Mesopotamian Half Flight
Mesopotamian Half Flight
Early in February 1915, the Indian Government requested the supply of an Australian Air Force unit to support the Indian Army's campaign against the Turks in Mesopotamia. The Australian Flying Corps at this particular time was very small, and a cable sent by the Australian Government on 26th of February claimed that despite having the personnel and ground equipment, they were short of aircraft. It was decided the Indian Army would supply the aircraft and Australia would supply the trained airmen and ground support crews. The Indian Army supplied three of the five requested aircraft, including a Maurice Farman Longhorn and two Maurice Farman Shorthorns. Currently in Australia, there were seven qualified pilots that were under direct military jurisdiction, and of these seven, four were detailed as the flying section of the new unit. The pilots were Capt H.A Petre, Capt T.W White, Lt G.P Merz and Capt W.H Treloar. Together with these pilots were a ground force of 41 men, which in all were named the Mesopotamian Half Flight.
The small force left Australia in April 1915 on the liner Morea with White and Treloar in charge, Petre had left the week before and Merz was held back at Point Cook to assist with the training programme for other students. The force reached Basra on the 26th of May and were joined by two British Airmen from the Indian Army and a New Zealander. The new air unit was just in time to take part in the planned offensive up the Tigris River and the small force quickly found the enemy wasn't the worst of their problems. The small and underpowered aircraft had to contend with the heat, lack of water, lack of supplies, lack of replacements, and the sand. The Farmans were difficult to coax into the thin desert air and to the pilots, these flimsy aircraft inspired no confidence they would remain in the air. With the arrival of Lt Merz in June, a pair of Caudrons also arrived, which were a slight improvement over the Farmans.
The Half Flight carried out it's first operation five days after landing at Basra. Capt Petre and a New Zealander, Capt H. Reilly made the first reconnaissance over Turkish positions in the valley of the Tigris River. They were observing the effect the attack by the allied forces at Kurna had on the Turkish Army and Turkish positions. They brought back valuable information and were keen to get back in the air again but it wasn't until the next day Reilly and Capt White took off for a reconnaissance mission. They flew for 2 hours against the Shamal , the northerly wind in Mesopotamia , on their way to Kurna. There and at furthur on in the flight at Bahran they saw the Turks retreating, they decided to speed them on their way by dropping three 20 pound bombs on a column of troops. The Shamal helped speed them on their way home to Basra.
The Australian Flying Corps suffered it's first casualty on the 30th of July 1915. In an operation during the attack on Nasiriyeh , the Caudrons of Lt G.P Merz and Maj H.L Reilly set out from Basra. During the outward journey, Reilly's machine lost power and he was forced to land in flood waters behind enemy lines , fortunately Reilly who was from the Indian Army and his observer were able to get the engine running again and they continued on with the mission. On the return flight both Caudron's developed the engine failure that was common for these planes with their unreliable engines made worse by the extreme heat. Reilly and his observer were fortunate that they landed their plane amongst friendly Arabs.
The second Caudron of Lt Merz and the New Zealander Lt Burn who was from the New Zealand Staff Corps was forced down amongst hostile and well armed Arabs which attacked them upon landing. The two men armed with only revolvers, decided to make a stand and in the ensuing engagement both men died. According to repots later from friendly Arabs who saw the engagement, the Arabs suffered the casualties of one dead and five wounded. The bodies of Merz and Burn were never seen again. Their Caudron was found a few days later and returned to the aerodrome at Basra by Barge and Truck, it had been virtually destroyed by the attackers.
In August four Martinsyde Scouts and three floatplanes arrived, these were named under 30 Squadron RFC and the Half Flight joined with this squadron. On the 16th of September Treloar's Caudron came down behind enemy lines and he and Capt Atkins of the Indian Army were captured. This and other losses left only a Shorthorn and a Martinsyde to cover the attack on Kut on the 27th of September.
On the 22nd of October 1915 Captain White and Captain Francis Yeats-Brown were flying over Turkish entrenchments at Zeur in Mesopotamia when the Renault engine began to cough and splutter leaving the plane without power to keep itself in the air. White was out of options and had to land behind enemy lines, he discovered, however that the engine was still ticking over and the airmen preferred the little safety their aircraft offered to the other alternative of walking home through enemy territory on foot. White told Brown, " We'll taxi her home , you stand up with the rifle and have a crack at any Turks who have a go. " They made their way through enemy territory throwing up plumes of dust from the propeller until they came to Kuteniah which held a large force of Turks, including some coming towards the plane. The unusualness of the situation must have confused the Turks for they did not attack and the same occurred when White steered the plane through a gap in the barbed wire at the front lines. After having taxied for 17 miles the engine picked up again and they took off and returned home.
In November White also figured in what must have been one of the first air rescues in the war. White landed in the face of hostile rifle fire to pick up Maj-Gen G.V Kimball , the Chief of General Staff in Mesopotamia, whose seaplane had been forced down with engine trouble. Luckily for the pilot of the plane, Indian Cavalry were nearby and rescued the pilot from the Arabs and Turks.
On the 23rd of November, White was captured after volunteering for what in reality was a one way mission to cut the Telegraph wires near the city of Baghdad. The trip was 120 miles carrying an extra load in the form of fuel and explosives, and was possible only if the aircraft ran perfectly the whole trip and didnt encounter any head winds. White reached Baghdad and landed as near he could to a section of wires , but he misjudged and his wing clipped a telegraph pole. His companion Yeats-Brown successfully blew up the lines despite their being under fire from Turks and Arabs. They attempted to take off and clear the nemy but were unsuccessful and crashed their plane , themselves being taken prisoner.
Captain White wrote a book after the war which documents his experiences as a P.O.W of the Turks. The notes he took during his captivity were hidden in the sole of his shoe. The book was named, 'Guests of the Unspeakable', in it he writes about taking his mechanic up for a flight. 'Jimmy Munro, my excellent mechanic, newly arrived with a reinforcement from Australia, was as elated as a schoolboy and jumped about the cockpit or hung over the side with great elation whenever he saw Arabs firing at us. It was his first and last flight, for he was unfortunate enough to be taken in the surrender of Kut some months later, and although surviving the arduaous march to Asia Minor, was one of the many who died in captivity.'
The loss of White left a Shorthorn and Capt Petre as the sole aerial component of 30 Squadron RFC. The remains of the squadron was besieged in Kut along with 10 000 allied troops including nine Australian mechanics from the Mesopotamian Half Flight. Of these 9 men only Sgt Sloss and A/M Hudson survived the 700 mile march from Kut to Turkey. These two along with the officers Treloar and White survived their captivity in World War I. Special mention should be made of these men of the Australian Flying Corps captured in the Siege of Kut , they were :
Fl/ Sgt J. McK. Sloss of Melbourne.
Petre the sole remaining pilot was ordered to fly his Shorthorn to Egypt where he would meet up with the newly arriving 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps.
Australian Flying Corps : A Complete History of the Australian Flying Corps