Army’s involvement in aviation can be traced back to the early days of the Twentieth Century. On 20 September 1912, the Minister for Defence approved the submission by the Chief of General Staff for the formation of a Flying Corps. From this, five aircraft were ordered and an advertisement was placed in newspapers for two Flying Instructors. Both Instructors, Captain Henry Petre and Lieutenant Eric Harrison made their first flights in Australia at Point Cook on 1 March 1914.
The first course of War Flying Instruction was conducted at Point Cook beginning in August 1914, two weeks after the declaration of World War I in Europe. There were four students including Lieutenant Richard Williams who went on to be the first and longest serving Chief of the RAAF Air Staff and later the first Director General of Civil Aviation.
Eight courses were conducted at Point Cook during the Great War. A total of 85 students received their flying training during this period. Ab-initio training was on Bristol Boxkites, engine starting and taxiing on a Deperdussin and advanced flying on the BE2a or equivalent types.
Soon after war was declared a BE2a and a Farman seaplane were crated and sent on HMAS Una to assist in the second phase of the seizure of German New Guinea possessions. The aircraft were not required and were returned to Point Cook from New Guinea still in the crates.
Early in 1915, in response to a request from the Viceroy of India, the First Half Flight of the AIF`s Australian Flying Corps, about fifty all ranks, was raised at Point Cook for service in the Mesopotamia Campaign. The Half Flight married-up with their aircraft at Basra and was absorbed into 30 Squadron Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Personnel other than pilots were required to make up the Half Flight. The Sergeant Major, Staff Sergeant, and Sergeant were from the Central Flying School, whilst the Quartermaster-Sergeant and the Farrier-Sergeant were from permanent Artillery units in New South Wales. The Corporals, drivers, and mechanics were obtained from the A.I.F. training camp at Broadmeadows, in Victoria.
Four operational AFC squadrons were raised in the AIF during the Great War. 1 Squadron was formed at Point Cook, left Australia on 16 March 1916, and saw action in Egypt and Palestine. Its wide range of aircraft included the Martinsyde, BE2c and e, Bristol Scout, Bristol Fighter and the RE8. The longest serving CO of the squadron was Major Richard Williams, from the first pilot’s course. One of the Squadron’s pilots was Lieutenant Frank McNamara who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in rescuing a fellow squadron pilot under fire.
The other three squadrons flew on the Western Front. 2 Squadron, beginning in October 1917, flew fighters, firstly the DH5 and then the SE5a. 3 Squadron was a Corps reconnaissance squadron and was equipped with the two-seater RE8 from September 1917. 4 Sqn, which began operations in January 1918, flew firstly the rotary-engined Sopwith Camel and then the Sopwith Snipe for the last month of hostilities. To support the squadrons in the field, four AFC Training Squadrons (Numbers 5 to 8) were located in the UK.
Approximately 521 Australians flew as aircrew in WW1 as either members of the AFC, RFC or the Royal Naval Air Service. Of those, 65 became flying aces who between them destroyed 799 enemy aircraft. Of note is MAJ R.S. Dallas (OC 40 Sqn RFC) with 51 victories. More than 2200 NCO’s and soldiers provided the ground crew, administrative and logistic support for the AFC.
Due to the great German offensive of March 1918 and the possible threat of Japan, the Australian Government was spurred into approving a defence plan. This plan was to have fifteen squadrons in the AFC, comprising 654 officers, 7,209 men and 270 aircraft (most of these to be locally built). This was to occur by 1921. A number of officers and men had already returned to Australia to put the scheme into effect but the plan was abandoned after the Armistice in November 1918. The squadrons were disbanded and aircraft and equipment were returned to Great Britain. In 1921 the Royal Australian Air Force was formed from the core of the AFC as a separate service, and Army ceased flying operations.
LT Frank Hubert McNamara, A.F.C.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during an aerial bomb attack upon a hostile construction train, when one of our pilots was forced to land behind the enemy’s lines. Lt. McNamara, observing this pilot’s predicament and the fact that hostile cavalry were approaching, descended to his rescue. He did this under heavy rifle fire and in spite of the fact that he himself had been severely wounded in the thigh. He landed about 200 yards from the damaged machine, the pilot of which climbed on to Lt. McNamara’s machine, and an attempt was made to rise. Owing, however, to his disabled leg, Lt. McNamara was unable to keep his machine straight, and it turned over. The two officers, having extricated themselves, immediately set fire to the machine and made their way across to the damaged machine, which they succeeded in starting. Finally Lt. McNamara, although weak from loss of blood, flew this machine back to the aerodrome, a distance of seventy miles, and thus completed his comrade’s rescue.