I half rolled, and there before my eyes was as perfect a target as I had ever seen in my life. A pressure of a thumb, a short burst, a puff of smoke, a flash of flame, a hole on the clouds-and it was over.
- Lieutenant Robert McKenzie, No. 2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps
When the First World War began in August 1914, aeroplanes were a novelty, barely a decade old. Despite this, Australia was one of just a few nations outside Europe to establish a military flying school and corps. From a first class of four student pilots the Australian Flying Corps would grow to number almost 4000 by the armistice. Its young volunteers were pioneers in a completely new dimension of warfare as they struggled for control of the skies over the Western Front and Middle East.
Using private letters, diaries and official records, historian Michael Molkentin reveals, for the first time in over 90 years, the remarkable story of the airmen and mechanics of the Australian Flying Corps. It is a tale of heroism and endurance; of a war fought thousands of feet above the trenches in aircraft of timber and fabric. Fire in the Sky takes readers up into this chaotic tumult and into the midst of a war from which only one in two Australian airmen emerged unscathed.
Due to an unfortunate printing error the second edition of Fire in the Sky is missing page 237. Download it here.
Kristen Alexander, Sabretache, December 2010
I must declare my interest. Michael Molkentin and I share a publisher and in August 2008 Ian Bowring told me he was publishing an account of the Australian Flying Corps. I have done a bit of reading in my time about Australia’s growing civil aviation industry, the interwar RAAF and Australians in the Second World War. I was keen to discover more about their flying antecedents as well as the early flying days of those who had significant places in my Second World War research. So, when Ian mentioned Fire in the Sky, I was excited. Often, the anticipation is better than the event, but not in this case. Fire in the Sky surpassed my expectations.
Fire in the Sky is roughly divided into two sections: the Half Flight and 1 Squadron’s experiences in Mesopotamia, Egypt–Sinai and Palestine, and 2, 3 and 4 squadrons on the Western Front. In some respects it reads like a typical squadron history (despite the multi-squadron focus) and I will admit I find dry, operations-based accounts boring but when I flipped through to the bibliography, which includes Molkentin’s thesis ‘Culture, Class and Experience in the Australian Flying Corps’, I knew there would be a firm emphasis of the men of the flying corps, and not just their operations. And I was not disappointed. Rather than presenting a straight blow-by-blow, battle-by-battle history, Molkentin has skilfully woven personal experiences of airmen and ground crew into a readable and absorbing account of Australian Flying Corps operations, giving it a sound social history grounding.
Molkentin has drawn widely on public and private, published and unpublished sources. One of the standout stories is that of Owen Lewis. The reader first meets Lewis, a freshly minted observer, when 3 Squadron posted him to a British unit for training with an experienced pilot. It was a hectic time and Lewis and his pilot experienced enemy fire in five aerial combats; their aircraft was badly damaged during two of them. Within ten weeks, Lewis was among 3 Squadron’s veteran observers and about to embark on a fortnight’s leave. But Lewis did not make it to England. Drawing on Lewis’ brief diary, which abruptly ends the night before he was killed; his brother Athol’s diary; an interview in The 14–18 Journal; and the published memoir of his younger brother, Brian, Molkentin movingly recreates from a number of perspectives Owen Lewis’ last day and the aftermath of his death. This is storytelling and social history at its best. But it is not a one off. Molkentin tells of Frank McNamara and his VC-winning rescue of Douglas Rutherford as well as the what-happens-next for both men (and especially Rutherford who was perceived as having the ‘unlucky habit of attracting trouble’), and unravels the mystery surrounding the death of Manfred von Richthofen. The Richthofen story is another standout story amongst many. Molkentin discusses the various who-got-the-Baron stories and draws his own conclusions regarding who did what. Even so, he indicates that readers and historians (as one admits) may sentimentally cling to long-held favoured explanations.
I am particularly interested in the notions of chivalry and the ‘knights of the air’ and how these concepts originated. Molkentin has unearthed some outstanding examples which left me wondering if both German and Australian pilots realised they were actually at war and not involved in some gentlemanly game. But sadly, the Richthofen episode shows all too clearly that chivalry was something practised by only a handful; there was little dignity or honour in the plundering of Richthofen’s body and possessions. And there was certainly nothing chivalrous in the actions of some of the scout pilots who, after the Armistice was declared, returned from a purported search for a missing squadron member with conspicuously empty bomb racks.
Molkentin relates the early flying careers of significant interwar and Second World War personalities such as Richard Williams, Harry Cobby, George Jones, Lawrence Wackett and Hudson Fysh, and also tells of those whose early promise, such as that of George Merz, was not realised. He recounts what I term ‘vagaries-of-war’ stories such as that of two of ‘Jasta Boelcke’s’ victims in the dying moments of the war. Arthur Palliser was one of 4 Squadron’s most experienced pilots and had survived four years of war, only to be killed in battle on 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice. Palliser was due to return to Australia the next day and had told George Jones that ‘If I was only lucky enough to break my finger in the hangar door I would not be able to fly today’. On the same day, 23-year-old Charles Rhodes was shot down on his first patrol. Molkentin points out that he would not have even had time to learn the names of his fellow pilots.
Molkentin notes that just 880 officers and 2840 men served with the AFC during the war and, of those, only 410 pilots and 153 observers fought in battle. These 563 men were significantly fewer than those who enlisted in the AIF. So few that Les Carlyon did not even mention the AFC in the 700+ pages of his The Great War. And yet its contribution was significant. Its service spanned three continents and nearly every type of aerial operation during the Great War. As Molkentin points out ‘Australian airmen and mechanics were contributors to the pioneering days of aerial warfare in Mesopotamia and Egypt, when aeroplanes were still widely perceived as a reconnaissance arm only. They were there too in 1918, keen participants in the evolution of air power as a tool for gaining air superiority, bombing strategic targets and directly supporting ground operations.’ And of course, they regularly increased the victory tally, producing ‘aces’ and accounting for some of the earliest DFCs of the war.
Given the importance of its role, I wonder why the AFC has remained largely unsung since the 1923 publication (and subsequent reprints) of Cutlack’s The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War 1914–1918, the occasional memoir, the odd chapter in air force histories and the all too rare private diary. The publishers and contributors of Cross & Cockade and The 14–18 Journal have done much to ensure that the AFC heritage is not lost but individual journals, as well as the unpublished manuscripts held in public institutions, are normally lost to or out of bounds of the general reader. Thankfully, Molkentin has vividly brought these stories and memories to a new generation and now re-establishes the significance of AFC involvement in the Great War. He notes parenthetically that, at 27, he is too old to be an ACF scout pilot. Readers should be pleased that he still has many writing years ahead of him, whether he turns his hand again to aviation history (and I for one certainly hope he does) or other aspects of Australian military history.
Michael McKernan, The Canberra Times, 25 September 2010
George Mills was a 30-year-old dentist from Sydney, a lighthorseman who had fought at Romani in 1916. German aircraft had bombed the camp and Mills decided he wanted to be on the giving rather than the receiving end of this new form of warfare. So he joined the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). “Once in the air, you were your own boss” was how he explained it later. His perceptive understanding of the first days of aerial warfare might just about summarise this fine book.
Fire in the Sky is a book about individuals in a way that the story of soldiers can never be. Sure, stories such as those of Albert Jacka tell of remarkable episodes of individual bravery and initiative. But even Jacka, holding his trench alone, needed support from those around him and those behind him with the guns. Step into the rudimentary aircraft Michael Molkentin is writing about and you are on your own. There may be others around you in the sky, but your life and your contribution to the attack and defence is entirely in your own hands. This is a book that captures the excitement, the danger and the creativity of that. It is a book you will find hard to put down.
Who were Australia’s first airmen? They were young. So young that this first-time author who tells their story can claim, although he is now only 27, that he “too old to be a scout pilot in the AFC”. I don’t know whether I’m more surprised by the youth of the pilots or the youth of the author, but both appear to have done an excellent job. The pilots were also predominantly middle class, from private schools, and better educated than those on the ground.
Molkentin’s method is to follow the action first in the desert and then on the Western Front. Following Charles Bean and Bill Gammage, he wants those involved to speak for themselves and, given that he is writing more than 90 years after the events, at first sight this ambition seemed likely to be thwarted. Yet he has brought it off with an extraordinary amount of detailed research. More than once as I raced through this book I asked myself, “How could he know that?” But the endnotes tell how wide-ranging is the research. Molkentin has found just the phrase or expression that can make you think he personally interviewed those about whom he has written. It is a striking achievement.
(Sir) Richard Williams, who died in 1980, joined the Central Flying School at Point Cook just as war was breaking out in Europe. He was 24; there were three other classmates in this first-ever intake of pilots, the oldest of whom was 26. The Central Flying School was “an old tin shed and some lean-tos”. Eventually 3720 men would serve in the AFC during the war; 205 of them were killed. Williams survived to have a distinguished air force career, retiring (against his will) in 1946. An early, but relatively minor character in Fire in the Sky, Williams was a prickly, even difficult character. It is impressive how Molkentin tells his story. “Father of the RAAF” he might have become: in this book he is one of those who fought, whom we come to know as an individual, warts an all. “An airman’s life is one of comparative ease interspersed with moments of intense fear,” Williams most memorably wrote.
Ground crew knew no such ease. It is another strength of this book that Molkentin is as determined to tell their story as much as the story of the pilots. Ground crew, he tells us, were skilled tradesmen, recruited specifically for their expertise, though not, of course, having previously worked with aircraft. There were fitters who would entirely rebuild each engine after five hours of flying time, riggers who would maintain the aircraft’s frame, wood, fabric and wire. It was a delicate matter- of life and death – to correctly balance the airframe. This was time consuming work and never-ending. Armourers had perhaps the most difficult job of all, for a misfiring bullet would smash the propeller. The precision required was remarkable.
Yet, as the years went on and the aircraft improved, perhaps the dangers only intensified. Aircraft, it was thought, would fight only to obtain an uninterrupted view of the enemy’s affairs. But by 1918, at Hamel for example, they were integrated with the soldiers on the ground to provide General Monash with a smashing victory. So much had equipment and communications improved. Though more directed than before, even so, war in the air remained a matter of individuals.
George Mills, now an airman, was an observer on a reconnaissance mission at Gaza in 1917. Coming through the clouds he, and his pilot Eric Roberts, found that those on the ground had been waiting for them: “They had our exact height and track…” Somehow through all the bursting shells the aircraft managed to keep flying, though Mills was badly hit, severing an artery. For him, the war was over and he was sent back to Australia as AFC’s No. 1 Squadron’s first invalided battle casualty. To have told the stories of so many men like Mills is a mighty achievement. To have done so in a manner that is accessible and unfailingly interesting, not to say exciting, shows that Michael Molkentin is a young historian with an impressive future.