Captain Ross M. Smith. KBE, DFC and two bars, MC and bar, AFC
Ross Smith was one of the great leaders and larrikins of 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, post-war he was also one of the great aviation adventurers whose life was sadly cut short after several record breaking flights. The world was definitely poorer for his loss to aviation in 1922. Ross Smith was born in Adelaide on December 4th 1892, and after a college education worked as a Warehouseman in Adelaide before enlisting on the 19th of August, 1914. Ross Smith's enlistment date is very soon after the 31st of July when the Federal Government of Australia was notified of imminent war in Europe and undertook their own mobilization plans.
Ross Smith enlisted with the Australian Light Horse and found himself in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 as a Lieutenant machine gunner with the 3rd Lighthorse, until he was struck down with illness. Les Sutherland was evacuated from the "Peninsula" as the Gallipoli veterans called it, at the same time as Ross Smith for the same illness, which was considered dangerously contagious. They were evacuated from the Dardanelles on a small boat,
My fellow "isolatee" and I were carried on board and I can still hear the medical sergeant at the gangway saying, "Cripes! here's a couple of infectious cases. Where will I put them, sir?" And a querulous voice answering : "Put them anywhere, sergeant, so long as they are away from the others."
The medical sergeant improvised an isolation area in the ship's lifeboat, securing both Ross Smith and Les Sutherland in the isolated area. Ross Smith and Les Sutherland struck up a conversation that was to lead to friendship. Both later served in 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, both as observers and later Ross Smith as a pilot. Les Sutherland didn't get his wings until after the war in Aboukhir. Les Sutherland also wrote of Ross Smith's other characteristics.
To us, who first knew him in khaki, he was a solid lump of a chap, 5 feet 10 inches high, fair and fresh complexioned. For an Aussie he had a fine command of English and an unusually impressive diction. He had a lovable smile, was intensely athletic and was man all through. ... A leader born, he was absolutely fearless. He was thrice valuable on the Eastern Front, on top of his other war qualities, he was a great pilot, a deadly gunner, and he had brains.
Ross Smith enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps as an observer with 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. At the time, 1 Sqn was recruiting heavily from the Lighthorse, as it was felt although the horse riding abilities of the Lighthorsemen gave them a natural advantage in flying, with their knowledge of the desert over which 1 Squadron was operating, they could also recognize the difference between a retreating and advancing force. Previous observers that had been allocated to 1 Squadron were junior RFC officers who had no experience of the Palestinian theatre. It was felt that recruiting Lighthorse officers as observers would increase the operational efficiency of both the Australian Flying Corps and the Australian Lighthorse.
Recruited From the Lighthorse
Most volunteers from the Lighthorse wanted to fly rather than be observers. Richard Williams overcame this by offering those that volunteered as observers would get their opportunity to learn to fly as squadron numbers allowed. Ross Smith was one who joined in this manner, in the first recruitment group, which included Vivian Turner and George Mills. Other greats of early Australian aviation also joined under this deal, Hudson Fysh being one, and Pard Mustar' another. Hudson Fysh and Pard Mustard though, got their wings after the war at Aboukhir. Ross Smith was sent to flying training as soon as the school was able to take him.
Richard Williams trained Ross Smith as a pilot while they were flying operationally as the opportunity arose. The BE2e had a control column which carried through the front cockpit where the observer was situated. In this pass through connection, a removable control column could be slipped in, so the person in the observer position could fly the aircraft. The removable control column was normally kept on the side of the fuselage when not in use. Richard Williams used this to give Ross Smith experience in flying and keep good his promise that Smith would be trained as a pilot at the first opportunity. Richard Williams wrote in his autobiography,
However we did make use of this facility [the control column set up in the BE2e]. Ross Smith, who for sometime was my regular observer and whose one desire was to become a pilot, would, when he had finished making his notes on a reconnaissance, insert the removable control stick and I would leave the control to him for the journey home. Of course he had no rudder control but that is how he got his first flying experience. My log book shows that we spent 66 hours together in the air before he went off for training as a pilot when the RFC Training Brigade was formed in Egypt.
On one occasion when Ross Smith was flying with Richard Williams, their right rear flying wires were shot away while they were observing Turkish trench positions in a BE2e. Richard Williams wrote later that he expected the wings on that side of the aircraft to collapse, and both Smith and Williams were happy they were not attacked by a German aircraft on the trip home.
Smith's Military Cross
Ross Smith was also involved in the pick-up and rescue of a downed pilot on the 19th of March, 1917 when Smith with Lieutenant Reg Baillieu as the pilot, landed beside a downed 14 Sqn RFC Martinsyde. The RFC pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Kirby, got his hands burnt trying to destroy his machine. The Martinsyde was set alight, and Kirby joined the BE of Baillieu and Smith, which had been firing at advancing Turks with the BE's Lewis gun. The BE alighted, and all three made it back to their aerodrome safely.
It is likely this is the incident which earned him his first Military Cross,
Soon after the rescue incident, Ross Smith was sent off to the RFC Training School at Aboukhir to earn his wings as a pilot. The Aboukhir school in Egypt supported the AFC and RFC in Egypt, as did X Aircraft Park. Smith returned to 1 Squadron as they were receiving BE12's and RE8's, though both kinds of aircraft were outdated, they were an improvement over the BE2 aircraft that squadron had been using since 1916.
Meeting 1 Sqn's Most Gallant Foe In The Air
On August 3rd, 1917 Ross Smith and three others went out on a bombing raid to destroy a German aircraft that was abandoned in the desert. As the Australian machines went to bomb out they worked out it was a dummy aircraft, and looked out for attacking German Scouts, of which they found two. There was an exchange of fire but due to the Australians having greater numbers, the German aircraft broke off. Ross Smith told his rigger, Joe Bull, that he got close to Felmy, but Felmy would not fight.
Gerhardt Felmy was the most courageous and skilled of the German pilots of FA300 facing 1 Squadron and 14 Squadron. Anytime the Australians faced a skilled pilot they naturally assumed it was Felmy, many instances where 1 Squadron believed they came up against Felmy, was actually another German pilot. Les Sutherland wrote that there were two reasons to be concerned in a BE2, "Archie and Felmy". Ross Smith's first victory on September 1st illustrates the focus on Felmy.
Ross Smith in BE12 A6311 was flying with Major Alfred Ellis in another BE12 A6328 were reconning over Beersheeba when they met an Albatros Scout. During the dogfight, Ross Smith was wounded, a bullet passed through his left cheek, and exited through his right cheek, taking teeth with it on the way. Another bullet grazed his forehead. Ellis and Smith drove the Albatros from FA300 down. Both Ellis and Smith thought the pilot was Felmy, however an intercepted wireless message proved it was Lt Schmarje of FA300. The message stated, "Lieutenant Schmarje has crashed and another is required in his place." Felmy had left the theatre in August of 1917, suffering from tropical illness.
Bristol Fighter B1229
Even great pilots are subject to the whims of the aircraft of the era, which could be notoriously unreliable when they felt like it. Ross Smith was wounded soon after taking command of C Flight when the BE12 he was flying, A6338, had its engine seize not long after take off and Smith flew into a telegraph pole. The BE12 was destroyed and Smith only slightly wounded. The BE's would not remain in the squadron service much longer, the squadron was slowly being re-equipped with the Bristol Fighter, one of the remarkable aircraft of the war. It was to be the Bristol Fighter B1229, flown by Ross Smith, that dominated the Palestinian theatre.
The Bristol Fighter was not only more powerful than the old BE's and RE8's it was an aggressive weapon as well, with good performance and endurance. Ross Smith tested this endurance when on the 30th of January Smith he flew a Bristol Fighter to 19,000 feet to test a new type of camera. Unfortunately the fuel pump froze on them, which caused them to come down again. On another occasion after B1229 had been re-rigged, Ross Smith took up his rigger Joe Bull, to test the new rigging arrangement. Joe Bull recorded that they had the aircraft to 115 mph at 6,000 ft.
With the Bristol Fighter the squadron was able to not only perform the Army operational requirements such as reconnaissance and bombing, but also pursue air and ground targets aggressively. Ross Smith's first decisive victory in the Bristol came in May of 1918, when he caught a two-seater at 11,000 feet. The power of the Bristol enabled it to outclimb the German aircraft.
Even though the aerial combats dotted the Squadrons history, the majority of the work was deep reconnaissance and bombing of targets such as communications, troop gatherings, trains and rail stations. In June, Captain Ross Smith and Lieutenant Walter Kirk along with the aircrew of Lieutenant Carrick Paul and Lieutenant William Weir were reconning in the area of Nablus and Tel Keram. They mapped the troop concentrations along the Lubban-Nablus road and flew to the aerodrome at Jenin to map any new movements there. As they flew back to Burka, they found an infantry group embarking onto railcars, the pair of Bristol dived at the gathered troops and transport causing the troops to seek cover and the train to depart. The two Bristols flew alongside it, firing into the locomotive, the pair of Bristols then returned to the train station to strafe the motor transport and troop emplacements. Between the two Bristols they fired 2000 rounds.
Though the exploits of the Squadron and Ross Smith are recorded in the Official History and the Squadron History, there are many incidents which were too far outside of Army Regulations to ever be recorded in AIF written history. On one occasion Ross Smith and Stan Nunan concocted a scheme to land a Bristol Fighter at a German aerodrome, and while the pilot held off the German troops with the Bristol Fighters Lewis Gun, the observer would get out and fire a revolver into the German aircraft fuel tanks then set them alight with a Very pistol.
Smith and Nunan found their oppurtunity when a new German squadron arrived in Palestine and was establishing itself at a new aerodrome. Smith and Nunan took the ever reliable Bristol B1229 under the pretext they were going to bomb the squadrons Anti-Aircraft emplacements. Nunan was in the observer's seat armed with Mills Bombs. The pair in their first pass over the aerodrome dropped Coopers bombs to get the mechanics to run to trenches, and they noticed only two of the five hangars had been set up. Nunan ran from German aircraft to German aircraft, alternatively firing the Colt pistol into fuel tanks and the Verey pistol into the fuel, while Smith was alternating stopping the engine from stalling and firing the Lewis guns at the origins of the German machine gun fire. Eventually the Germans at the aerodrome twigged to what was going on and twenty of them armed with rifles ran onto the runway.
Nunan was having difficulty setting the fourth machine on fire, when Ross Smith decided to taxi the Bristol closer to Nunan so they could get away faster, as Sutherland tells it, Nunan got a shock hearing the Rolls Royce engine roar thinking he was going to be left behind. Nunan threw a Mills bomb into the fourth machine and caught the Bristol as the German infantry were firing. Smith quickly gunned the motor and the pair flew off, leaving three DFW's burning, one damaged and a hangar burning. B1229 had taken some gunfire in the wings.
Supporting Lawrence of Arabia
1 Squadron had served as Lawrence of Arabia's taxi on several occasions, on the 16th of May, 1918, Ross Smith flew Lawrence to Fiesel's Army. In August of 1918, Fiesel's Army was based at Azrak outside of Deraa, where the remainder of the German Fleiger Abteilung's were based. Lawrence had received some clapped out old BE12's as X Flight to support his operations. The BEs didn't last long. A Bristol Fighter from 1 Squadron was sent to replace the lost BE12's however that aircraft got caught in a combat with nine German aircraft and had it's rear longerons shot through. Lieutenant 'Spud' Murphy and Lieutenant Fred Hawley managed to fix the aircraft and fly it back to the Australian aerodrome. The Bristol was replaced with three Bristol's, with the aircrew's of, Captain Ross 'Hadji' Smith and Lieutenant Pard Mustard, Lieutenant Eustice 'Useless' Headlam and Lieutenant William Lilly, and Captain George Peters and Lieutenant James Trail.
On the 22nd of September while Ross Smith along with the other Australians were having breakfast at Azrak in Fiesel's camp, when a warning came across for a German bombing raid. Smith and Mustard with Headlam and Lilly took off and caught the DFW along with the two Pfalz Scouts. The Bristols caught the DFW and their fire set it alight, the DFW crashing near Mafrak. The Pfalz Scouts then broke for the aerodrome at Deraa, the Bristols were unable to catch them but did strafe them on the ground after they had landed. The Bristols returned to Azrak and the aircrews continued their breakfast as the Blackwoods Magazine recounts.
While L. [ Lawrence ] and the airmen were having breakfast with us, a Turkish plane was observed, making straight for us. One of the airmen ...... hurried off to down the intruder. This he successfully did, and the Turkish plane fell in flames near the railway. He then returned and finished his porridge, which had been kept hot for him meanwhile! But not for him a peaceful breakfast that morning. He had barely reached the marmalade stage when another Turkish plane appeared. Up hurried the Australian again; but this Turk was too wily and scuttled back to Deraa, only to be chased by P. [ Peters ] on another machine, which sent him down in flames.
The paraphrased story isn't quite accurate, however after the Bristols returned at 10.30 am another warning was raised this time for three Pfalz aircraft approaching. Ross Smith and Pard Mustard rose to greet them, and in the ensuing engagement drove down all three aircraft, two landing nearby the railway and running along the ground to Turkish outposts. The third made for Deraa, landing there. Smith and Mustard chased the third aircraft before returning to the two downed aircraft, strafing them until they were unfit to fly.
The Big Handley Page 0/400
At the end of August, 1 Squadron received a Handley Page 0/400, the aircraft was flown from Cairo by Ross Smith to join the squadron. Richard Williams relates why 1 Squadron and in particular Ross Smith was given charge of the aircraft.
As it would normally be used against targets well behind the enemy front line and as, in addition, it was fitted with Rolls Royce engines it was logical to allot it to those that knew the distant country and were acquainted with that type of engine, namely 1 Squadron AFC. There was obvious need for an experienced pilot and mechanic - there were no spare parts to speak of - and this resulted in its being placed in the charge of Captain Ross Smith with Sergeant J.M. Bennett as mechanic.
The Handley Page's slow speed and low operational altitude led to it being used in night raids only. On the night of September 19th and 20th the Handley Page with Ross Smith as the pilot, bombing El Afule and the German aerodrome at Jenin. One use the Handley Page was put to was supporting the Bristols at Azrak with supplies of fuel, oil, bombs and ammunition. Ross Smith flew the big Handley Page to the airstrip at Um Es Surab do the delight of the Arabs of Feisel's Army. Lowell relates the landing of the Handley Page and its cargo.
That afternoon a giant Handley-Page arrived from Palestine with General Borton as passenger and Ross Smith as the pilot. They brought forty seven tins of petrol and also a supply of tea for Lawrence, Winterton and companions.
The Arabs went wild, firing their guns in the air to the consternation of Ross Smith, carrying as he was a volatile cargo in the Handley Page. The Arab's called aircraft, "tiara's" which meant female things. One Arab soldier told an Australian Flying Corps member, "At last Allah has brought us the aeroplane of which all others are foals." Richard Williams also relates the effect Ross Smith bringing in the big Handley Page had.
The Handley Page returned that night but it proved to be the finest recruiting agent the Arab Army ever had. They had never seen such a huge aircraft, nor had we for that matter, and considered that if the British could produce an aircraft so much bigger than anybody else they knew of, then they must be the people who would win.
Ross Smith's Third Distinguished Flying Cross
After Deraa had been taken by the Lighthorse, the presence of German aircraft in the theatre had been greatly reduced. There still were some engagements, but they were few and infrequent. One of the last decisive combats of the Palestinian theatre occurred when Captian Ross Smith and Lieutenant Ashley McCann with the aircrew of Lieutenant Eustice 'Useless' Headlam and Lieutenant William Lilly caught a DFW south west of Aleppo. The DFW landed in the desert and Smith landed next it. While the German aviators were standing near the DFW with their hands in the air, Ross Smith set the aircraft alight with Headlam and Lilly providing escorting cover. Smith considered bringing the German airmen back on his aircraft, however he thought the ground was too soft and was unwilling to risk his Bristol in an overweight take-off attempt. The combat did interfere with their reconnaissance to Aleppo.
This incident brought Ross Smith his third Distinguished Flying Cross.
Richard Williams, the Wing Commander for the 40th Wing, wanted to recommend Ross Smith for a Distinguished Service Order instead of the Distinguished Flying Cross as Headquarters recommended.
Again it was my view that Ross Smith, already wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross with bar and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar and still doing outstanding work, should be recommended after a reasonable period for the Distinguished Service Order. This intention was thwarted by Headquarters making an immediate award of a second bar to the DFC for a particular action, without my knowledge, and because the cessation of hostilities immediately after prevented me making the recommendation I had in mind.
End of World War I and Record Breaking Flights
Ross Smith finished the war with two Military Crosses and three Distinguished Flying Cross awards. Considering the Military Cross is the pre-Royal Air Force equivalent of the Distinguished Flying Cross, this is a remarkable number. It is the highest accrual of these equivalent medals of any British or Commonwealth servicemen. As his medals and citations show, Ross Smith's effectiveness was held in high esteem, it was not only the Armies Headquarters and Williams in 40th Wing that were aware of Ross Smith's effectiveness, Les Sutherland relates,
Many is the time I have heard a Light Horseman say : "Jacko [slang for a Turk] bombed hell out of us on such-and-such a day, but Ross Smith'll fix the _______" (description according to heaviness of bombardment) This unshakable faith in him was general throughout the Anzac and the Australian Mounted Division.
With the end of hostilities, General 'Biffy' Borton decided the Handley Page should fly to Mesopotamia to join up with forces there, 1 Squadron's Handley Page C9681 was being overhauled, so the second Handley Page C9700 was taken with Ross Smith flying and the crew of Sgt James Bennett and Sgt William Shiers. This crew was to feature prominently in the England to Australia air race. On this trip the Handley Page didn't stop at Baghdad, they flew it all the way to India, arriving in Calcutta. The Handley Page 0/400 C9700 was later to serve in the Afghan War in Kabul before being destroyed by a sand storm.
At the end of the war, Australia was keen to discover new and faster ways to connect Australia to their main trading partners in Europe, flight was seen as a means to achieve this. To solidify interest in flying to Australia, the Australian Government put up 10,000 pounds for the first Australian airman who succeeded in flying from England to Australia. This was met with enthusiasm by many Australian aviators, Ross Smith being one of them.
Ross Smith entered a Vickers Vimy, with himself and his brother Keith, who had served in the Royal Flying Corps, and the crew Ross Smith had flown with to Calcutta, Sergeant James Bennet and Sergeant William Shiers. The Vickers Vimy had the military serial of F8630, but the Civil Registration of G-EAOU, which got nicknamed by the crew, "God 'elp All Of Us!". The crew left England on the 12th of November 1919, and arrived in Australia on the 10th of December. When the Vickers Vimy of Ross Smith landed, two ex Australian Flying Corps aviators, Hudson Fysh and Peter 'Ginty' McGuiness, were watching and inspired to create an air service in the north of Australia. They called their new company, the Queensland and Northern Territory Aviation Service or as it is known today QANTAS.
Vickers gave the Vimy aircraft to the Australian Government who gave it the serial A5-1. The aircraft was on display in the Australian War Memorial until 1957 when it was moved and badly damaged by fire. Today the Vickers Vimy G-EAOU is viewable at the Adelaide Airport. Ross Smith's old Bristol B1229 was not so lucky, it was shown at a display in Cairo in 1919, before being shipped to Australia and shown at the Melbourne motor show. At some point it was lost or destroyed, either in the fire at a warehouse in Melbourne or in a fire at the Australian War Memorial.
Ross Smith was also lost to the world on the 14th of April 1922 along with Jim Bennett. They were testing a Vickers Viking amphibian which they intended to fly around the world. Ross Smith's pioneering spirit is not forgotten however, recently a Vickers Vimy replica was built in Queensland and Smith's trip from England to Australia was re-enacted in 1994.
Sir Ross Smith was one of the great aces and combat leaders the Australian Flying Corps contained in their highly skilled ranks. After the war he turned his skill to pioneering aviation flights. His death only three years after the Armistice was a great loss to world aviation and to Australia.
Victory information taken from "Above The Trenches : A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915 - 1920", Christopher Shores, Norman Franks and Russell Guest, 1990. More detail of the AFC ace victories are contained in the volume.
1 September 1917 : Shared with Major A.W.L. Ellis
The Combat in the Air Reports courtesy of Mark Lax. The Medal Citations courtesy of Graeme Neale.
www.australianflyingcorps.org : A Complete History of the Australian Flying Corps