A flying career cut short – and the Steele brothers
In many families, the enthusiasm to enlist in the armed forces spread to two or more siblings, and sometimes to parents and children. One example of this patriotism to Australia and the British Empire was the family of Philip and Johanna Steele of Kew, Victoria:
- Captain Frederick (Fred) Steele of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (a British unit) - enlisted 1907
- Second Lieutenant Philip (Rupert) Steele of the 4th Field Artillery Brigade - enlisted 20 September 1915
- Corporal Henry (Cyril) of the 4th Field Artillery Brigade - enlisted 29 September 1915
- Second Lieutenant Norman Leslie Steele of the Australian Flying Corps - enlisted 10 February 1916
Norman's career in the Australian Flying Corps
Norman was in his final year of school when war was declared in 1914. He had been:
- a cadet in the Citizen Forces
- captain of Rusden House at Melbourne Grammar School
- in the school athletics, cricket, football, rifle and rowing teams
- a founding member of the Melburnian Ice Hockey Club
After school, Norman attended Central Flying School at Point Cook. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 10 February 1916 and joined the newly formed No 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, as a Private (Air Mechanic).
On 16 March 1916, Norman sailed from Melbourne with No 1 Squadron on board HMAT Orsova. A month later, the unit disembarked in the Suez Canal, Egypt, and Norman served with F Division at Heliopolis aerodrome in Cairo.
On 27 October 1916, Norman was promoted to Second Lieutenant and posted to No 68 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), stationed in Kantara, Egypt. He attended the No 3 Aboukir Wing RFC School of Military Aeronautics in November 1916, and graduated as a flying officer in February 1917. A week after gaining his wings, he was posted to the RFC's No 67 Squadron as a pilot.
Commanding officer of No 67 Squadron, Australian Major Richard Williams, led an air attack on Turkish reinforcements during the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917.
As part of the assault, Norman left Rafa aerodrome on 20 April in a Martinsyde G.100 aircraft for a bombing raid on Tel-el-Sheria. After the mission, Norman's plane was shot down by enemy ground fire.
Another pilot saw Norman's plane nosedive over Hareira, north-west of Beersheba, and he was reported as missing. A Light Horse patrol confirmed seeing a machine go 'down between the lines' and Turkish cavalry riding out to it. Norman was presumed dead.
Later, the government learned that Norman might have been taken prisoner but died soon afterwards from his wounds. Norman's record of service states:
16.7.17 67th Sq AFC. Reported in message dropped by Enemy aeroplane on 14/7/17 to have been wounded by anti aircraft fire on 20/7/17 and to have died soon after landing in the Enemy's lines.
The Turks reported that Norman was buried 'under a memorial' in Hareira (between Melilot and Tidhar in modern-day Israel). The memorial was erected by the Turks to commemorate Allied airmen who died behind their lines.
Norman’s name is inscribed at the Jerusalem War Cemetery.
Sacrifice across the theatres of war
War exacted a heavy price on the Steele family.
Fred, the eldest brother, was the first to die in the war. He had joined the Royal Fusiliers in England in 1907 and was promoted to captain in 1910. Fred was most likely killed in action at Neuve Chapelle during the First Battle of Ypres on 29 October 1914. He was 29 years old. He has no known grave. Fred's name is inscribed at Le Touret Memorial, France. At the time of his death, Fred was reported as 'missing in action'.
Read the newspaper article: AUSTRALIANS ABROAD, The Australasian 23 January 1915. You'll see that Mrs Steele was in London, hoping that her son Fred would be found alive.
Rupert received severe gunshot and shrapnel wounds on 15 November 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He died at No 2 Australian Hospital in Rouen on 8 January 1917, after having his leg amputated. He was 27 years old. He is buried in St Sever Cemetery, France.
After the death of Rupert, Cyril was given permission to return to Australia and be discharged from the AIF. He had served on the Western Front, but he received the news of Rupert's death while training at the No 1 Royal Artillery Cadet School, St John's Wood, England. A cablegram from AIF's London headquarters reported that Cyril was 'anxious to return Australia urgent family reasons'.
While Cyril was on HMAT Beltana sailing back to Melbourne, 21-year-old Norman died in Palestine.
Cyril was the only Steele son to survive the war. He arrived in Melbourne on 12 May, at the age of 26, and left the AIF to help in his father's business. Tragically, he died in a boating accident in 1939.
Commemoration of the Steele brothers
The young Steele men lost their lives serving the new Commonwealth of Australia.
On Armistice Day 1928, Melbourne Grammar School commemorated its former students. The school dedicated the 'Steele Memorial Ground' to honour the three lost brothers.
The Steele family also erected a copper tablet in St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, to the memory of their lost sons.