Half Flight History*

In February 1915, the Viceroy of India cabled the Australian Government to ask if; "You could provide any trained aviators for service in the Tigris Valley? All our trained Officers are in Egypt or England. If Officers are available, can you also send machines, complete with motor transport, spares, mechanism, personnel, etc.  We should prefer biplanes. If available,we should like details of machines. Should you be unable to send machines, we can obtain Maurice Farman or Bleriot types from England. Have you any aviators who have handled either type?"

In response to this and to later cables, a small but well-equipped detail of Australian Flying Corps arrived at Basra, at the confluence of the Tigris & Euphrates Rivers in May of 1915. The force comprised 4 Officer pilots and 41 other ranks, together with mechanised transport and mule transport, but no aircraft. Two of the heavy lorries were equipped as mobile workshops, having lathes, drilling machines, welding plants, and circular saws as part of their reserves. At Basra, they found 2 British Indian Army airmen and a few more mechanics in charge of 2 Maurice Farman Shorthorn aircraft, and a single Longhorn. Two Caudron G.3 sesquiplanes were later added to the compliment. By August 1915,the Half Flight had become 'A' Flight of No 30 Squadron, R.F.C., and had acquired 4 Martinsyde scouts, which, by a series of mishaps, were soon reduced to a single airworthy aircraft.

The strength of the unit was further increased by the inclusion of 2 Indian Army airmen, Captains P.W.L.Broke-Smith and H.L.Reilly, and a N.Z. pilot Lieut. W.W.A. Burn. The 4 Australian pilots were Captains H.A. Petre & T.W. White, and Lieuts G.P. Merz & W.H. Treloar. Merz was also a qualified medical practitioner, a qualification which would undoubtedly have been a great comfort to his companions. The mule drivers were left at Bombay to await the arrival of the beasts and the wagons, and it was finally October before they were sent on to Basra as the area was not considered suitable for mule transport.

Of the 18 air mechanics, 9 were kept at Basra, leaving the other 9 to service the landing ground.

On July 30,whilst returning from a reconnaissance flight, Lieuts Merz & Burn were forced down with engine trouble, a constant source of worry in desert operations. Their Caudron was attacked by hostile Arabs, and they defended themselves and their aircraft with their only weapons available - service revolvers - till they were finally overcome by the superior numbers of the Arab force. Their bodies were never recovered. Their aircraft, hacked almost to pieces, was later recovered and towed back to the aerodrome, where some of the remaining serviceable parts were used as spares. None of the Mesopotamian machines carried machine guns, due in part to the nature of the reconnaissance role being undertaken but more especially as they imposed a severe weight penalty on aircraft already operating at the very edge of their capabilities.

In August, the air arm was reinforced by the arrival of 3 RNAS seaplanes from East Africa. It was about this time that Staff Sergeant C.V.Heath was recommended for the only D.C.M. to be awarded in the Australian Flying Corps, his citation reading;
"For conspicuous pluck & determination in Mesopotamia on 1st August 1915, when he assisted to pole a 'bellum' (a flat-bottomed boat) 28 miles in 12 hours, in most intense heat, in order to rescue aviators who had been forced to descend in the enemy's territory."

The primitive aero engines, as mentioned, continually gave trouble in the sand and heat of Mesopotamia, and it was again engine failure which caused Lieut. Treloar to land behind enemy lines. Treloar and his British observer were taken into captivity by the Turks and although very badly treated, survived the war as P.O.W.s. A temperamental engine also caused Captain White to land inside enemy territory. With his observer, Captain Yeats-Brown (author of "Bengal Lancer") who was armed with a rifle, acting as navigator and guard, White coaxed the machine along and finally succeeded in taxying it all the way back to the British lines.

September saw the arrival of another 13 air mechanics under Sergeant G.J.W. MacKinolty (who later rose to Wing Commander in the R.A.A.F.) It appears that these personnel were retained at the base in Basra, since the number of Australian air mechanics stationed at the landing grounds at no time ever exceeded 9.

The little Unit continued to bomb & reconnoitre Turkish concentrations, but disaster struck on Friday November 13th. Captain White,with Yeats-Brown again as his observer, deliberately landed behind enemy lines with the intent to destroy telegraph lines. The aircraft, however, was badly damaged on landing and rendered unable to take off again, and as a result of the accident, White and Yeats-Brown were taken prisoner. White's subsequent sufferings & eventual escape is vividly told in his book "Guests of the Unspeakable". The flight was now left with only one pilot - Captain Petre, and a single serviceable air craft.

After Townshend's failure at Ctesiphon, the British force of 3,000 British & 10,000 Indian troops retreated to Kut-el-Amara, where they remained besieged for the ensuing 5 months, finally surrendering on April 29, 1916 because of the decimation of their numbers by disease & starvation. Of the 9 Australian ground staff taken into the bag, only two survived the war to recount the sad tale of their sufferings and deprivation. Corporal T.M.N. Soley & Air Mechanic D. Curran died on the terrible march from Kut to Anatolia, a distance of over 700 miles across some of the worst terrain in the world. Hundreds died on the march as starvation, thirst, brutal treatment and exposure took their inexorable toll. Those who survived were put to work on the railway in the Taurus Mountains, where conditions were frightful, and only again equalled in WW2 on the Burma Railway. Another 5 Australians perished here - Air Mechanics F.L. Adams, W.H. Lord, J. Munro, W.C. Rayment and L.T.  Williams. The 2 survivors were Corporal (later Flight Sgt.)J.McK. Sloss and A/M K.L. Hudson. Because of their skill as mechanics, they were retained by the Germans to maintain and service their motor vehicles.

Sloss attempted an escape, and although he actually reached the sea 70 miles distant, was forced to give himself up when he ran out of food and could not find a boat. After a period in goal, he returned to the German motor repair shop, where he remained under the now watchful eye of the Germans lest he try to escape again. None the less, the two  managed to adopt a 'busy' go slow procedure, taking over two months in one instance to repair a single car. All the while however, they never gave up hope for another escape attempt. During the months it took to repair the above-mentioned car, they managed to build a collapsible boat. Sloss however, did not get an opportunity to participate in the escape attempt, being detained at the time for insolence. In any case the attempt proved unsuccessful. Sloss and Hudson were awarded the Meritorious Service Medal on the release from captivity for their devotion to duty and the valuable services rendered whilst prisoners of war.

In October 1916, the Half Flight was disbanded and the remaining Australian personnel sent from Basra to Egypt, where they were absorbed into Nos 1 & 2 Squadrons AFC, then forming.

Keast Burke in his book "With Horse & Morse in Mesopotamia" gives a nominal roll of the Half Flight. It is not without errors & omissions and some of the information provided is obviously post 1916, especially with regard to rank. For instance, 'Lieut.Menzies K.R.' was in fact 1st Air Mechanic Menzies K.R. He was later commissioned while serving with No.2 Squadron AFC. In the following corrected roll therefore, it will be noted that regimental numbers 5 & 27 are missing. It is quite possible that Menzies was no.5, but no explanation can be offered with regard to no.27. It is not possible to be precise about the actual number of personnel in the Unit, but the following appears at least to be as accurate as possible, having regard to the information available.

Nominal Roll - Half Flight

Captain Petre H.A. (Later Major, DSO, MC, MID (3) & CO No 5 Training Squadron AFC.)
Captain White T.W. (DFC, MID, Prisoner of War, Federal MP.)
Lieutenant Merz G.P. (MID, Killed in action 30.7.15)
Lieutenant Treloar W.  (Prisoner of War)
SERN Name and Rank SERN Name and Rank
1. Sgt. Major Shorland A.E. 3 Squadron QMS Garling S.W.
14. Sergeant Abdy C.E. 8. Sergeant Cowper G.H.
2. Staff Sergeant Heath C.V. (DCM, MID.) 43. Sergeant MacKinolty G.J.W.
6. Sergeant Wardell C.E. 27. 1 AM Menzies K.R.
29. Farrier Sgt. Murray A. 28. Farrier Sgt. Garling A.B.
13. Cpl. Bissett H.J. 17. Cpl. Clayton S.G.
32. Cpl. Curtin D.D. 46. Cpl. Dobney W.E.
42. Cpl. Chapple E.J. 34. Cpl. Gower J.
9. Cpl. Head E.J. 20. Cpl. Lonsdale R.(MM.)
18. Cpl. Lord H.F. 26. Cpl. Robinson S.G.
11. Cpl. Sloss J.McK.(MSM, POW) 51. Cpl. Stubbs J.
41. LCpl. Lewis O. 436. LCpl. Sutherland C. (Wheelwright)
440. Act Cpl. Coles A.A. 48. Sgt. Mech. Player S.
52. Chief Mech. Wheeler W.F. 12. 1 AM Hudson K.L.(MSM,POW)
31. 1 AM Niskanen F. 19. 1 AM Peters G.
50. 1 AM Solnik A.I. 44. AM Adams F.L. (Died POW)
45. AM Curran D. (Died POW) 23. AM Lord W.H. (Died POW)
47. AM Munro J. (Died POW) 49. AM Rayment W.C. (Died POW)
10. AM Soley T.  (Died POW) 16. AM Williams L.T. (Died POW)
15. AM Yarrow F.T. 439. Drv. Anlezark J.A.
37. Pte. Bass R.J. 36. Drv. Bell A.L
35. Pte. Brown J. 40. Drv. Carvell H.
438. Drv Campbell W.A. 442. Drv. Collins W.G.
25. Pte. Davis S.W. 7. Pte. Dixon H.S.
24. Pte. Eastlake A.S. 30. Pte. Edwards H.J.
39. Drv. Fraser K. 22. Drv. Jones G.S.
33. Drv. Munday W.S. 441. Drv. Long A.C.
21. Drv. Passmore R. 437. Drv. Sutherland C.S.
38 Pte. Treweek N.L.    

*Original article appeared in the 1987 '14-'18 Journal