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RE8 ("Harry Tate") - 3 Squadron's Aircraft on the Western Front

 
Watercolour by Arthur STREETON of RE8 aircraft "N" of 3rd Squadron A.F.C., sitting in a canvas hangar. 
(1918, Villers Bocage.)

Below are edited extracts from:  MILITARY AIRCRAFT OF AUSTRALIA 1909-1918

This is one of the best and most informative books you'll ever find to describe the major  aircraft used on both sides in World War I, and the origins of those aircraft.  It tells some great stories about 3 Squadron's RE8s...

"First Victory"...

On 6 December 1917, Captain W. H. Anderson, with Lieutenant J. R. Bell as observer, took off from Bailleul in RE8 Serial A3815, over the Messines sector, which was held by the I Anzac Corps (later the Australian Corps).  Their prime task was artillery ranging, but Anderson also managed to drop two 20-pound bombs on an enemy trench strong-point.  More importantly, Bell put 90 rounds into a German D.F.W. two-seater...  [The D.F.W. Aviatik had been engaged by Anderson after he spotted it flying below.  The 5th Australian Field Artillery Brigade observed its crash in German territory about 2 miles east of Messines.]  This was the first German aircraft destroyed by 3 Squadron.

The "Ghost" RE8...

In one of the most bizarre occurrences on the Western Front, RE8 A3816, flown by Lieutenant J. L. Sandy, with Sergeant H. F. Hughes as observer, was ranging an 8-inch howitzer battery on the afternoon of 17 December 1917, when it was attacked by six Albatros DVa scouts between Deulemont and Armentieres.  The RE8 turned to engage the enemy and succeeded in shooting down one of the Albatros single-seaters.  The German pilot landed his aircraft intact in the Australian lines and was taken prisoner by infantry of the 21st Battalion, 2nd Australian Division.  (This Albatros, D.5390/17, was presented to the Australian Government and is now displayed in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra).

Meanwhile, another RE8, with Lieutenants E. J. Jones and K. C. Hodgson, went to Sandy's assistance and the aerial duel of five against two continued for 10 minutes.  The Germans broke away when a third RE8, with Lieutenants H. N. Wrigley and J. R. Blair, was seen approaching.  Jones then flew alongside Sandy's RE8 and identified it by its serial number.  

Sandy's aircraft appeared to be flying normally and as the two occupants did not seem to be injured, Jones and Wrigley continued on their allotted tasks.  Somewhat strangely, no further wireless messages were transmitted from Sandy's RE8 and apprehension increased as the evening approached and the aircraft had not returned.  To all intents and purposes the aircraft and its crew seemed to have vanished from the face of the Earth.  The perplexing mystery was not solved until 24 hours later, when a telegram was received from a hospital at St. Pol, stating that the bodies of Sandy and Hughes had been found in a crashed RE8 in a nearby field.  It was ascertained that both men had been killed instantly during the aerial combat, when an armour-piercing bullet had passed through the observer's left lung and thence into the pilot's head.  Apparently, after the crew had been killed, the aircraft had flown itself in wide left-hand circles until the petrol supply ran out.  This theory was supported by the fact that a north-easterly wind was blowing and the aircraft had drifted south-west before crash-landing about 50 miles from the scene of the combat.  In the crash-landing, in a snowy field, the RE8 was only slightly damaged.  This extraordinary occurrence provided a striking example of the inherent stability in the flying characteristics of the RE8 - the aircraft had flown and landed itself without human assistance.


"The Ghost RE8". 
[AWM  ART93192]

 

Dicing with the Red Baron... 

Two 3rd Squadron aircraft were instrumental in triggering-off the famous aerial combat of 21 April 1918 that resulted in the death of Germany's leading air ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen.  On that fateful Sunday morning, Lieutenants S. G. Garrett and A. V. Barrow (in A3661) and Lieutenants T. L. Simpson and F. C. Banks (in B6576) were on a reconnaissance of the German lines near Hamel at 7,000 feet when they were attacked by an element of four Fokker DrI triplanes from the large 'Richthofen's Circus' formation.  Simpson and Banks fought their way to the safety of nearby cloud cover, and the enemy triplanes concentrated on the second RE8.  Through a combination of Garrett's skillful flying and Barrow's accurate shooting, one triplane was claimed "shot down out-of-control".  [This was the German ace Weiss, who returned to base with severed rudder controls.] The other three triplanes then withdrew to the main Circus formation to regroup for an approaching attack by several red-nosed "Baron-hunting" Sopwith Camels from No.209 Squadron, Royal Air ForceIn the subsequent fight, the 'Red  Falcon' [as he was known at the time within 3 Squadron] was shot down fatally by Australian ground machine-gunners, well behind Allied lines, as he pursued an inexperienced Camel pilot fleeing at low level.  [The Baron's body was subsequently buried, with full military honours, by 3 Squadron.]

Meanwhile, Simpson and Garrett had completed their photographic commitment and were on their way home at 8,000 feet.  Their RE8 B6576 then had a further clash with a large formation of Albatros scouts, out to avenge the death of their leader, von Richthofen.  Simpson took the only way out.  He spiralled the RE8 towards the ground while Banks kept up a steady stream of machine-gun fire to ward off the attackers.  Eventually they eluded their pursuers and flew home at 2,000 feet.


RE8 Combat [Graphic by Gustav Farmer]

 

The Hardest-Working Combat Aircraft on the Western Front...

3rd Squadron's most famous aircraft was A4397.   This machine, which was flown mainly by Captain R. G. D. "Reg" FRANCIS, set a record for the British forces on the Western Front by accumulating 440 hours of service flying and completing 147 flights across the line; the previous record was 427 hours service flying.  3rd Squadron was specially congratulated by General Headquarters - with, of course, Francis and A4397 receiving due acknowledgment.  It was retired "Time Expired" from 3AFC service on 20 July 1918.  At the request of the Australian Government, A4397 was shipped to Australia after the war. 



Profile from Cam Riley's excellent AFC Website

[Editor's Note: Unfortunately A4397 was destroyed in an accidental fire outside the Exhibition Building, Melbourne (where part of the AWM's collection had been temporarily displayed) on Sunday 22 February 1925.  Workmen had been sweeping up the nearby park after a cycling race, and their burning rubbish was blown by strong winds onto several highly-flammable crated aircraft from the AWM Collection, which were about to be moved to Sydney.  Several aircraft were destroyed, including A4397.  [Ref: AWM File 93 9/1/1.]

It is interesting to record that there has been some recent confusion regarding the markings of this aircraft.  - In a photograph that is today quite well-known, Reggie Francis was photographed standing beside an RE8 marked "D" with a Kewpie Doll painted inside the "D".   However, the latest research indicates that the Kewpie aircraft was NOT A4397.  - The Kewpie aircraft looks brand-new and has different engine fittings.  It is likely to be Reggie's later 3AFC RE8, D4842, which also had the aircraft code "D".   Unfortunately the Kewpie photo, plus another of an RE8 coded "O", named "Sylvia" have all added to the legend of how A4397 was decorated.

Mid-Air Capture!

This was a fine achievement by Lieutenants R. C. Armstrong and F. J. Mart in RE8 D4689.  On 9 June 1918, this aircraft and crew were carrying out artillery reconnaissance in the vicinity of Meaulte - Gressaire Wood - Warfusee Abancourt.  Activity was slight, so the aircraft commenced strafing the enemy trenches near Morlancourt.  At about 11.40 a.m. they saw a Halberstadt two-seater hastening eastwards towards its own lines.  Armstrong headed off the aircraft, and the German pilot, who was later found to be young and inexperienced, made no attempt to fight back.  One or two feeble efforts were made to break away but the Halberstadt pilot allowed Armstrong to take up a commanding position and shepherd him to the 3 Squadron aerodrome. The aircraft was captured completely intact.  This feat gained the congratulations of Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash.  This Halberstadt C.L.II, 15 342/17 (which was given the British intelligence number G.56/16, the 'G' series being reserved for captured German aircraft), was flown by Captain S. G. Brearley and R. Ross on 16 June from Bertangles to Marquise, where it was handed over as a captured war trophy.   [Sadly the wooden structure of this aircraft was also lost in the accidental 1925 fire that destroyed 3AFC's record breaking RE8 A4397.]  A machine-gun from this aircraft is on display in the Australian War Memorial. 


The Halberstadt  (Illustration from Cam Riley's AFC Website)

Pass the Ammunition...

In 1918 these Corps Reconnaissance aircraft were introduced to an innovative new task which contributed greatly to Allied breakthroughs in the second half of 1918.  Throughout June and July 1918, preparations had been in hand for a grand counterattack on the Somme front by General Foch's reserve divisions, reinforced by the newly-arrived Americans.  At about this time, documents captured from the Germans showed that the enemy was experimenting with the supply of ammunition from the air.  The Fourth Army Commander, General Rawlinson, realised the importance of such air drops and called for an investigation.  In the past, the infantry had allocated many men to carry the 1,000-round ammunition boxes to the machine-gunners who were always positioned well forward, in perilous areas, to halt any counter-attacks.  'Casualties among the ammunition carriers,' recalled Monash, 'were always substantial.'

3 Squadron was given the task of looking into the matter and Major Blake selected Captain Wackett to assess the problem, because 'he had a gift for mechanical inventions'.  Wackett immediately modified the standard bomb-rack and release gear to carry two boxes of ammunition.  Parachutes were then devised to ensure that the boxes would not break on impact with the ground. Wackett used his RE8, C4581, for the first trials, and later arranged for the RE8s of both 3rd Squadron and No.9 Squadron (Royal Air Force) to be fitted with his new device.  In the subsequent attack at Hamel on 4 July, the ammunition-dropping RE8s contributed in no small way to the success of the operation.  At least one RE8, however, was shot down during these hazardous flights.


A British RE8 shot down in the Battle of Hamel, 4 July 1918, while dropping ammunition under Wackett's scheme. 
A snagged ammunition parachute can be seen in the treetops behind the crash.  [AWM E03844]

The first ammunition supply drops proved so successful that the scheme was universally adopted throughout the Royal Air Force.  Giving credit where credit was due, General Monash recalled in his book, The Australian Victories in France, 1918, that 'it was Captain Wackett of the Australian Flying Corps who perfected these ideas and put them into practice'.

[Wackett was later knighted for his extensive contributions to Australian aviation.  Quite remarkably, while serving in Egypt, Wackett probably fought the first air-to-air combat in Australia's aviation history.  Later, his company, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation,  manufactured the Wirraway, Mustang and Sabre Aircraft flown by 3 Squadron after WW2.  Sir Lawrence was also instrumental in the selection of the Mirage supersonic fighter for the RAAF in the 1960s - for which CAC manufactured the engines, wings and tail.]

 

Here's one more amazing story, extracted from: "THE BATTLE BELOW" (The Squadron's unit-history, see our "Books" page for details)

Fog Warriors...

On 24 April 1918 (three days after the Red Baron had been shot down) Lieutenants W. V. Herbert (pilot) and F. A. Sewell (observer) were flying RE8 number A3665.

On the 24th April, Lieutenant W. V. Herbert, with 2nd Lieutenant F. A. Sewell as observer, left the ground at 5 a.m. to carry out a reconnaissance, and when in the neighbourhood of Corbie, became enveloped in a very dense fog.  The pilot endeavoured to climb out of this, but, after a short time, found his aircraft was losing height in a steep spiral.  He therefore shut off his engine in an effort to recover level flight again, but, on suddenly seeing the ground beneath him, he opened up his engine, flattened out and flew along at a height of from 15 to 30 feet in an endeavour to get his bearings.  

With the fog lying so close to the ground, however, this was impossible.  All Lieutenant Herbert knew was that he was over enemy territory.  Several times they passed over enemy [artillery] batteries and Lieutenant Sewell availed himself of the opportunities offered for directing bursts of machine-gun fire into the groups of enemy troops around the guns.  By this time the pilot had decided to land; but, when almost touching the ground, an enemy battery was seen limbered up, under the right wing tip.  The observer thereupon fired upon this at short range, whilst the pilot rapidly climbed his aircraft; and in doing so brushed the branches of a tree, thus causing his right aileron to jam.

He was able, however, to climb through the fog and when at a height of about 2,000 feet succeeded in freeing his aileron.  After a further 15 minutes' flying he ran out of the fog over country which neither he nor his observer recognised, and then decided to maintain a westerly course in the hope of picking up some familiar land-mark.  In this, Lieutenant Herbert was unsuccessful, but at about 7.30 a.m. he caught sight of a British field hospital, and landed at Trouville, near Rouen.  The aircraft was found to have been hit in several places by rifle and machine-gun fire and, after temporary repairs had been effected, Lieutenants Herbert and Sewell flew back to the Squadron.

 

By the end of WW1, the RE8 aircraft of 3rd Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, established a record second to none:

- They had operated from 10 different aerodromes; logged about 10,000 hours of war flying; dropped almost 6,000 bombs; fired some 500,000 rounds of small arms ammunition against enemy targets; and photographed 1,200 square miles of enemy territory.  The Squadron lost 11 RE8 machines over enemy lines, while several others were badly damaged, but managed to return to their home aerodrome.  And, bearing in mind that the RE8 was primarily a docile observation aircraft, the Squadron's record - 51 enemy machines accounted for, including 16 totally destroyed, 8 driven down out of control, and 27 forced down and damaged on landing at other than their own aerodrome - is all the more remarkable.

 

Further Comprehensive Research into 3 Squadron A.F.C.

Many thanks to John BENNETT, who has painstakingly compiled the information below:

John's complete tabulation of the RE8 Serial Numbers of 3AFC (with supporting history, photos and colour-profile drawings) can be found on the ADF Serials website.  (Serials table on page 72 of the Aerial Reconaissance article, starting page 57.)

Other parts of John's extensive series are:
3AFC Foundation
(Page 42);

1918 Summer Offensives (Page 29);

1918 Brisfits and the Hindenberg Line (Page 20).

RE8 Presentation Aircraft (Page 42)

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