Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914–1918

Introduction by George Odgers

The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.

In the wake of the achievement by Wilbur and Orville Wright of heavier–than–air flight in the United States in December 1903, the more perceptive military strategists of the pre–World War I era were quick to recognize the high potential of aviation in war. Even so, when the threat of a major war in Europe became a reality in August 1914, the most advanced aircraft then available to the belligerents were but flimsy contraptions of wire, wooden struts and fabric; without weapons and ludicrously underpowered.

As the clouds of war cast their shadows on the horizon, enormous effort went into the raising and training of mass armies and the weapons of naval war. But preparations for war in the new dimension proceeded at a much more moderate pace. Australia, for example, in the years 1911–14, spent a total of only $36,036 on military aviation compared with $9,564,376 on the Navy and $15,760,504 on the Army. At the outbreak of World War I, Australia possessed only one military aviation base – Point Cook – which had just been commissioned. At Point Cook was established the Central Flying School with two junior officers as flying instructors and but five puny aircraft suitable only for flying training.

Yet Australia, although a little slow to begin, was quicker than many other nations in developing military aviation. Flying had caught the imagination of daring young Australians, and their enthusiasm and flair for aviation could not be denied. Alone among the British dominions in World War I this country formed its own aviation service, the Australian Flying Corps, which ended the struggle in 1918 with a very distinguished war record. Many other Australians fought in the 1914–18 war as members of the British air services: the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Flying Corps and, later, the Royal Air Force, formed in 1918 when the two first mentioned services were amalgamated.

The Australian air war effort under Imperial operational command began in a modest way in Mesopotamia in 1915 and continued with the commitment of No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, to operations with the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt and Palestine. Finally three more Australian Flying Corps squadrons were committed to action in the war on the western front. To support the squadrons in action, four Australian training squadrons were also established in England.

By 1918, after four years of deadly combat, the “cavalry of the clouds” had earned a prominent role in strategic thinking. Military leaders throughout the Empire were contemplating the views of the South African leader, General Jan Smuts, who was predicting a time “when aerial operations, with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale, may become the principal operations of war.”1

In March and April of 1918 the western Allies had their backs to the wall in France when the Germans, in a final bid for victory, mounted a massive offensive aimed at destroying the British armies and separating the French from the British forces. The German effort achieved remarkable success in the opening phase and created shock waves of fear which spread to far–off Australia, where military authorities considered plans as a matter of “pressing importance”2 for the creation of a substantial air force within Australia. It was feared that if the Allies were defeated, Australia might have to stand alone against Japan, whose armed forces were soon to be augmented by a substantial air service.

Late in April 1918, Major General J.G. Legge, Chief of the General Staff and a former commander of the First and Second Divisions of the Australian Imperial Force, sought immediate authority to raise for the defence of Australia a citizen air force of 300 officers and 3,000 other ranks and requested that construction of 200 aeroplanes and 12 balloons should commence immediately.

“A thousand aeroplanes”, Major General Legge stated, “would cost less than one battle cruiser … from our knowledge of the present war and from our own experience, I have to report that the minimum requests of the Air Services are as set out and their creation should not be delayed a day when we realise that they may be needed tomorrow.”3 Thus Australia’s growing fear of Japan was providing a powerful stimulus to the development of Australia’s military aviation, even though the two countries were formally allied through the Anglo–Japanese Pact.

Against this background, and Army and Navy proposals before the Australian Defence Council for the creation of a substantial air service for the defence of Australia, Major General Legge advised Dr Bean that a skilled writer should be commissioned to write the story of the Australian Flying Corps.

Bean’s choice for the task was Frederic Morley Cutlack (1886–1967) an Australian journalist and official war correspondent who had been born at Upper Lancing, Sussex, England. Cutlack’s family migrated to South Australia when he was five, and he was educated at Renmark and University College, North Adelaide, before entering newspaper work on the Register in 1904.

In 1910 Cutlack had visited Germany and in the following year he had joined the staff of the Daily Chronicle in London. Later he was appointed to the publicity staff of the Australian High Commission in London and in 1913 was special correspondent in H.M.A.S. Australia, flagship of the Australian fleet, on its maiden voyage to Australia.

When war broke out, Cutlack was in London reading for the bar. In August 1914 he enlisted in King Edward’s Horse. Commissioned in the British Army as a lieutenant, he served in France in 1915–16 with the Royal Field Artillery. In April 1917 he was attached to the Third Divisional Headquarters, Australian Imperial Force, as an intelligence officer. Like Bean, he was also a qualified lawyer and for a time in the 1920s practised as a solicitor at Renmark before returning to journalism. Bean assured Major General Legge that Cutlack “would be entirely competent to turn out a book of the right sort.”4

Cutlack certainly had the qualifications for the task and by 1918 had already demonstrated remarkable skill and energy in his work as a correspondent and in writing a book, The Australians: Their Final Campaigns, 1918, which was published early in 1919. In a foreword, Cutlack pointed out that the “book did not pretend to be a history … it was mostly written from current notes made in the field.”5 He took risks in the field in his concern to discover the truth and narrowly escaped death near Morlancourt in July 1918. Ironically, he was seriously injured later that month, not by the enemy but as a result of a road accident. But such was his determination that he continued to write the book while convalescing from his injuries.

In 1917 Bean had successfully sought Cutlack’s appointment as an official war correspondent and Cutlack had crossed to France in January 1918 to take up his new duties. These included the preparation and despatch of cables and letters to Australia covering the activities of the Australian forces, instructing the official war photographer and supervising the collection of records and trophies for the war museum Bean had conceived as a memorial to the Australians of World War I and for which Government approval in principle had been obtained. On joining Bean’s staff in 1918 he relinquished his commission, receiving the pay and allowances of a captain in the Australian Imperial Force, but without rank. Cutlack was discharged in England in May 1919 and later that year was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, London. In 1920 he returned to Australia and joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a leader writer. Shortly afterwards he was commissioned to write the official history volume on the Australian Flying Corps.

Australia first committed airmen to war in November 1914, when two pilots from Point Cook and a crated aircraft were despatched to New Guinea from Sydney in H.M.A.S. Una to join the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. After a brief action at Rabaul, the Force began to take control of the extensive German colonial possessions in that region. The airmen, however, were not called on to make any flights and the aircraft remained in its crate.

Meanwhile the training of pilots continued at Point Cook but the graduates were left uninformed on future employment. No plan existed to send an Australian aviation unit to the war. Suddenly, in February 1915, the Government of India asked the Australian Government to provide airmen, flying machines and transport for operations with the Indian Flying Corps against the Turks in Mesopotamia. An Australian Flying Corps Half Flight, with four officers, ground staff and transport, but no aeroplanes, was despatched via Bombay to Mesopotamia.

Few Australians know that this Half Flight was in action against Turkish forces in May 1915 while the Anzacs were locked in battle against the same enemy at Gallipoli. In Mesopotamia, the Turks threatened the key Shatt–el–Arab area and the Anglo–Persian oil pipeline so vital to the operations of the Royal Navy. India had been asked by Britain to secure the area and, having done so by early 1915, it was decided to push on to Baghdad. The opening of a second front in Mesopotamia was intended to bring additional pressure on Turkey, but the venture ended in disaster, and a large British force, including part of the Half Flight, was captured by the Turks in April 1916.

The Australian Half Flight was a small unit indeed, numbering four officers and forty–one other ranks, but it was the beginning of Australian military aviation. It was significant because not only were Australians going to war together for the first time as airmen, but also the unit fought with great courage and suffered grievously. Its members, many of whom died as Turkish prisoners–of–war, also displayed innovative skill of the highest order, developing such devices as multiple machine guns mounted on the undercarriage of an aircraft and using parachutes to drop food and supplies to the British Force while it was besieged in Kut–el–amara from December 1915 to April 1916, when it was forced to surrender.

When Cutlack, on his appointment as war historian, called for the war diaries and records of the Half Flight, he learned to his dismay that they “can hardly be said to exist at all.”6 Like most war historians he was discovering that the early operational records of wars are usually very sketchy and patient effort is required to piece the narrative together.

Fortunately for Cutlack and the historical record, a distinguished pilot member of the Half Flight survived three years of captivity, 1915–18, and on returning to Australia made excellent notes which became a valuable contribution to our military aviation records. He was Captain T.W. White (who served as a minister in the Federal Cabinet and finally as Australian High Commissioner in London). He later wrote a book Guests of the Unspeakable, relating his experiences while learning to fly at Point Cook in 1914 in the first training course, his war service in Mesopotamia, and later adventures as a prisoner–of–war and escapee.

Cutlack’s history devotes the first two chapters to the Half Flight and, following chronological lines, the book then proceeds in the next ten chapters to deal with the formation of No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, and its operations against Turkey in the Sinai desert and Palestine. For this phase of the war, Cutlack had access to the official squadron records as well as to the personal diary of Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, first Chief of the Air Staff, R.A.A.F. In 1920 Cutlack made it clear to Williams, then a lieutenant–colonel and Director of Air Services at Army Headquarters, that unless he could have access to all the facts “and every atom of evidence”7 he would not be a party to the production of the history. Williams claimed much later (in his autobiography, These are Facts) that Cutlack had never seen No. 1 Squadron during its service in Palestine and that the history of its operations was based on his (Williams’s) diary. “Under the circumstances, I consider Cutlack did a wonderful job,”8 Williams wrote. Williams pointed out that to his knowledge Cutlack was not aware during the war that he would be chosen to write the history and that this was the situation also for the three official historians of the R.A.A.F. in World War II. Being one of the three I can vouch for the truth of that statement.

Early in the conflict it was not clear whether Australia would send its own operational flying units to the war, or, like New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, allow young men to make their way to England, there to enlist directly in the British flying services. The percentage of men from the dominions in these services was remarkably high and included such illustrious names as Charles Kingsford–Smith, H.J. (Bert) Hinkler, W. A. Bishop, the Canadian “ace”, S.J. Goble (later Chief of the Air Staff, R.A.A.F.) and Robert Little of Melbourne who joined the Royal Naval Air Service and became Australia’s top fighter “ace” of the war. Little’s Australian record of forty–seven air combat victories was not surpassed in World War II.

As the war progressed, however, Australian sentiment hardened against this form of participation and when the Royal Flying Corps asked for permission to recruit directly in Australia, the Government rejected the request. Australia did, however, compromise in July 1916. When the United Kingdom recommended the transfer of members of the AIF to the Royal Flying Corps. Praising Australian airmen already in the British services, a letter from the War Office to A.I.F. Headquarters stated:

In view of the exceptionally good work which has been done in the Royal Flying Corps by Australian born officers and the fact that the Australian temperament is specially suited to the Flying Services, it has been decided to offer 200 commissions in the Special Reserve of the Royal Flying Corps to officers, non–commissioned officers and men of the Australian force.

In the interests of the Service, it is recommended that the policy regarding commissions in the Imperial Service being offered to noncommissioned officers and men of the Australian Expeditionary Force should be relaxed in the case of the Royal Flying Corps as it is considered that a large number of valuable men would thus be available as volunteers for this most important branch of the Service.9

Many Australians were against such relaxation of the regulations. Cutlack also opposed it. Recruiting went ahead, however, and of 200 applicants more than 180 were commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps and played their part in winning air supremacy over Western Europe.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, Australia was alone among the dominions in establishing a flying service of its own in World War I. In doing so Australian military leaders were motivated by the belief that an air service would be valuable in the future defence of Australia, as well as making a contribution to the Allied effort in the immediate emergency of World War I. Accordingly, early in 1916, the first complete Australian squadron was formed at Point Cook, No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, and in March 1916 it embarked in the Orsova at Port Melbourne for Egypt where it was assigned to support the Imperial Forces, including Australian Light Horse formations, in operations against Turkey.

 

While it was taken for granted that Australian squadrons would have to accept operational control by senior officers of the British air services, at least Australian airmen would be gaining experience at the squadron level; experience which, it was considered, could be of immense value in any future war in the Australian neighbourhood.

This policy bore fruit. A number of officers of the Australian Flying Corps gained experience as commanders of squadrons during the war and went on in later years to reach the highest positions in the R.A.A.F. Air Marshal Williams was an original flight commander of No. 1 Squadron and later became its commanding officer. He gained extensive experience of air operations in Sinai and Palestine and in 1918 was appointed commanding officer of the Royal Air Force’s No. 40 Wing, which, in addition to No. 1 Squadron, controlled three operational squadrons of the R.A.F. Later, when the Royal Australian Air Force was formed in 1921, Williams was appointed to its senior position and for the next eighteen years played a crucial role in the development of this service. By contrast, some Australians who commanded squadrons and wings in the British air services remained in Britain after the war and were thus lost to Australia. They included the distinguished Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore.

No. 1 Squadron arrived in Egypt in April 1916 without aircraft or technical equipment of any kind and on arrival the personnel of the squadron were split up into parties and attached to local British squadrons for further training and familiarization. The first aircraft issued to the squadron six weeks after its arrival were B.E. (British Experimental) 2cs, which were greatly inferior to the German Fokker and Aviatik aircraft supporting the Turkish ground forces in the Sinai peninsula. In partnership with their British comrades the Australians were soon engaged in a long and arduous struggle against the well equipped German air force. Their aviation tasks were many and varied. They carried out aerial photographic and reconnaissance missions, spotted for naval and artillery bombardments, mounted bombing strikes and of course engaged in air–to–air combat, often in desperate encounters against the superior aircraft of the enemy.

By late in 1917 the tide of war in the Middle East had turned in favour of the Allies. The arrival of Bristol fighters, RE8s and SE5 aircraft, ended German air supremacy and demoralization began amongst the German airmen, even though they also had received new fighters — Pfalz Scouts. The demoralization of the enemy’s air force prior to General Allenby’s major offensive in September 1918 contributed much to the Turkish disaster and was due, Cutlack states, entirely to the superb performance of the British and Australian squadrons. The records of No. 1 Squadron are an illuminating document, he writes. “They are more than a story, they are almost a song of triumph.”10

At a parade of No. 1 Squadron when it left for home in 1919, Allenby praised the Australian airmen in these words:

… the victory gained in Palestine and Syria [he said] has been one of the greatest in the war and undoubtedly hastened the collapse that followed in other theatres. This squadron played an important part in making this achievement possible. You gained for us absolute supremacy of the air thereby enabling my cavalry, artillery and infantry to carry out their work on the ground practically unmolested by hostile aircraft. This undoubtedly was a factor of paramount importance in the success of our arms here … I congratulate not only the flying officers, but also your mechanics, for although the officers did the work in the air, it was good work on the part of your mechanics that kept a high percentage of your machines serviceable …11

Meanwhile three more Australian Flying Corps squadrons, Nos. 2, 3 and 4, had arrived in France in 1917 at a crucial stage of the war on the western front and, after the briefest introduction to what had now become a highly developed form of warfare, were plunged into the thick of battle. Though late in getting to the front, these three squadrons constituted the main air war effort of the Corps. In terms of enemy aircraft destroyed by the A.F.C., they accounted for 435 of the total of 517. They were heavily engaged in the air effort to counter the massive German offensive of March/April 1918. Until 10 November 1918 (the eve of the armistice) they were in almost daily contact with enemy formations in swirling dogfights high above the battlefields of France. Cutlack has given us in this book an exciting and comprehensive coverage of these dramatic encounters.

Cutlack notes that the fighting airmen on both sides observed throughout a special chivalry in their relations with their foes in the sky. “The star airmen of the opposing armies” he wrote “regarded each other with a curious mixture of personal esteem and deadly hostility. The Royal Air Force, while thirsting, so to speak, for Richthofen’s blood, frequently drank his health at celebration feasts in London.”12 (Australian pilots placed wreaths on Richthofen’s grave when he fell in action in the Australian lines in April 1918, killed, it was believed, by Australian machine–gun fire from the ground). These same sentiments sometimes prevailed in World War II, although generally speaking they were much less in evidence, especially in the Pacific war.

Cutlack noted also that the best pilots were not always the most robust physically. “The supreme qualities demanded of the pilot were youth, sound senses and good nerves,”13 he wrote. Both Britain and Germany, he said, found that the best material for an air pilot was an accomplished horseman, a claim which would probably be controversial in the largely horseless 1980s. No doubt Cutlack was influenced by the performance of such men as Ross Smith, formerly of the Australian Light Horse, who, like many others had transferred from the Light Horse to the Australian Flying Corps and was a superb flyer. After fighting brilliantly with No. 1 Squadron in Palestine, Ross Smith, with his brother Keith and two Australian engineers, accomplished one of the most outstanding pioneer flights in history a twenty–eight day flight between England and Australia in 1919 in a Vickers Vimy aircraft.

Cutlack also greatly admired a horseman of another era — the scapegrace balladist of the Bulletin, “Breaker Morant”. Cutlack had known him in his boyhood when Morant was employed at Paringa station at Renmark. After their brief acquaintance, Morant enlisted in the South Australian contingent for service in the South African War. Along with another Australian, Lieutenant Peter Handcock, Morant was executed in 1902 in Pretoria by a firing squad of Cameron Highlanders, after having been courtmartialled for killing Boer prisoners. Convinced that Morant had been sacrificed to placate the German Kaiser’s wrath, which had been aroused by the death of a German missionary, Cutlack made a study of the affair, applying his legal knowledge and experience of war. He published his findings in the book Breaker Morant in 1962. This book helped greatly to re–kindle interest in the Morant affair, culminating in the production of an important Australian film.

Cutlack’s volume of the official history appeared in 1923 and was extensively reviewed and acclaimed in Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Sales at first were slow but ultimately the book was reprinted many times and sold some 18,500 copies. Cutlack’s own newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, on which he served later as associate editor, reviewed the book on 31 July 1923. The unnamed reviewer commented:

It is a magnificent epic of resourcefulness and intrepidity. The heart of every Australian who reads it will thrill with pride at the feats accomplished by his country.14

Dr Bean, more restrained in his assessment, wrote the following to Cutlack in August 1923:

The book is an excellent one, better than I expected even though I felt the subject was safe in your hands. You have avoided the great danger of making it a mere string of dogfights. You have obtained breadth and you possess modesty –two qualities which make the book attractive. You have told the story in a manner neither too grandiloquent nor yet in any way unappreciative – just the mean which is so difficult to attain.15

George Odgers
Canberra
June 1982

Notes

Notes 6, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 refer to this volume.

  1. Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939–42, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1939–1945, 22 Vols. (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962), p. 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Letter, C. E. W. Bean to Major–General J. G. Legge, 1 August 1919, Bean Papers, 3DRL 7953 Folder 9, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
  5. F.M. Cutlack, The Australians: Their Final Campaigns, 1918 (London and Edinburgh: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. 1919), p. vii.
  6. See p. xxxv.
  7. Letter, F. M. Cutlack to C. E. W. Bean, 12 January 1921, Bean Papers, 3DRL 7932, Folder 9, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
  8. Richard Williams, These Are Facts, (Canberra: Canberra Australian War Memorial and Australian Government Printing Service, 1977), p. 274.
  9. See p. 421.
  10. See p. 133.
  11. See p. 171.
  12. See p. xl.
  13. See p. xxxix.
  14. Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 1923.
  15. Letter C.E.W. Bean to F.M. Cutlack, 6 August 1923, Bean Papers, 3DRL 7935 Folder 9, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.