Australian Flying Corps centenary speech

9 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

Air Commodore Geoffrey Harland CSC, Commander Air Force Training Group and Senior Air Force Officer Victoria representing Chief of Air Force.

Air Vice-Marshal Brent Espeland AM (Retd), National President of the Air Force Association.

Group Captain Carl Schiller OAM CSM (Retd), President Victorian Division of the Air Force Association.

Mr John McLeod, Senior Vice-President National Servicemen’s Association of Australia.

Distinguished Guests, those who wear and who have worn the uninform of the Royal Australian Airforce, the families who love and support you.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Elders past and present of the Kulin nation.

In Revelation, the German physicist and philosopher Bernhard Philberth wrote:

'Progress leads to chaos if not anchored in tradition.
Tradition becomes rigid, if it does not prepare the way for progress.
But a perverted traditionalism; And a misguided progressivism,
lead each other to a deadly excess,
hardly leaving any ground between them.'

As we pause here, on the occasion of a centenary of the formation of the four squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps, a new generation of airmen and women is conducting operations in the Middle East and distant parts of the world.

More than 18,000 RAAF regular and reserve personnel support and operate 260 aircraft across fifteen different types. From transport to fast jets and airborne early warning command and control aircraft, in the end all that advanced technology is transcended by character, values and traditions whose origins are here.

Standing silent sentinels the Unknown Australian Soldier interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial are fifteen stained glass windows. Each is a depiction of a serviceman and nurse of the First World War. Beneath each is a single word. 

First World War official historian, Charles Bean – witness to it all from Gallipoli to Mont St Quentin, asked of himself, veteran and first Director of the Australian War Memorial, John Treloar, a vital question. What were the qualities they had seen in these men and women they regarded as essential not only for victory in battle, but for character.

Character derives from the Greek word meaning the ‘impression left in wax by a stone seal ring’. 

Transcending all else in life – rank, power, money, influence and intellect, is character.

Beneath the image of the airman of the Australian Flying Corps is – Chivalry. 

Bean and all who had observed these men, saw in them the chivalric code of medieval knights. Those qualities seen in them were courage, honour, integrity, courtesy, justice and readiness to help those in need.

When Lt. Frank Hubert McNamara landed behind enemy lines in March 1917 to rescue a wounded comrade under heavy fire, wounded and effecting the rescue despite his own significant blood loss, he did more than earn the Victoria Cross.

He and those pioneers gave the emergent, modern Royal Australian Airforce the noble traditions upon which it would be built. Their legacy is that whatever technological progress it would make, the strength and success of this nation’s air force would be built on the character of those who would lead it and wear its uniform.

With the establishment of the Australian Flying Corps in 1912, Australia’s political and military leaders had shown great foresight in recognising the potential importance of air power, less than a decade since the Wright brothers had made their historic first manned flight.

Flying was still in its infancy. By the time the First World War broke out the newly established Central Flying School here at Point Cook – Australia’s first and, at that time, only military aviation base – had just two instructors and five flimsy aircraft.

Australia’s first military aircraft flight occurred on this very spot on 1 March 1914 when Lieutenant Eric Harrison took off in his Bristol Box kite. Despite these lean beginnings, Harrison and many of the others who qualified for their wings here at Point Cook were the pioneers of Australian aviation. Their service in the AFC throughout the First World War forged the basis for the innovation and traditions that live on today in the Royal Australian Air Force. 

This year marks the centenary of the formation of the four operational Australian Flying Corps squadrons. 

No. 1 Squadron left Australia in 1916 for reconnaissance and combat operations in the Middle East. It was followed overseas by squadron Nos 2, 3, and 4, bound for the Western Front. 

An Australian training wing, comprising four training squadrons, was also established in England to provide pilots for the operational squadrons.

Before this, however, in 1915 the AFC sent what became known as the Mesopotamian Half Flight at the request of the Indian government. This was the first Australian aerial unit to enter a war zone. 

The professionalism and excellence of the Australian air and ground crews throughout the First World War was outstanding. No. 1 Squadron consistently out-performed all other RFC units in the Middle East.

Such performance began with the ground crew. RAAF historian Alan Stephens noted:

'An aircraft which is not properly maintained and a pilot who is not properly prepared are unlikely to win. Australia’s ground crew established a tradition in the Middle East which was to prove no less enduring than that of their pilots and observers. Rigging airframes, tuning engines, loading weapons, and operating base camps constituted arduous and sometimes hazardous duty.'

One of those mechanics serving in the ground crew of No. 1 Squadron was my great-grandfather, First Air Mechanic William Robert Beecroft. He had earlier survived the Gallipoli landing and campaign as a member of the 12th battalion.

Early on in the First World War, when in combat with enemy aircraft, opposing pilots and observers would shoot at each other with pistols, then rifles; it was only later that machine-guns began to be added as a modification by pilots and crew.
One member of No. 1 Squadron described a dogfight as: 

'Every man for himself. We go hell-for-leather at those snub-nosed, black crossed busses of the Hun, and they at us. ... Hectic work. Half-rolling, diving, zooming, stalling, “split-slipping”, by inches you miss collision with friend or foe. Cool precise marksmanship is out of the question.'

The innovative and technologically savvy Lieutenant Lawrence Wackett mounted a Lewis gun on his plane prior to a bombing raid on Beersheba, and during the raid fended off two attacking German fighters.

Wackett went on to serve on the Western Front with No. 3 Squadron, where he mastered the method of accurately dropping ammunition to ground forces by parachute. This proved to be a crucial piece of the operational jigsaw in Lieutenant General John Monash’s plans for the battle of Hamel.

With casualties mounting among the pilots, preparation provided to airmen was not always of a desirable level. 

Australia’s leading air ace in the war, Captain Harry Cobby, commenced operations on the Western Front with just 13 flying hours. Others were known to have as few as three hours’ experience.

Cobby spoke of his fear of being posted to the front:

'the nervousness that assailed me during the months of training in England, when I gave thought to the fact that as soon as I was qualified to fly an aeroplane, or perhaps sooner, I would be sent off to the war to do battle with the enemy in the sky and on the ground. I quite freely admit that if anything could have been done by me to delay that hour, I would have left nothing undone to bring it about.'

The most spectacular encounter for the AFC on the Western Front occurred on 29 October when 15 Snipe aircraft of No. 4 Squadron encountered 60 German Fokkers. The ensuing battle was one of the largest air battles of the war. Ten Fokkers were shot down in the dogfight for the loss of one Snipe. Several badly damaged Snipes managed to scrape through safely.

Cobby wrote of operations on the Western Front in 1918:

'The job consisted of getting to the “line” … as fast and often as one could, and letting the enemy on the ground have it as hot and heavy as possible … All this flying was done under 500 feet and our targets were point-blank ones … The air was full of aircraft and, continuously while shooting-up the troops on the ground, we would be attacked by enemy scouts … The smoke of the battle below mixed with the clouds and mist above rendered flying particularly dangerous … On top of this there were scores of machine-guns devoting their time to making things as unpleasant for us as they could.'

In the final year of the Great War, these deadly battles were fought in the sky over France and Belgium; this was the new battle ground.  The flimsy flying-machines of a few years earlier had evolved into hardy, mass-produced combat and reconnaissance aircraft.  In the mornings hundreds would take off from grassy fields along the Western Front.  The Germans, even when finally outnumbered and facing defeat, still introduced new and deadly fighters.  Australian pilots and gunners fought them to the last days of the war.

The AFC’s four operational squadrons claimed to have destroyed or driven down 527 enemy aircraft. In total the corps produced 57 flying aces.

But the price was high.

By the armistice, some 880 officers and 2,840 Other Ranks had served overseas in the AFC. At least 600 more Australians had served in the RFC or RNAS (including men such as Charles Kingsford Smith and Bert Hinkler).

Casualty rates for aircrews on the Western Front were shockingly high. The life expectancy of a new pilot on the Western Front was just three weeks. 

207 members of the AFC are listed on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, either killed in action or dying as a direct result of their war service. 

The founding members of the Royal Australian Air Force brought with them the proud traditions established during their time in the Australian Flying Corps. They shaped the organisation and its culture and laid the foundations for its role in the defence of Australia. Their experiences in aviation with the Australian Flying Corps during the First World War were invaluable when, in 1939, the world was once again at war. 

To the audience before him in the Mystic Park Hall in Kerang, rural Victoria late in 1945, former Flight Lt John Grey Gorton – one of yours, spoke on behalf of those with whom he had served who did not survive a second, even more deadly war and all those who had come before:
We bought your freedom with our lives. So take this freedom. Guard it as we have guarded it; use it as we can no longer use it, and with it as a foundation, build a world in which meanness and poverty, tyranny and hate have no existence. If you see and hear these men behind me – do not fail them.

We gather here today to honour all of them – those who served and who now serve across a century in the Australian Flying Corps, and in the Royal Australian Air Force.

They served, fought, suffered and died for us, our freedoms and in the hope of a better world.

We do so in renewed commitment to one another, our nation, the ideals of mankind and the hope of a better world.

In this, the traditions of the Australian Flying Corps are the foundation for progress of the Royal Australian Air force.

Today we recommit ourselves to not failing them.

Lest we forget.

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