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 FROM ANZAC TO A.F.C.

Excerpts from an interview with 2/Lt. Tom Prince,
RE8 Observer with No.3 Squadron,
Australian Flying Corps, 1918.

By Fred Clark (Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians)

  

Tom Prince had a very remarkable military career in the First World War.  He had been working as a draftsman with the NSW Department of Public Works in Broken Hill when war was declared on the 4th of August, 1914.  Tom signed up for the Army immediately and became one of the original members of the Australian Imperial Force.  [Tom's four brothers and his father also served in the Great War.]  Because of his skills, Tom was allocated to the 3rd Field Company (an Engineering unit). 

They sailed in the troopship 'Geelong' from Albany, WA, as part of the first ANZAC convoy of 38 transports to Egypt in November, 1914.  After an eventful voyage (HMAS Sydney sank the German raider Emden), Tom disembarked at Alexandria in December 1914.

Tom was then involved in constructing bridges and fortifications in the Suez Canal zone and was one of eight sappers occupying the Suez Electric Power House when the Turks attacked the Canal on 2nd/3rd February 1915.  Tom's 3rd Field Company successfully held the Power House and thereby became the first unit of the AIF to see action against the Turks.

In April 1915 Tom's unit embarked for the Gallipoli invasion.  Tom landed in Anzac Cove at about 6am on the 25th of April (the first Anzac Day).  In the siege warfare which followed, he was involved in surveying, tunnelling and extending the trench lines.  During dangerous night trench raids, Tom also surveyed Turkish front-line fortifications.  Tom's unit was camped at Shell Green, which was subject to Turkish bombardment. 

On the 15th of July, Tom was wounded by Turkish shrapnel.  He was evacuated to St. Thomas' Hospital, London and then convalesced further in England. 

On 9 November 1916 he rejoined his company in France; helping to lay duckboards, putting out barbed wire, etc., on the Somme battlefields.  During one assault, on the village of Hermies in April 1917, his unit became the first AIF Engineers to capture enemy troops.  In July they moved north to Belgium and from September through to November 1917, Tom's company remained in the forward area of the Ypres front, taking part in the battles of Glencorse Wood, Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, and Broodseinde Ridge.

Tom's story continues in his own words...

I was a runner during the course of those last two battles.  At Broodseinde Ridge we were on firm ground and you could see the German lines across the valley, where the trees were still standing.  (That was quite a sight because I don't think that there was a tree left standing between Cape Belge and Zonnebeke, and it was nothing but a sea of mud from Ypres to Broodseinde Ridge.)

E01149
Western Front (Belgium), Passchendaele Area, Broodseinde. 
Looking across Retaliation Farm to Helles and Anzac Ridge from the crater on Broodseinde Ridge.
Note the water-filled shell holes.  [AWM E01149]

After the Third Battle of Ypres we had a short rest, and then went into the forward area at Messines.  On the 20th of December, I received orders to proceed to England to join the Australian Flying Corps...

Early in January, five other Australians and I were posted as cadets to the barracks of the Royal Worcesters, where we found many other cadets from all units of the British Army.

The training consisted mainly of morale and discipline as applied to would-be flying officers.  We also found that we were to be Observers (not pilots, as we had been led to believe).

About 21 January, we were transferred to Winchester where our aerial training began.  This was an intensive course at the Observer's School of the Training Brigade.  Subjects were artillery observation, reconnaissance and map-reading, machineguns, contact patrols, propeller swinging, hostile machine identification, internal combustion engines, dual control, and other matters.

My first flight here was with an R.F.C. pilot named Shaw.  We took off from the drome in a B.E.2c.  About ten miles from the drome, the engine conked out and Shaw pancaked the bus in the middle of a ploughed field, wrecking the undercarriage.  The next flight was with Vidler of the A.F.C. on a reconnaissance survey in an R.E.8 to Yatesbury, where Vidler had done some of his training.

At the end of this course we all received our commissions as 2nd. Lieutenants: Sewell, Thompson, Machin, James, Sturgeon, and Prince.

https://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/REL%2F21239.001.JPG
2nd Lieutenant's Service Dress Tunic, No.3 Squadron AFC, 1918.

In March, Machin and I were posted to Lydd.  This was an R.F.C. station on coastal defence, equipped with RE8s.  Here we flew nearly every day. There was a [practice] artillery-target with clock control and simulated smoke-puffs, which we had to spot.   We also did some dual control.   The pilot took me a couple of times over the Channel to look for submarines, but we didn't spot any.

In April Machin and I went to over to New Romney.  Here we joined up with the other chaps.  This was a big school with men from all parts of the Empire.  Mostly we did camera-gun exercises, with an occasional flight over Hythe for aerial gunnery.  In May we were considered to be trained Observers and joined the AFC pool of Pilots and Observers at Wendover.  From there men were posted as required to the three AFC squadrons in France. 

I had a job in the Orderly Room at Wendover and the Adjutant thought I might be right until the end of the war.  However, in June the influenza epidemic struck the depot and nearly everybody in the camp went down with it.  Another observer named Roberts and myself missed catching it.  One day in June the Adjutant asked me to see if I could round up two observers for No.3 Squadron.  I made a diligent search, but found that Roberts
and I were the only two fit observers in the poo1.  The Adjutant said that he was sorry to lose us, but we would have to go...

No.3 Squadron was then located at Villers-Bocage, about six miles from Amiens.  It was an Army Co-operation Squadron and was composed of three flights, each of six machines.  Its main work was to fly over the lines and get back information to assist the troops on the ground.

The aircraft used by the squadron was the "Reconnaissance Experimental No.8", which was usually shortened down to RE8.  It was also familiarly referred to as the 'Harry Tate', which was the name of a popular comedian of that time.  It was quite a good aircraft, and was suitable enough for the type of work in which the Squadron was then engaged.

I was posted to 'B' Flight, which seemed to be the utility flight of the Squadron.  We took aerial photographs, spotted for the artillery, and went on counter-attack patrols, according to the routine orders of the day.  We Observers were commonly known as "P.B.O.s" (Poor Bloody Observers), or referred to as "the ballast".

My first flight over the lines was with a pilot named Len Chase, who was quite a veteran pilot, having served with the Squadron for some considerable time.  It was on a morning towards the end of June, and the weather was near perfect, without any sign of clouds.  We flew up and down the lines from somewhere near Hamel, up to Albert.  This was just prior to the set-piece attack on Hamel which the infantry used as a rehearsal for the tactics which were to be employed in the famous attack on August 8th.  It was a thrilling experience for me to see the  battlefield spread out beneath us, as this was the same part of France that I had explored the previous June when the 1st Division of the Australian Imperial Force was in rest camps between Bray-sur-Somme and Corbie; prior to being moved up to Ypres.

Some further details of this flight may be of interest:  We took off carrying two 28-pound bombs and circled over the aerodrome.  I let out the aerial (a copper wire about a hundred feet long with a lead weight at the end) and sent a signa1 to the Central Wireless Station to test the transmitter.  At that time we could send Morse Code in the air, but could not receive.  The signal was acknowledged by them placing a strip of calico out on the ground.

We continued to gain more height.  I swung the Lewis-gun on the Scarff mounting, and fired a few rounds at the sun, to check that the gun was in good working order.  I clipped the map to the board, put the message pad in the proper place and then resumed my job as aerial gunner.

We levelled out at five thousand feet.  The cruising speed of the RE8 was rated at ninety miles per hour, so it did not take us very long to travel the fifteen miles to the line.  Chase passed a message back to me saying that he would watch out for enemy aircraft while I had a look at the ground.  I could clearly see the trenches, barbed wire and the shell holes.  The trees and the roads stood out fairly plainly.  We flew along the river Ancre to Albert and back to the St. Quentin Road.

A black puff of smoke suddenly appeared below us.  Then came another, until a row of them hung soundlessly in the sky.  Chase banked the aircraft into a climbing turn, and then straightened out again.  The next salvo from the German anti-aircraft battery burst a good half mile away.

E02038
German anti-aircraft shrapnel bursting near an Australian RE8 aeroplane.  [AWM E02038]

Len Chase then began the job that he had been sent out to do - the registering of one of our batteries onto a target behind Hamel, while I passed away the time studying silhouettes of aircraft.  This went on until mid-day, when it was time for the final task.  We side-slipped to two thousand feet and Chase dropped the bombs on Hamel, while I fired a drum from my Lewis-gun along one of the German trenches.  Then we headed for home, while I wound up the aerial.  Chase made a three-point landing, and we found we had time for a wash and a change before lunch.

After a few flights, I settled down to the routine of the various kinds of patrols.  France was a beautiful country when seen from the air, with the scenery changing from day to day as the troops moved forward...

On August 8th, 1918, what may be termed the final advance of the Allied Armies began.  This was the first time that all of the Australian Divisions were congregated together.  In this battle, instead of each particular Division taking its objective, and then moving on to the next, another division leapfrogged them and continued on with the advance.  During the battle this occurred three times.

The squadron was detailed on contact patrols and reconnaissance flights to report back to the Central Wireless Station.  The whole operation was very successful, and some of our aircrew, after completing their morning patro1, had a double turn of duty by flying the afternoon patrols as well.

Our squadron was complimented by Group Headquarters on the good work and the vital information that they sent back to H.Q.

Observing all those battles of July, August, and September, was rather different from marching forward on the ground.  Here was something that would never again be seen in the evolution of war.  Probably only the men who served in the air forces were able to view most of these movements in their entirety.  These operations were the end of an era; they marked a stage in the transition from the pace of a horse to the swifter progress of mechanised war.

As we flew to the forward area, we saw all of it spread out below us, a panorama denied to the men on the ground.  First there was the motor transport crowding the long straight roads and bringing up the stores and ammunition to the dumps.  Then there were the tractors hauling the heavy guns forward after each engagement.  The field artillery, however, had still to gallop their horse-drawn batteries into action. 

https://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/ART03152.JPG
Going in through Sailly-le-Sec, 1918.  [AWM Copyright ART03152, by Louis McCubbin]

The infantry continued to advance in artillery formation or extended order.

But the fighting men had learned at last to trust the (now) deadly machines that had come to their aid.  These were the tanks, crawling like beetles over the terrain.  No longer were barbed wire and trenches great obstacles to the attackers. These armoured vehicles made light work of such defences.   They crushed wire and crossed the trenches, with the infantry following in their wakes, to storm the former impregnable barriers of the German lines.

ART12208
Somme area battlefield; Australian infantry, supported by horse drawn artillery and two Mark IV male tanks,
moving towards front line.   This depicts part of the Allied offensive of 8 August 1918. 
[AWM Copyright ART12208, by Septimus Power]

To keep pace with the advance, the Squadron aerodrome was moved forward; first to Glisy, than to Proyart, and again to Bouvincourt (a few miles beyond Péronne).  The Squadron was equipped with numerous Leyland lorries, Crossley tenders, and motor bikes with side-cars for use of the personnel.  Each officer was on duty for four days and then had a day's rest.  Crossley tenders were put to good use on rest days.

Early in September a new aeroplane was delivered to the Squadron.  It was a Bristol Fighter and Captain Wackett was detailed to pilot this machine on its first flight over the lines, and I was detailed as his observer.  We flew over the line and Wackett set off in the general direction of St. Quentin, as if he was going to fly on to Germany.  - This probably on account of the extra speed and manoeuvrability of the Bristol Fighter, which was one of the best planes that was ever used on the Western Front. 

I had one more flight in the Bristol Fighter, when we made a reconnaissance survey and took photographs of the German line.  Then I was relegated back to the RE8s and went on with the usual routine of squadron flying.

To view the battles from the air was really a magnificent sight.  The troops advanced in artillery formation and had very little trouble in taking their objectives.  (This may sound easier than it was, because they were suffering casualties.)

Some of our planes were detailed to drop boxes of ammunition onto the forward lines of infantry as they advanced.  Our plane dropped four boxes with little parachutes attached and although we didn't actually see the infantry pick them up, our last sight of them indicated that they were going in the right direction.  It was reported afterwards that this was a great success, and was of much help to the infantry in that it saved their carrying parties quite a lot of dangerous work carrying these boxes forward to where they were needed.

On 18th September we were detailed, along with three other crews, to drop smoke bombs on the line in front of our infantry, who were being held up by a strong defence from the enemy.  The bombs were dropped and we could see from the air that as they exploded, they made an almost continuous line in front of the battalion that was attacking, and they made a very effective screen to hide our troops from the enemy.  Although it was hard to pick them out, we could see the small figures that were our infantry advancing right up to that wall of smoke, and some were plunging into it to go through and surprise the enemy...


Smoke-bombs exploding (pictures from the Watson Collection.)

A further sequence of events brought my small part in the war to a close.  In September the Australian Government decided to withdraw all of the original soldiers of the Australian Imperial Forces who were still fighting with their regiments, to repatriate them to Australia.  So far as I was aware at that time, I was the only original Anzac then in the aircrew of the Squadron.  It was therefore a happy occasion when one morning I received orders to report to Bray-sur-Somme, where these "Originals" were being collected for the journey.  The transport officer detailed a Crossley tender to take me to the camp.

When I reported to the Adjutant at Bray, I told him I did not want to proceed direct from there to Australia, but would like to go first to England for certain personal reasons.  He suggested that I spend the night in the camp, and put the matter to the Brigadier in the morning.  I found a few old friends there and spent a pleasant evening with them.

In the morning, the Brigadier said he could not help me, but if I returned to the Squadron, no doubt my Commanding Officer would fix things up for me.  He was kind enough to lend me a car to take me back to Bouvincourt, where I told troubles to Major Blake, the Squadron C.O.

"Very well, Prince," he said, "I'll see what I can do for you.  In the meantime, you can fly with Lieutenant Deans on the afternoon patrol."

This took me aback a little, but orders were orders, and I was in no position to argue with him.  Geoffrey Deans and I had dropped a few smoke bombs for the infantry a few days previously, and I knew he was good.  At 1400 hours on 26th September, Geoff and I took off for our flip over Hunland.  That morning the Australians had attacked two outposts of the Hindenburg Line on the canal at the Bellicourt Tunnel.   Our detail was a counter-attack patrol; this entailed flying between Bellicourt and Bellenglise to report any enemy movements in the sector. 

We cruised to and fro at two thousand feet, about a mile or so into enemy territory.  It was a clear autumn day with good visibility.  We could see plenty of movement on the roads towards St. Quentin.  We had to dodge a lot of fire from the German 'Archies' [anti-aircraft guns], but that was always part of the day's work on a counter-attack patrol.  High up above, at ten to fifteen thousand feet, many formations of scouts were cruising around on their own mysterious missions.

REL/21239.003
Observer's flying goggles, No.3 Squadron AFC, 1918.

Three hours went by and the patrol ended.  We dropped the bombs and I fired a drum from the Lewis along a road.  Geoff made a climbing turn over Bellenglise, and headed for home.  Then suddenly in the blue sky above us there appeared a flight of hostile aircraft; five Pfalz scouts in vee-formation, with their wings glistening in the afternoon sunshine.  I swung the Lewis in the mounting and fired a burst in their direction.  They came diving at us, however, as if they meant business.  They had the speed on us and were soon over our tail.  Geoff gave a reassuring pat on my shoulder, then turned and settled down to the controls.

Their leader opened fire, but missed us altogether, as his dive passed us by.  The bursts from the second one were going into the port wing and ripping the fabric from the frame.  The bullets from the next one tore into our fuselage, knocking splinters from the longeron near my arm.  All the bursts were going into the port side, the tracers flashing as they hit the wing.  The reason for this was that Geoff had taken evasive action by putting the bus into a slight starboard bank over a wide arc, which spoilt the aim of the attackers.

All of this time, of course, I had not been idle; I fired at each one as he approached.  An aerial combat was a speedy affair, counted by seconds rather than minutes; I fired in bursts of ten rounds, steadily, making sure to get them properly in the ring sight.  The drum rattled empty, so I fed on a full one.

One Hun was below our tail, searching for a blind-spot, and there was not much I could do about him without the danger of shooting off our own tailplane or rudder.  Suddenly I felt a hard blow on my thigh.  I reached down to touch the wound and my hand was covered with blood.  I could clearly see the face of the Hun as his Pfalz went by.  I touched my head to indicate to Geoff that I had been hit, but in doing so I left some of the blood on my face.  He looked grim, as he thought I had been shot in the head. 

RELAWM04805
A Pfalz D.XII Scout Aircraft in the AWM Collection

The Huns' bursts seemed to be tearing us to pieces.  I huddled down in the cockpit, feeling very tired and alone; but it was not yet time for despair, as the two most vital parts of the machine, the pilot and the petrol tank, were still intact.  Some of the Pfalz Scouts were wheeling to come back at us again.  Then there was a flick, like the lash of a whip, across the calf of my leg, and this, strange to say, aroused me to anger.  I thought, "A man may as well die fighting..." so I stood up and swung the gun.  The drum was empty, so I plucked it from the gun and flung it at a Hun flying alongside us.  I clamped on a full drum and fired at him as he wheeled away. 

Another plane loomed in the ring sight.  - "I'll get him," I thought... 

Then he dipped his wing and I could see the red, white and blue cockade on his wing.  It was Captain Francis and Sturgeon from our Squadron, coming to the rescue!   I looked around me and the sky was full of aircraft, in a scene of whirling dogfights.  Then my sight blurred and I faded away...

I opened my eyes and looked up at the kindly face of Ted McCarty, our medical orderly.  I was lying on a stretcher in front of his tent.  Geoff had managed to bring his bus safely back to earth.  Ted had bandaged my wounds; he leant over me with a glass in his hand.

"Would you like a drink, Mr. Prince?" he asked.

"My word I would!" I gasped, with a thought of brandy in my mind.

"Here, drink this,'' he said - and gave me a dose of sal-volatile [smelling salts]!

A crowd of airmen stood around us.

"I'll get to Blighty now, Major!" I said to the C.O.

"I'm sure you will Tom," he replied.

The squadron ambulance took me to the Casualty Clearing Station.  I faded away again.  I awoke to see a nurse giving me a blood transfusion.  She told me that the doctors had operated on me and removed the bullets from my wounds.

Those capable people of the Royal Army Medical Corps had taken me into their gentle care.  By easy stages on the ambulance trains and a few days in hospital at Rouen, I came to rest at Bryanston Square in London. 

Then, on Armistice Day, there was an end to it all...

 

ART19592
Rejoicing and remembrance, Armistice Day, London - 11 November 1918.
[AWM Copyright ART19592  by Vida Lahey]

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