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Illustration of an RE8 fending-off a German attack, while "Archie" (anti-aircraft fire) dots the sky. [Graphic: Gustav Farmer]
By James Oglethorpe
This is quite an auspicious day for 3 Squadron. It’s 100 years exactly since the Squadron established its long-term identity. Over the past century, a truly huge amount of stirring history has taken place under that “3SQN” Banner, of which we’re all very proud.
Shortly I’ll explain some of the interesting connections between 3 Squadron and the mighty Hunters Hill Howitzer, but first I’d like to introduce some of our distinguished attendees:
- Firstly the Mayor of Hunters Hill, Councillor Mark Bennett. We certainly would like to thank the Mayor for the help that we’ve received from Council in organising this event.
- Next, from 3SQN Association, we have two important members whose fathers both served in 3AFC one hundred years ago, Mr John Love and Mr Des Sheehan.
- We’re also very lucky to have two surviving WW2 Veterans with us today: Mr Slim Moore was a skilled 3SQN Engine Fitter. He served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He is one of Australia’s few remaining veterans of the famous Battle of El Alamein in 1942. After that, Slim remained in almost continuous action with 3 Squadron, all the way to Northern Italy in 1945. Slim was Mentioned in Dispatches for Bravery, after personally dragging a huge live bomb away from a blazing aircraft (but otherwise he’s just a normal guy!).
- Thanks also to Slim’s daughter Sandy for bringing him here today.
- Our other WW2 veteran is the Squadron’s last surviving pilot from that historic era, Mr Arthur Pardey. Arthur flew the superlative Mustang fighter-bomber with 3SQN in Italy in the months before the German surrender in 1945. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra today displays some of Arthur’s dive-bombing “action” photos in their Collection.
- Another important attendee is Mr Wayne Beattie. Wayne was a “Framie” (an Airframe Fitter) on Mirage supersonic fighters. He served overseas in Malaysia during 3 Squadron’s long period in residence there, as part of our country’s commitment to South East Asia.
- Our Official Air Force Representative today is WGCDR Michael Garside, who is also Vice-President of the Australian Society of World War 1 Aero Historians.
- “Welcome” also to the Aero Historians’ Librarian, Gordon Lasslett.
- And a warm welcome to all the other 3SQN Association and family members here today.
- Last but not least, I’d like to welcome Mr Ben Pacey and his wife. Ben is an Engineer who restored this howitzer to its current condition. We owe him a debt of thanks for his painstaking work.
Now, let me turn to the centrepiece of our commemoration. There are a surprising number of connections between this particular howitzer and 3 Squadron. This howitzer was captured of the 3rd of October 1918, in the “Beaurevoir” battle, where the Australians broke through an immensely strong section of the German Hindenburg Line.
Meanwhile, overhead, on that same day, and in that same battle, 3AFC suffered its last operational casualties of WW1.
- They were an experienced crew, 22-year-old pilot John Gould-Taylor, who held the Distinguished Flying Cross, and his 24-year-old observer, Bruce Thomson.
Lieutenant Bruce Garie THOMPSON, 3 Squadron, AFC.
Accountant from Kapunda, SA.
Killed in action near Estrees, 3 October 1918, aged 24.
They suffered pure bad luck - hit by a shell in flight. The shell may have been British or German, we’ll never know. (It may even have been fired by this howitzer!) - However, it is clear that once their fragile wooden aeroplane was smashed in mid-air, they were doomed by a British policy that forbade parachutes. (This is in stark contrast to the Germans, who did have parachutes in 1918 - which saved the lives of many of their aviators. Apparently the British policy was meant to make pilots more “motivated” towards saving their expensive aircraft... Obviously this was a tragic and callous miscalculation, but it was only corrected after the Great War ended.)
Throughout 3AFC’s time on the Western Front, howitzers such as this one were actually the Squadron’s “prime target”. They could dominate a large swathe of the battlefield. (In fact, the sad statistic is that Artillery killed far more people in WW1 than any other weapon.) To give some idea of the range of this particular howitzer, if fired from here in Hunters Hill, it could actually land a shell on the International Terminal at Sydney Airport!
Obviously at such ranges, somebody else needs to observe the "fall of shot", in order to guide the gunners onto the target. 3AFC’s aircraft would often spend hours over the front, using radio signals to carefully zero-in the shots of the Allied artillery. This could eventually destroy a valuable target, such an entire battery of German guns. At other times, 3AFC performed aggressive “Artillery Patrols”, searching for the tell-tale flashes of German artillery being fired. When a flash was seen, it was plotted on a chart inside the aircraft, and a radio message was tapped out that could direct British shells towards the German guns. - Swift action could save huge numbers of lives if the Australian troops were out in the open during an infantry attack.
However, these highly co-ordinated methods also relied upon accurate aerial photographs of enemy territory being obtained, to locate targets and to provide maps for the gunners - another of 3 Squadron’s hazardous duties.
An aerial view showing the HINDENBERG LINE region around Bellicourt and Estrees,
Probably taken by 3AFC RE8 E224 (Kilburn/Heslop) at around noon, 17 September 1918.
(“18 plates exposed on back areas. Weather fine, visibility good.”)
The plate would have been marked-up with geographic information, printed and distributed by the large 3AFC Photographic Section.
The village of Estrees, where the Hunters Hill Howitzer was captured, is shown at top left. [AWM J00123]
One notable 3AFC photographic mission may well have flown right over the top of this howitzer, about two weeks before it was captured. Unfortunately that mission went badly wrong, leading to the demise of the RE8 and its crew. The pilot, Cliff Peel, and his observer, John Jeffers, had been sent out to photograph the Hindenburg Line in preparation for the Australian offensive. This was an extremely hazardous mission. In fact two RE8s had been sent, meant to provide mutual protection, plus a Squadron of British Sopwith Camel fighters for top cover. Unfortunately, thick clouds rose up in their path and Peel and Jeffers became separated from their escort. A German fighter then pounced on them and, despite them putting up an impressive fight, they were shot down. (This actually turned out to be the very last victory against a British aircraft by the highest-scoring German fighter squadron of WW1, Jasta 11.) Peel and Jeffers crashed to earth on the German side of the lines and were probably buried on the spot. Their gravesites were never found and they remain the only 3AFC crew from WW1 listed as “missing”. They’re still out there today, somewhere under the same rolling French fields that this howitzer once watched over.
There’s an added element of tragedy to this particular story. Today, Cliff Peel is probably the most widely-known 3AFC WW1 airman. The reason for this is that in 1917 Cliff drew up a detailed proposal showing how many aeroplanes and bases would be required to run a Flying Doctor Service in inland Australia. His letter fired the imagination of Dr John Flynn, who later brought Cliff’s plan to fruition. (Thus Flynn earned his palace on our $20 note.) Today, schoolchildren visit the 3SQN website to research Cliff Peel. It’s a great loss to Australia that Cliff died less than eight weeks before the Great War ended.
On a lighter note, one Mechanic who joined 3 Squadron, William Brake, was formerly an Army artilleryman and he took a great technical interest in the shells that the Germans were shooting at him! He wrote this letter home:
“We get an assortment of shells sent over at us. …A 15 Centimetre German shell is known as a ‘coal box’, owing to the black smoke it makes when it bursts. It’s only used when they think they are ‘on’ to something. – And if they do get ‘on’ anything with one, believe me, that thing moves! A 15cm shell falling and bursting in an ordinary paddock would make a hole about 6ft. across and 3ft. deep, or shift about a dray-load of earth. This is about as big a shell as we get around here.”
To conclude, I’ll mention two interesting facts that most people are unaware of:
If you come up later and touch the steel of this howitzer, you’re actually touching part of France. By 1918, when this weapon was made, Germany was completely blockaded economically, and virtually her only supply of iron ore came from the French region of Lorraine. In one of the great miscalculations of European history, the French failed to destroy the iron-producing infrastructure near their border, before it was over-run by the Germans in August 1914. This was because the proud French had never contemplated losing Lorraine, and so had no plan for destroying the mines and blast furnaces!
So, instead of the production of German weapons grinding to a halt in 1914, the war raged on for four more years…
Secondly, the Australian breakthrough on the Hindenburg Line (where this howitzer was captured) was actually the FINAL battle that the Australian Corps fought.
Therefore this relic represents the END to their war.
And not only was it their final battle, it was their “best”, as General Monash told his troops:
“You have succeeded in completely overwhelming a stubborn defence in a most strongly-fortified sector of the West Front. This is due to the determination and resource of the leaders, and the grit, endurance and fighting spirit of the troops.
- NOTHING MORE WORTHY OF PRAISE HAS BEEN DONE BY THE AUSTRALIANS IN THE WAR."
So, this howitzer is a very appropriate keepsake!
By John Love
We are gathered here to commemorate this day, 100 years ago, 18 January 1918, when 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC) was officially recognised on the Western Front Battlefields, WW1.
My father Nigel B. Love was present on that day, as a founding pilot/officer member of the Squadron.
John describes his father's RE8 two-seat aircraft.
Up until this stage the Squadron was under the operational command of the British.... and designated 69 Squadron.
What were the circumstances that motivated this name change?
The Great War had been raging for nearly four years, with little gain shown by either side.
A strong political push for a redirection in strategy became uppermost in the minds of the Allies, as a consequence of:-
1. The horrendous losses on the Battlefields that triggered a high level of civil unrest in Australia and Britain... with a victory viewed as an ever receding horizon.
2. Disillusionment with Trench Warfare tactics... also known as a brutal War of Attrition...
A suffering inflicted on so many... for so little.
At this point, the five Australian Infantry Divisions were seriously depleted in numbers following the Battle of Passchendale, late 1917. Recruitment had slumped, with volunteers unable to meet the needed level for replacement.
The Year 1917 saw 77,000 Australian casualties... 22,000 dead or missing.
The two Australian Conscription Referendums [October 1916 and December 1917] had failed... leaving a Nation embittered and deeply divided. The undercurrent mood at home was to bring the troops back.
In order to retain the Australian commitment; the agreed political outcome was for, the five Infantry Divisions and 3 Squadron (previously attached to different parts of the British Army) to be brought together, as a combined fighting force, under an Australian General and named the Australian Corps - becoming the largest Corps on the Western Front.
After eight months of specialized aerial combat training in England... my father arrived in Flanders at the tail end of the 3rd Battle of Ypres.
... And so it was on 18 January 1918... 69 Squadron changed its name to:
"3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps."
General Sir John Monash... an outstanding field commander... was appointed to lead the Australian Corps.
France was also experiencing problems in the field, with Mutiny in sections of the army.
Generally, the Allies were bereft of a positive strategy... that would bring them out of the mire of a War of Attrition.
At this time, three significant changes occurred, that altered the final outcome.
1. British Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig was placed under the direction of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch.
2. Following the Bolshevik Revolution and cessation of hostilities on the Russian Front... up to a million German troops were released... to form their Spring Offensive in the Somme, France.
3. The newly formed Australian Corps... was moved from Flanders in the north, to Villers-Bretonneux, Somme, to stop the German advance, which was moving rapidly westwards..
My father wrote in his War Diary.... “We need not have worried... as the line held by the Aussie Five Divisions in front of us... held like a steel cable... and arrested the attack permanently”.
The brilliance of General Monash... an experienced Engineer... changed the strategy from Trench Warfare to Mechanized/Mobile Warfare and set in place three game changing battles; the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, Battle of Hamel and Battle of Amiens... This saw new tactics evolve with a coordinated approach... combining the latest artillery, tanks and aircraft into a high-class fighting machine and leading the Allies to Victory... in what is known as the “Hundred Days Offensive”.
3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps... operating R.E.8 aircraft that had been previously limited to reconnaissance... was given a new key role in this changed strategy... Bombing and strafing of forward trench positions... dropping aerial supplies by mini-parachutes ahead of advancing troops... taking out hostile gun-battery positions and non-stop detailed mapping of enemy positions on the ground... All were part of a meticulously rehearsed plan of attack.
3 Squadron’s trial of fire.... in those skies over the Somme, destined it to become Australia’s air fighting squadron of the future... with a proud history of battle honours and outstanding achievements.
This day... exactly one hundred years ago... officially recognised the name change to... 3 Squadron... and we join in “Commemorating 100 years of Service and Sacrifice”.
“Lest We Forget”
After the commemoration, several of the group enjoyed a convivial Italian lunch at Ottimo Restaurant nearby.
Many thanks to our photographers Greg (The Weekly Times), Tomoko Kuriyama and Des Sheehan.
3 Squadron EVENTS
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