During World War One the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) flew air combat over most fronts of the war and especially the Western Front in Europe. In December 1917 AFC No. 2 Squadron was first equipped with the new Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a scout fighter.
This S.E.5a was not only relatively easy to fly but also fast (top speed 222 km/h), rugged and well armed with a single nose mounted .303-in Vickers machine-gun synchronized to fire through the propeller and a single .303-in Lewis machine-gun on an upper wing foster mounting (it could shoot forwards but was also handy for shooting above the aircraft at an oblique angle). The S.E.5a could also carry 45 kg of bombs for ground attack missions. The type was also operated by AFC No. 5 & 6 (Training) Squadrons in the United Kingdom.
The S.E.5 was introduced into service with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in April 1917 with a Hispano-Suiza 8 V8 150hp engine and then the S.E.5a with a more powerful Wolseley Viper V8 200 hp engine in June 1917. By mid 1917 the Sopwith Camel and S.E.5/5a scouts flown by the likes of the RFC and AFC helped regain Allied air superiority over the Imperial German Air Service on the Western Front. 16 AFC pilots became air aces flying the S.E.5a before the war ended in November 1918. These men were the knights of the sky, flying aircraft made predominately of wood and fabric without a parachute, up against a worthy adversary, potentially risking their lives every day to help win the war!
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra has a rare original World War One era Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a scout fighter on display in the ANZAC Hall: Over the Front exhibition. This example (serial number C1916 and renumbered A2-4 in Australia) was manufactured in England in 1918 at Surrey, Addlestone (5,200 S.E.5/5a aircraft were manufactured between 1916 and 1919). It arrived in Australia in 1920 as one of 35 S.E.5a’s sent by the United Kingdom as an imperial gift for the nation’s service during World War One.
These imperial gift scout fighters would help form the new Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) that commenced operation as an independent air arm in 1921. The S.E.5a remained in RAAF service as a training aircraft until 1928 (they were very obsolete by 1928, during their RAAF service, ten of the S.E.5A aircraft were lost due to crashes and another fourteen airframes were never assembled and left in storage).
This particular example was actually held in storage until 1926 then was operated by RAAF No. 1 Fighter Training Squadron at RAAF Point Cook, Victoria until retired and presented to the Australian War Memorial in 1929 (originally displayed in the Melbourne Exhibition Building before the AWM opened in 1941). We are lucky to have it as the aircraft was involved in 3 forced landings in those few short years at Point Cook!
Originally the S.E.5a fighters presented to Australia in 1920 were painted in the wartime Khaki scheme but all were then repainted into a new RAAF silver scheme with red, white and blue rudder stripes (a replica painted in this livery can be seen today at the RAAF Museum in Point Cook). The war memorial example was repainted in 1970 to represent the S.E.5a (serial number C9539) flown by the Australian air ace Captain H. G. Forrest DFC of AFC No. 2 Squadron, in which he shot down 3 German aircraft in two separate engagements.
Captain H. G. Forrest DFC (1895-1950) first enlisted in the Australian Army in 1915. He served in infantry battalions at Gallipoli (1915), Egypt (1916) and France (1916 to 1917) and was awarded an Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour in 1917, for leading a successful raid into enemy trenches at the Hollandscheschuur Salient in September 1916.
In April 1917 he transferred to the AFC and following training in England flew with the RFC No. 32 and 43 Squadrons in France during the 1917 Ypres campaign. Wounded in August 1917 he returned to England for treatment and then in November 1917 joined RFC No. 68 Squadron (Australia) which became AFC No. 2 Squadron on January 19th, 1918. He was promoted to captain in February 1918 then went on to score 11 air to air victories with No. 2 Squadron (he became an air ace by the end of March 1918 and his German victories included 6 reconnaissance aircraft and 5 fighters – 2 Albatros D.V., 2 Pfalz D.III and a Fokker Dr.I triplane).
Captain Forrest was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery on July 2nd, 1918. The DFC citation read: “His leadership of patrols has been characterised by great dash and determination, whether on high or low work. He has displayed skill in manoeuvring and boldness in attacking superior numbers.” In July 1918 he joined the Home Establishment in England where training of air and ground crews for service in France was conducted. He returned to Australia in January 1919 and left the AFC the following month to go on to live a normal life until his death in 1950.
The Australian War Memorial S.E.5a is a great bit of RAAF history preserved for future generations and a fine tribute to the AFC airmen of World War One. ANZAC Hall is not to be missed on any visit to the war memorial.