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Watercolour by Arthur Streeton of R.E.8. aircraft "N" of 3 Squadron A.F.C. (1918)
On 6 December 1917, Captain W. H. Anderson, with Lieutenant J. R. Bell as observer, took off from Bailleul in R.E.8 Serial A.3815, over the Messines sector, which was held by the 1 Anzac Corps (later the Australian Corps). Their prime task was artillery ranging, but Anderson also managed to drop two 20-pound bombs on an enemy trench strong-point. More importantly, Bell put 90 rounds into an attacking German D.F.W. two-seater, which fell into enemy lines and crashed. This was the first German aircraft destroyed by No. 3 Squadron.
The "Ghost" R.E.8...
In one of the most bizarre occurrences on the Western Front, R.E.8 A.3816, flown by Lieutenant J. L. Sandy, with Sergeant H. F. Hughes as observer, was ranging an 8-inch howitzer battery on the afternoon of 17 December when it was attacked by six Albatros DVa scouts between Deulemont and Armentieres. The R.E.8 turned to engage the enemy and succeeded in shooting down one of the Albatros single-seaters. The German pilot landed his aircraft intact in the Australian lines and was taken prisoner by infantry of the 21st Battalion, 2nd Australian Division. (This Albatros, D.5390/17, was presented to the Australian Government and is now displayed in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra).
Meanwhile, another R.E.8, with Lieutenants E. J. Jones and K. C. Hodgson, went to Sandy's assistance and the aerial duel of five against two continued for 10 minutes. The Germans broke away when a third R.E.8, with Lieutenants H. N. Wrigley and J. R. Blair, was seen approaching. Jones then flew alongside Sandy's R.E.8 and identified it by its serial number. The aircraft appeared to be flying normally and as the two men did not seem to be injured, Jones and Wrigley continued on their allotted tasks. Somewhat strangely, no further wireless messages were transmitted from Sandy's R.E.8 and apprehension increased as the evening approached and the aircraft had not returned. To all intents and purposes the aircraft and its crew seemed to have vanished from the face of the Earth. The perplexing mystery was not solved until 24 hours later, when a telegram was received from a hospital at St. Pol, stating that the bodies of Sandy and Hughes had been found in a crashed R.E.8 in a nearby field. It was ascertained that both men had been killed instantly during the aerial combat, when an armour-piercing bullet had passed through the observer's left lung and thence into the pilot's head. They had not been injured in the crash-landing, and the R.E.8 itself was only slightly damaged. Apparently, after the crew had been killed, the aircraft had flown itself in wide left-hand circles until the petrol supply ran out. This theory was supported by the fact that a north-easterly wind was blowing and the aircraft had drifted south-west before crash-landing about 50 miles from the scene of the combat. This extraordinary occurrence provided a striking example of the inherent stability in the flying characteristics of the R.E.8 - the aircraft had flown and landed itself without human assistance.
"The Ghost RE8". [AWM ART93192]
Dicing with the Red Baron...
Two No. 3 Squadron aircraft were instrumental in triggering-off the famous aerial combat of 21 April 1918 that resulted in the death of Germany's leading air ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen. On that fateful Sunday morning, Lieutenants S. G. Garrett and A. V. Barrow (in A.3661) and Lieutenants T. L. Simpson and F. C. Banks (in B.6576) were on a reconnaissance of the German lines near Hamel at 7000 feet when they were attacked by an element of four Fokker DrI triplanes from a large 'Richthofen's Circus' formation, led by the Baron himself. Simpson and Banks fought their way to the safety of nearby cloud cover, and the enemy triplanes concentrated on the second R.E.8. Through a combination of Garrett's skilful flying and Barrow's accurate shooting, one triplane, believed to be a Jasta 5 machine, was shot down. The other three triplanes then withdrew to the main Circus formation to regroup for an approaching attack by several Sopwith Camels from No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. It was during the subsequent fight that the 'Red Baron' was shot down fatally. [His body was subsequently buried with full military honours by 3 Squadron.]
Meanwhile, Simpson and Garrett had completed their photographic commitment and were on their way home at 8000 feet. But R.E.8 B.6576 had a further clash with a large formation of Albatros scouts, out to avenge the death of their leader, von Richthofen. Simpson took the only way out. He dove the R.E.8 towards the ground while Banks kept up a steady stream of machine-gun fire to ward off the attackers. Eventually they eluded their pursuers and flew home at 2000 feet.
RE8 Combat [Graphic by Gustav Farmer]
The Hardest-Working Combat Aircraft on the Western Front...
No. 3 Squadron's most famous aircraft was A.4397 "Sylvia". This machine, which was flown mainly by Captain R. G. Francis, set a record for the British forces on the Western Front by accumulating 440 hours of service flying and completing 147 flights across the line; the previous record was 427 hours service flying. No.3 was specially congratulated by General Headquarters - with, of course, Francis and A.4397 receiving due acknowledgment.
It is interesting to record that Francis, during his time in the Somme area, had a Kewpie doll painted on each side of A.4397's fuselage, in the centre of the aircraft identification letter "D for Doll". At the request of the Australian Government, R.E.8 A.4397 was shipped to Australia after the war.
"Sylvia" (Illustration from Cam Riley's excellent AFC Website)
[Editor's Note: Unfortunately "Sylvia" was destroyed in an accidental fire outside the Exhibition Building, Melbourne (where part of the AWM's collection had been temporarily displayed) on Sunday 22 February 1925. Workmen had been sweeping up the nearby park after a cycling race, and their burning rubbish was blown by strong winds onto several highly-flammable crated aircraft from the AWM Collection, which were about to be moved to Sydney. Several aircraft were destroyed, including "Sylvia". Ref: AWM File 93 9/1/1.]
This was a fine achievement by Lieutenants R. C. Armstrong and F. J. Mart in R.E.8, D.4689. On 9 June 1918, this aircraft and crew were carrying out artillery reconnaissance in the vicinity of Meaulte-Gressaire Wood - Warfusee Abancourt. Activity was slight, so the aircraft commenced strafing the enemy trenches near Morlancourt. At about 11.40 a.m. they saw a Halberstadt two-seater hastening eastwards towards its own lines. Armstrong headed off the aircraft, and the German pilot, who was later found to be young and inexperienced, made no attempt to fight back. One or two feeble efforts were made to break away but the Halberstadt pilot allowed Armstrong to take up a commanding position and shepherd him to the No.3 Squadron aerodrome. The aircraft was captured intact and the feat gained the congratulations of Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash. This Halberstadt C.L.II, 15 342/17 (which was given the British intelligence number G.56/16, the 'G' series being reserved for captured German aircraft), was flown by Captain S. G. Brearley and R. Ross on 16 June from Bertangles to Marquise, where it was handed over as a captured war trophy. A machine-gun from this aircraft is on display in the Australian War Memorial.
[Sadly the wooden structure of this aircraft was also lost in the accidental 1925 fire that destroyed "Sylvia".]
The Halberstadt (Illustration from Cam Riley's AFC Website)
Pass the Ammunition...
In 1918 these Corps Reconnaissance aircraft were introduced to an innovative new task which contributed greatly to Allied breakthroughs in the second half of 1918. Throughout June and July 1918, preparations had been in hand for a grand counterattack on the Somme front by General Foch's reserve divisions, reinforced by the newly-arrived Americans. At about this time, documents captured from the Germans showed that the enemy was experimenting with the supply of ammunition from the air. The Fourth Army Commander, General Rawlinson, realised the importance of such air drops and called for an investigation. In the past, the infantry had allocated many men to carry the 1000-round ammunition boxes to the machine-gunners who were always positioned well forward, in perilous areas, to halt any counter-attacks. 'Casualties among the ammunition carriers,' recalled Monash, 'were always substantial.'
No. 3 Squadron was given the task of looking into the matter and Major Blake selected Captain Wackett to assess the problem, because 'he had a gift for mechanical inventions'. Wackett immediately modified the standard bomb-rack and release gear to carry two boxes of ammunition. Parachutes were then devised to ensure that the boxes would not break on impact with the ground. Wackett used his R.E.8, C.4581, for the first trials, and later arranged for the R.E.8s of both No. 3 Squadron and No.9 Squadron (Royal Air Force) to be fitted with his new device. In the subsequent attack at Hamel on 4 July, the ammunition-dropping R.E.8s contributed in no small way to the success of the operation. At least one R.E.8, however, was shot down during these hazardous flights, and official AWM photograph E03844 shows a crashed machine of No.9 Squadron RAF on the ground with one of the small parachutes from an ammunition box caught in the tree tops.
A British RE8 shot down in the Battle of Hamel, 4 July 1918, while dropping ammunition under Wackett's scheme.
A snagged ammunition parachute can be seen in the treetops behind the crash. [AWM E03844]
The first ammunition supply drops proved so successful that the scheme was universally adopted throughout the Royal Air Force. Giving credit where credit was due, General Monash recalled in his book, The Australian Victories in France, 1918, that 'it was Captain Wackett of the Australian Flying Corps who perfected these ideas and put them into practice'.
[Wackett was later knighted for his extensive contributions to Australian aviation. Quite remarkably, while serving in Egypt, Wackett probably fought the first air-to-air combat in Australia's aviation history. Later, his company, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, manufactured the Wirraway, Mustang and Sabre Aircraft flown by 3 Squadron after WW2. Sir Lawrence was also instrumental in the selection of the Mirage supersonic fighter for the RAAF in the 1960s - for which CAC manufactured the engines, wings and tail. ]
Here's one more amazing story, extracted from: "THE BATTLE BELOW" (The Squadron's unit-history, see our "Books" page for details)
On 24 April 1918 (three days after the Red Baron had been shot down) Lieutenants W. V. Herbert (pilot) and F. A. Sewell (observer) were flying R.E.8 number A.3665.
On the 24th April, Lieutenant W. V. Herbert, with 2nd Lieutenant F. A. Sewell as observer, left the ground at 5 a.m. to carry out a reconnaissance, and when in the neighbourhood of Corbie, became enveloped in a very dense fog. The pilot endeavoured to climb out of this, but, after a short time, found his aircraft was losing height in a steep spiral. He therefore shut off his engine in an effort to recover level flight again, but, on suddenly seeing the ground beneath him, he opened up his engine, flattened out and flew along at a height of from 15 to 30 feet in an endeavour to get his bearings.
With the fog lying so close to the ground, however, this was impossible. All Lieutenant Herbert knew was that he was over enemy territory. Several times they passed over enemy [artillery] batteries and Lieutenant Sewell availed himself of the opportunities offered for directing bursts of machine-gun fire into the groups of enemy troops around the guns. By this time the pilot had decided to land; but, when almost touching the ground, an enemy battery was seen limbered up, under the right wing tip. The observer thereupon fired upon this at short range, whilst the pilot rapidly climbed his aircraft; and in doing so brushed the branches of a tree, thus causing his right aileron to jam.
He was able, however, to climb through the fog and when at a height of about 2,000 feet succeeded in freeing his aileron. After a further 15 minutes' flying he ran out of the fog over country which neither he nor his observer recognised, and then decided to maintain a westerly course in the hope of picking up some familiar land-mark. In this, Lieutenant Herbert was unsuccessful, but at about 7.30 a.m. he caught sight of a British field hospital, and landed at Trouville, near Rouen. The aircraft was found to have been hit in several places by rifle and machine-gun fire and, after temporary repairs had been effected, Lieutenants Herbert and Sewell flew back to the Squadron.
"C" Flight of 3 Squadron A.F.C.
Thanks to John Bennett who has provided the information below: on 24 April 1918, "C" Flight's RE8 aircraft had been designated with the following letters, allocated to these various aircraft numbers and crews:
Aircraft Letter: "N" "O" "P" "Q" "R" "S" RE8 Serial Number: C2270 A4404 C2610 (?) B2275 C2275 C2242 (?) Pilot: Dimsey Ralfe Deamer Armstrong Smith* ? Observer: Davis Buckland Fullerton Mart Witcomb ? Aircraft Name
* This pilot of aircraft "R", ("Pyancus") was the father of Neil Smith, 3 Squadron Association's founding webmaster.
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