The Battle Below : Chapter 2
The Formation Of The Australian Flying Corps
What appears to be the first evidence of the interest of the Australian public in service aviation is contained in a letter to the editor of the Brisbane "Courier," of the 8th October, 1910, entitled "Admiral Henderson and Aviation." In this article, Mr. Charles Lindsay Campbell, the then secretary of the Queensland Aero Club, and honorary secretary of the Aero League of Australia, set out his views on the military value of aviation. He suggested that "about two dozen of the engineering and mechanical class should be at once distributed among the schools mentioned1, and they again after six months' study, to be redistributed among the Commonwealth." A few months later, on the 9th January, 1911, Campbell proposed to the then Minister for Defence (Senator G. F. Pearce) that a Commonwealth School of Aviation and Australian Aviation Corps should be established. His idea was that the school should consist of two sections, the first being open, on payment of a small fee to cover the expenses thereof, to all members of the general public interested in aviation matters, and the second being devoted to lectures and practical demonstrations of the principles of aeronautics and to practical gliding work. From members of the second section who passed the necessary examinations and practical tests and who were medically fit were to be selected the members of an Aviation Corps under the direct administration of the Minister for Defence, and it was suggested that within twelve months branches could be established in all States. The administrative staff proposed for this Corps was a Controller, one pilot and two mechanics and the aircraft equipment recommended comprised three aircraft and one Gnome-engined Bleriot monoplanes and two practice gliders, together with the necessary spares. Upon the advice of the Military Board, however, this proposal was not approved and it was decided that the advice of the War Office would be obtained before any steps were taken towards the formation of any military aviation unit.
Toward the end of the same month Major P.N. Buckley, Royal Australian Engineers who was then stationed in England, reported that an offer had been received from Mr. E. T. Willows, the constructor and navigator of the dirigible airship "City of Cardiff" whereby, subject to satisfactory financial arrangements, he would proceed to Australia and demonstrate his airship. As the Minister for Defence was about to proceed to England on official business, it was decided to defer action with regard to this offer until lie had time to investigate the matter on the spot.
During the following month the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, now the Bristol Aeroplane Company, of Bristol, England, arranged and conducted in Melbourne a demonstration of ;1 Gnome-engined Farman type biplane constructed by them. The pilot during this demonstration was Mr. J. J. Hammond, and the Military Board was represented by Major C. H. Foott, Royal Australian Engineers. In his report following the demonstration Major Foott recommended that, if it were desired to form a military aviation corps, a suitable nucleus of an air fleet and its personnel Would comprise four aircraft with the necessary shares, eight officers trained as aviators and ten mechanics. The Military Board, however, repeated their former recommendation that no action should be taken pending the receipt of further advice from the War Office. In this respect it is interesting to note that Major Buckley, reporting on the progress of military aviation in Great Britain, stated that there was a tendency to proceed very cautiously, and therefore the action of the Military Board in wishing to avoid embarking on a scheme of military aviation without sufficient experience is quite understandable.
The Minister for Defence approved of the recommendation of the Military Board and decided that, when he visited England to attend the Imperial Conference of 1911, he would also confer with the Imperial authorities and thoroughly discuss with them the question of service aviation. These discussions bore fruit, and military aviation in Australia, which eventually resulted in the formation of the Australian Flying Corps, actually had its birth in 1912, in which year the Defence Department secured the services of two trained pilots, Messrs. H.A. Petre and E. Harrison, and granted them commissions in the Australian Military Forces. Appointments had, in the first instance been offered to and accepted by Messrs. H. Busteed and H. A. Petre, but subsequently the former withdrew his acceptance, and Mr. E. Harrison was appointed In his place. Lieutenant Pare arrived in Australia early In 1913, and Lieutenant Harrison, who was accompanied by the mechanics engaged by him in England, arrived in June. Two additional mechanics selected by Lieutenant Petre arrived the following month. At this time also orders were placed in England for the supply of five aircraft, comprising two B.E.2.a type, two Deperdussin type, and one Bristol type, and these arrived in Australia during 1913.
Several sites for an aerodrome were examined in various States, including one in the Federal Capital Territory, which was given special consideration, and a site was finally selected at Point Cook, on the north side of Port Phillip Bay, and about twenty miles from Melbourne by road. Seven hundred and thirty-four acres of land were purchased in order to reserve a sufficient area of land for future developments.
In February, 1914, the Aviation Instructional Staff, consisting of two officers, four mechanics, one clerk, and a caretaker, went into occupation of the Central Flying School, then nothing more than an area of land, and were quartered under canvas. Aircraft were erected in succession, tested and housed in a canvas hanger designed for the purpose by the Aviation Instructional Staff.
The period from February, 1914, to August, 1914, was devoted to experimental work and the erection of buildings and, when the first course of instruction commenced on the 17th August, 1914, the first section of the workshops and one pair of hangars had been completed. This work proceeded steadily and by the end of June, 1915, accommodation had been provided for the staff and for those undergoing instruction and sufficient plant had been installed in the workshops to enable all normal repairs to be undertaken. It was at this time also that the construction of an aeroplane of the Bristol (box-kite) type was commenced in the school workshops.
Commencing with the first course on the 17th August, 1914, a regular series of courses in flying were held, and from the officers undergoing these courses were selected those who officered the earlier units of the Australian Flying Corps.
The first flying unit to proceed on active service left Melbourne on the 30th November, 1914, for service with the Australian expedition against German New Guinea. This unit was under the command of Lieutenant E. Harrison, with Lieutenant G.P. Merz as the second pilot, and was equipped with one B.E.2.a landplane and a Farman seaplane, the latter having been presented by Mr. L. Hordern, of Sydney. Actually no air work was carried out during the expedition, and the unit, which was the first flying unit from any Dominion to proceed on active service, returned to Melbourne early in 1915.
The next step in the formation of the Australian Flying Corps occurred on the 8th February, 1915, when the Viceroy of India cabled to the Commonwealth Government asking whether Australia could provide any trained aviators, mechanics, aircraft, motor-transport or spares for service in the Tigris Valley. To this request the Commonwealth Government replied offering four flying officers and the necessary mechanics, but stating that aircraft were not available. This offer was accepted by the Indian Government and what became known as the First Half-Flight, under the command of Captain H. A. Petre, was formed, the main party of the unit sailing for Bombay on the 20th April, 1915.
The organization of the Australian Flying Corps progressed a step further when in September, 1915, the Secretary for the Colonies suggested by cable to Australia that the Dominions might wish to raise complete aviation units of their own for service overseas, such units taking their place in the general organization as units of the Royal Flying Corps but being given distinguishing designations. At first the Commonwealth Government could not see its way to adopt this suggestion but, after further cablegrams had passed between the Commonwealth and Home Governments, the former agreed on the 27th December, 1915, to organize a squadron consisting of 28 officers and 181 airmen for despatch overseas in February, 1916. No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, the first complete squadron to be despatched from an overseas Dominion to take part in the war, was thereupon formed at Point Cook, and sailed from Melbourne on the 16th March, 1916, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel E. H. Reynolds. The formation and despatch of this squadron indicates the extent of the progress made in military aviation in Australia during the period subsequent to the outbreak of war.
Four months after the despatch overseas of No. 1 Squadron, the Commonwealth Government offered to raise a second complete squadron. This offer was duly accepted, and the organization of No. 2 Squadron ('later known as No. 69, Australian Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, and still later as No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps) was commenced without delay. The Commonwealth Government had been informed that the War Establishment of this squadron should be 36 officers and 206 men. It was found impossible, however, to provide the full number of officers but eventually 18 officers and 230 airmen were provided. The officers were obtained from those officers of the Australian Military Forces who had undergone a course of instruction at the Central Flying School and who were volunteers for active service abroad, and, in certain cases, by selection from a number of civilian volunteers who had had previous flying experience. Mechanics were obtained by selecting suitably trained tradesmen from volunteers for active service with the Australian Imperial Force, but it was found impossible to give these any except a strictly limited amount of specialised training prior to despatch overseas.
The Squadron was assembled and organized in the Australian Imperial Force camp adjacent to the Central Flying School at Point Cook and, by early October, issues of personal equipment had been completed and personnel were granted leave prior to embarkation, which was provisionally fixed for the end of the month. On personnel returning from leave, the final details of organisation were completed, and at 5.30 a.m. on the 25th October, 1916, the Squadron, under the temporary command of Captain H. H. Storrer, who had been employed as assistant instructor at the Central Flying School, marched out from camp at Point Cook and proceeded via road and rail to Port Melbourne, where it embarked in troopship "A.38," better known as the s.s. Ulysses of the Blue Funnel Line. In addition to the personnel of the Squadron, 1770 officers and men of other units of the Australian Imperial Force were embarked in the Ulysses, all embarked being under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A. J. Bennett, C.M.G., D.S.O., V.D.
Eight hours after the Squadron marched out from Point Cook, the troopship cast off from Port Melbourne and proceeded on its voyage of nine weeks to England. The route. followed by the troopship was via the Cape, and on the 13th November the Ulysses steamed into Durban Harbour, where it stayed for four days, thus enabling the troops to be disembarked for exercise and recreation ashore. Cape Town was reached on the morning of the 19th November, and the troopship sailed the same afternoon for Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was reached on 7th December.
From then on, the voyage was through waters in which the enemy submarine menace had to be faced, and it was therefore necessary to adopt anti-submarine measures, which in this case meant adopting the convoy system. As the last port of call before entering the submarine-infested waters, Freetown was the assembly port for the convoys, and here, during the week following the arrival of the Ulysses, the remaining vessels comprising the 26th Convoy were assembled. This convoy included the Ulysses (convoy flagship), Ascanius, Port Melbourne, Willochra, and Tofua, the two latter being New Zealand troopships, and when it sailed from Freetown on the 14th December, it was escorted by the armed merchant cruiser Marmora. On approaching the English Channel the escort was increased by a flotilla of destroyers, which remained with the convoy until all vessels had anchored safely in Devonport harbour on the 28th December, 1916.
Soon after the troopship had come to anchor in Devonport harbour, preparations for disembarkation were commenced. Officers and men of the Australian Flying Corps were transferred from the Ulysses to a steam lighter, which landed them at Devonport about 7 p.m., and after spending an hour awaiting the arrival of the train, they entrained for Lincoln, which was reached after a night journey of over fourteen hours via Exeter, Bristol and Nottingham.
On arrival at Lincoln the Squadron found a Royal Flying Corps motor transport convoy awaiting its arrival, and by means of this transport the personnel of the Squadron were conveyed to South Carlton aerodrome, a distance of approximately six miles by road north from Lincoln. This aerodrome was destined to be the home aerodrome of the Squadron until the time of its departure for France in the following year.
Title image courtesy of the Harold Edwards photograph collection.
Australian Flying Corps : A Complete History of the Australian Flying Corps