The Australian Squadrons
This is an extract from the now out of print autobiography of Lt Colonel Louis Strange, "Recollections of an Airman". Strange commanded the 80th Wing RAF with which the two Australian Flying Corps scout squadrons were attached, 2 Sqn AFC and 4 Sqn AFC. In this extract he describes the Australian squadrons in the air and on the ground and the techniques he used to get the best out of the Australian pilots. Strange is probably best known for hanging from a jammed Lewis gun drum in an upside down spinning Martinsyde. He survived by kicking his way back into the cockpit, in doing so smashing the instruments and putting the seat through the floor.
The Australian Squadrons
Nos. 2 and 4 Squadrons of The Australian Flying Corps need no praise of mine for their work in the summer of 1918. Their records show that they were the finest material as an attacking force in the air, just as their infantry divisions on the ground were the best that the war produced on either side.
It became the practice for our Australian Squadrons to lead the 80th Wing's bombing raids. When later in the year over a hundred machines set out on one of them, the spearpoint was always formed of Australian Airmen, led by an Australian. Major McCloughry[McClaughry], Major Murray-Jones, Capt Cobby, and Capt King are the names I remember best, but the others that were equally famous have slipped my memory for the moment.
In individual squadron fighting these Australians had no equals in their best days, and more than once they raised the record for numbers of enemy aircraft destroyed in one day by any squadron. The secret of their success was, in my opinion mainly due to their sense of initiative, which they inherited from ancestors who had been cattlemen, sheep-ranchers, poachers, trappers, outriders, overland post and transport drivers. You only need to read the tales of the early Australian Settlers to realize the conditions under which these men grew.
They had to fend for themselves against known and unknown dangers in the wide, open, lonely spaces of the continent. It was nothing to them to be in the saddle for days and days when crossing mountain ranges. deserts, or forests; their sense of direction never faltered on these long trails, and they were equally at home when cutting out their cattle at a round-up or shooting the rapids in a canoe. In fact, they were all good scouts, and what ideal training their life in their native country gave them for work in the air!
On the ground I must admit this same sense of initiative proved a source of much trouble to their superiors at times. It was impossible to convince an Australian that a nice piano in a deserted and half looted house was loot if he decided to take care of it temporarily without troubling to find and get permission from the absentee owner. It also might have been insulting to hint at cattle-stealing ancestry, but when we others were existing on tinned milk, the Australians always had their own fresh milk from their own two cows and a spare lorry to transport the cows whenever a move had to be made. Moreover, these cows always had calves with great regularity. Of course, it would have been bad form to question the origin of the new piano, the cows and the calves which they had invited a Wing Commander to see. These accessories meant so much to the amenity of their life on the ground and so the Wing Commander could only let them get away with it, even though he knew it was his pidgeon if anyone raised awkward inquires.
Nevertheless, we had our differences of opinion at times. One of them was due to the unofficial use of service cameras, and another time there was the trouble over the bartering of rations with the local inhabitants. No one minds the swapping of a tin of bully beef for a few fresh eggs, of course, but a Wing Commander has to draw the line somewhere when he finds one of his Australian Squadrons running the village grocers shop and general store. Even so, my Australians were discreet enough in the way they went about their business, so that I might have ignored it, had it not been for the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages. When the latter got to hear of the bargains, they turned our place into a sort of fair and market on Sundays, and so I was compelled to put my foot down.
I do not want this to be considered a reflection on Australian discipline, which was good - good enough in fact, to ensure the highest efficiency in their work, but it was a different standard of discipline to that in force in our own squadrons. I cannot put down Tom Purdey's remarks about the combat reports sent in by these Australian Squadrons; suffice to say that they were couched in such language which would have shocked the sedate officials of the War Office, but the number of victories they related covered a multitude of sins.
Taking it all round, we got on amazingly well with our Australians, and from the day they joined the 80th Wing I would not have exchanged them for any other squadrons on the western front. Perhaps I have some sheep-stealing and cattle-lifting ancestors, whose blood gives me a sneaking sympathy with their habits of feloniously purloining anything they take a fancy to.
I learnt to value them for their wonderful sense of direction. In spite of all that is said about navigation and map reading as aids to aviation, it is a great thing to have squadron leaders who can take their formations safely home in thick weather by that so called "sixth sense". You need that extra quality badly when you have to break out of a dog fight suddenly with a failing engine and every second saved may mean the difference between landing on our side of the lines and coming down in Hunland, especially if visibility is too bad for you to spot that river or wood on your map and a bullet has smashed your compass. Those Australians were natural pathfinders; they did not need to look at a bush twice to know where it was the next time they saw it. Having flown once over a tract of country on a clear day, they would think you deserved all you got if you failed to know your whereabouts the next time you came that way just because it was a bit foggy, and I suppose they were right.
I often used to think of Murray Jones and his squadron as the sherriff and his posse going out to catch some bushrangers who had been reported to be stealing horses and cattle in the neighbourhood, and if matters became desperate - as they did with us later on - searching them out in their lairs, burning their strongholds, and giving them no quarter. They were uncommunicative folk, for they always had some plan or other that had to be kept a secret. Whether they thought the enemy would get wind of their schemes if they discussed them too openly or whether they preferred to hush up possibilities of failures, I cannot tell, but the result was always the same - they never advertised their intentions.
I often wondered what was in Cobby's mind when he went off on his own in the dark, a good hour before the dawn patrol was due to start. In all probability he was spying out the land - sitting high above von Leutzer's aerodrome and waiting to see how many machines were being run out on the tarmac by the other side for their dawn patrols. Then he would pass on the numbers by signal to his own squadron when he met them over the appointed rendezvous, after which they would go back to Recklingham for more petrol and warn Murray Jones that there were plenty about that morning.
But sometimes he was out to play the lone hand. The mechanics, pilots and observers at Fives or Lomme would be too busy seeing to the machines on the tarmac that were to take them up for the dawn patrol, and so they failed to notice the high pitched note of the Clerget and the screaming wires of Cobby's Camel as he streaked down on them from the first glimmer of dawn in the east to pour out a stream of lead from his two Vickers guns and release his twenty-pound bombs. Just a momentary vision of destruction he was; then he would disappear again into the still murky west, leaving behind him one or two machines in flames, some bits and pieces of two or three more on which his bombs had got home, and a number of dead and wounded foeman on the hard cinder track in front of the hangars.
In short when an Australian Squadron went out to fight, someone had to suffer or else the business was not worthwhile, and the Australians were not going to be sufferers if they knew anything about it. It was the old game of getting the first blow in at a time when the other fellow was not looking for it.
They continually laid traps in the air; you could depend on it that the simplest-looking Australian patrol was part of some scheme or other. If, for instance, they decided to attack a balloon, it was a dead certainty that you would find a party of them high above the assailant, watching out with eager eyes for any misguided Huns who might be foolish enough to interfere with him and thus lay themselves open to sudden deadly streams of lead. They used to take it in turns to attack balloons, and when you sent one down in flames you earned an extra turn, but they never made a habit of indulging in balloon hunts everyday, for that would have given the Hun time to get a surprise packet ready for them. They had plenty of variations to keep themselves amused and the enemy annoyed; his trains, for example, were continually interrupted on their journeys by Australian airmen and always in a different part of the line. Another playful little trick of theirs was to attack an enemy aerodrome in the evening, just when its machines were being put away for the night and the light was fading too quickly for any chance of pursuit.
In fact, Nos 2 and 4 AFC, were past masters in the art of guerilla warfare, but it was only by becoming one of themselves, so to speak, that I could manage to adapt Wing Routine Orders to suit the methods and at the same time satisfy the demands made from higher up. Consequently I spent a good deal of time with my Australians, and my admiration for them increased daily.
I found that there was little chance of them getting rattled by persistent ill-luck or a series of heavy losses. Likewise there was no fear of their morale detoriorating from the monotony of routine work, because, given a sufficiently free hand, they could be relied on to take care that it did not become monotonous. "We came all the way from down under to help you win the war." their actions seemed to say, "and we're in a hurry to get back again, so just leave things to us, because we know what is good for ourselves and bad for Fritz."
Lieut-General (Now Field Marshall) Sir William Birdwood, who commanded the Australian Division at the time, often used to come round to Recklingham aerodrome and tell us all about the doings of other Australian units in the field. But I think his real motive was to glean the news and successes of those wonderful Australian Pilots who were making history and establishing a tradition that will never fade as long as Australia has an Air Force.
Australian Flying Corps : A Complete History of the Australian Flying Corps