Such stunts showed pupils what a plane could do and gave them the confidence to perform these manoeuvres themselves. In the same letter Cornish explained:

Pupils who are more advanced are given tiny scouts … called pups to manage. These machines are the finest thing in the world to fly. You travel at about 100 miles an hour and can throw them about any how. Well these chaps … spoil … golfers strokes by flying low along the ground and suddenly zooming up over their heads. The sensation is absolutely fine you have your complete sense of speed and have to follow every curve of the ground. The practice makes a chap a jolly good pilot and gives him the confidence that will beat every German airman on any front.40

Towards the end of 1917 four AFC training squadrons—Nos 5,6,7 and 8—were established in England. The thirty-two pupils buried in English cemeteries, of which twenty-five lie at Leighterton, attest to the dangers associated with learning to fly; while Cobby’s comment on instructing being ‘much worse than flying in France’, speaks volumes about how risky it was to teach ‘hard flying enthusiastic learners of the art of air fighting’.41

The AFC’s No. 3 Squadron, equipped with two-seat R.E.8s, reached the front at Savy in September 1917 before moving to Bailleul to support 1 Anzac Corps in November. When the winter weather allowed they flew observation, photography and artillery ranging operations. At that time of year, however, poor weather often made flying impossible and, having experienced war in the air, many airmen greeted rain, mist and low cloud with relief. On one bleak day a No. 3 Squadron observer and former dux of Melbourne’s Wesley College, Owen Lewis, wrote ‘this morning I was pleased when the weather was fairly dud—I am afraid I am always pleased when that is so’.42 Bad weather meant rest and another day of life.

As expectations of a German offensive grew in the early part of 1918 the squadron spent more and more time photographing the line. Then they would drop their noses and dive, seeking men and transport to bomb and strafe. Ranged against them were hundreds of German machine guns and anti-aircraft batteries that could send fifteen rounds a minute to almost 5000 metres. Flying metal might tear into the pilot, sever crucial wires, hit the petrol tank or strike a vital part of the unarmoured engine. A shell need not score a direct hit to bring an aircraft down; scouts lurking high in the blinding sun or searching among clouds could be guided to a lonely two-seater by the tell-tale black smoke of anti-aircraft bursts.

Reflecting on the deadly business of studying the enemy from the air, Tom Cundall, the semi-fictional self of RFC Camel pilot Victor Yeates, mused ‘what a misfortune it was to fly RE (8)s! Why did they use the wretched things?’43 Yeates looked upon the unfortunates in these slow-moving observation planes as men condemned. Some Australians agreed. Horace Miller, looking around the cockpit on his first time in an R.E.8 wondered ‘if this confined space might hold my last moments of flight’.44

If Owen Lewis’ experience is any guide, then Yeates and Miller had a point. One of twenty Australian R.E.8 crewmen sent to France for experience with an RFC squadron during August 1917, Lewis was involved in five combats in six days before being shot in the legs and chest on the seventh. As he made a slow recovery the pilot with whom he had flown was killed in action.45

On 21 March 1918 the Germans launched their mighty offensive and swept across the old Somme battlefields around St Quentin. In early April No. 3 Squadron followed the Australian corps southwards to face the heavy German attacks on the area. They based themselves at Poulainville alongside the Australian Corps Headquarters at Bertangles. There, Owen Lewis, recovered from his wounds and back with the squadron, wrote of going for a walk with George Best.46

Finding that they got along, the two agreed to fly together.

The next day, General John Monash, then Commander of the Australian 3rd Division, wrote to his wife about the son of an old family friend:

I deeply regret that I have just a moment ago had word that Owen Lewis … has been killed. His plane came down in flames an hour ago.47

Lewis had teamed up with Best and on the pair’s first flight, a photographic mission, their aircraft’s engine, which had caught fire on an earlier flight with a different crew, did so again. Both were incinerated.48 At his Melbourne home five days later news of Owen’s death prompted scenes all too common in Australia during the war years. His brother Brian recalled he and older sister Phyllis ‘sobbed together … the foundation of our world had melted away.’ For five more weeks Owen’s letters continued to arrive, and long afterwards there came in a thick brown envelope a photograph of the dead boy’s grave.49

An airman’s existence was a curious one. Against the possibility of meeting such a gruesome end was the certainty when off-duty of safety and comforts beyond the hopes of ground troops. When asked by General Birdwood how he liked the airman’s life compared to the trench mortars from which he had transferred, Edols replied simply that it ‘was impossible to beat’, while Cornish regretted only that he ‘was not in the Flying Corps long ago’.50

At first glance the airman’s life appeared privileged—the thought that flying would take up a few hours a day leaving the remaining time for rest, safe behind the lines, must have been very appealing. But those long empty hours dragged. Airmen might sleep, go for walks, play tennis or some other game, eat or drink tea but real rest was elusive. Time on their hands meant time to think about the next job, about friends they had seen die or men they had killed. The transition from moments of extreme danger to hours of peaceful existence, sometimes several times a day, kept men in a constant state of exhaustion. Cundall wished the ‘times between jobs [could] be passed in oblivion’.51 Harry Cobby remembered the strain of continuous operations during the German offensive of 1918, remarking that ‘I could not eat, but champagne and brandy with an odd biscuit seemed good enough’.52 Alcohol was a crutch for many airmen when the strain of constant war flying began to tell. Little wonder that cadets sometimes commented on their instructors, who had already flown in combat, seeming ‘a little war strained’.53

On the ground the German offensive slowed and by May 1918 was defeated. In late June No. 3 Squadron began operations to support the coming assault on Hamel: flying long reconnaissance patrols, directing fire against enemy batteries and sometimes coming under attack themselves. On 4 July 1918, the day of the battle, Australian airmen patrolled, spotted for artillery and pioneered a new tactic by dropping ammunition to forward troops.

A month later the Allies launched what would prove to be their war-winning offensive. No. 3 Squadron’s R.E.8s dropped smoke bombs on the foggy morning of the battle’s first day and flew a constant round of operations throughout the remaining months of the war as the Allied armies chased the Germans from the country that they had occupied since 1914.

Until the very end R.E.8s remained favoured prey for enemy scouts and were often engaged in combat. In the hands of an experienced crew they could be a tough proposition. Few scout pilots relished taking on a two-seater single handed and No. 3 Squadron ended the war having shot down or damaged fifty-one German aircraft. Balanced against this were the losses. Eleven R.E.8s were shot down over enemy lines and many more suffered serious battle damage.54 Twenty-three members of the squadron lost their lives; almost all were airmen. On a May 1918 morning Jack Treacy saw one crew die when five German machines shot Henry Ralfe’s R.E.8 down in flames over Morlancourt Ridge. As Treacy watched, William Buckland, Ralfe’s observer, leapt from the inferno rather than be burned alive.55 With no parachute he was one of many World War I airmen forced to make that dreadful final choice. Some fliers carried a pistol with which to shoot themselves should they become a ‘flamer’.

Although they lacked the glamour of the single seat scouts, reconnaissance aircraft such as the R.E.8 were the mainstay of World War I aerial operations. In their observation role they fulfilled military aviation’s original purpose. And almost as quickly as they began studying enemy territory did the opposing side seek to destroy them or at least prevent their crossing the front. Specialist fighters—fast, compact single-seat scouts—were designed to shoot them down.

Two Australian scout squadrons, Nos 2 and 4, served on the Western Front. No. 2 Squadron was the first into action, reaching France on 21 September 1917. Flying D.H.5s, its pilots began patrolling the line shortly afterwards. Between operations the squadron spent its early months at the front practicing low-level flying.

Training gave way to reality on the wet, misty morning of 20 November when the Australians flew in support of the combined tank and infantry assault on Cambrai. Of such work a former scout pilot wrote ‘You got little credit for ground strafing, although it was the most dangerous, nerve-wracking, and perhaps most valuable work that scouts did’.56

Sitting in a cockpit where ‘the rush of wind and noise of your engine prevents you from hearing anything’57 pilots on strafes were deaf to the enormous volume of fire directed against them.

As they sped towards the ground, ready to kill with bombs and machine guns, enemy troops opened up on the diving aircraft. John Bell was shot through the chest and died of his wounds months later. William Robertson was brought down by a German pilot. Harry Taylor came down in no-man’s-land, picked up a rifle, began firing at German troops, was picked up by an advance British patrol, tried and failed to start another crashed aircraft and ended up at a casualty clearing station where he helped the medical staff before returning to the squadron. Leslie Ward broke his leg when his machine was brought down in German territory. He spent the rest of the war in captivity. Frederick Sheppard was shot down and wounded, and Robert McKenzie survived a crash landing when ground fire hit his petrol tanks.58

Of the eighteen No. 2 Squadron aircraft flying on the battle’s first day, seven were destroyed or severely damaged. Over the next few days another three pilots were lost to ground fire. On 22 November, Frederick Huxley brought down the squadron’s and the Australians’ first enemy aircraft on the Western Front. Just an hour later Richard Howard drove down two more and Roy Phillipps another. The following day Sydney Ayers was shot down. He died of his wounds a day later.59

During such intense fighting pilots could find themselves one moment firing on German troops and the next engaged by an enemy aircraft:

Coming out of a dive after dropping a bomb, I found 5 scouts above me … I attacked one scout who turned and fired … and then climbed up into the clouds. I fired … till I lost him. I then dived on the trenches to machine gun infantry, and on coming out of the dive, I saw [a] three-seater about 400 feet above me … with the two gunners standing up and firing at me. I zoomed up under him and fired …60

Flying at speeds beyond those ever travelled by most people of the time—a D.H.5 could do more than 160 kilometres per hour—much could happen to airmen in mere moments.

In the adrenaline-charged world of ground strafing, burdened by their own fear and tense with excitement, few pilots spared a thought for those whom they killed. Later, however, when they had time to reflect, some pondered the morality of their deadly work. Of Cambrai one AFC colonel was recalled to have said ‘it was not war this flying low, it was too deadly on the enemy, turning the machine guns on the infantry from the air at short range’.61

As the battle drew to an end so did No. 2 Squadron’s association with the D.H. 5s. In December they were equipped with the formidable S.E.5a, which they flew both on ground attack operations and high level patrolling for the rest of the war. A series of combats through February and early March yielded some victories for the squadron’s pilots but winter’s short days and inclement weather kept aircraft on the ground for much of the time.

While No. 2 Squadron were getting used to their S.E.5as, No. 4 Squadron, flying Sopwith Camels, arrived in France in late December 1917. They were stationed at Bruay, and made their first sorties over the lines on 9 January to escort photography machines and conduct an offensive patrol. Edgar McCloughry recalled the squadron using its early weeks on the Western Front to build the airmen’s confidence. They went on strafing runs, finding amusement in machine gunning ‘Bosche’ horse transport. McCloughry commented that the whole squadron ‘did nothing else but annoy the Hun on the ground’.62

During the winter, Australian scouts, when they could fly, engaged in low-level reconnaissance and offensive patrols, escorted photography aircraft and bombers and machine-gunned villages in which Germans were billeted behind the lines. ‘Hunland’, as airmen called the country on the German side of the line, was where most Western Front air fighting took place. German pilots rarely sought combat over Allied territory and north western Europe’s prevailing westerly winds often carried fights even deeper into German territory, where the ground was thick with anti-aircraft batteries. The flight over the lines might be relatively fast, but the flight back against a headwind—perhaps in a damaged machine, pursued by German scouts, chased by anti-aircraft fire or peppered by machine-gun bullets—could be a terribly slow one.

Encounters with enemy aircraft were common. Captain Manfred von Richthofen—the ‘Red Baron’— prowled these skies. A born killer, he, and his famed circus, like other such formations, existed only to hunt and destroy Allied machines.63 Sometimes they used two-seaters as decoys, what Cornish called ‘traps for young players’. ‘The old Hun is not what one could call brave but certainly he is a very crafty enemy’ he wrote.64 Experienced Allied airmen knew better than to attack a lone two-seater before searching the sky above with a thoroughness born of mortal fear. ‘There is a lot to learn and I have to go very canny for a little while yet,’ concluded Cornish.65 Perhaps he was familiar with his squadron leader, Oswald Watt’s, dictum that ‘At this game—those who live learn—and those who don’t, teach others by their mistakes’.66

As spring drove away the glum winter weather and preparations for the German offensive continued, aerial combats took place almost whenever Australian scouts took to the sky. But the battles were relatively tame. While the Germans, bolstered by the arrival of aircraft from the Eastern Front after Russia’s collapse, were sending up large formations, they were also avoiding battle, preserving themselves for the onslaught to come. When the advantage was theirs, however, they attacked.

On 16 March ten No. 4 Squadron machines bombed the Douai railway station. Returning home at 4800 metres, they were set upon from above by sixteen enemy scouts.67 In a desperate defensive fight one Australian, William Nicholls, was brought down and taken prisoner.68 Two Germans were sent plunging from the sky in flames and another spiralled towards the ground out of control. ‘Gerry Schafer’, wrote Cobby, ‘was shot badly in this fight’.  He came home with dozens of bullet holes in his machine, a shattered windscreen and his guns destroyed. Having spun earthwards through more than 3000 metres of sky before crossing the line at ground level, Schafer made it home but ‘went all “goofy” and was not much use for some time’.69

Two days later a thick fog set in, making flying difficult and keeping all but a few aircraft on the ground. On 21 March the German offensive began. In a frantic round of combat flights the Australians fought German aircraft and dived to within metres of the ground to bomb and strafe German troops. Every available Allied machine was cast into the battle. Cobby described it as the busiest period of No. 4 Squadron’s career.70 Both of the Australian scout squadrons ran at a frenetic pace. The first sortie took off before dawn and the last finished after dark:

All this flying was done under 500 feet and our targets were point blank ones … the havoc caused by our bombs and machine guns (sic) fire was tremendous.71

Air battles took place from just above the ground up to more than 6000 metres. Ground strafing machines were set upon by German scouts, which were in turn attacked by Allied aircraft. No. 2 Squadron would cross the line at about 300 metres protecting those strafing even lower down before diving onto the advancing masses of German troops themselves.72

Their aerodrome became home to an assortment of other British units and aircraft: Dolphins, Bristol Fighters, and, said Verner Knuckey:

… our own squadron … [and] our neighbours 40th Sqdn with their S.E.5’s … we were all working day and night, [I] could not write even a note home, for the first time during my army career I used Field Service post cards in place of letter writing.73

Flying during these desperate days was a nerve-wracking experience. As Cobby recalled:

… the air was full of aircraft, and continuously while shooting up troops on the ground we would be attacked by enemy scouts. They would drop through the clouds and the mist, have a quick snap at us and would then duck back into the clouds again … The smoke of the battle mixed with the clouds and mist above, rendered flying particularly dangerous, quite apart from the risk of running into both the enemy’s and our own shells.74

Remarkably No. 4 Squadron had only two pilots killed in four weeks; two others were taken prisoner. Everyone else returned from sorties with their machines ‘shot to ribbons’.75

In June, two and a half years after having gazed in wonder at aircraft flying overhead in Egypt, Thomas Baker joined No. 4 Squadron. The Western Front was familiar to the young pilot, but he had never seen it like this during his years in the artillery:

It is quite funny getting back but not at all bad. …  I went up to the lines yesterday and had a look around. Looks pretty desolate from above though. Am going on my first show tonight, which is looking after balloons or some such thing.76

Balloons, suspended up to more than 1000 metres in the air, carried a single observer in a wicker basket hanging under a giant gas-filled bag. From up there the observer could see for tens of kilometres and report on the location of enemy batteries and troop movements. Floating peacefully, tethered high above the trenches, balloons looked a tempting target, but they were heavily protected by anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and often scouts as well. Running the gauntlet to get within range of one was a dangerous business. Destroying a balloon counted towards a pilot’s score with the same value as an enemy aircraft. Nor, as Edols learned, were they always what they seemed:

… we were out over Hun-land and fell into a very nicely baited trap … they had a very tempting dummy balloon up, which we dived on. As soon as we dived four of us, we were dived on by twelve Huns all firing for their lives, a race for seven miles ensued … it was quite exciting.77 

 When ‘balloonatics’, as airmen called the observers, were in danger of being caught dropping to earth under a burning balloon, they jumped, deploying a parachute to arrest their descent. Even then they were not always safe. Herbert Watson gained a reputation for firing on observers once their balloon was aflame. He, said McCloughry, used to ‘annoy the Bosche in his parachutes and on one occasion severed the Hun from his parachute’.78

Rare though such killings may have been, the example illustrates just what a merciless affair the air war was. Successful airmen generally killed, as Sutherland found in the Middle East, when the enemy was unaware of their presence. ‘When an experienced pilot is out waiting for single enemy machines, the hostile pilot he is stalking is as good as dead before even a shot is fired’, concluded Cobby.79 At greatest risk were new men. More than 40% of No. 2 Squadron’s casualties had less than four weeks of frontline experience.80

Simply seeing other aircraft in the sky was an acquired art and even nearby machines could be invisible to a novice. Owen Lewis on an early flight ‘was bang on the lookout the whole time and could only distinguish the machines when they were quite close’.81 Cornish, having only been over the line a few times, wrote to his mother:

… we dived from about 17,000 to 12,000 I am blowed if I could see anything but people say that we chased away a few Huns. Our leader gave one of them beans. I wasn’t far behind and to think that I never saw anything really is very annoying.82

Sometimes even more experienced men found aerial combat confusing. Louis Strange remembered on one occasion being ‘blissfully unaware that I had shot down a Fokker’.83 No wonder that pilots with months or years of frontline experience found their victims among men who barely knew what was happening around them.

Aware that they were soon to face mortal peril over the battlefield, trainee pilots could be assailed by fear and doubt long before reaching a line squadron. Cobby recalled that were it possible he would have left nothing undone to delay his arrival at the front.84 Once there he felt a ‘physical shrinking from meeting the Hun’.85 A new pilot’s early days of flying over enemy country, remarked Cobby, were:

… characterised by … the sort of fear that robs a man of his initiative and determination, the two greatest factors in the character of a successful fighter.86

Patrol work over the lines did not always allay these fears, as many hours of flying might pass before an airman encountered enemy aircraft. Knowing that sooner or later it must happen only increased the tension. Cecil Lewis flew with the RFC and knew well the terror that gripped men facing a sudden and violent death:

It was the fear of the unforeseen, the inescapable, the imminent hand of death which might … be ruthlessly laid upon me. I realised … why pilots cracked up … nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility … always you had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job.87

Cobby shot down his first German almost two months after reaching the front. In a turning fight he got into a favourable position and shot a Pfalz’s right wing off: ‘the machine went hurtling earthwards, and finally burst into flames when about 2000 feet from the ground’. Seeing a man die so horribly by his hand Cobby leant out of his cockpit and was ‘just about as ill as he had ever been’.88

Even in the crowded skies of mid-1918, Thomas Baker was also two months at the front before he managed to shoot down his first German. From then on his letters home recorded his growing ‘bag’. On 1 October he dived on the unsuspecting crew of a German two-seater, killing the pilot with his first burst and sending the doomed machine tumbling to earth. It was the fifth of his twelve victories.89

Holding one’s fire until sure of putting a burst in the cockpit and engine was the hallmark of a successful scout pilot. Thus, as Cobby found, airmen often saw their victims die. A pilot or observer might slump into his cockpit; might jump in agony from a burning aircraft, his clothes aflame; or might be sent plunging to earth, unharmed but doomed, in a crippled machine. Some men enjoyed aerial combat—Baker was such a one—but even the most enthusiastic must have been worn down by the pace of fighting in the last months of the war. His log book reveals that between 26 June and the beginning of November, apart from a period of leave, Baker flew on all but sixteen days, often on several sorties.

After the August offensive Allied squadrons combined to conduct great sweeps over enemy held territory, bombing rear areas, disrupting communications and attacking troops, stores and artillery batteries wherever they were found. German airmen also appeared in ever larger formations over the front. Strange recalled that, whatever was being said about an imminent German collapse, there was no evidence of this in the skies over the battlefield. ‘To us’, he wrote, ‘things looked just as critical as they did four years previously’.90

The two Australian scout squadrons participated in these sweeps with the Bristol Fighters of the Royal Air Force’s No. 88 Squadron. They would typically rendezvous over a conspicuous landmark—No. 4 Squadron’s Camels at 3000 metres, No. 2 Squadron’s S.E.5as at 4200 metres, and the Bristol Fighters above them all at 5500 metres—then fly up to 30 kilometres beyond the trenches, looking for combat.

In mid-August, as part of such a formation, Australian scouts bombed and strafed the German aerodromes at Haubourdin and Lomme under the protective cover of British Bristol Fighters and S.E.5as. Cobby flew on these raids and wrote of Harboudin:

[I] fired a red light to let everyone know the game was on, I put my nose further down and made for the nearest hanger … I let my first two bombs go from about fifty feet then circled out … to shoot up several Fokkers.

His friend ‘Bo’ King joined him on the strafing run.91 They came back at the hangers, firing until the machines inside caught fire. Then two extraordinarily brave Germans flew through the mass of Australian scouts, the observer firing at ‘everyone in sight’ but hitting no one. With most of the Australians out of ammunition the Germans flew on unscathed.92

In the war’s final months German airmen, now in dwindling numbers, were still capable of inflicting disaster on the Allies. On 5 September a No. 4 Squadron patrol of five aircraft was attacked by three formations of Fokkers, totalling about thirty aircraft, at 3300 metres. The Australian leader signalled to avoid action and dived away. His four comrades, either not seeing the signal or being unable to escape the Germans, were shot down. Only one survived to become a prisoner.

In October No. 4 Squadron replaced its Camels with Sopwith Snipes. In these aircraft the squadron destroyed thirty German machines in the last five days of the month. On one of these late October days the Australians fought in one of the war’s largest air battles, when fifteen No. 4 Squadron Snipes encountered some sixteen Fokkers. King shot down a German two-seater that crossed his path as he dived away from five pursuers. George Jones led three Snipes into an attack on ten Fokkers, destroying two.93 Arthur Palliser shot down three.94 Other Australians also claimed victories, ten Fokkers in all for the loss of Percy Sims.95 On 30 October in a similar fight King fought off four Germans. Zooming ‘up through their formation’ he turned in front of the highest enemy machine, which he had not noticed previously. It fell over on its back to avoid a crash but struck a second Fokker then climbing after King. Both fell to earth.96 In the same fight Baker shot down his twelfth victim.

On 4 November No. 4 Squadron’s Snipes escorted No. 2 Squadron on an attack against the German aerodrome at Chapelle-à-Wattines. Leading the formation back across the lines after the raid, the Snipes engaged twelve Fokkers of the famous Jasta Boelcke—one of the most successful German squadrons. When the Australians reformed after a few brief, chaotic minutes of battle, three were missing, among them Thomas Baker. The 21-year-old, a three year veteran of ground and aerial combat, was last seen diving and firing on a Fokker. He fell to one of Germany’s elite air fighting units in their last battle of the war. In far-away Adelaide, his home town, a pair of stained-glass windows dedicated to Baker’s memory flank the baptistery of St. John’s Church of England.97

Baker’s death preceded the armistice by seven days. He was one of some 175 AFC personnel to have lost their lives during the war, a seemingly low rate of loss by World War I standards.98 However, in a line squadron fewer than 10% of personnel—the airmen—engaged in combat. Their losses were comparable to those in the infantry. During the course of their eleven months at the front, No. 4 Squadron, for instance, had its fighting establishment wiped out twice over. Nos 1, 2 and 3 Squadrons suffered a similar rate of attrition.99

As the only Australian unit in the British Army of Occupation, No. 4 Squadron crossed the German border on 7 December 1918 and spent more than two months at Cologne. No. 2 Squadron remained near Lille until demobilisation and No. 3 Squadron ran an aerial postal service between various army and corps headquarters. By late February 1919, having handed over their machines and stores, the Western Front squadrons went to England before embarking for home in May. No. 1 Squadron preceded them, leaving Egypt in early March.

Over the burning Mesopotamian and Egyptian deserts to the Holy Lands and north-western Europe, Australian airmen went from flying run-down obsolete aircraft in 1915 to piloting the deadliest machines of the war in 1918. Attaining heights and speeds greater than any yet achieved by humans, they learnt how to fight in a new dimension and laid the groundwork for a separate air force in which many AFC veterans served—the Royal Australian Air Force, formed in 1921. Men like Williams and Cobby became leaders in the new service while others, including Ross Smith and Hudson Fysh, went on to carve out successful careers in civil aviation. All who flew with the AFC and the thousands who toiled to keep their aircraft flying were, in a very real sense, pioneers in warfare’s newest arena.


Front label showing a general with the words Australian Flying Corps

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