No.2 Squadron was mobilized from No.1 Squadron AFC and the Lighthorse in Egypt. The squadron trained in England before equipping with Airco DH5 aircraft and heading to France in September, 1917. They were involved in the hectic campaigns surrounding the Battle of Cambrai, earning a name for their effectiveness and courage. The squadron re-equipped with the SE5a and began the high altitude sweeps that would bring them success through-out 1918 whether operating as a squadron or a wing. The squadron finished the war operating with 80 Wing alongside No.4 Squadron AFC and taking part in the big wing raids. The squadron was demobilized in February of 1919.
2 Squadron was mobilized at Kantara, Egypt on the 20th of September 1916 under Major Walter "Toby" Watt, a veteran of the French Aeronautique Militaire and No.1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC). Ossie Watt had been a leader in the Militia in Australia and a veteran of pre-war flying in Egypt and Europe. The unit was formed with members of No.1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps and some aggressive recruiting from the Lighthorse by Major Watt.
The recruiting process involved the Australian Flying Corps driving trucks to a local Australian Lighthorse encampment and yelling from the back of the trucks; "Trades, Fitters, Mechanics, Sailmakers". After the needed amount of tradesmen had been recruited and were seated in the trucks, the Recording Officer for No.2 Squadron asked Watt if they should tell the Lighthorse orderly of the AFC recruiting the men. Watt's reply was; "No, we must snatch them".
The new squadron did some initial training, especially for the newly recruited tradesmen, at the aerodrome of No.1 Squadron. Those that were found to be unsuitable were returned to their Lighthorse units. After this short period, the pilots of the squadron departed directly for England to receive further flight training. Especially in the skills and tactics necessary for combat operations on the Western Front.
The rest of the squadron sailed by ship through Malta to Marseilles and then traveled by train across France before being billeted at Le Havre. The winter of 1917 was one of the coldest in European history and many of the Australians, used to the warm Australian and Egyptian climates, suffered in disbelief at the extreme cold. To add to their discomfort they spent the period in housed in Tents. The squadron sailed for England and reached Harlaxton in Lincolnshire on the 31st of January 1917.
Harlaxton to St Omer
At Harlaxton the squadron shared the aerodrome with No.44 Reserve Squadron Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and from this base the aircrew studied the latest in aerial combat skills that had been learnt in the skies over France. The ground crews also studied the new technologies they would need to support the squadron's aircraft and operations. To gain these specialist skills the servicemen in the squadron were temporarily posted to technical schools around England where they participated in technical courses.
The aircrew did initial training on Maurice Farmans, Avro 504s, Sopwith Strutters and Sopwith Pups which were split up amongst the flights. While Ossie Watt was flying with the French in 1915 he had adorned his Maurice Farman in a large white Kangaroo. B Flight of No.2 Squadron at this time sported Sopwith Strutters which were emblazoned with large Kangaroo's as well. The Australian imagery on aircraft was a feature of all squadrons and wings Watt commanded.
The aircrew numbers were also made up with pilots who had graduated from Point Cook in Melbourne. One of those pilots was Arthur Cobby who commented on the comfort he felt training with Australians at Harlaxton;
There was a vast difference in the manner in which we were treated at Harlaxton, to that meted out to use at Royal Flying Corps schools. We were Australians with Australians and no longer gentlemen visitors from the Antipodes and instruction and comment was direct and to the point. The senior instructors were Guilfoyle, Muir and Matthews and they just put us through the hoops.
In preparation for becoming operational in France, an advanced party from the squadron left Harlaxton, and traveled through Portsmouth to the squadron's new aerodrome at Baizieux. The rest of the ground-crew left Harlaxton on the 21st of September 1917.
On the same day the complete squadron of DH5 aircraft flew across to St Omer and landed at Warloy. This was a record for the AFC and RFC deploying to France. It was the first time a complete squadron had made the trip with all the aircraft reaching the destination together. The next day the aircraft were flown to Baizieux.
The DH5 was a scout designed by Geoffrey de Havilland's company which was known as Airco. Previous de Havilland designs had been pusher aircraft to overcome the allied lack of an interrupter gear. The DH2 had been a scout of this design which had done much to overcome the superiority of the Fokker EIII. The DH2 had a nacelle forward of the engine with minimally staggered wings and was known for the excellent forward view the arrangement gave.
The DH5 was a tractor design with the engine at the front of the aircraft. The Airco design team tried to get the forward view advantages of the DH2 into a a tractor design. To achieve the forward view the design team back staggered the wings with the top wing further back from the nose of the aircraft than the lower wing in the biplane layout.
While this arrangement did give the forward view desired; it obscured the rear view rather drastically. This was not a positive attribute for a scout aircraft to have. The aircraft was also intended to be the next generation of aircraft after the Sopwith Pup, but by mid 1917 standard when the SE5a, Spad VII and Sopwith Camel were being deployed, the DH5 with a single gun and 110 hp engine, gave sub standard performance.
Captain Richard Howard wrote of the DH5 when he was posted back to No.2 Squadron after a a brief experience with No.57 Squadron RFC;
Here, we are flying DH5's - single seat scout machines which can travel 120 miles an hour, flying level with the engine full out. This is just about as fast as the DH4, which I was flying France. ... The DH4 is a two seater machine, heavily built and therefore slow at maneuvering. Being a scout the DH5 maneuvers very quickly and thus makes up for the disadvantage of having no observer to protect the tail of the machine. ... They are very strongly built and can be looped or spun easily, and can be dived at 180 miles an hour without the wings dropping off.
This shows that the issues surrounding the sub-par performance of the DH5 were well known and understood by the pilots. That the DH5 had the same top speed as the DH4, which was an observation and bomber aircraft, signifies the DH5s lack of speed. No.2 Squadron often reported in their CITAR's that enemy aircraft including enemy observation aircraft would simply fly away from them and the slow DH5 would not be able to catch them.
Another issue with the DH5 was the performance at altitude. The Le Rhone rotary engines were highly dependent on the density of the oxygen being fed to the engine. As the altitude increased performance dropped. In the DH5 as it was underpowered anyway, the performance drop was fairly drastic in comparison to the German aircraft it was opposing, such as the Albatros DVa and Pfalz DIII.
Quality control from the production lines were indicative of the day. One DH5 at No.2 Squadron was struck off charge for the following reason;
Lt McKenzie in 9451 machine was never satisfactory and was eventually written off. This machine is very hard to maneuver, the planes warp in the air. The machine has never been satisfactory since delivery on 23rd inst. On stripping the machine the lower center section was found to be saturated with oil and very spongy.
This was a facet of early manufacturing. Quality control did not extend past templating and human inspections. Lemons still made it out of the aviation factories in England, France and America.
Early Squadron Markings
The squadron had emblazoned the Sopwith Strutters from their training period with a kangaroo on the nose or fuselage. This Australian imagery made its way onto the DH5 aircraft as well. Richard Howard wrote how the squadron's DH5s were marked when they left England;
"All our machines were painted with their flight colors and look very well. Mine is in A Flight and red is the distinguishing color, so I have a red kangaroo on the cowling, a red propeller boss, red bands around the gun and fuselage and red numbers to distinguish each pilot. I am No.4"
Those colorful markings soon gave way to conservatism that was prevalent on the western front amongst all Royal Flying Corps squadrons. The squadron marking for No.2 Squadron's DH5 aircraft became a thin white stripe around the fuselage near the tail, and white letters or numbers for the flight marking. Individual flair remained in some cases - Howard's aircraft in France was marked with "Lucifer" across the horseshoe of the cowl.
Battles over Cambrai
The British Army decided that a push against the Hindenburg Line in the Cambrai area would wield results against the German ground forces. The new offensive was small by comparison to some of the previous offensives but was launched as a result of the Russian revolution and a successful Austrian offensive against Italian forces in the Alps. General Julian Byng commanded the offensive and worked into his plan the new armored tanks.
No.2 Squadron found itself in the thick of the battle serving in a counter attack role against German ground assets. This was dangerous work, as it involved low flying over the front lines where the pilots were subject to constant anti-aircraft and small arms fire. Lieutenant Les Holden became earned the nicknames, "the homing pigeon" and "lucky len" as his aircraft came back from missions full of holes from ground fire. Holden's Intelligence Summary for the 20th of November contains a descriptive report of the danger the pilots faced;
Lt Holden in 9278 left Aerodrome at 8.20 am on a special mission. Machine was badly damaged by Enemy Aircraft and flew back to Bapaume. Damage Elevator control shot away. BL main ribs shot through. Rear undercarriage strut shot through, right and left Longeron shot through, Tail plane shot through, Petrol Tank shot through, Center Section Strut shot through, in fact everything was shot through, All the Pilot got was one in the sole of his rubber boot, and one which split his high boots at the knee, but neither bullets pierced the skin.
The aircraft returning with damage placed pressure on the ground crews as well. In an offensive it was important to have as many aircraft serviceable as possible. The ground-crews worked through the night to ensure that the aircraft were ready for the next morning's mission. The armorers in the squadron also earned a name for their professionalism and expertise. Captain Richard Howard wrote;
Again our squadron has made its name for its gunnery record, due to the ceaseless toil of our armorers. An aerial gun, geared to fire through the propeller, is a delicate instrument. Nevertheless, our guns have been so perfectly maintained that, during the stunt, we were able to fire more rounds, with fewer stoppages than any other squadron. These are but a few instances of how the squadron has built a name for itself in a short time, and we can now rank with the best RFC squadron.
The acknowledged best squadron in the Royal Flying Corps at the time was No.56 Squadron.
Lieutenant Harry Taylor
Harry Taylor had served in Egypt and Gallipoli with the Australian Army before transferring into the Australian Flying Corps. As part of Taylor's training he had served with No.48 Squadron RFC. By the time of the Battle of Cambrai, Taylor was one of the most experienced pilots in the squadron. On November 20th, 1917; Taylor was flying with Captain "Skipper" Wilson on a special mission to strafe German troops. Taylor's aircraft was hit during a strafing attack and he crashed. He pulled himself from the wreckage and fired rockets off to let Wilson know that he was ok. Wilson relates;
That he[Taylor] was sufficiently alive to fire those rockets was amazing . His machine was just a heap of wreckage. One wing lay 20 yards from the rest of the heap.
Taylor had crouched behind a small mound for protection and with his pistol was returning fire at the German infantry. Wilson was making strafing runs at the infantry that were closing on Taylor, and with each run Taylor would make a burst toward a group of British troops. Wilson saw Taylor reach the British troops, where he then picked up the rifle of a fallen soldier. The troops that Taylor had found had lost their officer, so Taylor led them back to the British lines.
Earlier in the day's fighting, Captain J. Bell had been shot down; his wounds sufficiently heavy to be mortal. While Taylor was attempting to return to his unit's aerodrome, he discovered Bell's aircraft. With the help of some nearby troops Taylor attempted to get the DH5 started and into the air, but he was unable to. Taylor walked back to the aerodrome, reaching it in time for dinner.
By the first week of December, the offensive had petered out and the weather had closed in, limiting the amount of flying that could be done. In the Royal Flying Corps Communique No.118, there was mention of nineteen Military Crosses being awarded. Of these nineteen, six went to No.2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. An example of their achievement in the fury of the Cambrai Offensive.
The first of the new aircraft the squadron received was an SE5 on the 27th of October. All future aircraft the squadron received were SE5a aircraft. The squadron flew the 200hp Hispano Suiza SE5a aircraft until August of 1918 but by May of 1918 the squadron started receiving the 180hp Viper engined SE5a aircraft. They continued to fly the Viper engined SE5as until the squadron returned to England in February of 1919.
The SE5a was a strong and powerful aircraft. It was not the most agile aircraft on the Western Front, and was easily out-turned in a dogfight with the German Fokker Triplanes. But the SE5a was excellent as a high altitude fighter. Later in the war it was one of the few aircraft able to challenge the Fokker DVII at heights above 12,000 feet.
The SE5a was also outstanding when the pilot used the aircraft's superior speed and strength to engage and disengage enemy aircraft at will. Captain C.H. Copp describes the training he received for the SE5a that takes advantage of this strength of the SE5a. Copp describes fellow Australian, Arthur Conningham, as instructing him with;
Now, I want you to do some fast diving with your engine full on, and diving vertically. You can get up to nearly 300 m.p.h., but I must tell you how to do it without losing your wings. The airspeed indicator only registers up to 180 m.p.h., so after that has been passed, you simply look at the fabric on the lower wing. When you see one buckle appear in it, you are probably doing something like 200 m.p.h.; when there are two buckles, you are probably doing about 250 m.p.h.; but you want to be careful not to get three, because then the wings will undoubtedly fall off.
The SE5a aircraft carried two different machine guns, a Vickers mounted above the engine, and a Lewis gun mounted above the top wing. The Lewis gun had a tighter pattern than the Vickers, but suffered from being above the line of sight the pilot had down the nose of the aircraft. The Lewis gun also needed to be reloaded when a drum was exhausted. Considering that most combat reports generally state that the pilot put between fifty and two hundred rounds into a downed aircraft, this was not so big a disadvantage. But reloading the Lewis gun above the top wing, was an impossible task while in a dogfight.
The SE5a carried between 550 and 735 rounds of ammunition for the two machine guns. Normally the ammunition used was a mixture of the Mark VII Ordinary, Tracer, Buckingham and Armour piercing .303 bullets. In the Vickers belts these bullets were normally arranged in the form, three ordinary, one tracer, and one armor piercing. For Lewis guns the mixture was commonly; two ordinary, one trace, one armor piercing and one buckingham.
Back to the Scouting Role
With the conversion to the SE5a aircraft, came another change in the squadron. The commanding officer of the squadron, Oswald Watt, was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and posted to England to form No.1 Wing AFC. Replacing Oswald Watt was Major William Sheldon, a veteran of No.1 Squadron in the Palestinian campaign, and former commanding officer of No.4 Squadron AFC.
The SE5a aircraft also enabled the squadron to perform high altitude scout patrols, a combat function that the DH5 was unable to satisfy. Consequently No.2 began to roam the skies high above the First Army front at Arras. Bad weather in the late winter period of January and February 1918 made flying difficult if not impossible for much of the two months.
One of the patrols in a patch of good weather in February led by Captain Fred Huxley found themselves in a position to dive on a flight of brightly colored Albatros aircraft. Huxley singled out the leader, who was flying an Albatros with a red nose, a green fuselage with yellow stripes and a blue tail;
I had superior height and dived on the leader who turned on his wingtip and fell out of control after I had fired about 50 rounds at 150 yards range. I then attacked another machine of hostile formation, with no result. The EA [enemy aircraft] then flew East of Lille. One enemy machine attacked me whilst I engaged the leader. Second Lieutenant Paxton engaged one of the enemy machine and I fired a burst of 20 rounds with Lewis gun with no result.
As the Australians had new opportunities to engage in the scouting role, more successes began to come in. Lieutenant Robert Mackenzie, despite a jammed vickers, destroyed an Albatros DV near Pont a Vendin. Other victories were also claimed by Howard, Clark and Benjamin.
February was to be the lull before the storm, the eastern front collapsed with revolutionary Russia withdrawing from the war. German troops began moving from the east to the west, and the allies sought to put new pressure on Germany through offensives in March, while Germany sought to break the allies back before American troops could be embarked to Europe. No.2 Squadron was in the thick of all this activity.
The German Spring Offensive
The pattern of German air superiority was to concentrate their most effective Jasta's in the regions that required their support. Beginning March 11th, there was increased German air activity in the Arras region as German reconnaissance aircraft began collecting more intelligence and larger numbers of German scouts protected the reconn activities. No.2 Squadron began seeing more and more aerial combat through this period, recording eleven victories between March 8th and March 18th. This increased tempo of operations from the squadron was to continue with the launch of Ludendorff's spring offensive on March 21st, 1918.
The German Army, bolstered by 500,000 men from the eastern front, launched the spring offensive with one million artillery shells being fired in five hours against the Arras, Lys and Aisne regions of the frontlines. German storm troopers broke through the lines of the British Fifth Army, making monstrous gains in land toward Paris. Taking back land that had been lost in the British offensives of 1917. The German Army captured 70,000 prisoners in the first seven days. This was the environment No.2 Squadron found themselves fighting in.
A flight led by Captain Roy Phillipps found a group of reconn aircraft and their escorts above Bullecourt at 18,000 feet; Forrest dispatched one in flames while McKenzie sent an Albatros DV down out of control. The flight continued its patrol and then engaged a group of Fokker Triplanes, where Phillipps chased one down to 2,000 feet leaving it falling through a cloud - on its back and spinning.
March 22nd also brought a huge loss for the squadron, when the eight victory ace, Captain Richard Howard did not return from a patrol. Howard had been leading a patrol of six aircraft at 15,500 feet over Bapaume. The flight spotted a pair of two-seater aircraft 10,000 feet below them and dived to attack. Their approach did not go unnoticed and thirty German scout aircraft pursued them. It is highly likely that the two-seaters below were bait in a trap.
Lieutenant Archie Rackett was part of the flight and had attacked a two-seater sending it out of control before diving away. He got caught in the fog of the region and landed at No.49 Squadron RFC's aerodrome at Bellevue. Rackett reported last seeing Howard south of Honnecourt while ground observers last saw Howard near Epehy. While Norman Franks entertains the notion that Howard was shot down by Luetnant Hans Boehning of Jasta 79, there are issues with this conclusion. Boehning claimed a Camel, not an SE5a, the claim is also for Vermond, 17 kms away from where Howard was last seen. Eric Watson and Alan Fraser conclude that it is most likely;
Thus, on information available to this writer, it is concluded that the circumstances of the loss of Richard Howard are by no means established. The evidence offered to the Court of Inquiry and other known factors lead to a belief that the most likely cause was either fire from the ground or a forced landing with engine trouble, or a wound, leading to a crash and mortal injury
Howard died in the Field Hospital 113 ar Escadoevres, near Cambrai. He was buried in the Cambrai Military Cemetery.
With the German advance still ongoing the role of the squadron began to include counter attack and ground strafing, as it had during the Cambrai offensive. The German storm troopers had traveled light and German logistics struggled to catch up with food and supplies. Consequently the roads leading to the front line were flush with wheel and horse transport.
The squadron now mixed in strafing these roads with No.4 Squadron AFC as part in addition to their combat air patrols. Often the SE5a aircraft of No.2 Squadron would escort the Sopwith Camels of No.4 as they bombed and strafed the German transports.
When flying high altitude patrols, the biggest danger was inattention. Being bounced was a constant possibility. At heights of 16,000 feet, lack of oxygen as well as the cold becomes an issue. Often pilots were bounced as they struggled to concentrate at those heights.
Low flying carried the dangers of being exposed to small-arms fire. Below 3,000 feet an aircraft could be brought down by rifle and machine gun fire from the ground. Another danger was not paying attention to the sky around when strafing targets on the ground. A newcomer to No.2 Squadron, Lieutenant Oscar Flight, was shot down and captured in this way. He recorded what happened in a repatriation statement after the war;
Then I went to Arras and strafed along Arras-Cambrai Road. I was there about 15 minutes under a good deal of A.A. and machine gun fire when all of a sudden the A.A. fire stopped. Very soon after this shots came at me from the rear. On looking around I saw 3 enemy Albatross machines. I pulled around in a climbing turn, but two of the machines had too much height on me. The fire was more or less incessant for a minute or so. Up to that time my machine had not been hit.
About this time four enemy triplanes joined in the fight and gradually forced me down to within 150 feet of the ground. Bullets were coming from all directions. All at once one got a big burst into my right plane and rear strut also severing a flying wire. A few seconds later a rear strut flew out; the bottom socket had been blown out. The machine immediately heeled over and all attempts to right it failed. I switched off and held on to the front of the cockpit. The machine then dived into the ground tearing down a number of enemy telephone wires. I was rendered unconscious. This was about 1.15. pm.
By the end of March the German offensive had been brought to a halt near Villers-Bretonneux. The Australia Corps holding the line there, further in the north the British Third Army repulsed a renewed attack by the German infantry, effectively holding the northern front from collapse. Between March 22nd and March 30th, No.2 Squadron had claimed sixteen victories with Phillipps and Forrest both claiming three during this period of frenzied operations.
Changing Squadron Markings
With the arrival of the SE5a aircraft, the squadron changed their marking from a thin white stripe at the tail, to a white boomerang behind the roundel. This was most likely the influence of Oswald Watt. During his time flying for the French Foreign Legion, he had flow in a Maurice Farman with a kangaroo blazen across the nose of the aircraft.
With Watt commanding the squadron during their training period in England, the Sopwith Strutters the pilots learnt on had red stripes and white kangaroos on the rear of their fuselage. Later when Watt commanded No.1 Wing, the Australian training squadrons bore markings of kangaroos and emus. No.4 Squadron AFC also used the white boomerang marking on their Sopwith Camels.
With the march offensives, British Intelligence tried to confuse the Germans by mixing up the squadron markings in the Royal Flying Corps and Australian Flying Corps squadrons. No.2 and No.4 lost their distinctive boomerang markings to a white bar fore of the roundel. This was to remain their marking until the end of the war.
April brought about a change in British tactics, much like how the Germans concentrated air strength into their "flying circuses", the British and Australian squadrons began doing the same. No.2 Squadron joined into a wing with No.43 and No.80 RFC at Bellevue aerodrome. The wing formations were intended to take the fight to the German Jastas with over-whelming numbers and aggressive leadership.
There were early successes in April with Captain Forrest destroying a DFW near Demiun. A new arrival to the squadron was Lieutenant Gregory Blaxland, a great grandson of the famous explorer. Blaxland scored two quick victories, downing two reconnaissance aircraft before a flight he was in accidentally attacked a French flight of Spad aircraft. Blaxland's misguided attack was effective and Adjutant Renault of Spa 86 was killed.
Major Sheldon attempted to protect his young pilot, but both ended up being transferred out of the squadron to the Australian training squadrons in England. It was a shame as when Blaxland returned to the squadron in September of 1918, he scored six victories in quick succession. Blaxland was obviously a very effective pilot and it was shame that one tragic incident put a hole in his operational career.
Lieutenant Charles Copp Joins the Squadron
By the wars end, one of the most experienced pilots in the squadron was Captain Charles Copp. By the wars end, Copp had done 244.45 hours of flying with the squadron. The highest number of hours by any pilot in the squadron. Copp joined the squadron on the 13th of May, 1918 and later recounted his first patrol as the Flight Commander's wingman;
On 30th May 1918, I did my first patrol with him[Captain H.G. Forrest]. He said, "Now Copp, you just keep formation alongside me, no matter what happens. If I go upside down, or if anything at all occurs, pay no attention. Don't worry about trying to use your guns, just keep formation right from beginning to end." That sounded fairly easy, so off we went. It was a cloudless day and I kept formation as well as I could with the limited amount of training I'd had.
Suddenly he completely disappeared from my view. I had no idea what had happened to him. Then I found that I was a very good target for some German pilot, for there were wisps of tracer bullets through the wings of my machine. However, I took what evasive action I could, and eventually picked up Forrest again, and got into formation with him. As soon as I landed he came over and said, "Thanks Copp, you made very good bait" He had spotted this German Pfalz, and while it was firing at me, he had got round onto its tail and had shot it down. That was my introduction to air-fighting in France.
Despite Copp's tale, the training of the pilots coming from England had improved since the 1915 when pilots were thrown into the western front with few hours and no combat training. But even with improved pilot training and combat experience they were not fail proof against enemy fire and plain bad luck. Captain Phillipps on the 3rd of May appeared in the squadron's Intelligence Summary;
Capt Phillipps in D/3535 left Aerodrome 10.45 a.m. came down at Tangry Cause. During a bank, Verys Light Pistol fell out of socket and jammed controls. Machine very badly damaged. Pilot OK. Returned for repair.
A pilot and aircraft are at the most vulnerable during take off and landing. The pilot has to concentrate on many things at once, and if something goes wrong, or an error is made, there is not much extra flight speed or height to correct it. From an Intelligence Summary;
Lt Knight in D/3962 left at 4.45 and came down 6.30 p.m. In landing, Lewis gun fell off mounting and commenced to fire. Pilot in correcting it accidentally pushed control lever forward and machine struck the ground. Pilot OK. Machine wrecked.
Many of the aircraft losses in the squadron were a result of imperfect quality in the engines of the time. The Intelligence Reports record many crashes and incidents resulting from engine's cutting out on take off or magneto and carburetor problems, broken conrods and other failures. Another cause for aircraft to be struck off was overuse;
Lt Currie in B4895 machine arrived in Squadron on 7.12.17 and has done 145 hours 25 minutes over the lines. Written off, war worn.
Capt Forrest in C9539. Machine arrived in Squadron, 19.12.17 and has done 137 hours 50 mins over the lines. Written off, war worn.
C9496 arrived in Squadron, 9.1.18 and has done 181 hours 4 mins. Written off, war worn.
The demands of combat flying were hard on both men and machines.
In the second half of 1918, two pilots; Captain Roy Phillipps and Captain Frank Smith began to collect victories that pointed to them battling it out to be the leading aces in the squadron. Smith was to end the war with sixteen victories, while Phillipps finished with fifteen. Phillipps had been one of the "Black ANZACs" who had led the first Australian charge on French soil. Phillipps had been wounded in the trenches, which had resulted in one of his legs being shorter than the other.
Phillipps claims were somewhat unique in the British and Australian forces, for the number of Destroyed and Captured claims. Other than one out of control claim, Phillipps recorded three captured, two destroyed in flames and eight destroyed. On June 12th, 1918 Phillipps claimed a remarkable four victories in one day. The victories included two destroyed and two captured. The Communique for the next day reads;
Capt R.C. Phillipps, 2 Sqn AFC, while on offensive patrol, dived on six triplanes which were attacking another of our patrols, and shot down two of them. Shortly afterwards he attacked an enemy two-seater, which he shot down, the E.A. Bursting into flames on hitting the ground. Capt Phillipps also destroyed another E.A. Thus, accounting for four in one day, all of which were confirmed by pilots.
The pilots of the squadrons were also racking up large totals of flying time as they participated in combat patrols and attack missions. As mentioned earlier, Captain Copp had over 244 hours. Other with high flying hours included Captain Smith with 238 hours, Captain Roby Manuel with 239 hours, Captain Cummings with 220 hours, Captain Davies with 211 hours and Captain Phillipps with 210 hours.
In July No.4 Squadron joined No.2 in flying out of Reclingham aerodrome. In combined operations with No.4 and the British squadrons of No.88 and No.92, the en-masse attacks on Harbourdin and Lomme aerodromes were carried it, with dramatic effect. Soon after the Harbourdin sweep, the squadron sent a patrol back over the aerodrome where Captain Adrian "king" Cole shot down two Fokker DVII scouts.
By the end of August, the squadron was doing lower level wing sweeps across the German front in conjunction with the Sopwith Camels of No.4 and the Bristol Fighters of No.88 Royal Air Force. One of the purposes of the Wing formation was for the higher level aircraft to drive the German aircraft down into the lower levels of the Wing formation, effectively outnumbering the Germans.
Another issue was that the Sopwith Camels had very poor performance above 12,000 feet and were totally outclassed by the Fokker DVII above that altitude. The SE5a and Bristol Fighter could hold their own against the Fokkers at that height, and when possible were able to drive the Fokkers down into the Sopwith Camels which were waiting at lower altitude where their twitchy dogfighter aircraft were more of a match for the Fokker DVII.
The One Legged Ace
Rather uniquely for the Australian squadron, and Australian aviation history was Frank Alberry, the Tasmanian ace. Alberry had lost his leg in the Somme battle with the 8th Battalion AIF when his kneecap was shattered while he was defending a strong point. His leg was amputated above the knee. Alberry decided that if he couldn't walk, he would fly and after petitioning the King of England, was able to join the Australian Flying Corps.
Alberry learned how to fly in the RAF system before passing through No.6 Squadron AFC. He was then posted to operational duties with No.2 Squadron in June of 1918. After some unreliable engines in the SE5a aircraft he was given, he settled into the SE5a D6995. It was in this aircraft he scored his seven victories, and consequent acedom.
The End of All That
In October and November it was becoming obvious that the German forces on the ground were fraying under the pressures of the naval blockade and continuing pressure on the ground. No.2 Squadron continued their mix of high altitude combat patrols, wing sweeps and ground attack missions. The squadron downed twenty-three aircraft in October and another fourteen twelve on the 4th of November.
The last big raid flown by 80 Wing was on November 9th when DH9's, Bristol Fighters, Sopwith Camels and SE5as attacked the retreating troops and transports around Enghien. Lieutenant Colonel Louis Strange relates what occurred;
Then about two miles of motor and horse transport, guns, etc., were mercilessly shot up and bombed by No.4 AFC, causing the utmost confusion and destruction; while No.2 AFC and the Bristols of No.88, found targets of all descriptions in camps and bivouacs round the town.
The squadron's only loss on this raid was Captain Frank Smith who was shot down behind German lines. Smith managed to evade capture through donning civilian clothing and walked the forty miles back to the aerodrome. Smith saw a group of German soldiers kick their NCO to death, an indication of the disarray the German Army was in by November 1918. Smith arrived back after November 11th, when the war had ended.
Major Alan Murray-Jones had been commanding the squadron since May of 1918. Murray Jones was a veteran of No.1 Squadron AFC in Palestine and had been the German ace, Felmy's self-professed greatest foe! Murray-Jones provided strong leadership for the squadron. Strange wrote on Murray-Jones in his book, "Recollections of an Airman";
Major Murray-Jones was awarded a bar to his DFC for his fine leadership on this raid. He was a quiet, unassuming fellow, but a most resolute leader, whose magnificent services were never properly recognized, partly because he never made a fuss about anything, but took it for granted that a good show by his squadron was all in a day's work.
With the armistice on November 11th, the squadron wound down until it was demobilized on the 28th of February, 1919. The squadron staged through Hurdcott on the Cotswolds until the squadron was transported home to Australia.
During the squadron's service it flew 6256 hours and 55 minutes, as well as firing 190,000 rounds in the air. The squadron shot down 185 aircraft with 94 of them claimed as destroyed, 73 Out of Control and 18 Driven Down. Over thirteen months 98 pilots passed through squadron with the average length of service in the squadron being four months and two days. During operations ten pilots lost their lives, two were wounded and seven were taken prisoner; all of which were repatriated. Five pilots also lost their lives in aircraft accidents.
No.2 Squadrons proud record of service in World War I was maintained in World War II when the squadron flew Lockheed Hudsons and North American B25 Mitchells in the defence of Australia in the Pacific. The squadron was also a prominent part of the Australian contingent in Vietnam flying GAF Canberra bombers. More recently the squadron was reformed to operate the new Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft.
- Above The Trenches. A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920.Christopher Shores, Norman Franks and Russell Guest, 1990
- The Australian Flying Corps. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 Volume VIII.F.M. Cutlack, 1923
- Highest Traditions.John Bennett, 1995
- Military Aircraft of Australia 1909-1918. Keith Isaacs
- Recollections of an Airman. L.A. Strange, 1933
- Royal Air Force Communiques 1918. Christopher Cole, 1968
- Royal Flying Corps Communiques 1917 - 1918. Chaz Bowyer, 1998
The author would also like to acknowledge the assistance and research of Gordon Branch which contributed to this article.