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 The Australian Flying Corps' First Air-to-Air Combat

11 November 1916

The passage below describes one of the amazing episodes in the early aviation career of Lawrence Wackett
(Later, in 1918, Wackett was a distinguished pilot and technologist in 3AFC.)

A No.1 Squadron BE2 aircraft flying over the desert, with the Mediterranean is in the background. 
[AWM B03562]

AFC No.1 Squadron.  Sinai Desert, October-November 1916.

…To counter the new German aircraft with their forward-firing guns, Lawrence Wackett, a pilot renowned for his exceptional design and engineering skills, attempted to improve the BE2c's armament.  In the squadron workshops, he knocked together “an elementary form of gun turret,” positioned in the top wing, above the observer's seat.  Standing up on his seat, with his head and shoulders above the top wing, he could aim the Lewis gun, “anywhere in the upper hemisphere.”

Throughout October and November, Wackett's BE2c escorted the other BE2cs on photographic reconnaissance over the Turkish front line in the El Arish region.  They flew in formation to take overlapping photographs of tracts of countryside below them, which British surveyors then turned into maps of the Turkish positions.  After taking their photographs, the Australians regularly bombed and strafed enemy camps…

During the first week of November, No.1 Squadron's photographic machines produced a comprehensive picture of the Turkish defences that now roughly ran along the wady between El Arish and Magdhaba.  [NB. Wady: a dry ravine - note the different official spelling from the WW2 “wadi”].  On 8 November, A-Flight moved from Sherika to Kantara aerodrome, placing all four flights in the Sinai region for the first time.  The squadron was thus able to make more concerted efforts, the first of which came on 11 November when it mounted the largest bombing raid yet to be undertaken by British forces in the theatre.  Beersheba was the target, site of the Turkish Army headquarters and [German squadron] FA 300's main aerodrome.  At dawn, nine BE2cs and a Martinsyde flew from their aerodromes and assembled at Mustabig.  

Eight of the BE2cs carried only a pilot, so that they could take extra bombs and fuel. The Martinsyde and Wackett's BE2c escorted them.  The formation refuelled and set out at 8.30 a.m. Approaching Beersheba, they were greeted with heavy anti-aircraft fire, flying “through a flurry of white, black and green shell bursts.”

James Guilfoyle, who had replaced Oswald Watt as B-Flight's commander in October when Watt went to England to establish another Australian squadron [2AFC], dropped a 100lb. bomb from the Martinsyde right in the middle of the German aerodrome, while others scored hits on tents, railway buildings and tracks.  

A photograph of Beersheeba airfield, taken during the raid.  [AWM A00655]

Two Fokker monoplanes took off and chased the Australians as they made for home.  Wackett and Turner (as observer) lagged behind, and descended to the enemy's altitude to offer an appealing target.  Wackett kept their tail to the enemy, allowing Turner to stand up in the turret and fire as the Fokkers closed.  

"The enemy plane,” wrote the satisfied inventor, “was completely surprised when his attack was met by a continuous fire from this new gun location and he retired immediately..."

- This raid marked the beginning of Australia’s history of air-to-air combat. -


Extract from “Fire in the Sky” Pages 71-73,  by Michael Molkentin.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 404 pages

Dedicated to the daring and courage of the airmen and mechanics of the Australian Flying Corps
—a tale of a war fought thousands of feet above the trenches.”

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