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Watercolour by Arthur Streeton of a 3 Squadron R.E.8. (1918)
Australian War Historian, Charles Bean, wrote:
“ANZAC stood, and still stands for, reckless valour in a good cause. For enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat.”
Confrontation for Australia started at dawn, 94 years ago today, on the shores of Gallipoli. A failure in military terms, but it is where the ANZAC Legend had its beginning. Action lasted for eight months until the withdrawal from the Gallipoli Peninsular in December 1915. As the Diggers left those shores, they could never have imagined what lay ahead. The Australians regrouped in Egypt before moving to England, to consolidate and re-train. By March and June 1916, they had transferred to France and Belgium...
Today, I would like to talk to you about my father, Nigel Love, and his involvement, as an officer of the Australian Flying Corps, in the critical and decisive battle phase of the First World War; Somme, France.
Born at Kurrajong NSW in January 1892 and educated at Sydney Boys' High School, he enlisted at the age of 23 with the First A.I.F. [Australian Imperial Force] in July 1915. Within a month of his scheduled embarkation to Gallipoli with the Fifth Reinforcements of the 18th Battalion, Dad became one of 24 successful applicants (out of 213) selected to join the newly-formed State Aviation School at Ham Common. (Today, the RAAF Richmond Air Base.) Granted Army leave, he joined the first intake under Chief Instructor Billy Stutt, in what he later said was one of the most interesting periods of his life.
This was the pioneering era of aviation:
■ Flimsy machines made of wood, canvas and wire.
■ Flying, and the Theory of Flight, had just started to evolve.
■ They were the 'magnificent men in their flying machines'.
Gaining his wings, he was posted to the newly-formed Australian Flying Corps, with a Commission and instructions to proceed overseas. (Of the 24 men accepted into the course, only 19 received pilot's certificates, and only the ten best of these, including dad, received officer's commissions.) On arrival in England, he was consigned to the Central Flying School, to receive further instruction from some of the world’s top aviators and to have the opportunity to fly the latest 'scouts' (single-seater aircraft) including SE.5s, SE.5As and Sopwith Camels. This honed his skills to eventually face with confidence the daily aerial combats and dog-fights that were taking place over the Western Front.
Aerobatics became a way of life. My father recalled…
I was on early-morning flying and there was a fellow in a ‘Sopwith Pup’ up about four thousand feet, practicing looping. He had completed several loops when suddenly his machine collapsed, the wings folded back and the remains struck the ground.
Five people were killed on that particular training day.
For those early pilots, their survival rate was low. What confounded my father was that although the parachute had been fully developed and trialled, the Air Ministry in London would not allow its use. They feared that aircraft would be unnecessarily jettisoned. As a consequence, this added to the high loss of life.
After graduating as an officer trained by the Royal Flying Corps, December 1917 saw his posting to the Front Line with 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, at Bailleul, near Ypres, Flanders.
This reconnaissance squadron operated in conjunction with the Australian divisions, and flew R.E.8 aircraft from inception. [Converting to Bristol Fighters at the end of hostilities.] The R.E.8 was a very unstable aircraft, a fact well-known amongst pilots who had flown the machine for some hours. Armament was a Vickers Machine Gun, fitted with an ingenious cam gear, which enabled the Pilot to shoot through the four-bladed propeller. The rear cockpit had twin Lewis Machine Guns, set-up on a "Scarff" mounting, operated by the Observer.
The temporary airfields in Flanders changed regularly and were positioned just behind the infantry battle lines. They were no more than rough paddocks. The Trench Warfare of attrition was at its worst.
At the time of Dad’s arrival, the conflict had been a stalemate for some 18 months, with both sides suffering unbelievable losses. The big move came when one million Germans were repositioned to the Somme, France, following their withdrawal from the Russian Campaign, after the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. This posed a huge threat.
The Germans were intent on making a push for Paris, with Amiens, the key rail junction, as the initial prime objective and then over the Channel to England.
Several critical changes happened in quick succession in April 1918.
■ 3rd Squadron was hurriedly moved from Flanders, in the north, to the Somme, close to Amiens, in company with the Australian Army Corps, (five divisions).
■ Bertangles was established as the H.Q. of Major General Sir John Monash, who had been given overall command of the Australian Forces.
The air space over the Somme was dominated by the Germans, led by their air ace Captain Baron von Richthofen and his 'Flying Circus'. (The name given because of the range of different colours painted on their squadron aircraft.) Australian pilots were warned, "Beware of the Hun in the Sun." - A manoeuvre often used by the Red Baron with considerable success.
The big psychological news came on 21 April 1918 that the Red Baron had been shot down over Australian Lines. I will read from Dad’s personal war diary…
Sunday 21 April 1918 - Warmford, the Executive Officer, brought the Baron’s body back to the Squadron at about 7.00pm. A number of us walked up to the Transport Park after dinner to examine him. Had several bullets thru his head and two or three in his body. 1
Monday 22 April 1918 - Baron Von Richthofen’s ‘bus’ was salvaged. I secured two or three souvenirs from the ‘bus’ which was smashed to bits in the crash. His machine was a tri-plane and painted red all over with Black Cross markings.
A big attack on the part of the ‘Hun’ is expected here shortly.
Such was the respect for the Baron from the Australians that they gave him a full military funeral at Bertangles Cemetery, erecting crossed R.E.8 propeller blades at the grave-head.
The German Spring Offensive continued. On the 24th of April 1918, the British Lines were over-run at Villers Bretonneux by the sheer weight of the German forces that were making the push to Amiens. In a brilliantly-executed manoeuvre, the Australians on the evening of ANZAC Day, 25 April 1918, re-took Villers Bretonneux. 2 It was to be a key turning-point of the War. Germany did not advance further west - ever again.
Dad wrote in his autobiography…
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.
He went on to say…
Regular duty assigned to air crew of a 'Corps Squadron', was for continuous ‘line patrol’. It involved a machine flying up and down the whole of the Corps front, during daylight hours, at about 8,000 feet, taking photographs with a camera fitted to the observer’s cockpit. We used to call this patrol a ‘Spark Crawl’ --- and would be about two and a half hours over the lines.
Your main duty on this patrol was to spot the enemy gun-flashes and to communicate this information to the ‘Counter-Battery Staff Officer’. Catching an enemy battery red-handed, and carrying out an impromptu ‘destructive’ shoot, would be appreciated by the boys at Staff Headquarters.
When things were slow, we would drop down to zero level, emptying our machine guns on the trenches, or enemy transport behind the lines. This was somewhat ‘sticky’ business, but it was our job and it did break the monotony.
My father said of one mission over the Somme Lines...
“We had made one or two successful runs in formation; when we were suddenly attacked without warning by six enemy Albatross scouts. They came at us on our own level and opened fire pretty early at a fairly good distance away. The 'dog fight' was on.
After a lapse of time I noticed that Rees’ machine started a 'spinning nose dive' towards the ground, disappearing below clouds at about 6000 feet, with the enemy diving vertically on his tail pouring in 'tracer'. The scrap having concluded, I shut my engine off and spiralled down to the wreck on the ground. Amazingly, the crew did survive, though with serious injuries.
On returning to base, examination of our machine revealed just how close our encounter really was. Both wings had been shot through to the main spars and the rear of the Observer cockpit had received a burst of rounds.
Over coming weeks, ascendancy of the airspace swung in the Allies' favour, which was timely for the next major Australian attack, to take the high ground of Hamel which overlooked the Somme. It was the brilliance of Monash, now promoted to Lieutenant-General and in full command - with his talent for meticulous planning and new battle tactics - that set the stage for the town’s capture and for the coming end to the War. History was in the making. This was the first time where concentrated artillery, tanks spearheading the advance of the infantry, and aircraft were brought together in a coordinated thrust.
The horrendous loss of life that had been seen in trench warfare was dramatically reduced. The highly successful battle tactic became the blue-print for the next series of advances - the final breaching of the Hindenburg Line. The Australian capture of Hamel on 4 July 1918 was a huge achievement and is generally acknowledged as an outstanding battle of WWI. So great was this gain, and the following decisive Battle of Amiens in August, that King George V knighted Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash in the field. (The first time that an English Monarch had honoured a commander in this way in over 200 years.)
German General Ludendorff called it, "the Black Day of the German Army".
It was during this period that my father contracted Pneumonia. As his condition continued to deteriorate without the aid of modern-day drugs, he was invalided to a hospital in Paris and thence to London Hospital. Such was life on the Western Front; he experienced a close brush with fate on more than one occasion. He became the oldest serving member of 3 Squadron, with 200 hours over the lines. (The average survival time for Corps pilots at the Front was 60 hours.)
After a period of convalescence and a return to active duties, he was assigned to the Royal Air Force Ferry Pool and as an instructor at the Australian Flying Corps home squadrons in Gloucestershire. His ‘Army Pilot’s Flying Log Book’ recorded a total of 434 flying hours.
Menu cover designed by Nigel Love for the Squadron's celebration dinner in London,
before they were repatriated to Australia.
Following the Armistice, his thoughts turned to life after repatriation. Before leaving England and with an eye to the future, he negotiated with A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd. ('AVRO') a contract for the sole agency in Australia for the sale and manufacture of its aircraft. On arriving home in Sydney in July 1919, he set about searching for a suitable aerodrome.
Dad was to become one of Australia’s early pioneer aviators, with a number of 'firsts':
■ He personally selected the site at Mascot for the aerodrome, now Sydney Airport. It was a flat area containing a number of paddocks, grazing sheep and cattle; surrounded by Chinese market gardens on one side, and Botany Bay on the other.
■ Established Australia’s first aircraft-manufacturing company.
■ Sold the first six Australian-made AVRO 504K aircraft to the RAAF.
■ Built the first commercial (civil) plane in Australia with local materials, the B-6, a five-passenger biplane.
■ Flew the first passenger from Sydney Airport.
■ Sold Qantas its first aircraft, an AVRO 504K. - Sir Hudson Fysh, the founder, was a wartime friend and an ex-AFC officer.
■ Pioneered a number of 'first-ever' flights - barnstorming throughout the country areas of Australia.
(This latter aviation period is a story for another time...3)
The call of duty again came in WWII. As a Wing Commander, he took charge of training air cadets in New South Wales. Age precluded him from active service overseas.
And so it is, that we gather here today,
…To remember and reflect...
…On the sacrifice...
…And to renew a debt of gratitude.
In Villers Bretonneux, the village displays the words (translated);
"Let us never forget Australia."
ANZAC …and all that it means to our great Nation... is a Legend.
- Lest We Forget -
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