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1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps was formed in Australia in 1915 and left Melbourne on the 16th of March for Egypt. Their aircraft and the necessary operational equipment was to be supplied by the RFC, but it was six weeks after they arrived in Egypt before they received any aircraft. The aircraft they did get were the remnants of 17 RFC, which had been in the Palestine and Mesopotamia since early 1915. The aircraft they received were a mix of BE2a's, BE2c's and later the BE2e. Due to the delay many of the pilots and observers went to England to learn some of the skills and knowledge that had been picked up in front line operations in France by members of the RFC. The Palestinian theatre wasn't the straightforward specialised operations that were present in France. The Australian squadron was required to do many missions that were unthought of in France, such as landing behind enemy lines and blowing up a water channel or cutting telegraph wires. The airmen of 1 Sqn also had to be an escort, a reconnaissance and a bomber in the one mission, and often a ferry plane as well. The mechanics and ground staff met as many logistical and conditional problems as the pilots. The mechanics kept the planes in the air through their skill and ingenuity despite the lack of parts , equipment and harsh conditions on the plane and engine , such as the ever present sand.
The initial Commanding Officer of 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps was Lieutenant Colonel E.H Reynolds. The leadership of the squadron changed hands several times in the early period with Major H.D.K. Macartney , then Major A.J. Broun , and finally Major T.F. Rutledge. B flight was commanded by Captain Oswald Watt , who had experience with the Foreign Legion French Flying Corps as well as the RFC , B flight was based at Heliopolis. A flight was commanded by Captain W. Sheldon and based at Kharga, while C flight was under the command of Lieutenant R.Williams and based at Suez. Lieutenant Williams had been the first pilot to graduate from Point Cook and earn his Wings. In the latter half of 1916, the Allied Armies, including the now famous Australian Light Horse Divisions were moving rapidly up the Palestinian coast. The Squadron changed bases regularly to keep up with this momentum , and a common tactic of the squadrons in the desert was to have a forward aerodrome for early ditchings due to battle damage or mechanical trouble , or quite often , low fuel. The forward bases also allowed for greater bomb capacity, the Australians would often fly off on a mission without an observer so they could carry more bombs.
The Be2's were outdated and sluggish even in late 1916, in the thin desert air , they took a further reduction in power of an already under-powered aircraft. The Australians undertook many experiments in equipment, primarily with the inventiveness of Lieutenant L.J. Wackett , the later head of CAC, the company which designed the CAC Boomerang, Woomera and Ca-15. Wackett devised a Lewis Gun arrangement on the top wing of his BE2c, this gave the Rumplers of FA300 a fright when while on a reconn mission he was attacked by two Rumplers. Wackett turned into them firing, the Rumplers broke off the engagement. Wackett also devised a system whereby canisters containing ammunition and food could be slung and dropped from the wings of the BE2's. Later in the war when Monash's advancing machine gunners ran out of ammunition, they laid out canvas strips to signal the aircraft and 1 Sqn would fly over and drop more ammunition to them. Approximately 100,000 rounds of ammunition were dropped this way by 1 Sqn. Wackett also designed a rod and cam interrupter gear for a Bristol Scout, doing experiments with a metal propeller. Like the German Fokker system, the scheme was not entirely successful. One of the Mechanics in 1 Sqn , Alan Betteridge designed a simple hydraulic synchronisation system. The information and technical details when relayed through the authorities produced no enthusiastic response, even though the RFC was to adopt a similar hydraulic system designed by a Rumanian.
The offensive equipment of the squadron included the Bristol Scout from the end of 1916 onwards. They received one scout for each flight with that one scout would often escort several BE2's on missions. Two of the pilots, Lieutenant W.J Weir and the New Zealander Lieutenant Carrick S. Paul, decided to paint their plane a bright yellow. The yellow Scout earned a reputation for itself and it's pilots amongst the Turks and Arabs who led to an official Turkish Order quoting " All ranks are to take immediate cover on approach of the yellow English airplane ". Paul was later to become an ace in the theatre, one of the few who achieved that feat in the Palestinian theatre. Later the squadron received the Martinsyde G.100 also known as the Elephant due to the aircraft rather large size for a scout plane.
The Martinsyde with a top wing mounted Lewis proved useful in the multi role tasks the squadron was required to perform, being equally capable of escorting the BE2's as well as being loaded up with bombs. The Beardmore engine of the Martinsyde however was hampered by a tendency to " blow back " through the carburetor on opening the throttle after idling, which could have serious consequences should a fire break out from it. Three Martinsydes were lost to a most unusual event for a military aircraft. In 1917 several waterspouts blew off the Mediterranean ocean and smashed three Martinsyde Scouts to matchwood.
The BE2's were slowly replaced and complemented by the BE12a. The BE12a was a failed attempt at a fighter design from the Western Front and sent to Palestine where there was less in the way of enemy aircraft to encounter. These aircraft served 1 Squadron until late 1917 when the escalation of enemy aircraft activity required the BE's to be replaced with RE8's. It wasn't until 1918 that squadron received a top of the line aircraft and was able to wrest the air superiority from the Germans.
The Australians by ranging far and wide across Palestine, Sinai and Syria often encountered the danger of their engine failing on them and having to alight in enemy territory and either have the problem fixed or be picked up by another aircraft or the other alternative, walk the 30 to 100 miles back to base. Due to a few unsavoury experiences with downed airmen meeting Arab guerilla's, such as Merz and Burns's fate , the Australian and British airmen went to great lengths to pick up fellow aviators from the ground when in the danger of capture. This was born out when Captain Vautin of the AFC was shot down in a BE12a after an aerial engagement with FA300's Oblt Felmy , the Germans leading ace and Albatros DIII pilot in Palestine. Vautin was forced to the ground with his airplane badly shot up and was captured by the Germans. Felmy in order to allay the fears of the allied airmen flew over the airbase of 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps and dropped a container with a picture of Vautin and note saying Vautin is alive and well and a prisoner of war. Two Australian aircraft took off in pursuit of Felmy, but on arriving back at base, the Australians immediately sent over a container to FA300's aerodrome with a Red Cross package and a note for Felmy apologising for attempting to pursue him as well as a thank you for letting the allies know Vautin was alive and well. Felmy was recognized by the Australians and their most dangerous foe , but at the same time their "most gallant and chivalrous enemy".
On March 20th 1917, Frank McNamara of Rushworth, Victoria was escorting several BE2c bombers to Tel El Hasi in his Martinsyde. On the way home from the bombing attack the BE2c of Captain Rutherford, developed an engine problem and was forced to land deep behind enemy lines. McNamara despite a deep and serious wound in his right buttock inflicted by ground fire during the bombing raid, landed next to the Be2c and Captain Rutherford jumped onto the Martinsyde. By now they had been spotted by Turkish Cavalry and the Cavalry sped towards them. The other planes in the flight buzzed and strafed the Cavalry to slow the Turks down, allowing their McNamara and Rutherford time to get airborne. McNamara however due to his wounds could not control the Martinsyde sufficiently to get it airborne and the Martinsyde crashed and turned over. They quickly set the Martinsyde on fire, ran to Rutherford's Be2c and succeeded in getting its engine working again. With the Cavalry extremely close to their aircraft, they managed to get the Be2c airborne. McNamara's flew the Be2c 70 miles to 1 AFC's aerodrome, by the time McNamara landed , he was faint from loss of blood. McNamara was repatriated to Australia and received the Victoria Cross on the 8th of June 1917.
Until March 28th 1917, there had not been a casualty in 1 squadron due to aerial combat, but on that day Captain Rutherford with the observer Lieutenant W.R Hyam were attacked by a German Rumpler C.I from FA300 piloted by Schmarje and Fritzsche. Rutherford managed to bring the aircraft home but Hyam died of the wounds he received. Hyam had volunteered for the Flying Corps from the Light Horse Infantry, which was a major source of future pilots and observers for the Australian Flying Corps. Rutherford flew until May of the next year when he was again brought down, this time by ground fire. Lieutenant Haig attempted to pick Rutherford up, but Haigs Bristol Fighter crashed on take off under the extra weight and the two pilots and observers spent the rest of the war as prisoners.
Lieutenant A.T Cole too took part in a rescue attempt when eight machines raided Jurasalem. One BE2 was forced down with engine trouble, and Cole in his Martinsyde and another pilot in his BE2 landed to pick up the stranded pilot and observer. They burned the crashed machine by firing a Very light into it and then took off. The BE2 with the rescued airman on board also suffered engine trouble and was forced to land. Cole landed to pick them up but crashed his undercarriage in the sand and the three were forced to walk back to base. Luckily for the pilots a patrol of the Light Horse discovered them and took them back to friendly lines. On the 25th of June 1917, Lieutenant J.S Brasell was shot down and killed in the squadrons first BE12a which were poor aircraft and no match for the Rumpler C.I of FA300's Schlieff and Daum. The upside of this period was Captain Williams was becoming a capable commander and showing the leadership skills would eventually make him the commander of 40 Wing RAF in the Palestine theatre. Also less antiquated aircraft were starting to reach the squadrons at the Palestinian Front with aircraft such as Bristol M1B's, Vickers Fb19's and a trickle of Bristol Fighters as 111 RFC was set up as the local air superiority squadron. 1 squadron though would have to wait till they received better aircraft and they had to soldier on with the outdated and slow BE models till some RE.8's arrived. In fitting with their machinery, 1 squadron's tactical role was changed to a bomber squadron.
It wasn't until January 1918 when 111 RFC was equipped with SE5a Scouts to combat the newly arrived Jasta 1 Heeresgruppe F that had located itself at Jenin , 1 squadron AFC received the Bristol Fighters which had previously been 111 RFC's aircraft complement. 1 squadron though still flying mixed formations began using the Bristol Fighter for escort and offensive duties with its range, performance and armament. The squadron mapped a 600 mile square area behind Turkish lines with this aircraft without any losses to their spotting and reconn aircraft. One Albatros Scout though got through the protective umbrella and attacked Len Taplin BE12a at an inopportune time. Taplin, with photography equipment all in bits on the floor of his aircraft due to a malfunction he was fixing, turned on the Albatros and drove it off. After the Albatros had dived away and broken off, Taplin calmly went back to re-assembling the camera and continuing with his photographic work.
The Australians rapidly established their aerial supremacy. In the first two months of 1918 they shot down 15 aircraft, no other allied squadron shot down a German plane in this period. Fifteen doesn't sound like much, but when it is considered the Germans only had 75 in Palestine, those fifteen planes made up for almost a quarter of the German operational strength. This period from January to November was to bring victories for several airmen and make several pilots and observers of 1 squadron aces. These included men like Ross " Hadji " Smith, Edward Kenney, Paul McGinness, George Peters, Albert Tonkin, Allan Brown, Eustice Headlam and Carrick Paul. These men were the only allied aces of the theatre and all of them came from within the one squadron, which gives a good indication of the domination of the air of the squadrons men and machines.
In mid June Jasta 1 "F" received a resupply of Albatros scouts, which the Australians met in combat on the 23rd of June. In previous months, 1 squadron and 111 RFC had reduced the Jasta's numbers to one operational aircraft. On the 23rd, two Bristol Fighters attacked three Albatros Scouts and one of the Albatros broke up in mid air and burst into flames. On the 28th, 1 squadron encountered six Albatros Scouts , one was driven down , one crashed and the third flamed. On the 16th of July the Australians met four Albatros Scouts near Kul Term and forced all of them to the ground, later in the day they met another three near Nablus and forced all of those to the ground too. On the 17th of July 8 Albatros Scouts were met by 1 Squadron AFC and 111 RFC, three were destroyed and five returned so full of holes they were unserviceable. In the engagement Ross Smith destroyed two, one going down in flames over the Nablus Road and the other crashing into the Wadi el Ajula.
It wasn't until mid August when 1 squadron and Jasta 1 "F" met again, by then the Jasta had been resupplied with Pfalz Scouts. Of the six scouts the Bristol Fighters met in the air, one was flamed , another went down out of control , one crash landed and the fourth crashed on the Nablus-Messudie Road. McGinness, the pilot who brought this last aircraft down was earning a reputation for his aggressive and take no prisoners style of combat. On this occasion he flew low over the wreck of the Pfalz that had crashed while his gunner, Lieutenant H.B Fletcher, strafed the pilot of the Pfalz.
Apart from the regular duties allotted to the squadron there were, due to the strange circumstances of the theatre many interesting tasks carried out by the squadron. The famed Lawrence of Arabia required air support for his Arab forces and two BE12a's of 1 squadron were supplied along with the mechanics and ground crew. The machines were a mix of necessary tactical machinery, and propaganda for the Arabs to look at in awe at the power of Lawrence and the British. In late August a Handley Page 0/400 was supplied to the squadron. It's monstrous 100 foot wings dwarfing anything flying in the theatre. The machine was predominantly a propaganda item, it's huge size causing awe in the eyes of the Arabs not to mention the eyes of the AFC and RFC crews. The machine was flown by Ross Smith in many bombing raids, including successful raids to the communications centre at El Afule and the aerodrome at Jenin , where the Handley Pages' cargo had burnt three Pfalz scouts to a cinder on the ground.
On the 21st of September outside of El Afule the squadron discovered the main portion of the retreating Turk and German force on a mountain road from Balata which ran through the Wadi Fara towards the River Jordan. This was to be the place for one of the first gruesome and grizzly applications of complete air superiority. The Australians bombed both ends of the column and jammed all the transport, men and machinery in the middle, unable to move. The Australian and British squadrons bombed and strafed the enemy column for the remainder of the day and after the enemy force had dispersed during the night. The allied aircraft attacked and chased the smaller units that were retreating. In a period of 32 hours, the Turkish Army lost over one thousand vehicles, eighty seven field pieces were abandoned and hundreds of men and horses were killed.
On the 22nd of September a dawn raid was attempted by the Germans on Lawrence of Arabia's Arab troops at Um es Serab. Two Bristol Fighters of 1 squadron intercepted the two Pfalz scouts and the lone DFW, which was shot down in flames by Lieutenant G Peters and Lieutenant J.H Trail. This was Peters seventh victory. The Pfalz's after getting shot up landed near the Deraa airfield, where they were strafed by the Bristols. Deraa was capture don the 18th of September by the Light horse, but only the burnt out remains of the Pfalz's were left behind. This is the last mention of enemy Scouts in the theatre. On October 19, two Bristol Fighters including Captain Ross Smith and observer Lieutenant A.V McCann in Brisfit B.1229 forced down a DFW C.V in the desert. Smith landed next to the plane and took the crew prisoner and then fired a Very Cartridge into the DFW setting it on fire. This was Smith's and the squadron's last aerial victory of the war. On October 23rd Lieutenants Harper and Lilly attacked and strafed six German aircraft at Muslime aerodrome.
After the Armistice 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps remained in the Middle East and Egypt until it disembarked on the Port Sydney on the 5th of March 1919. General Allenby read in his final speech to the squadron aboard the ship "The victory gained in Palestine and Syria has been one of the greatest in the war ... you gained for us an absolute supremacy in the air."