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    Lawrence of Arabia's X Flight and the Australian Flying Corps


    Lawrence of Arabia was Colonel T.E Lawrence, who in all likelihood was the most famous military figure to come out of the Palestinian Theatre of war in World War I. He was born on the 15th of August 1888 and studied archeology at Oxford University before he visited Syria and Palestine in 1910. He learnt Arabic while working there as an archeologist until his work was interupted by the the war in 1914. He returned to Egypt and became an Intelligence officer and by 1916 had taken part in a mission in which Arabs revolted against the Turks. This lead to his remaining in the field with the Arabs and in particular the Arab leader Faisal, who was later to be King Faisal of Irag I. In late September leading up to the taking of Damascus in October of 1918 the Arabs were working as part of General Allenby's great ruse to break open the Palestinian front so the allies could drive to Jureselum and end Turkey's participation in the war.

    Lawrence had seen the aircraft of the Australian Flying Corps and Royal Flying Corps on numerous occasions and had often used them as a speedy way of communicating with Allenby. On May 16th of 1918, Ross Smith of 1 Sqn flew Lawrence from Allenbys headquarters at Cairo to the plains near El Kutrani and there landed him. Lawrence was to begin an offensive with the Arab supporters in spetember from Azrak against the Turkish area's of Deraa and Amman as part of Allenby's ruse to have Turkish forces relocated. Lawrence from this meeting had asked for and was to receive an attachment of aircraft for not only the support of his forces but as a way of projecting British technical superiority on the Arabs. The Arabs called aircraft " Tiyaras " which roughly translates to " female flying things ".

    X Flight consisted of two BE12.a aircraft which had previously been in use by 1 Sqn AFC and as a result the BE aircraft had seen better days and were extremely outperformed by German aircraft. The ground staff consisted of mechanics and armourers from 1 Sqn which were rotated through X Flight as was needed, the air staff consisted of three British officers. This detachment was landed at Akaba, the northern head of the Dead Sea and they trekked inland ot Lawrence's and Fiesel's headquarters at Maan. The Arab force was to split into two armies and strike at Azrak and then Deraa, the other force was to harrass the probable retreat of the Turkish from Maan and south. Throughout August this area between El Kutrani and Maan was reconnoitered frequently by 1 Sqn with the stated object of watching developments amongst the Bedouin, harrying the Turkish garrisons in the area and to confirm Arab faith in British air supremacy.

    After some flights, the BE12.a's were found to be of "little practical use " according to Cutlack and on August 12th a Bristol F2.b Fighter from 1 Sqn flew from Ramleh to join Lawrence in the desert. The next day a curious incident occurred near Maan when Tonkin and Vyner in a Bristol were forced by engine trouble to land near El Shobek. Tonkin and Vyner burned their machine and began to trek towards Beersheba, while the escorting Bristol Fighter returned to the Australians aerodrome and reported Tonkin and Vyner down. Eventually they were picked up by Arabs and upon the arrival of a British Camel patrol a few days later, they were handed over by the Bedouin for the princely sum of 50 sovereigns each. At the end of the month X Flight moved to Azrak as Lawrence moved his men against the rail heads at Deraa.

    In mid September, Lawrences army moved to El Untaiye and Um es Surab, five miles east of the railway between Mafrak and Deraa. It was daring move on Lawrence's part as the Turkish forces in the area could have easily overwhelmed the Arab forces, but the Turkish garrison's chose not to leave the safety of their machine gun boundaries. What remained of the German air force at Deraa aerodrome though was a differant matter. The German aircraft attacked the Arab camp continually causing problems with Lawrence's forces. Murphy and Hawley destroyed one of these machines on the September 16th 1918 but were forced back to Ramleh for repair of a slight defect. The German aircraft bombed the camp at El Untaiye on the 18th and 19th, the two BE12's unable to stop the Germans, one being bombed and the other shot down in an air fight. The Bristol Fighter of Murphy and Hawley was away at this time, apparently transporting a British officer back to Akaba on some mission.

    Lowell Thomas in his book " With Lawrence in Arabia" wrote of the combat between the German aircraft and the BE12, " Until Lawrence's one surviving machine, an antiquated old bus piloted by Captain Junor, came trundling up from Azarak and sailed square into the middle of the whole German squadron, Lawrence and his followers watched this with mixed feelings, for each of the four enemy two seaters and four scout planes was more than the equal of one prehistoric British machine. " The German squadron consisted of what remained of Jasta 1F and the FliegerAbteilungs. These aircraft consisted of six machines , three Pfalz scouts and three two seaters. These were added to the four machines of Fl Abt 305 which had been flying combat out in the eastern region of Palestine and Syria for the past year. The Germans beleived most of Allnby's strength was to be concentrated in an attack to the East and had sent their remaining servicable aircraft to stall the attack.

    " With both skill and good luck Captain Junor cruised right through the German birdmen and led the whole circus off to the westward. Twenty minutes later the plucky Junor came tearing back through the air with his attendant swarm of enemy planes and signaled down to Lawrence that he had run out of petrol. He landed within fifty yards of the Arab column, and his BE flopped over on it's back. A German Halberstadt dived on it at once and scored a direct hit with a bomb that blew the little British machine to bits. Fortunately, Junor had jumped out of the seat a moment before. The only part of hid BE that wasnt destroyed was the Lewis machine gun. Within half an hour the plucky pilot had transferred it to a Ford truck and was tearing around outside Deraa, raking the Turks with his tracer bullets. "

    From this engagement Lawrence asked for more air support by visiting Allenby directly. Lowell Thomas wrote of the Lawrence's travel to HQ, " Lawrence dashed back to Azarak in an armored car, then flew across the desert and northern Palestine to Allenby's headquarters at Ramleh. A hurried conference with the commander in chief secured for him three more Bristol Fighters, the best battle planes that the British were using in the Holy Land. " Peters and Traill flew from Ramleh to join Lawrence at El Untaiye and on the 22nd of September Peters flew Lawrence to Um es Surab and the rest of the Arab arnmy relocated to that camp as well, to put a little distance between themselves and the garrisons and aircraft at Deraa. Soon after the machines with the crews of Smith and Mustard along with Headlam and Lilly joined Peters and Traill. The following day the monstrous Handley Page 0/400 landed at the rough air strip at Um es Surab. Apparently the Arabs went wild at the sight of the machine firing their pistols and riding around the machine on their horses. Lowell Thomas wrote, " That afternoon a giant Handley-Page arrived from Palestine with General Borton as passenger and Ross Smith as the pilot. They brought forty seven tins of petrol and also a supply of tea for Lawrence, Winterton and companions. "

    On the 22nd of September the German air superiority in the area was challenged by the Bristol Fighters. Headlam and Smith were having breakfast when an early warning call came through of aircraft appearing. Headlam and Lilly along with Smith and Mustard immeadiately took off and spotted two Pfalz Scouts with an DFW two seater heading towards Um el Surab. The Bristols caught up the DFW and shot it down, killing the observer and setting the aircraft alight on the ground. The two Pfalz aircraft managed to escape and land at Deraa where the two Bristol Fighters strafed them severely.

    Not soon after another warning came this time for three scout aircraft. The Australians immeadiately took off again and forced all three scouts to the ground. Two had landed near the railway and were taxiing towards Turkish outposts, the third made for Deraa. The Australians after chasing the third aircraft to Deraa, returned and machine gunned the other two aircraft firing fifty rounds into each aircraft. That afternoon a DFW bombed the base and Peters and Trail intercepted it and was driven down smoking near its aerodrome, Peters flew low over the downed machine and Trail fired into it killing both pilot and observer.

    An account of the days air battles were published in the "Blackwoods Magazine" in 1920 by a British Officer who was a part of Lawrences campaign, it read, " While L. [ Lawrence ] and the airmen were having breakfast with us, a Turkish plane was observed, making straight for us. One of the airmen ...... hurried off to down th intruder. This he succesfully did, and the Turkish plane fell in flames near the railway. He then returned and finished his porridge, which had been kept hot for him meanwhile! But not for him a peaceful breakfast that morning. He had barely reached the marmalade stage when another Turkish plane appeared. Up hurried the Australian again; but this Turk was too wily and scuttled back to Deraa, only to be chased by P. [ Peters ] on another machine, which sent him down in flames. "

    The next day Kenney and Maughan from Ramleh flew into Deraa aerodrome and dropped sixteen bombs on the aerodrome setting one hangar on fire and destroying several two seaters on the ground. To complete the destruction in the area, that night the Handley Page, flown by Ross Smith flew low over the railway station at 1000 ft and dropped a tonne of bombs on the important transport centre. After this activity nothing more was seen of the aircraft at Deraa and when British troops took the Deraa aerodrome on the 28th the burnt out wrecks of the remaining German aircraft were all that remained, the German pilots having burnt them the night before. The Bristol Fighters remained at Um es Surab until September the 27th, harassing and bombing concentrations of Turkish troops.