Harry Cobby: Stories of Service

Running time
6 min 43 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

Harry Cobby was a bank clerk in Melbourne when the war began in 1914. He was keen to serve but his job at the bank was considered essential and he wasn't able to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Harry convinced his employer, and in 1916, he enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). His extraordinary career lasted more than 30 years. Harry served in 2 world wars and was one of the first to join the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He was a skilled pilot, known for his leadership. His story is one of strength and bravery.

Student inquiry activities

  1. Dr Hampton describes the Flying Corps as being the newest and shiniest arm of defence. Explain why the Flying Corps was considered so exciting.
  2. Harry was a scout pilot. What did that mean? Read Australian Flying Corps in World War I to learn more.
  3. Harry had 12 hours' solo flying time when he went to France. Considering how little experience Harry had and the types of planes he was flying, how would you describe Harry's achievements? How was Harry's experience different to pilots who serve in the Royal Australian Air Force today? Read about pilot jobs in the Australian Defence Force to find out more.
  4. Part of Harry's skill as a pilot seemed to lie in both his awareness of what was going on around him and his ability to act accordingly. What dangers did the pilots face when flying?
  5. In World War I, observational balloons were used to gather information about the actions of the enemy. Because of their position in the sky, spotters in the large baskets under the balloons could see troop movements and enemy trench lines. How do modern armies gather that sort of information in conflict zones around the world today?


[Music plays]

Opening credits: The title 'Stories of Service: First World War' appears, then a pale telegram envelope. A collage of images shows a young soldier, a nurse, the Australian Coat of Arms, service medals, a young pilot in uniform and the cover of an Australian recruitment pamphlet for the Great War. A thumbtack pins an ANZAC Christmas card onto an envelope. A worn silver identity tag is visible.

The presenter Ray Martin walks on screen in front of gum trees in the early morning light. A caption reads 'Ray Martin AM'. He arrives at a plaque that says 'Royal Australian Air Force' and begins speaking.

'When World War I began in 1914, young Harry Cobby was a bank clerk in Melbourne. He didn't want to fly those funny aeroplanes, they were newfangled things that kept falling out of the sky. He wanted to fight on the ground in the trenches. So how did Harry Cobby become one of the war's great flying aces?'

[Music plays]

A man's right hand sketches a young pilot in uniform using a lead pencil. He adds details with lead pencil and watercolours. These include a khaki green jacket, a fawn-coloured collared shirt with brown buttons, a tie and pilot's cap. Harry Cobby's face becomes clearer.

A photo labelled 'Harry Cobby' in white cursive text. Then a photo of Harry sitting with other pilots in uniform. The scene centres on Harry and the other faces are blurred.

'The second child in a family of 4 boys, Harry was born Arthur Henry Cobby, in Melbourne in 1894.'

Old film footage of 2 officers in uniform sitting on horses. They watch lines of soldiers in uniform parading past. The soldiers march across a field. The scene changes and shows soldiers wearing hard hats and working inside a muddy bunker, surrounded by sandbags. The men wear shirts and trousers. Some wear braces. All of them are dirty and some are smiling. They are loading small carts to move along a track. The screen changes to an image of 7 airmen, all dressed for flying, standing in front of a plane. The photo is labelled 'Australian Flying Corps'. An outline of a map is visible.

'He was just 20 when the First World War began and quickly offered himself to the Australian Imperial Force, the AIF, which was the Army. But the Commonwealth Bank where he worked refused to let him go, so instead, Harry later joined the Australian Flying Corps, the AFC, which was part of the Army, even though he admitted that he wasn't really interested in flying.'

Replica of the Sopwith Camel aeroplane flown by Harry lit up inside the Oakey Museum, showing the underneath and then its wooden propeller.

'The first-ever aeroplane flight had only been 11 years before the war.'

The screen shows old film footage of a plane being pushed out of a hangar by 3 men. The plane is a Sopwith Camel. In the next scene, the same type of plane is shown. A man pushes the nose propeller hard to make it spin and the plane engine starts. The next scene is old film footage of 3 planes in a field. Young men around each aircraft are helping to direct the machines while the pilots are learning to fly them. The next scene shows 3 planes lined up. One of the planes is guided by 2 men and it begins to move towards taking off.

'Using aircraft in combat was new, it was strange but exciting. In late 1916, Harry was sent to the Central Flying School at Point Cook in Victoria for pilot training.'

[An aeroplane engine starts and then runs.]

Dr Meleah Hampton is shown speaking. An old photo shows 3 men in pilot uniforms standing next to a plane, looking towards the nose and talking. Another photo shows several men all dressed in either flying attire or uniform. Harry's face is shown fourth from the left. He wears a uniform.

'The Royal Flying Corps and the Australian Flying Corps, by extension, is just the newest, shiniest, nothing is cooler than the Flying Corps. That's the really glory place to be.'

A photograph of men wearing pilot uniforms; Harry is seated third from the right. Old film footage shows officers speaking to a large group of soldiers outside. Footage shows 4 officers walking on a grassed area away from a building and fence. Footage shows a man standing on a ladder and working on a plane, before descending the ladder. His 2 colleagues are also working on the plane. A photo shows Harry sitting in the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Harry became an original member of No 4 Squadron, arriving in England in March 1917.'

Dr Meleah Hampton speaks: 'He goes to various aerodromes in England then, and becomes more and more qualified on various machines. He ends up being qualified on Sopwith Camels, which are a notorious aircraft to fly.'

A caption reads Over the front: the Great War in the air – Courtesy Australian War Memorial. A video shows a person sitting in the cockpit of a plane. The view is looking over the right shoulder of the pilot. The instrument panel can be seen. A gloved hand moves the centre controller.

A man speaks: 'More airmen were killed learning to fly the Camel than were shot down by the enemy.'

The pilot says: 'Switches on'.

A second male voice says: 'Make it hot'.

The pilot says: 'Contact'.

The second male voice says: 'Swinging'.

In another scene, an airman is sitting in the cockpit of a plane. His goggles sit on his forehead and he wears a brown leather covering over his head and ears. He also wears a leather coat with a fluffy collar and hood. He speaks to someone unseen. The pilot is looking toward the front of the aircraft to where the second man seems to be standing. The pilot is again shown sitting in the cockpit of the plane, with the view over his right shoulder. Both gloved hands can be seen briefly moving the controls as the engine starts. The screen is split into 2 views. On one half, the inside of the cockpit is shown. On the other, one side of the plane is shown from the front with the engine running and grey smoke coming out. The screen becomes a single view again and the plane gathers speed as it travels down a grassy green field towards the camera. The smoke still comes from the rear of the plane as it lifts into the air, travelling forward and over the camera which pans up to its underside.

Dr Meleah Hampton speaks: 'All of their instruments are super touchy and it doesn't take very much to change the way the plane is working. When you rev it, it has massive torque to the left. So it was really common to take off and then just go over and crash.'

The scene changes to old footage. It shows a pilot in full uniform taking notes while looking at the instruments inside the cockpit of a plane. The plane is parked in a grassy field. The scene changes and shows 2 pilots working on the underside of an aeroplane. The vision shifts again to old footage of 2 pilots climbing into an aeroplane cockpit, while 4 uniformed men watch.

Ray Martin speaks: 'And we're lucky to have him describe his combat days in his own words.'

A caption reads 'Voice of Harry Cobby'. Old footage shows a plane crossing a dusty paddock. The scene changes and planes are flying in action against a lilac sky with fluffy white clouds. A painting shows soldiers running between trenches and enemy planes firing on them. A coloured film shows several pilots flying through the sky. They change directions as they try to shoot down enemy planes.

'On many occasions when our ground forces in the trenches undertook to try and dislodge the enemy or break through, or vice versa, we would be allotted the task of shooting up the enemy trenches. Needless to say, there was much zooming and climbing in all directions, with a quick flick back of the troops in the trenches every now and then. At such close quarters, it didn't pay to be in the same place for too long.'

The presenter Ray Martin stands next to a plaque that says 'Royal Australian Air Force'. He is speaking. An old photo of Harry and words from a citation that explains why he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross with 2 bars. The photo is captioned 'Captain Harry Cobby, leading ace of the AFC'.

'By the time he'd reached 15 German planes shot down, he'd been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the DFC, for his bravery and for his flying skills. When he reached 21, he finished up with 29 German planes shot down. When he reached 21, he'd been awarded 2 bars for his DFC. That's like being awarded 2 extra Distinguished Flying Crosses.'

The impressive collection of service medals awarded to Harry are shown. The medals gleam and their ribbons have bright colours. A woman Dr Meleah Hampton is speaking.

'His activity is never-ending and he is constantly being put up for awards because it is so constantly remarkable.'

An old photo shows Harry in uniform and wearing a scarf, standing in front of a Sopwith Camel. Old footage is seen with Harry and a fellow pilot in the foreground. They are laughing together. Harry is using his headgear to cover his eyes in fun. A coloured shot of the Sopwith Camel aeroplane replica inside the museum at Oakey is shown. It has the Charlie Chaplin cut-out on the side. The plane is shown up close and further away. Next, movie footage shows a pilot as he flies a Sopwith Camel during battle.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Remarkable, too, was Harry's sense of humour and his big personality, which raised morale in the squadron in those dark days. One historian labelled him, "an imp of mischief." And he personalised his Sopwith Camel with aluminium cut-outs of the great comic actor Charlie Chaplin. This is a replica of his aircraft, at the Australian Army Flying Museum at Oakey in Queensland.'

'Now, if a World War I pilot downed 5 or more enemy balloons, he earned the title of a "Balloon-Busting Ace". Harry was the only Australian ever to achieve that honour.'

Film footage shows a plane firing at an observation balloon. The balloon pilot in the basket underneath looks tiny compared to the size of the balloon. Many ropes attach the basket to the balloon. As a plane gets closer to the balloon, guns keep firing and the balloon bursts into flame, sinking down out of the sky.

Harry Cobby speaks: 'They were by no means easy to shoot down or set on fire. And although the observers had machine guns, which they didn't often use, but preferred to hop over the side on a parachute, they frequently possessed a sting of their own.'

Old film footage shows a plane firing at an observation balloon and then uniformed pilots training on the ground, learning to use mounted guns. The scene changes to the Royal Australian Air Force Memorial in Canberra. A photo shows passengers and flight crew standing in front of an Australian National Airways plane. Another old photo shows 6 men, including a mechanic, standing next to a plane at a hangar. The sign on the hangar reads 'Adelaide Airways Ltd'. An old photo shows an official ceremony where a well-dressed man and woman appear to bless a new plane in front of more than 20 people.

Ray Martin speaks: 'His No 4 Squadron was among the best on the Western Front in 1918 [plane engine sound]. In September 1918, Harry was transferred out of France to a training unit in England. When the Royal Australian Air Force, the RAAF, was formed in 1921, Harry joined up and was made a flying officer. He left the RAAF in 1935, and soon after, he joined the Civil Aviation Board, which managed air transport in Australia. Harry became its controller of operations.'

'But when World War II broke out, Harry rejoined the RAAF, where he was promoted to the very senior rank of Air Commodore, and he became the director of recruiting.'

An old photo shows Harry standing next to a man who is smoking a cigarette. Both men wear military uniforms and their forearms are exposed as if the weather is warm. They stand in front of a building with a thatched roof. The next image shows Harry with a tobacco pipe in his mouth. He stands next to a man wearing a similar uniform. Seated between both men is an officer at a table with a large open book. Old recruitment footage shows Harry speaking in front of a large plane with its propellers turning.

Old footage shows large numbers of Air Force recruits marching. Text appears on the screen which reads 'JOIN THE R.A.A.F'. Planes fly in formation in the background, like they are heading into battle. A close-up of Harry speaking seriously.

'So seize your opportunity now and join the Air Force and play your part.'

Old footage shows men towing equipment using a vehicle. There are palm trees and large planes parked in the background. In the next section, the door on a cargo plane opens. A truck with a trailer full of troops is parked next to the plane. Harry's Commander of the British Empire medal is shown in a close shot. Next, Harry and another officer walk along next to uniformed men who stand in line, speaking to them along the way. In an old photo, Harry shakes hands with another uniformed officer near a plane. In another shot, Harry looks up from the paperwork he is doing and smiles slightly. A photo shows Harry in uniform and wearing a scarf, standing in front of a Sopwith Camel.

Ray Martin speaks: 'He went on to command 20,000 men and women in the South-West Pacific. [Music plays in the background.] He was awarded what's called a CBE, that's Commander of the British Empire, for doing a great job running air operations over New Guinea. Those 7 months as a scout pilot in 1918 set the stage for the rest of Harry Cobby's amazing life.'

Dr Meleah Hampton walks toward a portrait of Harry on a dark wall. Five other artworks can be seen in the background of the gallery. The portrait of Harry becomes clearer as Dr Hampton gets closer.

'He goes from a bank clerk who wanted to serve in the Army, to accidentally getting into the Royal Flying Corps and becoming one of the fathers of Australian aviation.'

Ray Martin speaks next to a plaque that says 'Royal Australian Air Force'.

'It's a truly remarkable story. Harry Cobby, who only wanted to be a foot soldier on the ground, ended up as one of the most important figures in the whole history of Australian flying.'

An old photo of Harry Cobby in uniform. Then the white logo for the Department of Veterans' Affairs is shown on a black background.

[Music plays]

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