Australian Naval Aviators of World War I

Published on Sea Power Centre - Australia (author)

HMAS Sydney prepares to launch a Sopwith Camel from its deck during WWI. (photo: Unknown)
HMAS Sydney prepares to launch a Sopwith Camel from its deck during WWI.

The Australian International Airshow 2015 pays tribute to Anzac and the heroes of military aviation.  It is the major theme of the event and as such will be the first significant observance of the Gallipoli campaign in its centenary year.  The airshow features an emotional and moving tribute to our aviators from Gallipoli to the present day. During the Australian International Airshow, Navy Daily will highlight the significant contribution of naval aviators from the First World War to the present day.

Naval Aviation in the Royal Australian Navy began in 1917 when the cruisers Brisbane embarked a sea plane for operations in the Indian Ocean.  Later in World War I the flagship Australia and cruisers Sydney and Melbourne were fitted with wooden flying-off platforms over the top of their main deck guns allowing them to launch their flimsy Sopwith fighter aircraft. Landing was another matter and if the pilot was out of range of an airfield he would ‘alight on the water’, hopefully to be rescued by the nearest friendly ship.

The origins of taking aeroplanes and airmen to sea lay with the Royal Naval Air Service that had been created in January 1914. By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the Royal Naval Air Service had more aircraft under its control than the Royal Flying Corps. Its main role was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids. The Royal Naval Air Service also maintained several fighter squadrons on the Western Front, as well as allocating scarce resources to an independent strategic bombing force at a time when the benefits of such operations were highly speculative.

On 1 April, 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force. At the time of the merger, the Royal Naval Air Service had 67,000 officers and men, over 3,000 aircraft including seaplanes and airships and 126 coastal stations.

Many Australians flew and fought in the Royal Naval Air Service.

Robert Little, DSO*, DSC*, and Croix de Guerre, was a Victorian who joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915. Little was the highest-scoring Australian-born fighter pilot during the First World War, with 47 confirmed victories. This record has never been supplanted.

He sailed from Australia to England and qualified as a pilot at his own expense. In June 1916 he was posted to Dunkirk where, flying the Bristol Scout and the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, he participated in numerous bombing raids prior to joining the 8th Naval Squadron four months later, serving on the Western Front.

Over the course of the next 19 months, Little amassed a total of 47 aerial victories, becoming Australia's most prominent air ace. During this time Little also gained renown for being shot down, and then strafed, by Baron Manfred von Richthofen's Flying Circus.

His run of success came to an end however on the night of 27 May 1918 when he was shot down and killed while attempting to destroy a Gotha bomber near Noeux.

Little is buried at the Wavans British Cemetery, France. His leather flying helmet, goggles and other items of kit are on permanent display in the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm Museum.

Offical portrait of Lieutenant Rodrick Stanley Dallas

Offical portrait of Lieutenant Rodrick Stanley Dallas

Roderick Dallas, DSO, DSC*, and Croix de Guerre, was Australia's second-highest scoring air ace during World War One, with 32 victories to his credit.

Born in Mount Stanley, Queensland July 1891, Dallas joined the Australian Army on the eve of war in 1913.

When war duly arrived Dallas applied unsuccessfully for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Undeterred, Dallas promptly applied instead to the Royal Navy Air Service gaining acceptance in 1915.

Initially flying Nieuport Scouts and Sopwith Camels or Triplanes, Dallas amassed 23 victories before being given command of No. 40 Squadron, Royal Air Force, on 1 April 1918. Within two weeks he suffered an injury while bombing enemy lines.

He nevertheless went on to score a further nine victories flying an S.E.5a before being shot down and killed by German fighters on 1 June 1918.

Herbert John ‘Bert’ Hinkler, DSM, the famous Australian aviator who made the first solo flight from Britain to Australia in 1928 was born at Bundaberg in Queensland in 1892.

On 7 September 1914, at the age of 21, Hinkler joined the Royal Naval Air Service as an observer-gunner. He won the Distinguished Service Medal in France and served as a pilot in Italy. He invented an improved dual-control system which enabled a gunner to relieve a disabled pilot. He was posted to No. 3 Wing Royal Naval Air Service escorting bombers in Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters and, after the wing was disbanded in June 1917, spent several months flying night raids in Handley-Page bombers. As a gunner, he privately claimed to have shot down six enemy aircraft. While flying in DH4s conducting for No. 5 Squadron, he was given his first chance to fly a plane and subsequently underwent flight training at Greenwich and Yorkshire. After graduating in July 1918, he was posted to No. 28 Squadron, Royal Air Force, in Italy.

During a second flight along his record-breaking England to Australia route in 1933, Hinkler crashed and died in the Italian Alps.

Richard Pearman Minifie, DSC**, was yet another Melburnian who, in June 1916, joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a temporary probationary flight sub-lieutenant and during the next six months completed his pilot training. He was posted to No.1 Squadron and arrived in France in December 1916. During February and March 1917 the squadron was continually in action on the Somme. The squadron was highly effective in ground-strafing, particularly during the battles of Bullecourt and Messines in May and June.

Between July 1917 and March 1918 Minifie took part in the battles of Ypres and Passchendaele. He was an excellent fighter pilot and his score of victories against enemy aircraft rose rapidly.

On 17 March 1918 Minifie’s Sopwith Camel suffered an engine failure and he crash-landed in the German lines. He was taken as a prisoner of war and remained so for the rest of the war. His commanding officer wrote to Minifie’s mother to let her know of her son’s capture and 'that he is all right'. Referring to Minifie as 'a brilliant pilot and air fighter', the Commanding Officer added that 'his aerial victories were gained by clean, clever fighting and he was always so modest about his great achievements'.

Minifie was officially credited with destroying twenty-one enemy aircraft, mostly when aged 19, and was the seventh highest scoring Australian pilot of the First World War. His prowess as a fighter pilot was exemplified in the outstanding and rapid sequence of awards of the Distinguished Service Cross on 2 November 1917, Bar on 30 November, and a second Bar on 17 April 1918.

After the war he returned to Melbourne to become a successful industrialist. He passed away in 1969.

Offical portrait of Air Vice Marshal Stanley James Goble

Offical portrait of Air Vice Marshal Stanley James Goble

Stanley James Goble, OBE, MBE, DSO, DSC, twice tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of the First World War but was twice rejected on minor medical grounds.

Determined, however, to follow his three brothers into active service, he paid his own passage to England and in July 1915 he was accepted as a trainee airman with the rank of temporary Flight Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. After training in Essex, he was posted to Dover Air Station where he test-flew new aircraft and carried out anti-submarine patrols over the English Channel.

He was then moved to the Royal Naval Air Service Base at Dunkirk from which he flew the single-seater Sopwith Pup. From Dunkirk he shot down a German LVG two-seater in September 1916.

The battle of the Somme in 1916 led to the formation, with the most experienced pilots available, of No. 8 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service. Goble flew the Pup and the French Nieuport fighter, combating not only German aircraft but the appalling westerly gales which blew throughout most of the battle. On 1 October he was promoted Flight Lieutenant and later that month was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and won the Distinguished Service Cross for attacking two enemy aircraft near Ghistelles, France, bringing one down in flames.

On 1 February 1917 Goble was posted to No. 5 Squadron which, newly equipped with the DH4 day and night bomber, was operating from Petite Synthe, France. He was appointed acting Flight Commander and on 17 February was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for 'conspicuous bravery and skill in attacking hostile aircraft on numerous occasions'. On 30 June his appointment as Flight Commander was confirmed and from July he was acting Squadron Commander; this rank became substantive on 1 January 1918. The potentially difficult transition from flying single-seater fighter sorties to leading two-seater bombing raids was carried out successfully.

With No. 5 Squadron Goble planned and led attacks mainly aimed at German naval targets and aerodromes. When the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps merged to form the Royal Air Force, Goble was appointed as a Major in the new service. He returned with his squadron to England on 15 May. He was appointed MBE in 1917, OBE in 1918 and was twice mentioned in dispatches.

The experience of war had proved Goble to be a gallant and distinguished leader. He had also been fortunate in that, although twice shot down, he escaped the war unwounded.