The Australian Flying Corps, 1916-1918

Warfare in a new dimension : The AFC in the First World War

The page [ http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/conflict_ww1_afc.htm ] is no longer active. It has been updated with the site above. The preamble to the original page was as follows...

"In 1914 Australia's only military aviation base, the Central Flying School, newly established at Point Cook, was equipped with two flying instructors and five flimsy training aircraft. From this modest beginning Australia became the only British dominion to set up a flying corps of its own for service during the First World War. Known as the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) and organised as a corps of the Australian Imperial Force, its four line squadrons usually served separately under the orders of Britain's Royal Flying Corps."

The Australian Flying Corps
[site no longer active - cached version posted here]

1998 celebrates the 77th anniversary of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The RAAF was formed in 1921 from the AFC that had served with great distinction during the last two and a half years of the great war. Little is known about the exploits and effectiveness of the AFC from 1916 to 1918 during their service in France, Egypt, and the UK. All told eight squadrons were formed. They were; 1 Squadron formed at Point Cook and sent to Egypt in 1916; 2 Squadron formed in Egypt, was a fighter/scout unit, and sent to France the same year; 3 Squadron was formed at Point Cook as a reconnaissance unit and deployed to France in 1917; 4 Squadron, a fighter/scout unit, was also formed at Point Cook and arrived in France in December 1917, giving the AFC four combat Squadrons on active service with the remaining 5, 6, 7, and 8 Squadrons being formed in England as training squadrons for the supply of reinforcements for the other four.

All told during the period of service in WW I the AFC put through its ranks a total of 460 officers and 2,234 other ranks. Pilots of the AFC were commissioned officers, the other ranks consisted of mechanics, refuellers, signalers, and general ground duty staff. Of the 460 pilots in the AFC, 57 became 'Aces' with approximately 100 decorations, including the only Victoria Cross awarded to Lieutenant F H McNamara who was born at Rushworth, Victoria on April 4th, 1894. McNamara was later to become Air Vice Marshal during WW II, having been awarded the VC CB and CBE.

Other notable of the AFC were :- Captain R A Little DSO & 2 Bars DSC & Bar CdeG (Croix de Guerre France), with 47 kills; Major R S Dallas DSO DSC CdeG, with 39 kills, Captain A H Cobby DSC DFC & 2 Bars with 29 kills (Cobby also destroyed 13 balloons and was later to become Air Commodore RAAF; Captain R P Minifie DFC & 2 Bars, the AFCís youngest 'Ace' who was only 20 years old at the end of WW I; Lieutenant C E Kingsford-Smith MC, who later became Air Commodore Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith who was lost whilst flying in 1935; Captain A T Cole MC DFC, who later became Air Vice marshal WW II; one of the most amazing stories of the AFC was of Lieutenant F Alberry DCM who lost a leg as a member of the infantry prior to becoming a fighter pilot and scoring 7 enemy kills; Captain R M Smith MC & Bar DFC & 2 Bars AFC with nine kills, later made the first England to Australia flight in 1919; others such as Burt Hinkler; Sir Peter Drummond; Air Chief Marshal Sir W G S Mitchell, who was born in Sydney in 1888, of the RAF, started their flying careers in the AFC.

Many pilots of the AFC did not come directly from the Point Cook flying school but arrived from other places and were appointed by direct Commissions. Major Oswald Watt the Commander of 2 Squadron AFC had, prior to joining, served as an aviator/fighter pilot with the French Foreign Legion Air Corps (Aviation Militaire), being awarded the French Legion deí Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. Watt later, as a Lieutenant Colonel, became the Commander of the UK based training squadrons. Others such as P G Taylor came from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC); Major I Coninham DSO MC came from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force; McNamara, Little and Cobby, previously mentioned, came from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS); others came from the AIF after serving as ground troops at Gallipoli, Egypt and France.

Towards the end of WW I in 1918, 2 Squadron and 4 Squadron were designated 'Circus' squadrons, that is, offensive action roaming groups to engage and harass the enemy at will. 4 Squadron became the most famous and successful fighter squadron of the front, all told downing 199 German aircraft. 2 squadron was also successful by downing 185 enemy aircraft, however, the AFC casualties were heavy with the loss of 78 killed, 68 wounded, and 33 taken prisoner. By the end of 1918 the AFC, the RFC, and the French Air Force dominated the skies of Southern France.

Following The 'Red Baron', Rittmeister Manfred Von Richthofen, Commander of the 'Flying Circus', being shot down on April 21, 1918, the German Air Service went into decline, but the German airmen fought on regardless of the lack of equipment, fuel, and ammunition. With the German aircraft lacking vital spare parts, many were caught on the ground and on August 17, 1918 captain A Murray-Jones led 19 aircraft of 2 Squadron on a raid of German airfields near Lille in France, resulting in 37 aircraft being destroyed. The next day 2 Squadron again attacked the German airfield near Lomme, destroying a further 17 aircraft. The AFC kept up the pressure on the German Air Service until the last days of the war, this is shown by the last 3 casualties of the AFC occurring on November 4, 1918, 1 week before the armistice was declared on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918.

The role of the AFC in Egypt was varied from the time of its arrival on April 14, 1916, as it was placed under the control of the 5th Wing Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The AFC No 1 Squadron was poorly equipped with BE2C aircraft which were very slow, lacked both maneuverability and climb, and were hopeless against the enemy in any form of aerial combat. Their main role was in bombing and strafing of enemy units on the ground. At Romani in July , August, 1916, the AFC supported the ground offensive by both effective strafing and bombing of both Turkish and German airfields, and attacking infantry columns. On December 22, 1916, the 10 aircraft from No 1 Squadron supported the ANZAC Mounted Division attack on Magdhaba that fell to the Anzac forces. Other support was given in the capturing of Beersheba, Gaza, and Jaffa.

In March 1918, No 1 Squadron was completely equipped with Bristol fighters, which were quoted as being the finest aircraft of World War I, and Major R Williams, born in Moonta, South Australia, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of 40th Army Air Wing of the RFC, giving him a striking force of No 1 Sqdn AFC, two squadrons of DH9AS of the RFC, and one squadron of SE5 fighter scouts of the RFC. The great offensive of September 1917, was lead by 1 Squadron AFC, and the initial blow was a bombing raid by Captain Ross Smith dropping sixteen 112 pound (51kg) bombs on the telegraph station and railway yards at El Afule, destroying both. The rest of the squadron attacked other key positions completely isolating the Turkish Army further south of the attack. The Turks turn came on September 21, at Wadi Fara, where Williamís 40th led the attack, the Turkish 7th Army "ceased to exist". It was a total massacre resulting from attacks from the air.

On September 22, the famed Lieutenant Colonel T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) called for air assistance for his Arab army that were being constantly attacked by German air forces. Led by Captain R Smith, he and two others from No 1 Squadron, in their Bristol fighters went to Lawrenceís aid, shooting down several German invaders. Order was restored, and to keep the offensive going, Smith had petrol and ammunition flown into his position by a Hanley-Page bomber so he could remain with Lawrenceís army to protect it. The rest of the offensive went with the RFC and AFC having total air supremacy.

Lt Col R Williams who commanded the 40th Army Air Wing was the first Australian graduate of the Point Cook Flying School. In later years he was to become Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, RAAF.Number 3 Squadron continued their role as Corps Reconnaissance for the duration of the war. Their aircraft were mainly RE8ís, a good reliable two seater, ideal for the task. The squadron had very few combat engagements but did manage to force down two enemy aircraft, one a Halberstadt CL II, reconnaissance two seater, and an Albatros DVa single seater scout. The Albatros is on display at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra ACT.

The training quadrons that remained in England were highly praised for their ability to train, not only pilots, but ground staff, to an extremely high standard to keep up with the often urgent need at the front. 5 Squadron and 6 Squadron were stationed at No 1 Station Minchinhampton, UK, and were disbanded in 1919. 7 Squadron and 8 Squadron were stationed at No 2 Station AFC, Leighton, UK, and were also disbanded in 1919.The after war report on the AFC showed an outstanding record of enemy casualties credited to the 4 combat squadrons during their time in the Middle East and France. To indicate the effectiveness , the following gives some idea of the total contribution of the AFC.Enemy aircraft destroyed ; 517 Balloons destroyed : 33

With the formation of the Royal Australian Air Force on March 31, 1921, the backbone of the newly formed branch of the Australian Forces was, in the main, ex-members of the Australian Flying Corps.

The men of the AFC "These pilots came down and fairly strafed the Hun, they bombed him and attacked him with machine guns from only fifty feet (15 meters) flying amongst the tree tops; they were magnificent, they revelled in this work which was great military value to all."

General Trenchard, Commander Royal Flying Corps, November 1917.

The Australian Flying Corps
[site no longer active - cached version posted here]

In January 1916 the British War Office made a special request to the Australian government. It wanted 200 volunteers from the AIF to be trained and commissioned as pilots in the Royal Flying Corps. "Exceptionally good work has been done in the RFC by Australian-born officers, and the Australian temperament is specially suited to the flying service," the British note stated.

The Australian military leaders approved the request. The first operational group dispatched was the half-flight sent to the Mesopotamia. Some excellent reconnaissance work was completed despite poor machines and appalling conditions. Three of the four pilots were killed or captured and a number of ground crew were captured at Kut-el Arama and died in captivity.

The most successful Australian Pilot in British service was Robert Alexander Little from Windsor, Victoria. Commissioned into the Royal Naval Air Service late in January 1916, he later became a captain and the 8th top-scoring British ace with 47 enemy fighters shot down. An ace was a flier with five or more victories.

Little was awarded the Distinguished Service Order twice and the Distinguished Service Cross twice. He was 22 when shot down and killed on May 27, 1918, while attacking a German bomber. The Australian Flying Corps had only four operational squadrons and one of these, No. 1 Squadron spent most of the war in the Middle East.

It produced the only Australian air Victoria Cross winner of the war, Lieutenant F.H. McNamara, who, when wounded himself rescued a fellow flier in Palestine. Numbers 2, 3, and 4 Squadrons AFC, each with 18 planes, flew with the Royal Flying Corps and used many types of aircraft including the famous Camel, Sopwith Pup, Spad, Bristol Scout, Bristol Bomber and RE8.

No. 3 Squadron was the first AFC unit to deploy in France, arriving at Savy on September 10, 1917. It was at once allotted to the newly formed Australian Corps as "corps squadron". In this role it scouted for the Australian Divisions, fought strafing and bombing enemy aircraft, and flew close-observation or contact patrols during the AIF's 1918 battles.

The squadrons RE8 aircraft established a astounding record of service. Flying from 10 different aerodromes, they logged 10,000 hours of war flying, fired 500,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition at enemy targets, dropped 6,000 bombs, and accounted for 57 enemy aircraft. Numbers 2 and 4 Squadrons served in an infantry support role with the 80th wing RFC, which became the Royal Air Force in April 1918.

The leading AFC ace was Captain A.H. Cobby, DSO, DFC and two bars, of No. 4 Squadron, who shot down 29 enemy planes and 13 observation balloons. The other two leading AFC aces, also from No.4 Squadron, were Captain E.J.K McCloughry (23 kills) and Captain R. King, DSO, DFC, with 22.5 victories. All flew the Camel. No fewer than 57 Australian pilots became aces.

All the Australian squadrons were made up of courageous and colorful men who risked there lives in their flimsy machines every moment they were in the air. Several of them were former anzacs and many had fought in the trenches in France. Thus they always knew, and appreciated, that their primary task was to help the embattled infantry below. In all, 460 Officers and 2,234 men served in the AFC during the war.

A Hint of Things to Come : Leadership in the Australian Flying Corps

The page above is no longer active but sadly, as with others further above, I did not retain a cached version... The preamble to the original page was as follows...

"The passing of 102 year old Harold Edwards at Brisbane in August 1998 was in every way the end of an era in Australian military history. He was the last known member of the Australian Flying Corps. Men like Edwards and his mates made up the leadership and experience of the Corps, and while Army born and Army bred, they helped to forge the Royal Australian Air Force as an independent service. It is perhaps fitting to review the legacy those 3,500 officers and airmen bequeathed the next generation and a new, independent Service."

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