ANZACs over France

One of my favourite quotes from World War I is John ‘Jack’ Wright, a flight commander with 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps [AFC]. Like many of the AFC pilots and servicemen he came from the Lighthorse after having served in the Middle East. He missed Gallipoli as by the time he arrived in the theatre the 12th Lighthorse was gearing up for the defence of Egypt and the Canal Zone. He ended up riding a Sopwith Camel, then a Sopwith Snipe over France, Belgium and Germany.

This quote is from his unpublished memoirs and related to November 11th, 1918:

On the morning of 11th November, 1918, I was sitting in my [Sopwith] Snipe at 8 a.m just about to “wave the chocks away” and take off to bomb and shoot-up the busy rail junction of Ath, which was an important link in the German line of communications. Just as I was about to give the signal to the other five machines, I noticed signs of a commotion on the tarmac, a lot of waving of arms by the people there. A figure detached itself and with much furious waving of arms, came galloping out on the airfield in my direction. I waited until an orderly from the Sqd. office arrived very much out of breath, and gasped out his message, “Flight ‘washed-out’ Sir, Cancelled! Peace has been signed!” When he got his breath back, he gave me more details. The Armistice was to operate from 11.am, no more offensive moves were to be made.

I sat for a minute or two in the machine while the news sank in, trying to grasp all the implications, while my prop ticked over. I thought to myself, “perhaps its only a false alarm, but it washes out this flight, anyhow”. I detached my Verey pistol [flare] from the fitting, inserted a white cartridge, and aiming into the air away from the other machines and the Airfield buildings, fired the regulation signal “washing-out” the flight, and taxied back to the tarmac in front of our hangar, followed by the other five Snipes. I still felt dubious about it, I felt there must be some mistake.

For the rest of the morning, I, with most of the other pilots of the Sqd. zooned around the airfield buildings and our quarters feeling like fish out of water. We still doubted the news, we really were unable to think clearly. However, when 11 a.m. came we began to show a little more interest. We began to notice the unearthly silence from the direction of the front line, where previously the dull roar of guns, and crackle of musketry fire was the familiar sound; there was now a dead silence. We began to think, it must be right after all; the war could be over!

John Wright was mates with Les Holden, of the all-red SE5a fame. Holden was also known as ‘lucky len’ and ‘the homing pidgeon’ after 1917 when during the Battle of Cambrai he would return from flights with his aircraft so badly shot up that it would have to be written off. Holden suggested they join up with the Royal Flying Corps [RFC], but the Australian Imperial Force did not allow Australians to transfer into the British Forces after initially relenting in 1915. Later on the Australian Flying Corps started recruiting directly from the Lighthorse; with Wright and Holden making sure they were first in line.


    SE5a of Captain Les Holden, 6 Sqn AFC.

They were picked up by Oswald Watt, who had flown with the French and Australian air services, before commanding No.2 Sqn AFC. The squadron built up strength in Egypt and England before transferring across to France. Holden stayed with No.2 Squadron which was where he earned his nicknames, but Wright was transferred to No.4 Squadron which flew Sopwith Camels. No.4 produced the aces Arthur ‘Harry’ Cobby and Roy ‘Bo’ King, both of who fitted the Australian larrikan myth perfectly – better than Crocodile Dundee ever did.

Wright joined A Flight which Cobby ended up commanding, and when Cobby went back to England at the end of his tour, King took over. That flight ended up being a highly cohesive and effective group. Cobby, as flight commander, never lost a pilot when he was leading the flight. They arguably ended up being a ‘Cobby gang’; so much so that there was social tension between then and C Flight which was commanded by the ace Edgar McCloughry, the brother of the squadron’s commander.

This didn’t hinder the squadron’s effectiveness though, by late 1918, 4 Sqn AFC was the best allied squadron on the northern (British) front. There is one well celebrated battle between 4 Sqn AFC and Jasta 2 (Boelcke) on November 4th, 1918. At the time they met these were the two best squadrons in World War I; they had the latest equipment either side could provide, Germany with the Fokker DVII and the British with the Sopwith Snipe.


    Sopwith Snipe of Captain John W. Wright, 4 Sqn AFC.

At 11:40 am 4 Squadron, while on bomber escort duties, noticed Fokkers of Jasta 2 tailing them. The Snipes, led by Roy King, escorted the bombers across the lines and then turned to dogfight the German aircraft led by German ace Karl Bolle. In the ensuring melee the Australians lost three aircraft and the Germans the same number. There are issues in determining German losses due to the historical record and the liberality of the British combat in the air reports [CAR] but there was no mistake about 4 Squadron’s losses. The three Australian pilots, Baker, Palliser and Sims did not return.

After Wright fired his Verey pistol on November 11th, he had personally scored four victories, and was commanding C Flight. The squadron was moved to Bickendorff outside of Cologne in Germany, where they remained until 1919. Wright records:

On May 6th [1919], the whole Squadron embarked at Southampton on the HTM Kaiser-i-Hind, a P&O Liner on which all squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps gathered together for return to Australia.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Thx for that Cam.