Australia’s Great War in the air
19 Dec 2016|
Informal portrait of trainee pilot Captain (Capt) Thomas Walter White, Australian Flying Corps (AFC) at the controls of a Bristol Boxkite at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Victoria. c.1915

In January 1911, the Australian government announced its intention to form a flying corps to support the Army. Over the next few years men were recruited, an airbase established at Point Cook near Melbourne, and canvas hangars and rudimentary training aircraft acquired. On 1 March 1914, Lieutenant Eric Harrison, an Australian pilot who had trained in England, made the first flight of a military aircraft in Australia in a locally-assembled Bristol Boxkite, and the first pilot’s course started in August that year, with four students.

Early in 1915, less than a year since it became marginally functional, the Australian Flying Corps went to war, tasked with supporting operations against the Turks in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where vital oil supplies were being threatened. The magnitude of this achievement needs to be understood. In 1911, Australia possessed no military aviation expertise whatsoever. There were no leaders, pilots, mechanics, aircraft or infrastructure; and there was no precedent to guide or doctrine to inform. Just four years later, the AFC was being sent to the other side of the world to fight an entirely new form of warfare in an alien and most hostile environment.

Led by former English solicitor, now AFC pilot, Captain Henry Petre, the AFC ‘Half Flight’—there weren’t enough men and machines to support a full flight—was thrown into action, only weeks after the Anzac’s epic landing at Gallipoli. Such was the Corp’s inexperience that two of Petre’s four pilots were recent graduates, and only 18 of his 41 airmen were qualified air mechanics, the others being motor mechanics, carpenters and joiners.

As with the Anzac campaign, the Half Flight’s war was to be heroic, bloody, and ultimately tragic. Initially based at Basra, the Australians were absorbed into the (British) Royal Flying Corps and allocated three second-hand Morris Farman aircraft. The unreliability of these fragile machines added greatly to the dangers of wartime operations. The Half Flight’s primary role was reconnaissance, which the pilots carried out in extremes of desert heat, dust and wind. Near-constant turbulence made the narrow margin between the aircraft’s cruise and stall speeds a constant worry. In winds that often exceeded 80 kph, the Farmans were unable to make headway, instead drifting backwards over the ground.

Reconnaissance and sabotage missions were flown deep into enemy territory. In addition to unreliable engines and flimsy airframes, maps were inadequate and landing fields hazardous. Forced landings, which were common because of engine failure, were likely to end in imprisonment at best, and at worst savage death at the hands of tribesman.

After three months the Half Flight was reinforced, re-equipped with better aircraft, and renamed No. 30 Squadron, RFC. By November 1915, only Petre remained of the original pilots, the others having been killed or imprisoned; and most of the mechanics who hadn’t suffered the same fate had been dispersed among RFC units. Overshadowed by the Australian public’s interest in the contemporary events at Gallipoli, the Half Flight’s heroic and pioneering achievements went largely unrecognised.

At the same time the Half Flight was fighting in Mesopotamia,  the AFC was expanding  back in Australia. As more pilots, observers, and mechanics were trained, the government was able to increase the AFC’s contribution to the war. No. 1 Squadron was formed at Point Cook in January 1916 and deployed to Egypt in March. Later that year, Nos. 2, 3, and 4 Squadrons sailed for England for more training before a planned deployment to the Western Front in France.

Among No. 1 Squadron’s pilots in the Middle East was Captain Richard Williams, later to become the greatest figure in Australian military aviation. Williams was unimpressed by the squadron’s two-seat, general purpose BE2c aircraft, which were ‘disturbingly inferior’ to the enemy’s single-seat Fokkers. He noted that that AFC crews had ‘very little chance’ in air combat and ‘depended mainly on luck’ when dropping bombs. The reference to air-to-air combat and bombing indicates just how rapidly the war in the air had progressed. Reconnaissance and army liaison remained No. 1 Squadron’s primary tasks, but the implications of the other roles—which had scarcely been envisaged in 1915—were profound.

No. 1 Squadron’s pilots were at the forefront of technological and tactical innovation. The mercurial Lieutenant L.J. Wackett (another towering figure in the history of Australian aviation), for example, designed a machine gun mount for the top centre-section of the BE2c, considerably enhancing the aircraft’s dogfighting capability. And the squadron was prominent in the revolution that air bombardment brought to warfare.

On 11 November 1916, only seven months after arriving in-theatre, the Australian airmen staged what was at the time the Middle East’s largest air raid. A force of ten aircraft was launched to strike against an enemy stronghold at Beersheba. Weaving through a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, the crews successfully bombed Beersheba’s aerodrome, tents, railway line and station. They then demonstrated their versatility by coolly photographing the damage.

The AFC had made remarkable progress since the outbreak of war. Sophisticated tactics had evolved, technology had advanced dramatically, training systems had been established, and outstanding leaders had emerged. By the end of 1916, Australia’s first airmen were poised to make a significant contribution to the allies’ broader campaign in the Great War.