Anzac and Aviator

Eric Thake, Vimy flight stamp, 1969

Michael Molkentin. Anzac and Aviator: The Remarkable Story of Sir Ross Smith and the 1919 England to Australia Air Race. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019.

[Disclaimer: Michael is a friend of mine. But I wouldn't have agreed to review his book if I wasn't confident, based on everything else that he has published, that it was going to be excellent. And I was right.]

Anzac and Aviator is a new biography of Ross Smith, the first Australian aviation pioneer to find global fame. 1 This fame rested largely on just one flight in 1919, but it was a truly epic one: the first flight from Britain to Australia. At around 18,000 km, it was the longest to date (albeit carried out in stages, unavoidably). Despite being accompanied by his older brother (and fellow pilot), Keith, Ross -- it's hard to avoid using first names in this review! -- was the driving force behind the flight. With the centenary of the flight this December almost upon us, this biography is timely.

As the title suggests, however, Anzac and Aviator is not simply an account of Ross as an aviator. Before he ever learned to fly, he learned to fight. He volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force in 1914, and May the following year landed at Anzac Cove as a lighthorseman. In 1916 he led a mounted machine gun section in the defence of Gaza against the Ottoman army. Then he switched his horses for aeroplanes -- while keeping the machine guns -- getting a transfer to No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, initially as an observer and gunner, and then as a pilot, mainly flying Bristol Fighters in long-distance observation and bombing roles. Here he excelled, winning promotion to captain, claiming eleven enemy aircraft, and being awarded the Military Cross twice and the Distinguished Flying Cross three times (one of only three airmen to do so in the entire war). Crucially, while at No. 1 Squadron he also gained experience flying the big Handley Page O/400 in combat and formed a friendship with General Amyas Borton.

Borton was the catalyst for Ross's postwar career. He was an enthusiast for long-distance flights, and in 1918, he himself was the first to fly from Britain to Egypt. In 1919 he and Ross were the first to fly, again in an O/400, from Egypt to India. Already they had in mind a further flight all the way to Australia, and undertook a ground survey of possible routes, or more accurately, landing grounds, of which there were few. When the Australian government announced £10,000 for the first flight from Britain to Australia inside of 30 days, then, Ross was already in pole position. Not Borton, though: the prize was only for Australians. Ross tapped his brother Keith for co-pilot and navigator (rather questionably, given his lack of long-distance flying, but he ended up doing a superb job), and lined up a Vimy from Vickers, G-EAOU (above, in a 1969 stamp designed by Eric Thake). On 12 November 1919, the Ross brothers, along with Australian mechanics James Bennett and Wally Shiers, took off into history...

I'll stop the summary there, not only because you should read Anzac and Aviator to understand what Ross and his crew went through over the next four weeks, but also because I recently wrote a review of a new edition of his own 1922 book about the race itself, 14,000 Miles Through the Air (under the new title Flight to Fame). Anzac and Aviator is never less than interesting, and like any good work of history, it answers some questions while raising new ones. It sheds more light on the dependence of the Australian aviators on the exploitation of the inhabitants of the British and Dutch empires, for example: at Sourabaya (now Surabaya), the huts of the local people were pulled down in order to make a bamboo mat runway so the Vimy to take off from a muddy airfield (265). Discussions of Ross's brushes with the famous -- Lord Roberts, T.E. Lawrence -- don't detract from analyses of his more important relationships with officers like Borton, Geoffrey Salmond, and Richard Williams, his CO at No. 1. Squadron and, later, first Chief of Air Staff of the RAAF. It's clear that family was important to Ross; he regularly wrote to his mother during the five years after he joined the AIF, and the death of his younger brother Colin at Passchendaele was a painful loss. But his relationship with Keith remains somewhat mysterious. The question of Ross's sexuality is sensitively touched upon: he clearly enjoyed the company of women, but there seems to be little evidence of romantic liaisons with any of them, or with men for that matter (125). I would have liked to have known more about the genesis of the race itself; but then, this is a biography, not a history as such.

One of the aspects of 14,000 Miles that most intrigued me was its, in parts, almost Saint-Exupéry-esque lyricism, where he describes the bizarre beauty of a cloudscape or muses upon the aeroplane as a living machine. It didn't even occur to me that Ross might not have written these passages, but Michael shows conclusively that 14,000 Miles was at least partly, and probably wholly, written by Frank Hurley, the famous Antarctic and war photographer who accompanied the Vimy on its triumphal Australian flights (305-6). That still makes it interesting as an ecstatic expression of airmindedness, but it does mean that it doesn't shed much light on Ross himself (and Michael, sensibly, doesn't lean on it very much). As evidenced by his letters and diaries, drawn upon extensively here, Ross doesn't not seenm to have been particularly imaginative. While he certainly saw the future potential of aviation -- 'the coming thing' (94), as he put it -- he was like most of his fellow pioneer aviators in favouring the prosaic over the poetic. Which serves to highlight the fascinating paradox of this era of flight: precisely because previously almost-unimaginable fantasies were now coming just within the realm of possibility, it took immense practicality to actually achieve them.

One indicator of how close to the edge of feasibility the Vimy flight was is the fact that, apart from one of the other race teams, Raymond Parer and John McIntosh, nobody else made the flight from Britain and Australia until Alan Cobham in 1926, actually taking three days longer than the Vimy had in 1919. And even then there were no regular services until the Imperial Airways-Qantas Empire Airways route opened in 1935 (332). After the flight, Ross apparently didn't even see aeroplanes as the best bet for binding the Empire together, becoming an enthusiast for airships while preparing a report for Billy Hughes on the early stages of what would become the Imperial Airship Scheme (309-310). So what was it all for?

Borton, whose idea the flight seems to have been, apparently was looking ahead to some sort of postwar job in charge of air routes (178-179). He and Salmond -- who also flew on the India flight -- were certainly thinking of an all-red air route (188). For Ross, though, it seems like it was something between a challenge of his skills and the obvious next thing to do. His next planned venture with Keith, a circumnavigation of the world in a Vickers Viking, crossed the brink from risky into foolhardiness. In planning the route, he ignored warnings that the amphibian didn't quite have enough range to fly the North Atlantic in one hop, apparently banking on favourable tailwinds (314-5). But it didn't even come to that, because on his first time flying the Viking he crashed it, killing himself and Bennett (fortunately Keith was too late for the takeoff). The Viking was known to be an unforgiving aeroplane to fly: it had already killed the other famous Vimy pilot, John Alcock, first (with Arthur Brown) to fly non-stop across the Atlantic (314). Michael notes that Ross had done surprisingly little flying in between the Vimy and the Viking, going aloft just three times in eighteen months. But it also seems that he was getting impatient with the logistical planning for the world flight, which took eighteen months (compared with under one month for the Australia flight). Michael's judgement seems fair:

Though a risk-taker, Ross Smith had not frequently been reckless; prudence usually figured in his daring. In his final days, though, he became impetuous and over-confident -- just the sort of pilot who might insist on taking the controls of an unfamiliar and difficult-to-fly aircraft without waiting for his brother to join him as planned. (322)

In the end, what drove Ross to do what he did still remains something of a mystery. But thanks to Anzac and Aviator, we know how he was able to do it. Recommended.

Image source:

  1. With the possible exception of Harry Hawker.

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