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An Interview with James Leybourne (Lee) Smith, D.F.C.

 3rd Squadron, Australian Flying Corps

Members of the Australian Society of World War One Aero Historians, Eric Watson and Bill Ruxton, conducted an interview with Lee Smith prior to his death in 1973.  
After flying with
3 Squadron, A.F.C. in WWI, Lee also served with the R.A.A.F. during WWII as Camp Commandant of Air Force H.Q. in Melbourne, Victoria, attaining the rank of Wing Commander.

Q. What events led up to your enlistment as a flying officer in the AFC?

At the outbreak of WWI, I was in hospital recovering from a badly injured right leg - the result of a collision between my motor cycle and a Bondi tram. When released from the hospital, I made several attempts to enlist, but was rejected on each occasion for medical reasons, as my leg was in pretty poor shape ... It was about an inch shorter than the other leg.

Eventually, on 11 Jan 1916, I was accepted into the army as a signaller, and since I had been an amateur wireless-operator enthusiast, I was soon able to transfer to the Wireless Section for training with their portable key-operated equipment, in use at the time.  My unit, the No.1 Pack, Wireless Troop, set off for Mesopotamia late in 1916, but during the stop-over in Fremantle, W.A., I again hurt my leg and came very close to losing it when gangrene set in.  The doctors at the Fremantle Base Hospital performed a minor miracle to save it, but by the time I was fit again, my unit had sailed for overseas.  I made my way back to the east.

I knew that the AFC were looking for ground wireless operators, so I applied and was accepted for training at Point Cook in Victoria.  I eventually went to England with an Australian group (what the RFC quickly called the 69th Squadron RFC) that later became 3 Squadron AFC.  Once in England, the opportunity came to train as a flying officer, and after a series of tests during which I did my best to hide my gammy leg, I was passed as suited for pilot training.  So I parted company once more with my comrades, who went from there to France, while I reported to Queen's College in Oxford to do a course in the theory and fundamentals of flight.  At the conclusion of this, we sat for an examination to decide whether we were to continue as trainee pilots or be kicked back into the ranks.

 

Q. What can you tell us about your flying training?

I commenced pilot training at Thetford on 31 August 1917 on Maurice Farman Shorthorn machines.  After 5 hours and 20 minutes of dual instruction, I did my first solo flight and within a few days was posted to Narborough for more advanced instruction as well as training in aerial photography, gunnery & bombing.  I also did a short course in artillery observation and reconnaissance work.

During this period we flew Avro 504's - very nice aircraft to fly - BE2Es, D.H.6s, and R.E.8s.  The accident rate was very high at these training depots and an extensive maintenance programme was necessary to keep sufficient machines in the air.  I witnessed many crashes, mostly attributable to faulty landing techniques ... which often resulted in fire and serious injury to the occupants.

After logging a total of 49 hours solo flying time, I was commissioned 2nd. Lieutenant and on 9 December 1917 sent to Yatesbury as a flying instructor - an occupation probably more hazardous than operational flying at the Front.  I don't recall being unduly worried at the time, as I was pretty fatalistic about these things in those days.

There were plenty of opportunities during this period for 'joy-flights', meaning to pay social visits to other training establishments or to call on members of the fairer sex and we suffered many 'forced landings' near large country estates.  These were extremely popular as the local squire would invariably invite you to be his guest for afternoon tea, or even dinner with, hopefully, his daughters.

 

Q. When and where were you posted to operational flying?

I was posted to 3 Squadron AFC, which was then at Bailleul in France.  I arrived there about 27th February 1918, with about 100 hours flying time to my credit.  We flew RE8s, which were not considered difficult to fly once they had been correctly rigged and balanced.  The inherent stability of this type of aircraft is demonstrated by the well-known incident in which 3 Squadron's Lieutenant Sandy and his observer, Sergeant Hughes, after being killed by a single enemy bullet while flying operationally in their RE8, remained airborne until their aircraft eventually ran out of juice and made a reasonably gentle crash-landing.

The RE8 was reasonably manoeuverable, but very difficult to loop, as were most 2-seaters.  I remember Lieutenant McKenna performing this feat on one occasion despite standing orders to the contrary.   He was an excellent pilot and a very easy-going fellow, and would not have been much upset by the official reprimand.

We usually flew the same aircraft all the time unless of course it was in the workshop for maintenance or repair.  Then we'd use whichever machine was available.  They were just like motor cars - we could feel the difference in the handling characteristics between these and our regular mounts, the peculiarities of which we had become accustomed to.

My regular RE8 (No.C.2275 - Squadron Code Letter: "R") was the standard olive green colour, and on the fuselage I painted the head of a fictitious pre-historic monster which I had christened 'Pyancus' - a name by which my fellow pilots now came to know me.   I even carved and used a walking stick from the remains of a busted propeller, with a 'Pyancus' head as the grip-handle to add to the illusion.

Q. What was the nature of your flying duties?

I was attached to C Flight, which engaged usually in Contact Patrol work, the purpose of which was to maintain contact with ground forces, and to map the Front Line and troop movements.  These flights were carried out at all hours, from early morning to late evening - possibly because of the long twilights - and at low levels - from 40 to 1,000 feet.

We also did some light bombing and strafing; and then, of course, came in for a great deal of heavy ground fire.  In the half light of dawn, you could clearly see the tracers arch up - it was a fascinating sight in spite of the obvious dangers.  Plotting of the front line and troop movements was done on large-scale maps supplied by a special army unit.   When engaged in artillery ranging and shooting, we used the 'clock-face' method; the information was relayed by the observer to a ground-wireless operator by Morse key.  We simply flew round over the target area reporting the results of the shoot to the artillery battery after each few rounds.

Aerial photography was another important aspect of the job.  In addition to the observer's vertically-mounted camera, there was another one fitted under the wing, with a Bowden control to expose and change the plates.  This allowed us to take oblique photographs showing ground contours, installations and other features.  On returning to base, we made verbal reports to the Recording Officer, Lt. Niven, on what we had observed, enemy aircraft encountered, bombings and strafings carried out, rounds fired and so on.  He was responsible for maintaining such records as well as logging our flight times and other data.


An oblique photo taken from Lee Smith's plane of German territory south of Mourlancourt in the Somme Valley.  Note the trenches and shell-scars across the fields.
Photo dated 27 June 1918, just prior to the successful Battle of Hamel (4 July).

Q. What were living conditions like at these French airfields?

At Bailleul, we were comfortably quartered in heated huts, divided into rooms housing one or more men each, depending upon rank, duties, and space available.  Of course we moved about a lot, covering various sectors of the Front, and at the forward bases, conditions were a bit primitive.  All personnel were housed in tents, and the aircraft in canvas hangers.  We did usually have a Nissan hut for meals and relaxation.  Living conditions were generally dependant upon prevailing circumstances.

 

Q. What was your opinion of your own and of the enemy's armaments?

Our armaments were generally quite reliable and I personally did not experience much trouble with jammed machine guns which reflects a lot of credit on the Armaments Officer and ground crew.  When the guns were issued we checked their accuracy on the practice range before flying a mission, and of course we had to be careful not to 'drive' too fast for the Constantinesco Gear could get out of gear and damage the prop.

'Archie', the enemy Ack-Ack fire, was treated with respect by all who had experienced accurate shooting.  Certain of the Archie batteries had the reputation of being more accurate than others so I always took care to stay away from these as far as possible.  I still have, as souvenirs, several pieces of shrapnel which blew the bottom out of my engine sump on the mission I flew on 30 March 1918.  Fortunately I was at about 4,000 feet and had the good luck to be able to glide back after the engine seized.


FIRST WORLD WAR TRENCH GRID MAP.   Maps like this, mounted on 3 ply, were typically standard cockpit-aids used by RE8 pilots
for navigation reconnaissance flights over enemy sectors (e.g. sector ED).  This map, whilst it was housed in a side pocket of Lieut.  Smith's RE8,
was holed by the photographed steel balls of shrapnel which finished up rolling around the cockpit floor, after having also nicked one of his flying boots.

Ground fire was usually very intensive at ground level, and we all received bullet holes in our aircraft.  But, unless any vital parts were hit, these were just covered over with a fabric patch.  We took a measure of pride in the number of patches displayed on our particular aircraft.  Engine failures sometimes provided some excitement.  My fourth flight in France on 9 March 1918 terminated when my engine cut out and I was forced to land at Bailleul cemetery.  A few days later the same thing occurred, and though we got back to the field this time, I had to pancake to miss a ditch and managed to wipe off the undercart.  Then on 1 April 1918, engine failure caused me to crash near Diccibush Lake.  I got a new aeroplane after that.

 

Q. Can you comment on the flying gear worn at the time?

In the air we wore long, heavy, leather coats with felt lining and thigh-length boots of calf-skin with wool lining.  They were very warm and afforded a surprising amount of protection as well.  On one occasion I was hit on the side of the leg by a partially spent bullet.  It failed to penetrate the boot but knocked my leg up and hit me under the chin.  On another occasion, my observer at that time, 'Dad' Withers, had the tail of his leather coat peppered by an explosive bullet, and was saved from what could have been an embarrassing as well as painful wound.  I consider that this gear was much superior to the Sidcott suits issued to RFC pilots.

 

Q. Did you encounter enemy aircraft regularly?

As we were engaged mostly in low flying, we did not meet up with enemy aircraft regularly.  I had the occasional scraps and the summary in my Log Book credits me with a Hun machine, but I cannot recall details of the incident.  Types usually seen in our sector were Albatros, Fokker biplanes and Fokker triplanes.  In spite of their reputation, we were not unduly scared of them as the old RE8 could put up a jolly good fight with its front synchronised gun and the observer's Lewis gun to defend the tail.

Most of the enemy machines I saw were pretty drab in colour and markings.  I do not recall having seen any with the 'Lozenge' type of camouflage at close range but we occasionally did see some with bright wavy or straight lines on them.

I was with 3 Squadron at the time of the incident involving Sandy and Hughes and I also remember the occasion on which Lt. Armstrong brought back a Halberstadt two-seater to our field at Flesselles.  We were naturally surprised to see the German machine coming in to land till we noticed that one of our own aircraft was shepherding him down.

P00394.013
1918-06, FLESSELLES.  GERMAN HALBERSTADT CL II AIRCRAFT, NUMBER 15342/17, THAT WAS FORCED TO LAND BY LIEUTENANTS ARMSTRONG AND MART OF NO. 3 SQUADRON AUSTRALIAN FLYING CORPS.  
IT WAS LATER PRESENTED TO THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT AS A WAR TROPHY AND WAS GIVEN TO THE TASMANIAN GOVERNMENT. 
[Later destroyed in a fire while stored outside Melbourne Exhibition Building.  Photo AWM
P00394.013
]

Q. What was morale like at these forward bases?

I can only speak for myself of course, but I was very much aware of the dangers involved, and realised that I was sticking my neck out every time I flew.  We certainly treated the war as a serious business, but I think the most of us took the fatalistic point of view about it - 'If your name was on the bullet, you collected it.'

I don't remember seeing anyone suffering from mental stress or battle fatigue, as it was later termed.

Occasionally, during off-duty hours, we'd let off steam by sight-seeing behind the lines or by visiting nearby squadrons.  We came home from these affairs pretty merry and carefree, but were expected to be on the job as usual the next morning.

If we lost a flying mate, we gathered in the mess for a quiet drink to his memory; but we certainly did not indulge in the smash-up binge so often attributed to these occasions in novels about the war.

A large part of outside time was also allotted to preparation for forthcoming patrols and attending to any of the ground duties allotted to us by the C.O.

 

Q. Did you meet any of the well-know Aces?

Yes.  On 1 June 1918, we received an invitation to visit the famous 'Stork' Squadron and while there I met Rene Fonck.  I also knew the Australian Ace, Captain Cobby of 4 Squadron.

Q. Did you ever have any contact with Richthofen or his 'Circus'?

I saw them in the air a few days before his end but I was not personally involved in any close action but I, like a few other chaps from 3 Squadron, had a long range exchange of shots with him.

On 21 April 1918, I was ordered to take a party of men to the scene of Richthofen's fatal crash near Sailly-le-Sec.  We went in a Crossley Tender and on arrival found the aircraft already badly damaged by the crowd of troops and French civilians who had been procuring souvenirs.  


The shredded wreck of the Red Baron's triplane after being transported to the 3AFC aerodrome.  Identified personnel: (L to R) Lt G. W. Gray (RE8 Observer); Lt. F. J. Mant (Observer);
Lt. N. Mulroney (Pilot); Lt. A. V. Barrow (Observer - accompanying pilot Lt. D. G. Garrett, Barrow was involved in the combat over Le Hamel on 21 April with the Red Baron's "Flying Circus");
Lt. T. L. Ballieu (Pilot); Lt. R . W. Kirkwood (Observer); Lt. A. E. Grigson (Pilot); Lt. M. Sheehan (Pilot).  [Others to the right of the guard unidentified.  AWM E02044.]

I have a small piece of plywood myself taken from the leading edge of one of the triplane's wings.

[Further detail of what happened, according to Lt. Lee Smith's two written statements, now held by his son Neil, is:
"My party reached Richthofen's plane in the dusk of 21st.  By then the area was being shelled by the Germans. I sent one of the men, I think named Collins, crawling out with a hook attached to a steel hawser and this he fastened to the plane.  He returned and we hooked it up to the Crossley Tender and dragged the kite into our keeping.  We removed the body and laid it out in the tender."
- 3 Squadron Air Mechanic Colin C. Collins was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery under fire in this recovery.]

We took the aircraft and the body back to our field, and, after filling the wounds with wax, we laid him out to be photographed by the medical orderly, McCarty.  As I recall, the wounds were located on one side of his back and fairly high up on his chest.  There were no wounds on the lower part of the body though I think his chin and right cheek were badly bruised - probably as a result of the aeroplane hitting the ground.   And although none of us were sufficiently qualified to establish the exact direction of the path of the bullet, it was in general agreed by all present that the fatal shot had been fired upward from the ground rather than in a horizontal or downward direction.  The body was buried in the village cemetery at Bertangles close to our base.  It was a very lavish send-off and though I did not take part in the ceremonies, I watched it all from the sidelines.  I think amnesty was allowed to a German aircraft to fly over and drop a wreath soon after.

 

Q. Were you still on active service at the time of the Armistice?

No; on 10 August 1918, I took off with my Observer, Lt. Oscar Witcombe, on a contact patrol near Vauvillers.  We flew at heights ranging from 1,000 feet down to 20 feet, and, as usual, came in for a lot of attention from the enemy ground gunners.

I was hit in the left ankle by a machine gun bullet but able to get the machine down onto the shell-pitted ground below.

Whilst in a field hospital, Lt. Lee Smith received a letter dated 15 August 1918 from his observer, Lt. Oscar Witcombe who was also in the RE8 when it went down.  His letter reads:

Sorry to hear your ankle gave you so much pain.  I was damned sorry I missed you after going over to Headquarters to ring up to give them our position, which was 1,000 yards closer to the front line than you thought.  They got the message at the Squadron at 7.30am which was 'toot suite'.  I waited around the dressing station for 15 minutes but you were evidently sent to another one.  I got back to the Squadron about noon and the old "Py" [short for "Pyancus"] was flown back to the aerodrome by Army [short for Lt. R. C. Armstrong, DFC] at 3pm.  She was shot about a bit and had one through the longeron, so packed off for a new one - she was a good old bus and had a good spin.  I'm glad the dual [control] came in handy - the first thing I thought of.  I thought probably you were shot elsewhere besides the ankle at the time and was well onto the stick and ready to do a pukka pancake with my hand on the throttle should you have fainted - however, you managed her as nobody else could have under the circumstances and all I'm worrying about now is that you are away.  I'll be flying with Foale [Lt. H. S. Foale] now I suppose, but I'm afraid, Smithy, that you've rather spoilt me for flying with anyone else as I will never have the confidence in anyone as I had in you - I also consider myself very much indebted to you for bringing me through the stunt as you did.


Lee Smith and his Observer, Oscar Witcombe, in a 3 Squadron RE8.

I was sent back to a hospital at St. Omer, near the French Coast, for a while; and from there to Wansworth Hospital, London, to convalesce.  Now I had two 'gammy' legs, and I was hobbling around on a walking stick when the Armistice was signed.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had been recommended for a D.F.C. by Major Blake, the C.O.  It was presented to me at an investiture at Centennial Park in Sydney by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and subsequently Duke of Windsor) during his Australian visit in 1920.

Summary of the 3 Squadron AFC War Diary, from details in Lt. Smith's Log Book:

LIEUT. J. L. SMITH to 10.8.18, when wounded in action.
 

HOURS FLOWN:      

ENGLAND          162 

WAR FLYING    198

TOTAL HOURS: 360

 

PATROLS                                       104

PHOTOGRAPHIC FLIGHTS       54

SUCCESSFUL SHOOTS                 4

CONTACT PATROLS                     9

AERIAL COMBATS                         7
( 1 Hun)

Signed: C.A. Niven (Lt.)
R. O.  3rd Squadron  A.F.C.

Recommendation for Immediate Award of Distinguished Flying Cross.
[Text of the official document.]

    Lieut. James Lee Smith, Pilot,  3rd Squadron, Australian Flying Corps.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.~

On 8.8.18 this officer carried out Contact Patrol in the vicinity of MORCOURT.  As the line in this locality was moving forward in open warfare, Lieut.Smith descended to a low altitude, established its position by recognition of tanks and groups of men.  He flew for one hour under conditions of bad visibility over the advancing line and brought back a very useful report.

On 9.8.18 in the vicinity of MERICOURT-PROYART he flew for nearly two hours under very heavy machine-gun fire, established the position of the line and dropped messages at Divisional and Corps Headquarters containing this information together with much other useful information.

On 10.8.18 south-east of VAUVILLERS, he flew on Contact Patrol for over two hours, descended to a low altitude establishing the position of our line by recognition of our troops, groups of men, handkerchiefs waving, and other means.  During the whole of this time he was under heavy fire and was eventually wounded in the left ankle, receiving a severe and painful wound which compelled him to immediately land his machine.  This he managed without damaging it, though the landing had to be made on shelled country.   The machine was flown back subsequently to the Aerodrome by another pilot.

This officer's service in this squadron has been marked by courage, determination and cheerfulness.  His influence and example on his brother officers have been markedly beneficial.

This officer has been previously recommended for immediate reward on 28.7.18

Copy of this previous correspondence attached.

(Signed) David Blake, Major.

Commanding 3rd Squadron A.F.C.

In the Field 13.8.18

Several weeks after Lee Smith was hospitalised, a new pilot, Lt J. Clifford Peel arrived at 3 Squadron as a replacement pilot. 
Peel's story is also remarkable - he was the flyer who suggested a viable "Flying Doctor Service" to the Reverend John Flynn, back in Australia.

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