Australian Flying Corps in World War I
Australia was the only dominion of the British Empire to form a flying corps during World War I. Of 2694 men who served in the Australian Flying Corps, 178 of them died. Some Australians enlisted in Britain's Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy Air Service.
Australian planes and crews flew in the Middle East from 1915 to 1918 and in Europe from 1916 until they returned home after the war, in May 1919.
At the start of the war, Australian airmen flew older aircraft over the burning Egyptian and Mesopotamian deserts. By the end, they were piloting the deadliest military planes of the war.
Combat in the skies over the Middle East was dangerous, but it never approached the scale of intensity of the air warfare over Europe.
Men who flew with the Australian Flying Corps - and the thousands who worked to keep the planes flying - were pioneers in warfare’s newest theatre: the sky.
Before the war
From the beginning of the war, some Australian airmen flew with British flying squadrons. For example, Captain Arthur Harold Keith Jopp flew missions over Gallipoli, spotting and bombing Turkish positions as an observer in the Royal Navy Air Service.
But interest in forming an Australian flying squadron started much earlier. The Department of Defence advertised for 'two competent mechanists and aviators' in 1911.
In response to the advertisement, the Department of Defence appointed two men:
- British-born pilot, flying instructor and aircraft designer, Henry Petre
- Australian-born pilot and flying instructor, Eric Harrison
The first Australian flying squadron was formed in 1912. The government announced it would establish the Australian Army's Central Flying School and an Australian Aviation Corps on 7 March 1913.
Petre and Harrison established an air base at Point Cook, south-west of Melbourne, Victoria (now RAAF Williams military air base).
With only five aircraft, including a Bristol Boxkite, Petre and Harrison began training pupils in basic aviation in 1914.
The first four officers to graduate from the Central Flying School were:
- Captain Thomas White
- Lieutenant Richard Williams
- Lieutenant David Manwell
- Lieutenant George Merz
In February 1915, the government committed aircrew to help British forces in the Mesopotamia Campaign. The group included Australian airmen, drivers, mechanics and other ground crew.
In the British-held port of Basra (in modern-day Iraq), the unit became known as the 'Mesopotamian Half Flight'. The Half Flight was gazetted into the British Indian Army for command and discipline purposes, but it retained its Australian identity.
The Half Flight had limited resources and unsuitable aircraft — only three ageing Maurice-Farmans. But the Turks had no planes in Mesopotamia at the time, so the British, including the Australians, had an advantage.
Petre and a New Zealander, Captain Hugh Lambert Reilly, flew the first operational mission on 31 May 1915. It was a reconnaissance flight over Ottoman lines. On the return flight, the airmen dropped bombs on enemy troops.
As the British advanced along the river Tigris, the airmen:
- carried dispatches between the front and Basra
- made daily reconnaissance flights over enemy positions
Death of Merz
More aircraft, two unarmed Caudron G.3s, were delivered to Basra in July 1915.
On 30 July 1915, Reilly and Merz flew the planes from Basra to support ground operations in the Battle of Nasiriyeh.
Faulty engines forced both planes down as they returned. Only Reilly and his observer made it back to Basra. Reilly found the wreck of Merz's plane a few days later, but no bodies.
Locals who witnessed the deaths of Merz and Burn reported the action to the British. Arab tribesmen attacked the two airmen while they were fixing the aircraft. They were killed after a running gunfight over more than 4 miles (6.4km).
This was the first death of an Australian airman in any war.
Capture of White and Brown
The Half Flight was incorporated into the Royal Flying Corps' No 30 Squadron in August 1915. The unit began flying reconnaissance from newly captured Kut (Al-Kūt in modern-day Iraq) in preparation for an advance on Baghdad.
On 13 November 1915, White and Captain Francis Yeats-Brown flew a dangerous mission to disrupt Ottoman telegraph lines leading into Baghdad. White crashed on landing, and both men were taken as prisoners of war.
Siege of Kut
After a failed assault on Ctesiphon 2 weeks later, the Allies were forced back to Kut. Surrounded by the Turks, they lasted 5 months during the Siege of Kut before surrendering.
After the fall of Kut, the Turks captured 13,000 British and Indian troops on 29 April 1916. The prisoners included nine Australian mechanics from the Half Flight — only two survived captivity.
Sinai and Palestine Campaign
On 16 March 1916, the first complete Australian flying unit of airmen and mechanics sailed from Melbourne on the HMAT A67 Orsova. Many of the Australian airmen were sent to England for more training because they lacked operational experience.
After reforming, the squadron's three groups were sent to separate military bases in north-eastern Egypt. A Flight was stationed at Suez, B Flight at Sherika and C Flight at Kantara. They patrolled both sides of the Suez Canal in Australian B.E.2c aircraft.
Some of No 1 Squadron's airmen flew with the Royal Flying Corps No 14 Squadron in the Battle of Romani in August 1916. They helped to end the Ottoman Empire's plans to disrupt shipping traffic through the Suez Canal.
First No 1 Squadron operation
The elements of No 1 Squadron were finally reunited in the fierce aerial bombing of Beersheba on 11 November 1916.
The squadron’s aircraft were inferior to the planes flown by the German squadrons operating in the Middle East at the time. Luckily, the Australian airmen were rarely challenged by the enemy when they flew reconnaissance and raided behind Ottoman lines.
Daring rescue missions
Airmen often risked their lives to rescue others who were forced down behind enemy lines.
Lieutenant Frank McNamara performed a death-defying rescue of Captain Douglas Rutherford.
McNamara was awarded the Australian Flying Corps' only Victoria Cross in World War I for this incident — a scene painted by Septimus Power.
Battles for Gaza and Beersheba
Australian airmen played a role in the first and second Allied attempts to take Gaza, in March and April 1917.
Air reconnaissance work became crucial as the Allies settled into a 6-month stalemate and prepared for the attack to come. Flights were used to compile maps and photographs of the land between Gaza and Beersheba.
On 8 July 1917, a No 1 Squadron plane was shot down, and the pilot killed. A second plane was forced down, and pilot Lieutenant Claude Vautin was captured. Another plane was shot down 5 days later and its crew killed.
Two Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8s arrived at No 1 Squadron in October 1917.
The long-awaited Battle of Beersheba began on 31 October. Australian aircraft joined UK squadrons on heavy bombing raids behind Ottoman lines. They targeted roads, railway stations and airfields. After UK troops captured and occupied Jerusalem on 9 December, the ground war lapsed into a period of relative quiet.
By the end of April 1918, the old aircraft (R.E.8s, Martinsydes and B.E.s) were retired, and No 1 Squadron had 18 Bristol F.2 Fighters. The new planes were considered fast, manoeuvrable, powerful and well-armed.
The squadron continued with its reconnaissance work and sought combat with German aircraft as needed. Free-for-alls and calculated one-on-one attacks cleared the skies of German reconnaissance planes. This also left their Turkish allies more vulnerable to planned ground attacks.
Final air operations
No 1 Squadron played an important role in an Allied victory at the Battle of Megiddo, which ended the war in the Middle East.
Ross Smith, in a giant Handley-Page plane, bombed El Afule's central telephone exchange and railway station on the morning of 19 September 1918. This action cut Turkish communications and marked the start of the ground attack.
British and Australian aircraft relentlessly bombed and machine-gunned retreating Turkish soldiers over the next 3 days. Many of the traumatised survivors surrendered. Then the Allies met little resistance on the march to Damascus.
For the rest of the war, the No 1 Squadron flew reconnaissance operations and attacked ground troops when the chance arose.
Western Front operations
Later in the war, many of the men who joined the Australian Flying Corps had already fought as ground troops in the Middle East or in the trenches of the Western Front.
Aircraft design and weaponry on both sides evolved throughout the war. When the three Australian squadrons reached England during the winter of 1916-17, the Germans held the advantage in the sky.
When Central Flying School graduates arrived from Australia, they had little flying experience. They were sent to England to complete months of training with the Royal Flying Corps before they could fly over Belgium and France. Artillery spotting was a vital duty to learn.
No 3 Squadron
No 3 Squadron flew observation, photography and artillery ranging operations from Savy, in northern France, from September 1917. When the weather permitted.
The airmen photographed the front line in early 1918 because a German offensive was expected. They faced hundreds of German machine guns and anti-aircraft batteries, which could send 15 rounds a minute up to almost 5000m.
After the German Spring Offensive began near St Quentin in March 1918, No 3 Squadron moved to Poulainville and flew continuous operations over the front.
By May 1918, the German offensive was defeated. No 3 Squadron began to fly in support of the planned attack on Hamel. They flew long reconnaissance patrols. They directed fire against enemy batteries. Sometimes they fought in aerial combat.
On the day of the battle, Australian airmen patrolled, spotted for artillery and pioneered a new tactic — developed by No 3 Squadron — to drop ammunition parachutes to forward ground troops. Planes were vital in the success of General Monash's combined arms operation at the Battle of Hamel.
When the Allies launched what proved to be their war-winning offensive - the start of the Hundred Days - on 8 August 1918.
No 3 Squadron's R.E.8s dropped smoke bombs and flew a constant round of operations throughout the remaining months of the war.
Australian scout (fighter) squadrons No 2 and No 4 also served on the Western Front.
No 2 Squadron was the first into action, reaching France on 21 September 1917 and practising low level flying before being sent into battle. The airmen flew operations, including strafing targets on the ground, in Airco DH.5 planes.
A former scout pilot wrote that ground strafing was 'the most dangerous, nerve-wracking, and perhaps the most valuable work that scouts did'.
The DH.5s could travel at 160km per hour - things happened very quickly.
In the first Battle of Cambrai, seven of the 18 aircraft from No 2 Squadron were destroyed or severely damaged. Some pilots pondered the morality of their work. Flying low and turning their machine guns on enemy infantrymen at short range was a confronting experience for pilots on both sides.
No 4 Squadron, flying Sopwith Camels, was stationed at Bruay in late December 1917.
The airmen made their first flights over the front lines on 9 January 1918. They escorted photography planes and conducted an offensive patrol. During the winter, they machine-gunned villages behind the lines where German troops were billeted, when the weather permitted.
On 16 March 1918, just before the German Spring Offensive began, 10 planes from No 4 Squadron bombed the Douai railway station. On the return flight, 16 enemy scouts attacked them. Second Lieutenant William Nicholls was brought down and taken prisoner. The others made it back to base.
The German Spring Offensive kept No 4 Squadron busy.
Air battles took place from just above the ground up to more than 6000m. Flying during these desperate days was a nerve-wracking experience.
Remarkably, only two pilots from No 4 Squadron were killed in 4 weeks, and only two were taken prisoner.
Stressful wartime experience
In patrol work, a pilot could be flying for many hours, sometimes over many weeks, before encountering an enemy aircraft. Knowing that sooner or later an attack would happen was very stressful.
The airmen were gripped with the terror of facing a sudden and violent death every time they flew. Many felt that between their flights, and on days of rest during lousy weather, there was too much time to think.
Many airmen saw their victims die - slumping down in a cockpit, jumping in agony from a burning cockpit with clothes alight, or plunging to earth in a crippled machine. Taking people's lives so deliberately added to the mental stress of wartime experience.
After the Allies' August Offensive, Allied squadrons combined to conduct wider sweeps over enemy-held territory. They worked together to:
- attack troops, stores and artillery batteries
- bomb rear areas
- disrupt German communications
Even with fewer planes in the final months of the war, the Germans inflicted casualties and destroyed Allied aircraft. No 4 Squadron lost four of five aircraft after being attacked by three German Fokkers on 5 September 1918.
In October, No 4 Squadron replaced its Camels with Sopwith Snipes and destroyed 30 German planes in the last week of the month.
On 4 November, No 4 Squadron escorted No 2 Squadron on an attack against the German aerodrome at Chapelle-a-Wattines. The airmen engaged 12 Fokkers of Jasta Boelcke, a successful German squadron. They lost three aircraft and their pilots – the last Australian airmen to die in the war. This was 7 days before the armistice that ended the war in Europe.
After the Armistice
No 4 Squadron - the only Australian flying unit in the British Army of Occupation - entered Germany on 7 December 1918. The men spent more than 2 months in Cologne to help with the Allied occupation of the Rhineland.
No 1 Squadron left Egypt in early March 1919.
No 2 Squadron remained near Lille until demobilisation.
No 3 Squadron ran an aerial postal service between various army and corps headquarters.
By late February 1919, No 1, No 2 and No 3 squadrons had returned to England before embarking for Australia in May 1919.