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What's in a Number?

- The Bizarre WW1 Story of how the 3rd Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps slowly gained its identity...

There has long been confusion amongst Australian air historians over the correct designation of the squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps. 
This article outlines the several
changes in title and probes the reasons for the changes -  and the reluctance of authorities to give effect to them.

[This is an extract from an original research article by Alan Fraser, published in the "14-18 Journal", 1992 edition, published by the Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians.]

The First Operational Squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps

In a letter dated 10 September 1915, the War Office invited the governments of the Dominions to raise complete aviation units, either independently or in conjunction with one another.


After some hesitation, the proposal was accepted by Australia.  Personnel for a 12-aeroplane squadron were assembled at Point Cook early in 1916 and dispatched overseas on 16 March.  The documents formally establishing the squadron described it as 'No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps' although it was sometimes referred to in correspondence as the 'First Squadron', presumably because it was indeed the first Australian flying squadron to be formed (Referred to in this paper as 1AFC).  In the squadron itself, Routine Order No.1, dated 17 January 1916, was headed '1st Squadron Flying Corps', although this was soon changed to 'No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps'.

[British Numbering]

It was decided that 1AFC should join the Egyptian Expeditionary Force for training with the RFC [British Royal Flying Corps] and after arrival in Egypt on 14 April the unit continued to be known as No.1 Squadron, AFC for some four months while it was being equipped and its personnel trained to RFC standards.  However, significant to the squadron's eventual designation by the British was a letter dated 28 March 1916 - from the War Office to the GOC Egypt - advising that the Australian government 'had undertaken to raise a squadron to be incorporated in the Royal Flying Corps'.

It was not until August 1916 that the British decided upon the nomenclature to be applied to No.1 Squadron and other planned AFC squadrons.  On 26 August the Directorate of Air Organisation (DAO) of the War Office advised the Administrative Wing of the RFC at Farnborough that 'the squadron of the Australian Flying Corps now in Egypt will in future be known as No.68 (Australian) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps.'  A week later (as explained further below) 1AFC's title was changed again to No.67 (Australian) Squadron, RFC.  The number 67 (as with 68, and later 69 and 71) placed the Australian units within the numerical sequence of the formation of squadrons of the RFC and by the insertion of 'Australian' in brackets, the titles were no doubt considered to fulfil the undertaking to give the units a distinguishing territorial designation.  It is not known whether there was any consultation with the Australian authorities on this.  It could have been discussed with the Staff Officer for Aviation at Australian Imperial Force (AIF) Administrative Headquarters in London, but evidently there was no consultation with personnel of 1AFC in Egypt, who strongly resented the implication that the squadron was a unit of the British Royal Flying Corps rather than an Australian national unit.

In his autobiography, Sir Richard Williams, in 1916 a flight commander in 1AFC, had this to say about the change:

  There was no more authority for calling us a squadron of the Royal Flying Corps than there was, for example, for calling the 9th Battalion AIF the "23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment".

As the decision came from England, little could be done about it locally and protests were made to AIF HQ in Cairo and, through AIF Administrative HQ in London, to the Department of Defence, Melbourne.


The Birth of 3AFC

Meanwhile in Australia a second squadron was being formed; Military Order No.412, dated 29 August 1916, notifying that approval had been given 'for the raising and dispatch of No.2 Australian Flying Squadron for active service abroad'.  Only three weeks later, however, M.O.440 of 19 September 1916 stated that approval had been given 'for the formation in Egypt of a Flying Squadron to be designated the 3rd Australian Flying Squadron'.  The Department of Defence seems to have been unable to decide between the cardinal (Numbers 1, 2, 3 etc.) and the ordinal (1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.).

[Despite these orders...] In Egypt, another 'No.2 Squadron' was formed from AFC personnel available in Egypt, augmented by others from England.  This was soon dubbed No. 68 (Australian) Squadron, RFC, the designation it carried to England where it arrived in January 1917.  The 'No.2 Squadron' formed in Australia was re-numbered 3 Squadron when it arrived in England in late December 1916 and its official title, too, was changed, placing it into the RFC sequence as No.69 (Australian) Squadron, RFC

Similarly, No.4 Squadron, formed in Australia, became No.71 (Australian) Squadron, RFC, when it arrived in March 1917.

The formation of two 'No.2' squadrons created some confusion in the records of the AFC.  As stated above, Military Orders notified approval of the formation of a second squadron in Australia and a third in Egypt.  In fact, 2AFC was formed in Egypt and 3AFC in Australia - but until it reached England, No.3 called itself "No.2". 

So for a time there were two No.2s.  (Even Cutlack's official history got it wrong, by saying No.3 Squadron was formed in Egypt with its personnel obtained from No.1 and the Light Horse.)

Port Melbourne, Vic.  1916-10-25.  Personnel of the newly formed "No.2 Squadron" Australian Flying Corps (AFC) wait on the wharf
to embark on the troop transport ship SS Ulysses (A38) for service overseas.  The car in the foreground is a Model T Ford. 

[This same Squadron was later re-numbered to become 3AFC.]

Also as noted above, routine orders of 1AFC in Egypt for 14 September 1916 stated that the squadron would in future be known as No.68 (Australian) Squadron, RFC.  Consequently routine orders for that day were headed accordingly and the squadron continued with that title until 22 September, when the number was changed to 67 and the number 68 assigned to the Australian squadron then forming in Egypt (2AFC).  The authority for this change came from the DAO at the War Office which wrote to RFC Egypt to say that 'the present Australian squadron in Egypt, No. 68 (Aus.), would in future be No.67 (Aus.) and the second Australian squadron forming in Egypt would be No.68 (Aus.)'.

Why the numbers first decided upon were not retained is not clear.  A possible explanation is that according to a table of amendments to the RFC's Programme of Development ("P.D.") dated 22 December 1916, the number 67 had earlier been allocated to the Australian squadron to be located at Harlaxton - a reference to 2AFC, then in Egypt.  Thus when advice of the allocation of a number to 2AFC came up, presumably No.67 was decided upon in accordance with the P.D.  However, 1AFC was the senior squadron and already operational, and it seems likely that upon reflection (or perhaps prompted by the Australians) the RFC then gave it the lower and 'senior' number on that account.


RFC to AFC...

But there were more changes to come.  The objections of the Australians to incorporation of the squadrons into the Royal Flying Corps were communicated officially to the War Office in February 1917.  In a letter dated 22nd Feb., AIF Administrative HQ in London wrote to the War Office advising that the changes - to Numbers 67, 68 etc. (Australian) Squadrons, RFC - had not been notified officially to AIF HQ. 

The letter went on to say that the alteration to the numbering of the squadrons would be adopted, but requested that a territorial designation be maintained and the squadrons be known as Numbers 67, 68 etc. Squadrons, Australian Flying Corps.

The foundation for that was a cable, received by AIF HQ in France earlier in February from the Department of Defence, Melbourne, expressing the desire that the Australian air units may be designated 'Number...Squadron AFC, irrespective of the formation with which such squadron is incorporated'.  The Lieutenant-General Commanding (Birdwood) had informed Sir David Henderson, Director of Air Services, of the desire of the Australian Government in the matter and asked him to arrange the changes.  This exchange between two very senior officers is indicative of the importance placed by the Australian Government on adequate public recognition being given to the war efforts of Australians.  (Recognition which had not always been accorded to other Australian efforts, which tended to be concealed within references to the successes of 'British' forces.) 

At a conference at the Air Board offices, late in February 1917, the GOC RFC stated that an order would be issued giving effect to the wishes of the Australians.

So in April 1917 the titles of all four Australian squadrons were changed again and remained in that form until January 1918.  Meanwhile, one by one, the three Australian squadrons in England were mobilised and dispatched to France.


Officially "3rd Squadron AFC" - or was it?

Further changes, made in January 1918, arose from a letter of 11 November 1917 from Administrative HQ, London to the War Office stating that arrangements were being made by the Department of Defence, Melbourne, to re-number the units of the Australian Citizen Forces in agreement with those of the AIF, in order to form a Reserve Home Unit of each in which returned soldiers can serve under their old number.  To make this effective, it went on, for the Flying Corps units it is desired that the present designations of Numbers 67, 68, 69, 70 (sic), 29 and 30 Squadrons, AFC, should be changed to 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Squadrons, AFC and 5th and 6th (Training) Squadrons, AFC.  This was later extended to Numbers 32 and 33 Squadrons which were to become 7th and 8th (Training) Squadrons, AFC.

However, although re-titling by dropping the RFC numerical sequence of 67, 68 etc. was agreed by the British, circular memorandum A.O./739 of 11 January 1918, issued by the Directorate of Air Organisation, notified the changes as Numbers 1 to 4 AFC for the service squadrons and Numbers 5 to 8 (Training) Squadrons, AFC.  This was promulgated to all British authorities and units concerned, from the Air Council and Chief of Air Staff down, including the GOCs RFC in France and the Middle East and the Training Division.  Why the ordinal sequence requested by Australia was not followed by the British is not clear.  It could have been a natural reluctance to change from the cardinal, which was how RFC squadrons had always been numbered, although the RFC themselves used the ordinal for their wings and brigades.  Australia persisted, however, and eventually, on 21 August 1918, over seven months later, the DAO, referring to its 11 January memorandum, issued an amendment (A.O./1005) stating that in future the AFC squadrons would be known as 3rd, etc. Squadrons, AFC and not No.3, etc.

Meanwhile, contrary to the DAO instruction of 11 January, other senior British authorities, including HQ RFC in the Field, issued notifications later in January that the ordinal designations were to be applied to the AFC service and training squadrons.  The HQ RFC advice, of 19 January 1918, was addressed to the five RFC Brigades in France, the 9th [HQ] Wing and the Aircraft Depots, Aeroplane Supply Depots and Engine Repair Shops.

...How were all the changes received in the squadrons?  It is not surprising if they produced some resistance and confusion.  The war diaries and other surviving official documents held by the Australian War Memorial contain no comment, but they do show that the application of the changes varied between units, in some cases reflecting resistance to change, but also, in 1918, conflicting instructions.


The Situation on the Ground at 3AFC

Going back to the 1916/17 period, the first page of 3AFC's diary, opened when it arrived at South Carlton on 11 December 1916, is headed 'No.69 Squadron, AFC', but the next page, commencing with the entry for 29 December, is headed '3rd Squadron, AFC'.  For 11 January 1917, the heading is again 'No.69 Squadron, AFC'.  Both styles of heading are incorrect for the dates concerned.  The use of 'No.69 Squadron, AFC' on 11 December 1916 and 11 January 1917 anticipated the approval of April 1917 by some three to four months and at 29 December 1916 '3rd Squadron, AFC' anticipated the change to the ordinal by well over a year - it should have read 'No.69 (Australian) Squadron, RFC'.  The Recording Officer of 3AFC, former journalist Lieutenant Errol Knox, who produced the most literate and informative of all the AFC unit war diaries, had squadron documents refer to 3rd AFC from 20 January 1918, after a few days of "No.3" in place of No.69. 



Very broadly, 3AFC:

- Was originally titled No.2 Squadron, AFC;
- Changed [for a short while] to No.69 (Australian) Squadron, RFC;
- Then to No.69 Squadron, AFC;
- Then [briefly, due to a clerical error] to No.3 Squadron AFC;
- And finally to the 3rd Squadron, AFC. 

But whatever the unit title may have been officially at a particular time, the unit was not necessarily using it!   [The 3AFC War Diary used the title "No.3" briefly on 18/19 January 1918; and then modified this to "3rd" from 20 January 1918.]

It does seem, however, that most historical writers (including the official historian) have preferred to keep it simple and use the cardinal numbers (No.3 etc.), whether this is correct for the period or not.  In The Battle Below, such a careful chronicler as Henry Wrigley was mistaken in saying that the designation: 'No.3 Squadron AFC, changed on 20 January 1918, was retained by the squadron during the remainder of its history'.


The beautifully-printed menu-cover (designed by RE8 pilot Nigel Love) from the 3rd Squadron's 1919 reunion dinner.
By that stage they already had a 'legend' to preserve.
[Following the 100th anniversary of the Squadron's founding, it can safely be assumed that any further attempts to change the Squadron's number from "3" will be vehemently resisted!]

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