3 AFC History

The following is an editied version of Neil Smith's "Flying with 3 Squadron, A.F.C." which appeared in the 1987 '14-'18 Journal.


18 officers and 230 airmen were assembled at the Australian Imperial Forces camp next to the Central Flying School at Point Cook in Victoria on September 19th, 1916 at Point Cook in Victoria. The men were a mixture; some were Army men who had completed instruction courses at either Central Flying School or Wireless School. Many were civilians with previous flying experience. But they'd all volunteered to fight overseas with this newly formed Squadron, which at this embryonic stage had been called No. 2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps simply because it was the second Squadron to be formed in Australia.

On the 25th of October 1916, after only minimum basic training, these young men - most in their early twenties -sailed on the "S.S. Ulysses" from Port Melbourne bound for England to complete their training. After travelling around the Cape and through Durban and Freetown, "Ulysses" convey was delayed because of enemy submarines. It finally took nine weeks for the Squadron to reach Devonport, England. Christmas 1916 was spent on board but New Yew's day, 1917 saw the Squadron settling in at an aerodrome in South Carlton, new Lincoln where they were to spend the next eight months learning how to fly aircraft and operate as a reconnaissance squadron.

As soon as they arrived they were told that the Squadron was to be called No. 69, Australian Squadron, Royal Flying Corps but three months later, this was changed by War Office Memorandum dated 31st March, 1917, to No.69 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps and it first fought in France under that designation until, on the 20th of January 1918, the Squadron officially became No.3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps.

At 3 Squadron's base in South Carlton and at some of the Training Schools, instruction was also given in flying other types of aircraft including the well known but not always loved, BE2E. Originally intended for reconnaissance with the observer sitting in the front cockpit and the pilot in the back, it could only fly at about 80 miles an hour at 6000 feet making it too slow and vulnerable for combat ... at least that was the joint opinions of No.1 Squadron who were using them in Egypt and several R.A.F. Squadrons using them in France.

Nevertheless, a few BE2Es were used by 3 Squadron for both training and practice at their own airfield but luckily, the Squadron wasn't allocated these underpowered, underarmed and unmanoeuvrable aircraft for their coming Front Line operations. Instead, during June & July 1917, they were issued with the Royal Aircraft Factory's latest and greatest creations: "RE8"s. Nick-named "Harry Tates" after a popular musical artist of the time, they became the Squadron's main operational aircraft for the next 17 months until the War had almost ended.

On the 17th of August, 1917, an advance party consisting of 73 mechanics and 57 vehicles were called upon to carry out orders issued by the 23rd Wing, Royal Flying Corps, to move the Squadron to France. They arrived in Rouen and quickly began preparing for the arrival of the Squadron's 18 RE8's which were to fly from South Carlton four days later on the 21st. Unfortunately only 17 aircraft arrived as one went down on the way, killing the pilot and its passenger mechanic.

By the 4th of September, 1917, the Squadron had travelled north-east from Rouen for almost 100 miles, to Savy, about 8 miles from Arras and this is where they were to remain for the next two months. Thus, 3 Squadron (although, at that time, still called No.69 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps) became part of the 1st Wing, 1st Brigade, R.F.C. and so became the very first Australian Squadron to go into combat on the Western Front. The Squadron's first taste of operations was to act as a support force to Numbers 5 and 16 Squadrons R.F.C. who were also part of the 1st Wing. Their support duties involved the Squadron in 12 inconclusive air combats while they were carrying out 142 artillery patrols and pin-pointing 11 enemy batteries for destruction by artillery.

On 8th November 1917, the Squadron successfully completed its first bombing mission. The six RE8s of "A" Flight were armed with 40 pound phosphorus bombs for laying a protective smoke screen against enemy interference while the six RE8s in "B" Flight, loaded with 20 pound Cooper Bombs, and "C" Flight's six with 112 pounders, were bombing enemy positions in the village of Neuvireuil. Four days later, on the 12th November, the Squadron again moved north, this time to Bailleul near the Belgium border where they were to remain until a few days before the end of March, 1918.

By then, 3 Squadron's strength consisted of 45 Officers and 278 Airmen including almost 100 wireless operators. Everybody quickly settled down to their work as the "Corps Squadron" for the 1st Anzac Corps and, by 6th December, in spite of bad weather, Captain W.H. Anderson's observer, Lieutenant J.R. Bell shot down the Squadron's first enemy aircraft, a D.F.W. two-seater.

Twice in December, the aerodrome at Bailleul was attacked by German Gotha bombers who dropped 250-pound bombs from about 8,500 feet but they failed to damage the aerodrome.

February 1918 through to March involved the Squadron in many photographic missions around the Armentieres area where fighting was intense. Some flights were assigned to drop propaganda leaflets over enemy rest camps well behind the front line. Their purpose was to unsettle the enemy by letting them know that good food and warm billets awaited them if they decided to surrender. However, these missions were discontinued after it became known throughout the Corps that pilots brought down in enemy territory while dropping leaflets were treated brutally by the enemy. By the 22nd of March, the enemy shelling had risen to such a pitch that the Squadron could no longer operate out of Bailleul. That afternoon, they moved to Abeele and the very next morning a direct hit by a 14 inch shell on the vacated officers' quarters killed one and wounded two of the clean up squad still working there. Had this happened 24 hours earlier, perhaps a dozen or more pilots or observers could have been killed or at least badly injured in their quarters. It turned out that their stay at Abeele was to be a short but busy 15 days and for the ground crew, quite exciting because it was there they had a rare opportunity to see one of their RE8 crews in a dog fight with a German DFW almost over the aerodrome. The RE8 out flew and out-shot the DFW and eventually brought it down only a few miles from where they stood watching.

3 Squadron left the Armentieres-Ypres Front with the honour of being the top Squadron in the 2nd Wing, Royal Flying Corps, having located and reported the greatest number of enemy artillery positions in the Wing and assisted in the greatest number of Artillery Ranging missions as well. They moved south on the 6th April, 1918 to a hot-spot in the War ... the Somme Front. Already, 8 other Squadrons were fighting there when 3 Squadron took up their position as part of the 15th Wing, Royal Air Force, in an open airfield near Poulainville. They quickly started work carrying out reconnaissance missions for the Australian Corps to locate enemy batteries and, using the "zone call" system, direct our own artillery fire onto the enemy positions.

Towards the end of June, the Fourth Army asked 3 Squadron for assistance in dropping quantities of small arms ammunition to the machine gunners in the front line. The system being used meant that two soldiers were risked to carry each box of a thousand rounds which would only keep a machine gun firing for less than five minutes. Each delivery meant travelling two or three miles under enemy fire so casualties were heavy. At first, the RE8 crews tried throwing the boxes of ammunition over the side with little parachutes attached but the parachutes broke and created flying missiles capable of killing the awaiting troops.

Hurriedly, a few ingenious airmen modified their aircraft bomb racks to carry the boxes of ammunition so they could be released without any great difficulty to crew or ground troops and, on the 4th of July, twelve aircraft from Number 9 Squadron, Royal Air Force were attached to 3 Squadron to help them drop 87 boxes of ammunition to machine gunners fighting a critical offensive near Hamel.

Early in July the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable William Hughes, known to all as Billie Hughes, visited the Squadron and showed keen interest in the work they were doing.. and it was at that time plans for the Squadron's coming role in the Battle of Amiens were being prepared by the leaders of the Fourth Army.

At exactly 4.20 am on the 8th of August, 1918, the battle commenced. Eight RE8s from A and B Flights had taken off a little after 4 am in very overcast weather but nevertheless dropped their smoke bombs on the allotted line southwest of Cerisy about 13 miles away just as the ground troops commenced their spirited surprise attack. By 6.20 am, the first stage was successfully completed and the allied Front Line had been advanced according to plan. During the next nine hours, the Squadron flew contact patrols and counterattack patrols continuously and became the eyes for the progressing army, reporting their observations by dropping marked maps and messages at the Fourth Army Headquarters. Seven air combats were recorded that day with the loss of one RE8 which had been attacked near Mericourt by nine Fokkers and both pilot and observer were killed.

On the 29th of September, 1918, at 5.50am, the storming of the Hindenburg Line began. Ever since the famous Battle of the Somme in March 1917, the enemy had been preparing and fortifying this line as a major defensive position. 3 Squadron was called upon to observe the situation and flew many patrols that day.

On the 9th of November, 3 Squadron patrols reported the sighting of white flags fluttering from prominent buildings in the Cerfontaine-Silenrieux vicinity and numerous columns of enemy vehicles and troops, some holding an displaying hostage civilians to assure they wouldn't be attacked as they retreated.

On the 10th of November, an RE8 took part in the Squadron's final combat with the enemy. 10 Fokkers attacked this RE8 over Sivry but a formation of fighters from a nearby Squadron drove them off without injury to the aircraft. At 11.00 am the following day, an armistice was declared and all hostilities ceased. Thus ended the first glorious era in the life of 3 Squadron. From the time of its formation slightly over 2 years beforehand, it had acquitted itself admirably from any point of view for it had carried out almost 10,000 hours of war flying from l0 different aerodromes, and in the course of this flying observed and reported upon 735 artillery exchanges, dropped over 6000 bombs, fired at least half-a-million rounds against enemy targets and exposed over 6000 photographic plates covering some 1200 square miles of enemy territory. During its War Service, 88 pilots and 78 observers were attached to the Squadron of whom 11 pilots and 13 observers were killed in action and another 12 pilots and 12 observers were wounded and hospitalised. The Squadron lost 11 RE8's over enemy lines but succeeded in bringing down 51 enemy aircraft.