A Brief History of the Royal Australian Air Force: The Early Years – 1914 to 1939

AAF Centenary of Military Aviation 1914-2014

RAAF Centenary of Military Aviation 1914-2014To commemorate the centenary of military aviation in Australia (1914 to 2014) I am writing a six-part series on the key stages of the RAAF: The Early Years – 1914 to 1939 (World War One and the interwar years), World War Two – 1939 to 1945, the Cold War Begins and the Korean War – 1945 to 1953, South East Asian Conflicts – 1950 to 1972, Peacekeeping and Modern Conflicts – 1973 to 2014 and finally The Future (the re-equipping of the RAAF). So for now lets take a look at those early years of military aviation.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has operated some of the best aircraft available in its long, illustrious history and is the second oldest independent air force of any nation. The United Kingdom was the first to establish an air force separated from the Army when the Royal Air Force was officially formed on April 1st, 1918, then in January 1920 the interim and independent Australian Air Corps (AAC) was formed (see The Inter-War Years below for more information).

The title of the Australian Air Force was established on March 31st, 1921 and then following the official consent from King George V became the Royal Australian Air Force on August 13th, 1921. The true birth of Australian military aviation though, started in 1914 with the Central Flying School (CFS) and then the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) during World War One.

THE EARLY YEARS

The first Australian military Central Flying School (CFS) was approved by the Australian Government in 1912 and established at Point Cook in Victoria (home of the RAAF Air Museum today – initiated 1952). The CFS initially started with just two officer instructors and a small number of mechanics but soon grew in numbers.

The Point Cook airbase became the site of the first Australian military flight, when  flight instructor Lieutenant Eric Harrison first took off in a Bristol Boxkite into the sky over Point Cook on March 1st, 1914. The first flight training course began on August 17th, 1914 with four student pilots.

AFC Bristol Boxkite at Point Cook
Bristol Boxkite at Point Cook (photo source: RAAF Museum archives)

The CFS squadron started with very humble beginnings equipped with just 5 aircraft – 2 Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2’s, 2 Deperdussin monoplanes and a Bristol Boxkite along with 4 officers, 7 NCO’s and 32 mechanics (in August 1915 a second Boxkite was added to the squadron). The aircraft of the day look so fragile. Brave men indeed!

Trainees, instructors and staff for the Australian Flying Corps CFS first flying training course which began at Point Cook on August 17th, 1914.
Trainees, instructors and staff for the Australian Flying Corps CFS first flying training course which began at Point Cook on August 17th, 1914. They are pictured in front of a B.E.2a aircraft.
Left to right: back row: A. W. Murphy (mechanic), W. Lord (caretaker), L. G. Carter (mechanic), N. Dyer (mechanic), R. Mason (mechanic);
Middle row: Sgt G. J. W. Mackinolty, V. Ronald (clerk), Sgt G. Fonteneau (French mechanic for gnome engines), Sgt E. Shorland, Sgt S. Heath, A. M. pivot (French mechanic for gnome engines);
Sitting: Warrant Officer S. J. Hendy (storekeeper), Lieutenant G. P. Merz, Captain H. A. Petre, Lieutenant E. Harrison, Captain T. W. White, Warrant Officer Richard Henry Chester;
Front row: Lieutenants Richard Williams, D. T. W. Manwell.
Captain White, Lieutenant Merz, Lieutenant Williams and Lieutenant Manwell were the four officers who qualified as pilots on this course. Major Petre and Group Captain Harrison, selected in England, had been given honorary commissions as flying instructors. (Photo Source: AWM)
Trainees, instructors and administrative staff for the Australian Flying Corps first flying training course which began on August 17th, 1914. They are pictured in front of a B.E.2a aircraft in a hangar at the Central Flying School (Point Cook).
Trainees, instructors and administrative staff for the Australian Flying Corps first flying training course which began on August 17th, 1914. They are pictured in front of a B.E.2a aircraft in a hangar at the Central Flying School (Point Cook). Left to right: back row: W. Lord (caretaker), A. W. Murphy, Sgt G. A. Fonteneau (French mechanic for gnome engines), Sergeant G. J. W. Mackinolty, A. M. Pivot (French mechanic for gnome engines), L. G. Carter; Middle row (sitting): Sgt C. V. Heath, Warrant Officer Richard Henry Chester, Warrant Officer S. J. Hendy (storekeeper), Sgt A. E. Shorland; Front row: N. Dyer, R. Mason. Sergeants Heath and Shorland were from England. Warrant Officer Chester was No. 1 on the AFC roll and had returned from attending the Bristol Aviation School to become chief pilot-mechanic at Point Cook. Quartermaster Sergeant S. J. Hendy was from the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery. (Photo Source: AWM)
AFC B.E.2 aircraft at Point Cook
One of the original AFC B.E.2 aircraft at Point Cook (photo source: ADF-Serials.com.au)
Deperdussin monoplane at Point Cook in 1914 RAAF
Deperdussin monoplane at Point Cook in 1914 (photo source: ADF-Serials.com.au)

Centenary of Military Aviation celebrations were held with a big air show at Point Cook on March 1st – 2nd, 2014. The event was a well attended and well received (I wish I was there!).

WORLD WAR ONE

In the early days of military flying the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) operated during World War One (1914-1918) under the overall structure of the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Four AFC squadrons took part in the war flying reconnaissance, observation photography, bombing, ground attack and scouting patrols to engage enemy aircraft over the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East.

Australian Flying Corps Wings
Australian Flying Corps Wings

The AFC squadrons were not the extent of Australian aviators in World War One though. Many recruits wanted to sign up and fly for the AFC but the reality was there were only a limited number of training facilities and aircraft available in Australia, so many of them ended up sailing for England and learning to fly there. Several hundred men then served in the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War One. Some of the top Australian aces of the war flew with the RNAS (more on that later).

RFC & AFC Roundel
RFC & AFC Roundel

AUSTRALIAN FLYING CORPS ROUNDEL

AFC aircraft flew with the same red, white and blue roundel as found on Royal Flying Corps aircraft. This continued to be the roundel of what became the RAAF until around 1942. During World War Two the red dot was removed to avoid being confused with Japanese aircraft! After the war it was reintroduced and remained on RAAF aircraft until 1956 when the famous Kangaroo roundel was implemented.

GERMAN NEW GUINEA

The first military action undertaken by the AFC was in 1914 during the September 11th Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force invasion of German New Guinea. To support the attack 2 AFC aircraft were crated up and shipped with the naval fleet. In the only major conflict at Bita Paka (near Rabaul), German resistance from reservists and police was quelled within a day (this battle resulted in the first loss of Australian life in World War One when 6 soldiers were killed) and by September 21st, 1914 all German colonial forces in New Guinea had surrendered. In the end the AFC aircraft took no part in the fighting and given it was all over relatively quickly they were not even unpacked from the crates! The AFC was soon in action though, this time on the other side of the world.

Angorum, New Guinea. 16 December 1914. The Australian flag being raised with an official party standing by as the Proclamation advising the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was taking control of the country from the German Force was being read.
The Australian flag being raised with an official party standing by as the Proclamation advising the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was taking control of German New Guinea – Angorum, New Guinea December 16th, 1914 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

THE MIDDLE EAST

Mesopotamian Half Flight

At the request of the British the AFC first despatched the Mesopotamian Half Flight (consisting of four officers and 41 servicemen) in April 1915 to operate in Mesopotamia (Iraq) supporting the Indian army fighting against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). The Turkish were aided by their Imperial German allies. The aircraft operated by the Mesopotamian Half Flight upon arrival in May 1915 were provided by the Indian government. Initially the aircraft on hand were obsolete French designed pusher types consisting of 2 Maurice Farman Shorthorn and one second-hand Maurice Farman Longhorn reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft were not well suited for desert type operations as they had a low top speed of around 100 kph which was an issue in strong desert winds and in the desert heat poor lift capability meant they sometimes couldn’t take off (the Longhorn reportedly had many mechanical issues too)! Despite these issues the half flight were quickly put on valuable reconnaissance missions in support of the failed British and Indian advance on Baghdad.

Australian Maurice Farman Shorthorn of the Mesopotamia Half Flight in 1916 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
Maurice Farman Shorthorn of the Mesopotamia Half Flight in 1916 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

In July 1915 the half flight was issued 2 French built Caudron G.3 reconnaissance aircraft that unfortunately were almost obsolete too, but were considered better than the Shorthorns. One of these Caudron aircraft was unfortunately involved in the first loss of Australian airmen in World War One but strangely not at the hands of the enemy. On July 30th, 1915 the 2 man crew was forced to land behind enemy lines due to mechanical problems and some how got involved in a running gun battle with armed civilians that resulted in both of the crew being killed. The half flight was attached to the RFC Number 30 Squadron on August 24th, 1915 and additional aircraft including 3 Maurice Farman Shorthorns and 4 Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 were allocated to this combined squadron.

Mesopotamia Half Flight servicemen with a crashed Maurice Farman Shorthorn in 1916
Mesopotamia Half Flight servicemen with a crashed Maurice Farman Shorthorn in 1916 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Things started to go badly though and at least 2 crews were taken prisoner and with the failure to capture Baghdad from the Turks the retreating Indian forces were besieged in Kut and 9 mechanics from the half flight were taken prisoner (only 4 survived this ordeal). The last Australian airman left in the Mesopotamia Half Flight flew the last Shorthorn to Egypt on December 7th, 1915 to eventually join Number 1 Squadron that was established in 1916 and sent to that theatre of war, arriving in Egypt on April 14th, 1916.

AFC Maurice Farman Shorthorn
Maurice Farman Shorthorn (photo taken at the RAAF Museum 2012)

Number 1 Squadron

Number 1 Squadron served in the Middle East (Egypt, the Sinai, Palestine and Syria) against the Turks and the Germans from 1916-1918. The squadron initially flew outdated aircraft like the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2. which were outclassed by the better armed enemy flying Fokker and Aviatik aircraft, but by the second half of 1917 the squadron reequipped with the two seat Bristol F2B Fighter (one of the most advanced aircraft in its day) and soon gained air superiority, allowing the British and allied forces to operate freely from air attack.

Observer, pilot, and Bristol Fighter F2B aircraft, Serial B1146, of No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps circa February 1918 in the territory of the Ottoman Empire: Palestine, Mejdel Jaffa Area, Mejdel. The pilot (left) is Captain (Capt) Ross Macpherson Smith, MC and bar, DFC and two bars (Photo Source: AWM photo taken by James Francis Hurley)
Observer, pilot, and Bristol Fighter F2B aircraft, Serial B1146, of No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps circa February 1918 in the territory of the Ottoman Empire: Palestine, Mejdel Jaffa Area, Mejdel. The pilot (left) is Captain (Capt) Ross Macpherson Smith, MC and bar, DFC and two bars (Photo Source: AWM photo taken by James Francis Hurley)

AFC No.1 Squadron in Palestine February 1918
No.1 Squadron in Palestine February 1918 (photo source: Australian War Memorial)

Number 1 Squadron was involved in missions throughout the Middle East campaigns of 1917 and 1918 including the last great offensive launched on September 19th, 1918 with the Battle of Megiddo. Number 1 Squadron and RFC squadrons bombed the 7,000 man Turkish Seventh Army virtually destroying it. Turkish forces finally surrendered on October 31st, 1918 ending the Middle East campaign. Number 1 Squadron contributed greatly to this victory and achieved over 100 aerial victories during their time in the Middle East. They also supported operations by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and his Arab army.

Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel (Australian Imperial Force) on a visit to inspect No. 1 Squadron AFC in front of one of the squadron's Bristol F.2B fighter aircraft in 1918
Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel (Australian Imperial Force) on a visit to inspect No. 1 Squadron AFC in front of one of the squadron’s Bristol F.2B fighter aircraft in February 1918 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Number 1  Squadron returned to Egypt in February 1919 and its servicemen then left for Australia the following month. Upon their arrival home the squadron was disbanded, but was reformed again in 1922 and today remains a major combat squadron of the RAAF.

AFC Lieutenant Frank McNamara awarded a VC in 1917
Lieutenant Frank McNamara awarded a VC in 1917 (photo source: Australian War Memorial)

The first Victoria Cross awarded to an Australian flyer for valour in the presence of the enemy was won by Lieutenant Frank McNamara of Number 1 squadron on March 20th, 1917. Following a raid on a train line, despite being wounded himself, McNamara landed and rescued a downed pilot from the raid whilst under enemy fire behind Turkish lines. Interestingly despite heavy involvement in combat over enemy lines, he was the only AFC pilot to be awarded a VC in World War One.

THE WESTERN FRONT

AFC squadrons 2, 3 and 4 served on the Western Front in Europe flying against Imperial Germany from 1917-1918 (the 3 AFC squadrons accounted for 768 German aircraft on the Western Front). Initially the squadrons were deployed to England in 1916/1917, then served in Belgium and France.

Number 2 Squadron

Number 2 Squadron (originally 68 Squadron but renamed in 1918) was formed in Egypt on September 16th, 1916. In January 1917 the squadron relocated to England for training and then deployed to France in September 1917 to begin operations on the Western Front. Initially the squadron was equipped with Airco DH.5 scout aircraft and saw action during October and November 1917 in the third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), then the Battle of Cambrai during November and December 1917. Lieutenant F.G. Huxley scored the squadrons first aerial victory on November 22nd, 1917 when he downed a German Albatros scout (according to the RAAF Museum this was also the first aerial victory of the AFC).

Airco Dh.5 WW1
Airco DH.5 – Note the unusual “back-stagger” positioning of the wings to provide an improved forward view

The horrors of the muddy, bloody trench warfare battlefields of World War One are well-known and often the “flyboys” were seen as being lucky to be up in the sky, but aerial warfare had its own horrors. On the first day of the Battle of Cambrai, the then 68 Squadron lost 7 of its 18 aircraft (on each day during that battle ground attack squadrons experienced 30% losses)! Despite these losses the squadron was the scourge of the Germans on the ground. 6 Military Crosses were awarded to Number 68 Squadron personnel following the Battle of Cambrai in recognition of “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy” (including Lieutenant F.G. Huxley).

AFC No.2 Squadron De Havilland DH-5 scout plane 1917
No.2 Squadron De Havilland DH-5 scout plane 1917 (photo source: Australian War Memorial)

In December 1917 Number 68 Squadron re-equipped with the superior Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a scout. The winter of 1917 to 1918 was a bad one weather wise and the squadron did not see too much action during that period. On January 4th, 1918 the squadron was renamed Number 2 Squadron. 

AFC SE.5a scout circa 1917
AFC SE.5a scout circa 1917 – note the Kangaroo on the fuselage (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a scout aircraft of No. 2 Squadron AFC in France March 25th, 1918
Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a scout aircraft of No. 2 Squadron AFC in France March 25th, 1918 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial).

Number 2 squadron was heavily involved in combat during the German 1918 spring offensive, then in support of the French during the German summer offensive in Marne. They also participated in the allied counter offensive of August 1918. The last major combat operation for the squadron was on November 9th, 1918. Following the end of the war, members of the squadron were involved in testing captured German aircraft. The squadron returned its aircraft in February 1919 and all members were sent back to Australia with the squadron officially disbanding upon their arrival home on June 18th, 1919 (the squadron was briefly reformed in 1922, then again in 1937 and has remained active ever since).

Officers of No 2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps at Savy, France on March 25th, 1918
Officers of No 2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps at Savy, France on March 25th, 1918 – note the dog and cat (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Number 3 Squadron

Number 3 Squadron was formed at Point Cook, Victoria on September 19th, 1916 (confusingly it was originally knows as Number 2 Squadron, then in England as Number 69 Squadron and finally Number 3 in 1918!). The squadron arrived in England for training on December 28th, 1916 and on September 10th, 1917 equipped with Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 two-seat reconnaissance/bomber biplanes became the first AFC squadron to arrive on the Western Front. They then began operating over Canadian troops in the Arras area of France.

AFC RE8 of Number 3 Squadron
AFC Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 reconnaissance and bomber aircraft of Number 3 Squadron (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
Officers and men of No. 3 Squadron AFC posing infront of a Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8
Officers and men of No. 3 Squadron AFC posing in front of a Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

In November 1917 Number 3 Squadron relocated to the Flanders region in support of Australian troops and were tasked with locating enemy artillery and conducted bombing missions. By early 1918 the squadron was dropping propaganda leaflets over the German front and conducting photo reconnaissance missions.

No.3 Squadron on the Western Front with a British Aircraft Factory R.E.8
No.3 Squadron on the Western Front with a British Aircraft Factory R.E.8 reconnaissance and bomber aircraft

Around this time a very famous Australian pilot was flying in Number 3 Squadron. His name was John Robertson Duigan (May 31st,  1882 – June 11th, 1951). Duigan was an aviation pioneer who on July 16th, 1910 made the first Australian designed, built and piloted powered flight. The flight took place on his father’s property “Spring Plainsnear Mia Mia in Victoria (a monument to the flight was erected nearby in 1960). He flew a pusher biplane aircraft he designed and built with his brother Reginald who also later flew the aircraft too (a replica of the aircraft can be seen at the Melbourne Museum). This first flight only went about 7 metres (twenty-three feet) but by October 1910 he was flying nearly 183 metres (600 feet) and later anywhere up to 2 kilometres (1.24 miles). He apparently considered the later flights more controlled and in his opinion his first truly successful flight was on October 7th, 1910 (178 metres / 584 feet).

John Roberston Duigan flying his pusher biplane aircraft design near Mia Mia in 1910 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)
John Roberston Duigan flying his pusher biplane aircraft design near Mia Mia in 1910 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)
Captain John R. Duigan MC - AFC, circa 1918
Captain John R. Duigan MC – AFC, circa 1918 (Photo Source: Duigan Family Archives)

On March 14th, 1916 John Robertson Duigan was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the AFC and embarked for training in Britain in October 1916.  He was promoted to Captain and became a Flight Commander in August 1917. Then it was onto France with Number 3 Squadron where he proved himself a very capable pilot in combat flying Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 two-seat biplane reconnaissance and bomber aircraft. So much so that he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on May 8th, 1918 when he was attacked by 4 German aircraft over Villers-Bretonneux.

Despite being severely wounded and his aircraft being on fire, with his observer unconscious, Duigan managed to evade the enemy aircraft and force land near the frontline. Once on the ground he insisted the photographic plates from his reconnaissance mission be sent to headquarters and his observer rescued first before he himself was taken to hospital!

Duigan made 99 flights mostly behind enemy lines during his 5 months at the front but that last engagement and the wounds he suffered ended his combat career. He finished the war as the acting Commanding Officer of AFC Number 7 Training Squadron in Great Britain before returning to Australia in 1919. When he got back to Melbourne he became an Electrical Engineer. From 1941 to 1945 he worked again for the Australian military in the RAAF quality control branch. His contribution to Australian aviation was significant.

In 1918 Number 3 Squadron was relocated to the Somme region and was involved in battles during the 1918 German spring offensive including important artillery spotting missions. On April 21st, 1918 Number 3 Squadron aircraft were involved in the action that ultimately resulted in the death of leading German air ace Manfred von Richthofen (the “Red Baron” with 80 air to air victories).

Manfred von Richthofen wearing the Pour le Mérite "Blue Max" medal (Prussia's highest order of merit)
Manfred von Richthofen wearing the Pour le Mérite “Blue Max” medal (Prussia’s highest order of merit)

Two of the squadrons aircraft were under attack by 4 German aircraft led by Richthofen, but the AFC airmen were able to keep them at bay. Looking for easier targets the German pilots headed lower to the ground which was a major mistake that lead to him being shot down.

Officially Richthofen was shot down by Canadian RFC pilot Arthur “Roy” Brown while he was chasing another RFC aircraft, but controversy about this has always reigned and it is highly likely that ground troops from a battery of Australian Field Artillery firing machine guns and rifles at him were actually responsible for his death (only one bullet was found in his body. It had penetrated his right armpit and then through his heart, indicating the shot came from below, not behind or above). Richthofen was only 25 years old. Given he came down near Australian lines Number 3 Squadron being the closest assumed responsibility for his remains.

Richthofen’s Fokker Dr.I Driedecker triplane apparently landed mostly intact, but before it could be secured souvenir hunters had pretty much pulled it apart! Some parts of the aircraft and some of his personal effects are today held by the RAAF Museum and the Australian War Memorial (the AWM collection includes his fur lined flying boots).

Fokker Dr.I
Fokker Dr.I
A recreation of the Red Barons crash site in 1918 (taken at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim NZ 2009)
A recreation of the Red Barons crash site in 1918 (taken at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim NZ 2009)
A recreation of the Red Barons crash site in 1918 (taken at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim NZ 2009)
A recreation of the Red Barons crash site in 1918 (taken at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim NZ 2009)
The remains of Richthofens triplane under the guard of AFC No. 3 Squadron on April 22nd, 1918
The remains of Richthofen’s triplane under the guard of AFC No. 3 Squadron on April 22nd, 1918 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
The Spandau machine guns from the Red Barons triplane (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)
The Spandau machine guns from the Red Barons triplane 1918 (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)
Examining the remains of the Red Barons triplane 1918 (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)
Examining the remains of the Red Barons triplane 1918 (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)

Manfred von Richthofen was buried in France on April 22nd, 1918 with full military honours. Officers of  AFC Number 3 Squadron were pallbearers (including the afore-mentioned John Duigan) at his funeral and other members formed an honour guard for the “Red Baron“. His family relocated his body to Germany in 1925.

Richthofens 1918 funeral with pallbearers and honour guard from AFC No.3 Squadron
Richthofens 1918 funeral with pallbearers and honour guard from AFC No.3 Squadron (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)
AFC No.3 Squadron fire a salute at Manfred von Richthofens funeral in 1918 (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)
AFC No.3 Squadron fire a salute at Manfred von Richthofen’s funeral in 1918 (Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer)

Number 3 Squadron was regarded as one of the best allied reconnaissance squadrons of the war and was involved in combat operations until November 10th, 1918. Following the armistice of November 11th, 1918 the squadron was used to run mail to Australian forces before disbanding on June 16th, 1919 upon arrival of all squadron members back home in Australia. The squadron operated again between 1925 to 1946, 1948 to 1953 and since 1956 remains an integral operational squadron of the RAAF.

Number 4 Squadron

Number 4 Squadron established at Point Cook, Victoria in October 1916 was the last AFC squadron formed for World War One. The squadron arrived in England on March 27th, 1917 where training commenced almost immediately. They were equipped with the Sopwith Camel scout fighter and were deployed to France on December 18th, 1917 to support the British 1st Army.

Captain G. F. Malley MC, AFC, No. 4 Squadron, AFC standing next to an all white Sopwith Camel F.1.
Captain G. F. Malley MC, AFC, No. 4 Squadron, AFC standing next to an all white Sopwith Camel F.1. (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
AFC No. 4 Squadron Sopwith Camels in France March 1918 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
AFC No. 4 Squadron Sopwith Camels in France March 1918 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Number 4 squadron conducted patrols and ground attack missions and escorted  reconnaissance aircraft. Their first air combat occurred on January 13th, 1918 and on March 21st, 1918 in a mission led by Captain Arthur Henry Cobby they would tangle with Manfred von Richthofen’sFlying Circus” resulting in 5 German aircraft being shot down.

AFC Officers of A Flight, No. 4 Squadron including Harry Cobby
Officers of A Flight, No. 4 Squadron including Harry Cobby 3rd from the left in the front row (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
Sopwith Camel
Sopwith Camel

Number 4 squadron saw heavy action during the German spring offensive of 1918 and then in the allied offensive of August 1918. In October 1918 the squadron re-equipped with advanced Sopwith Snipe fighters (one of only 2 squadrons in France equipped with this aircraft). By wars end the squadron had destroyed 128 enemy aircraft and had 11 aces within its ranks. Following the November 11th Armistice of 1918 to end the war, Number 4 squadron was the only Australian unit to take part in the British Army of Occupation that entered Germany on December 7th, 1918. They then returned to England in March 1919 and were disbanded on June 16th, 1919 upon return to Australia. The squadron was reinstated from 1937 to 1948 and again from 2009 onwards.

Air Mechanics of No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps at the hangars at Clairmarais June 16th,1918
Air Mechanics of No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps at the hangars at Clairmarais June 16th,1918 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial).

AFC Training Squadrons

In addition to pilot and mechanic training provided at the Central Flying School in Point Cook, from 1917 Four AFC training squadrons  (Number 5, 6, 7 and 8) were also based in England for pilots, observers and mechanics. Predominately using the Avro 504K trainer aircraft and the Sopwith Pup for elementary training followed by operational training in combat aircraft.

Avro 504K - this particular one is the oldest surviving AFC aircraft which was first operated in 1918
Avro 504K – this particular one is the oldest surviving AFC aircraft which was first operated in 1918 (photo taken at the Australian War Memorial in 2009)

A six-week aeronautics course would be undertaken by flight crews, then their flight training involved 3 hours of dual control flight with an instructor followed by up to 20 hours of solo flight. Pilots were then required to prove their skills in air combat, bombing, photo reconnaissance, artillery spotting and the like before they were passed on to operational squadrons. Training of mechanics was very comprehensive and depending on their trade would last anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks, right up to 32 weeks for general engine fitters.

AFC No. 7 & 8 Training Squadrons aerodrome at Leighterton in England equipped with Avro 504K aircraft
AFC No. 7 & 8 Training Squadrons aerodrome at Leighterton in England equipped with Avro 504K aircraft (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Many of the men who joined the AFC had seen prior service in the infantry and the Light Horse Brigade. According to the RAAF a total of 800 officers and 2,840 enlisted men served in the AFC during World War One and 175 of them unfortunately never returned home (more than a third died in training accidents).

A Sopwith Camel of No. 5 (Training) Squadron, AFC following a training mishap! (
A Sopwith Camel of No. 5 (Training) Squadron, AFC following a training mishap! (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

THE AUSTRALIAN ACES

Harry Cobby the top air ace of the AFC
Harry Cobby the top air ace of the AFC (photo source: Australian War Memorial)

Harry Cobby

The top air ace of the AFC (5 or more air to air victories) and a national hero was Arthur Henry (Harry) Cobby (1894-1955) from Victoria who achieved 29 air to air victories (plus 13 observation balloons that were generally well defended) which was quite an achievement as he only saw active combat service for less than a year. Cobby enlisted in 1916 and embarked for Europe in 1917 where he served with Number 4 Squadron flying the Sopwith Camel (he was quite a character fitting his aircraft with aluminium cutouts of Charlie Chaplin).

Cobby soon encountered the enemy including expert pilots from Manfred Von Richthofens Flying Circus“, 2 of which he claimed as his first victories on March 21st, 1918 (Albatros D.V scout planes). He shot down 2 or more aircraft in a day on at least 5 occasions. By 1918 he was promoted to Captain and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for bravery. Cobby was reposted to Britain as a flight instructor before returning to Australia in 1919.

AFC Air Ace Harry Cobby in a Sopwith Camel in Britain when he was posted there as a flight instructor 1918-1919
Harry Cobby in a Sopwith Camel in Britain when he was posted there as a flight instructor 1918-1919 (photo source: Australian War Memorial)

Cobby was one of the original officers when the RAAF was formed in 1921 and eventually he reached the rank of Air Commodore in the RAAF where he continued to serve until 1946 and then in the Civil Aviation Department until his sudden death in 1955. During his career in World War Two he was the Air Commander of the Australian 1st Tactical Air Force, the main strike force of the RAAF fighting Imperial Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre. Unfortunately in April 1945 his career was affected by the “Morotai Mutiny” where senior RAAF flight officers resigned their posts in disgust at the RAAF being relegated to seemingly unimportant ground attack duties.

Cobby was relieved of his command for failing to maintain proper morale (hard to do when he could not give his men the missions they wanted to do) and in the subsequent enquiry was found by Judge Barry to have “failed to maintain proper control over his command“. Not a way for an Australian hero to end his career, but it was just the way things were in that period of the RAAF. He was officially discharged from the RAAF on August 19th, 1946.

Robert A. Little Australian Air Ace World War One
Robert A. Little circa 1917-1918 (photo source: Australian War Memorial)

Robert A. Little

Harry Cobby was not the top Australian air ace of World War One though. This distinction was held by a pilot who flew with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS – which later became part of the Royal Air Force) in the European theatre. Robert Alexander Little a Victorian achieved 47 air to air victories (between 1916 and 1918 – he was rested in 1917 before volunteering to return in 1918, achieving 9 more victories) and was awarded the DSO and DSC. 24 of his victories were achieved whilst flying the Sopwith Triplane (he was credited with two victories in a day on four occasions in this aircraft). He was a skilled marksman who would approach the enemy at extremely close range before opening fire.

Sadly Little was killed in action in 1918 at just 22 years of age when he was badly wounded in flight whilst intercepting German bombers and died following the crash of his Sopwith Camel fighter. The leading RNAS ace, Squadron Leader Raymond Collishaw (a Canadian who achieved 60 air to air victories) described Little as follows:

an outstanding character, bold, aggressive and courageous, yet he was gentle and kindly. A resolute and brave man.”

Robert A. Little remains Australia’s greatest air ace and was equal 15th on overall victories of the air aces from all nations involved in World War One. The top 2 were German pilot Manfred Von RichthofenThe Red Baron” with 80 victories and French pilot Rene Fonck with 75 victories.

Sopwith Triplane NZ Vintage Aviator
Sopwith Triplane
Roderic Dallas 1918 Australian Air Ace World War One
Roderic Dallas 1918

Roderic Dallas

Little was closely followed by Roderic Dallas, a Queenslander who also flew with the Royal Naval Air Service in Europe and achieved an official tally of 39 air to air victories during 1915-1918 (records are not 100% though and he may well have achieved a tally of up to 45). He also had great success flying the Sopwith Triplane in which he achieved more than half his victories.

During his career he was in command of RNAS Squadron No.1 and later RAF Squadron No. 40 and  received the DSO and DSC for his bravery. He also sadly died at a young age in 1918 (just 26) on a solo flight in combat with 3 German Fokker Triplane aircraft in which one of them shot down his Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a. These pilots combatting each other in close aerial duels, truly were the knights of the sky.

THE INTER-WAR YEARS

RAAF BadgeMany of the men who flew for the AFC in World War One helped form the post war air arm of Australia which in January 1920 became the interim Australian Air Corps (assets were formerly transferred from the Army to the AAC in a Government Gazette announcement on December 31st, 1919). The title of the Australian Air Force was established on March 31st, 1921 and then following the official consent from King George V became the Royal Australian Air Force on August 13th, 1921.

The South African Air Force (SAAF) has some claims to being the second oldest independent air arm, being formed on February 1st, 1920, but the AAC pipped them to the post a month earlier and was soon enough renamed to the RAAF, hence the title goes to Australia. Sorry South Africa!

Following World War One and a time of peace, the RAAF was significantly downsized and pretty much maintained as a basic defensive force (primarily the Central Flying School) and was also used extensively for civil duties. The latter role included aerial photography (for science and industry), aerial surveying for mapping purposes, bushfire patrols,  meteorological flights, spraying for insect pests and air/sea rescue operations.

Imperial Gift

In 1920 the British government presented an imperial gift of 128 ex-wartime aircraft to Australia in return for services offered in World War One (35 Avro 504K trainers, 35 Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a fighters, 28 Airco/de Haviland DH-9 bombers and 30 Airco/de Haviland DH-9a bombers). By 1921 there were 153 aircraft on the roster. There were actually more aircraft than personnel at that time (21 officers and 128 other ranks), although most aircraft were kept in storage for a number of years and only about 50-60 aircraft were in use in those early years. Public and government interest in aviation had not waned, it was just that with the sheer cost of World War One and no foreseeable major enemy, there was no reason to financially maintain a large air arm at that point in time.

A basic mixed unit was operated by the RAAF until 1924 at No. 1 Flying Training School at Point Cook (including seaplanes). In 1925 Number 1 Squadron (based in Laverton, Victoria) and Number 3 Squadron (Richmond, NSW) were reinstated as fighter/bomber units, then in 1926 101 Fleet Co-operation Flight was also formed (Richmond, NSW). With the retirement of war surplus aircraft in the late 1920’s Number 1 Squadron became a bomber unit and Number 3 Squadron assumed an army cooperation role. The training school retained a “fighter squadron” and “seaplane squadron” which were basically just flights within the squadron. These 4 squadrons pretty much remained the basis of the RAAF until the mid 1930’s.

RAAF RAN Fairey IIID seaplane at Point Cook in 1923
Fairey IIID seaplane at Point Cook in 1923 (Photo Source: Adf-serials.com.au)

In 1922 the first ever locally manufactured aircraft in Australia rolled off the production line in Mascot, NSW. The 6 Avro 504K trainers were built for the RAAF.  They joined 28 others already  in service. All Avro 504K’s were retired in 1928 (all were sadly then destroyed except for the one on display at the Australian War Memorial).

The last surviving Imperial Gift Avro 504K at the Australian War Memorial
The last surviving Imperial Gift Avro 504K at the Australian War Memorial
RAAF Airco Dh.9 on Belmont Common circa 1930
RAAF Airco DH.9 on Belmont Common circa 1930 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)

England to Australia Air Races

Big events like the first flight by Australian pilots from England to Australia in 1919 and the England to Australia air race in 1934 drew great public attention. The 28 day journey  in 1919 was flown by AFC and RFC veterans and brothers Ross and Keith Smith in a converted Vickers Vimy bomber. They won the £10,000 prize offered by the Australian Government to complete it in less than 30 days.

Ross and Keith Smith's Vickers Vimy at Cloncurry, QLD in 1919
Ross and Keith Smith’s Vickers Vimy at Cloncurry, QLD in 1919 (Photo Source: State Library of Queensland)
1934 Centenary Air Race England to Australia
1934 Centenary Air Race

The 1934 England to Australia MacRobertson Centenary Air Race was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city of Melbourne in Victoria. The race was divided into two divisions (speed and handicap which had no restriction on the size or type of aircraft used) and the prize for the race was £15, 000 (about $75,000). The prize and fame attracted 64 entrants from 13 countries (many of them were famed pilots being World War One veterans and record holders) but on the day of the race start on October 20th, 1934 only 20 aircraft from 7 countries took off from Mildenhall near London (60,000 people were there to see them go). 18,000 kilometres, 19 countries and 7 seas later only 11 entrants completed the race (there were 5 compulsory stops along the route – Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville; but a further 22 stops were available with fuel and necessary supplies along the route).

For those interested the speed event was won by a British team (C.W.A. Scott and T. Campbell Black) in “Grosvenor House” a red-painted de Havilland 88 Comet. They made the trip in just under 3 days with a total of 71 flying hours! The handicap division was won by the Dutch KLM airlines team flying a Douglas DC-2 airliner. They also ended up being the second fastest team, completing the race with just over 81 hours flying time.

The only Australian pilot to complete the race was C.J. (Jimmy) Melrose who came second in the handicap division flying a de Havilland DH 80A Puss Moth with a flying time of 120 hours (he barely made it to Australia, landing in Darwin with an empty tank!). Famed Australian aviator Charles Edward Kingsford Smith “Smithy” (a World War One veteran and barnstormer who made the first non-stop flight across the Pacific ocean from the USA to Australia in 1928) was meant to race, but had to change his aircraft and was unable to enter his Lockheed AltairLady Southern Cross” before the race started.

The RAAF Grows

RAAF Flemington Race Course Air Show 1938
170,000 people went to see this 1938 air show in Melbourne! (Image Source: RAAF)

The public interest in aviation was also highlighted in the excitement over air shows such as the  1938 RAAF Display at Melbourne’s Flemington Race Course. 170,000 people turned up to see the flying that day! 85 aircraft including fighters, bombers, trainers and flying boats flew in the displays that ran for around 4 hours that day.

Mass formations and simulated air combat were highlights of the air display. Air Force officers on the day said around 7,000 men enquired about joining the RAAF at booths set up around the race course.

In 1934 the Australian government announced an expansion of its military forces. In 1935 the RAAF had less than 1,000 personnel. New air bases were built around the country (in Western Australia, Queensland, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory) and the RAAF was expanded. By 1939 the RAAF comprised 12 squadrons (of a projected 18), around 250 aircraft, 310 officers and 3179 servicemen. Unfortunately the aircraft on hand were mostly obsolete types.

RAAF Supermarine Southampton at Welshpool in October 1933
RAAF Supermarine Southampton at Welshpool in October 1933 (Photo Source: Adf-serials.com.au)

Into the 1920’s and early to mid 1930’s the frontline aircraft of the RAAF were made up of various bi-planes such as the World War One era Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a scout/fighter (operated 1920-1928), the Bristol Bulldog (operated 1930-1940), Westland Wapiti light bomber (operated 1929-1944 but from 1935 was primarily used for training) and Hawker Demon two seat fighter bombers (operated 1934-1945 and replaced the Wapiti). These aircraft were obsolete when the threat of another global war became a reality in 1939. Unfortunately attempts to establish a large local aircraft manufacturing industry had begun too late to cover the shortfall of aircraft that would normally have come from Great Britain which was then in an urgent stage of rearmament to combat the Germans in Europe.

AFC Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a
Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a (photo taken at the Australian War Memorial in 2009)
RAAF Westland Wapiti Aircraft at Nhill, Victoria March 1929
RAAF Westland Wapiti Aircraft at Nhill, Victoria March 1929 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)
RAAF Bristol Bulldog in 1930's Queensland
RAAF Bristol Bulldog in 1930’s Queensland (Photo Source: State Library of Queensland)
RAAF Hawker Demon
Hawker Demon (taken at the RAAF Museum in 2012)

My next article will cover the operations of the RAAF in World War Two. A period when Australia faced a dire situation with its back to the wall and the imminent threat of Japanese invasion in 1942. Japan was on the attack with Australia in it’s sights. Bombs fell all over northern Australia and Japanese submarines prowled and attacked our shores. Against all odds RAAF airmen fought back and made sure the skies over Australia and the West Pacific were secure.

Resources:

3 Squadron RAAF Association

ADF-Serials

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Australian Government – National Heritage Places – Point Cook Air Base

Australian War Memorial

First World War.com

Monash University – Australian Aviation Pioneers

Museum Victoria

RAAF Museum

Royal Australian Air Force

State Library of NSW

The Australian Light Horse Association

Wikipedia

Wikipedia – Imperial Gift

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20 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Royal Australian Air Force: The Early Years – 1914 to 1939

  1. Reblogged this on Deano Around The World and commented:

    For the history and aviation buffs out there (and those who may want to learn a little bit more about Australia’s involvement in WW1) – Part 1 of a 4 part series to celebrate the centenary of military aviation in Australia.

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  2. Excellent idea for a series and also so timely Deano, well done! Ron Gretton and Geoff Matthews have built as well as test flown a flying replica of the Bristol Boxkite (the RAAF’s first military aircraft purchase). It is called Project 2014 and can be found here http://www.boxkite2014.org/boxkite_home.html. Additionally, they collaborated with James Kightly on a book telling their tale will be released tomorrow — and its webpage is http://www.boxkite2014.org/book/book.htm. Once its flown at the Centenary it will be donated to the RAAF Museum in Point Cook.

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    1. Thanks I saw you posted that on your blog but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Yes my timing was to coincide with the first military flight at Point Cook the birthplace of the RAAF 🙂

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      1. Hi Deano…yes, I put some of the info in my post into the comment. I thought steering to my post would have been just not cool to do 😉 Gretton and Matthews know well what they are doing and Kightly is an excellent as well as established author. The book is winging its way to me here in Florida so soon I’ll publish a post of the book’s review. Stories of replica making as well as restoration work is fascinating to me — mostly since I am unskilled for that work and a bit lazy to be honest to do the work 😉

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  3. Such a brave group of men. I did not know about the AF in WWI, (now I do), but I have been doing quite a bit of research into them as I prepare to go back into WWII.

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  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

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