The Battle Below : Chapter 1
The story of any flying unit during the War of 1914-1918 is, owing to the nature of it's duties and the manner in which these duties were carried out, necessarily a record of the achievement of the individuals, namely, the crews of individual aircraft. This is more particularly case in respect of army co-operation squadrons which, unlike fighter and bomber squadrons, do not normally work in flights or squadrons but have separate tasks alloted to each aircraft and aircraft crew. For this reason this record of the work of No.3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, is mainly concerned with the work of the pilots and observers of the squadron. At the same time, however, it must be realised that, had an efficient maintenance organisation not existed, it would have proved impossible for the flying personnel to perform their tasks. The successful work of the Squadron was undoubtedly the result of excellent team work on the part of all concerned and the success achieved is the measure of the energetic and untiring efforts of the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the unit. Without this cheerful, whole-hearted and very expert team work there would be no history of No.3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, worth recording. Outstanding examples of this are the magnificent effort of the 17th of September, 1918, when practically all aircraft were wrecked by a severe storm and fifteen serviceable aircraft were available by nightfall; the remarkably few engin or wireless failures that occurred; the rapid production of photographs on numerous occasions; the fact that Vickers and Lewis guns rarely jammed or failed at critical moments; the invention by the armament staff of time and labour saving devices for testing every round of small arms ammunition; the development of gear for dropping ammunition by parachutes; and finally the fact that throughout its active service in France the Squadron had never less than fifteen aircraft serviceable and ready to take the air out of its total complement of eighteen aircraft.
The aircraft of a squadron on active service were required to fly at any time at a moment's notice, and the information required by the army formations in the field was such that it necessitated aircraft spending long hours in the air. This, combined with the fact that it was frequently impossible to house aircraft when on the ground, and therefore they had to be tied down in the open where they were subject to the deteriorating effects of constantly changing weather, rendered the efficient maintenance of aircraft an extremely difficult task. Added to the effects of snow, rain, hail and wind, damage caused by enemy action, such as combats in the air, anti-aircraft fire, etc., also went towards making this task more difficult.
The first essential in this task of aircraft maintenance is to have ready at hand an adequate supply of essential spares and materials so that repair work can go forward without delay. The provision of these spares and materials was the responsibility of the Squadron Equipment Officer, who obtained them from the Aircraft Park attached to the Wing to which the Squadron belonged.
The second essential in the work of aircraft maintenance is the provision of the necessary organisation, not only for purely routine maintenance work, but also for carrying out repairs and overhauls after the necessary spares and materials are made available. This was provided partly in the flights and partly by the establishment of a squadron workshop. In the flights, one engine fitter and one aircraft rigger were provided for each aircraft, and, under the supervision of the Flight Sergeant and the Sergeant Fitter and Sergeant Rigger, they were responsible to their Flight Commander for the maintenance of aircraft and engines in an airworthy condition, and for the carrying out of minor repairs. The squadron workshop, which was controlled by the Squadron Equipment Officer, was under the direct supervision of the Squadron Technical Warrant Officer and dealt with any aircraft and engine repair work which could be carried out in the Squadron but which was beyond the capabilities of the flights. The squadron workshop was therefore responsible for such work as the complete overhaul of engines, major repairs to aircraft, fitting of new equipment, and the repair of motor transport.
The work of maintenance and repair of aircraft fluctuated from time to time but was at all times heavy. The consequence was that all personnel concerned had to work long hours. Mechanics were frequently astir long before daylight preparing the aircraft for which they were responsible for a commencing at dawn; frequently they worked without throughout the whole day, assisting others with repairs own aircraft were away over the lines; and frequently they worked well into the night repairing aircraft that had been damaged by enemy action or overhauling an engine which had become unserviceable. It was considered almost a disgrace if, for any reason whatever, an aircraft could not be serviceable and ready to take the air whenever required, even though this meant working throughout the whole night and such was the spirit in evidence throughout Squadron that on these occasions there were always volunteers, even from other flights, who were prepared to forego their night's rest in order to assist their comrades to maintain the reputation of the Squadron.
That the Squadron was never faced with the possibility of failing to carry out a task owing to a lack of serviceable aircraft was due equally to the energy and foresight of the Squadron Equipment Staff under Captain R. Ross in providing the necessary spares and materials and to all those non-commissioned and other mechanics employed on the task of maintaining aircraft and engines in a serviceable condition who sacrificed rest and displayed the utmost energy in order that it might be said of their Squadron, "It never failed." Without the work of these men the record of successes achieved by and observers would never have been possible.
Although fighting in the air was not the primary role of No. 3 Squadron, and in normal circumstances it was not the duty of pilots and observers to seek combat, occasions frequently occurred when it was necessary to assume the offensive in order that the pilot and observer could perform their essential duty of obtaining information. In addition, enemy aircraft attacked our aircraft from time to time with a view to preventing them from carrying out their tasks, and therefore pilots and observers were frequently called upon to defend themselves. For these reasons machine-guns and air gunnery were of great importance.
Each aircraft of No. 3 Squadron was equipped with two guns, a Lewis on a revolving mounting for the observer, and Vickers fired forwards by means of a Constantinesco gear for the pilot. The responsibility for the condition of all guns and gun gears was that of the Squadron Armament Officer, who had under his control a staff of armourers. The responsibilities of the armament staff, however, were not confined to guns and gears for they also dealt with the testing of ammunition and the filling of ammunition belts and drums. As even a slight defect in a cartridge was capable of causing a gun stoppage which it might be impossible to remedy whilst in the air, these latter were matters requiring the greatest care and each individual cartridge was carefully tested before being filled into a belt or drum.
In No. 3 Squadron, the armament work was carried out most efficiently by the squadron armament section supervised originally by Lieutenant J. Brake and later by Lieutenant H.N. Marriott, and during the Squadron's period by of active service pilots and observers experienced practically no troubles with guns, gears or ammunition. The armament section was also responsible for the fuzing and loading of bombs, and their work in this direction was as efficient as their work in connection with machine guns, for on no occasion was it reported that bomb or bomb carrier had failed to function satisfactorily.
Following the outbreak of war, the importance of wireless communication between aircraft and the ground had gradually increased until it became an essential to successful army co-operation work. So far as No. 3 Squadron was concerned, wireless telegraphy was employed chiefly in aircraft co-operation with all classes of artillery, ranging from trench mortars through the field and medium batteries to the heavy siege batteries. For this work the aircraft carried a standard Sterling transmitter, and a Mark III. crystal receiver was employed at the battery ground stations. During the final stages of hostilities, when Bristol Fighter aircraft were allotted to the Squadron, continuous wave transmitters and receivers were used for work with these aircraft.
The whole of the wireless activities of the Squadron, which included the control of the squadron ground station, the maintenance of transmitters, receivers and other signal equipment, and the supervision of the battery ground stations, of which at one period there were no less than ninety-six attached to the Squadron, were under the command of the Squadron Wireless Officer. This position was held in turn by Lieutenants E. F. Woods, J. J. Malone, S. E. Watts and T. Grant.
The number of aircraft working wireless which were crowded opposite the fighting front, especially during the later stages of the War, was so great that special skill in tuning was called for on the part of wireless operators to ensure that signals from aircraft were not missed. When this and all other circumstances, such as the conditions under which aircraft and ground stations worked, are taken into account, the number of wireless failures which occurred was extremely low.
There are two further aspects of the Squadron's work which require mention. The first is the excellent liaison which existed and which resulted in first-class co-operation between pilots and observers on the one hand and the Artillery Liaison Officers and Branch Intelligence Officers attached to the Squadron on the other. The work of the Artillery Liaison Officers resulted in the removal of many difficulties and in smoother working between artillery units and pilots and observers; that of the Branch Intelligence Officers, with whom was associated the Squadron photographic section, was of inestimable value in supplying pilots and observers with information necessary to enable them to achieve their object successfully. To record that the friendly co-operation that existed went a long way towards success in supplying the army formations in the field with essential information does not amply indicate the value of the assistance rendered by successive Artillery Liaison Officers and Branch Intelligence Officers.
The final aspect of the Squadron's work that must be mentioned is that concerned with the compilation of reports and records. When on many occasions the remainder of the Squadron was able to enjoy some degree of relaxation from labour, one section of the Squadron must work with unabated vigour. Pilots and observers will always remember with gratitude the assistance given to them by the Squadron Recording Officers, Captain E. G. Knox and Lieutenants C. A. Niven and M. R. Shelley, when, after a strenuous and tiring task over the lines, they returned to the Squadron office to render their reports. Nor must the orderly room staff, under the supervision of Flight Sergeant J. L. Timewell, be forgotten. Without the records compiled by them under the direction of the Squadron Recording Officers it would have been impossible to record many of the details contained in this history of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps.
Title image courtesy of the Harold Edwards photograph collection.
Australian Flying Corps : A Complete History of the Australian Flying Corps