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Lieut. J. Clifford "Cliff" PEEL, Australian Flying Corps
- Missing in Action, 19 September 1918 -

- And the Founding of Australia's 'Flying Doctor' Service

 An Essay by Neil SMITH 

The Australian Aerial Medical Service was formed on 27 March 1928, with its first base at Cloncurry.  
Qantas signed a  contract to operate medical flights on demand with a four-passenger DH50A aircraft,
VH-UER (named "VICTORY").  This photo shows a stretcher-patient accommodated under the large hatch
between the pilot's cockpit and the engine.

The history of the Australian Inland Mission and its founder, that extraordinary man, the Reverend Dr. John Flynn, discloses the very significant part that a far-sighted young man named John Clifford PEEL (who later became a pilot with 3AFC in 1918) played in the planning of the Mission's famous Flying Doctor Service, which began in 1928 and became such an important survival link for the widely-dispersed settlers living in the Australian outback.

Research now discloses that John Flynn received, in a letter dated 20 November 1917, the idea (very far-fetched in the eyes of a lot of people in those days) of using those new-fangled inventions called "aeroplanes" to carry his Ministry to the wide-spread areas of the Australian outbackThe letter itself was unusual, because Cliff Peel (as he was known) wrote with a surprising depth of knowledge about the abilities of aeroplanes, even though they were considered a novelty at the time.  With great insight, he outlined in his letter the costs and advantages of running aeroplanes compared with the costs and disadvantages of travel on the ground.

It appears that, sometime before October 1912, when Peel was an 18-year-old medical student, Flynn had written a book, "Northern Territory and Central Australia - a Call to the Church".  At some point during the five years that followed, Peel discovered the book and regularly and repeatedly studied it.  According to his family, it inspired his interest in Flynn's extraordinary work and set his brain thinking about the logistics of how Flynn would be able to provide help to people in need whose homes were widely dispersed over Central Australia.

By 1917, several years after World War I had begun, the then 23-year-old Peel was given the opportunity to train as an aeroplane pilot at Laverton in Victoria. Exactly when the two interests linked together in Peel's fertile brain isn't known, but, after they did, he became the first person to propose the marriage of these two pioneering entities in the hope of making a better Australia.

Peel didn't live to see just how successful his idea would become.  Only 13 months later, on 19 September 1918, his RE8 aircraft "disappeared" during a patrol in France.  

Had he lived, he would probably have returned from the war to help Flynn build the Flying Doctor Service that he had clearly foreseen.  Sadly, Clifford Peel’s short life didn't allow him to make a physical contribution to this project, but he did convey his brilliant idea to John Flynn - the man who was able to bring it to fruition.

The Rev. Fred McKAY using a pedal-powered radio in 1937.  This radio was another key invention that allowed aerial medicine to expand into the outback. 
Fred McKay later succeeded the Rev. Dr. John Flynn in administering the Australian Inland Mission.  During WW2, Fred became one of the famous
"Three Padres", who ministered to the RAAF units in Africa and Italy, including 3 Squadron.  (Neil Smith researched this article about Cliff Peel in response to encouragement from his friend Fred.)

Cliff Peel's life began on the 17th of April 1894 in the family home called "Tower Hill", which had been built by the Peels in 1856 at Inverleigh in Victoria.  He was the first of the nine children born to Charles Herbert and Susan Peel and, like his six brothers and two sisters, he completed his primary education at the Inverleigh State School.  He was enrolled at Geelong High School for his secondary schooling.

When the time came to choose his career, he decided to study Medicine at Melbourne University.  By September 1916, his interest had grown in military disciplines and he'd joined the University Rifles Advance Guard, in which he held the rank of Sergeant-Major.

The First World War had started in 1914, so by 1917, the Australian Imperial Forces were searching for candidates for their newly-formed Australian Flying Corps.  Peel volunteered and he was selected for flying training at the Central Flying School at Laverton in Victoria.

August 1917 saw the young 23-year-old training in Maurice Farman Shorthorns, which he often affectionately called "The Bluebird" or "The Bus" in his letters home.  While he was learning to fly, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, effectively from the 16th of October 1917.

Cliff Peel in uniform.

While he was at Laverton, Peel wrote to John Flynn. His letter, dated 2 November 1917, said that he thought aeroplanes would be able to play a significant part in Flynn's work.  He invited Flynn to let him know if he wanted more details of his idea.  Flynn's reply instigated the famous letter written by Peel on the 20th of November 1917, whilst on board the HMAT Nestor, which had steamed from Melbourne bound for the United Kingdom with a full contingent of A.I.F. and A.F.C. personnel.

Peel's letter said:

...Aviation is still new, but it has set some of us thinking, and thinking hard.  Perhaps others want to be thinking too.  Hence these few notes.

Safety.  The first question to be asked is sure to be, "Is it safe?"

To the Australian lay mind the thought of flying is accompanied by many weird ideas of its danger.  True there are dangers, which in the Inland will be accompanied by the possibility of being stranded in the desert without food or water.  Yet even with this disadvantage, the only reply to such a query is a decided affirmative.  Practically all the flying for the last three years has been military flying, and men have taken, and are taking, risks that will be quite needless in commercial or private aviation in the future; and if we study the records available, and deduct accidents that occurred while the pilot was stunting over enemy territory, we will find that the number of miles flown per misadventure is very large, while the number of accidents per aerodrome per annum is very small.

Difficulties.  As in every new adventure there are initial difficulties, so is establishing the aeroplane in the Inland.

The first and greatest of these is cost.

Everything is dear by the time it gets Inland, and the question to be settled is: which is the least dear?  In this calculation we must reckon time, men, material, and efficiency, in terms of pounds, shillings and pence.

With aeroplanes I venture to say that, given proper care, the upkeep is relatively light while the cost of installing compares very favourably if we realise that to run a train, motor car, lorry, or other vehicle, roads must first be made and then kept in repair, whilst the air needs no such preparation.

The capital expenditure in Europe (according to an eminent English authority) before a motor car can be run is 6,000 pounds per mile, for a train 24,000 pounds per mile, and for an aeroplane about 600 pounds per mile.

The problem of overhauls and major repairs present another great difficulty.  Most people realise that motor engines require delicate treatment and special machinery when being overhauled.  The question of ways and means remains to be solved.

Landing grounds may present some difficulties in certain regions, but these will be found where needed.

Machines for Inland work will need to have a large radius of action, say a non-stop run of at least 700 miles, so that the fuel carrying capacity will be large, as is seen in the tables below.

Many of these and other difficulties loom very large, as we view them from the distance, but with the progress of aviation, and the more universal use of the motor car, many of them will automatically disappear.

Advantages.  The advantage of an air service will be quickly appreciated from the tables of time and space below.  With a machine doing 90 miles an hour, Darwin is brought within twelve and a half hours of Oodnadatta (excluding stops).

It takes little imagination to see the advantage of this to the mail service, government officials, and business men, while to the frontier settlers it will be an undreamt-of boon as regards household supplies, medical attention, and business.

A Scheme.  Just by way of a suggestive scheme, I propose to consider that portion of A.I.M. territory east of the Western Australian boundary.  In this large tract of land, consisting of one-third of the Australian continent, I am assuming that the bases are situated at Oodnadatta in South Australia, Cloncurry in Queensland and Katherine in the Northern Territory.  At the present time these are railheads, hence supplies can be brought up with comparative regularity and minimum cost.  From each of these centres the A.I.M. workers can work a district of say 300 miles radius, or an area of 270,000 square miles.  Our table below shows the marvellous possibilities. 

    Centre. >>>>>>>> To. >>>>>> Miles. >Time (hrs.mins@ 90mph)

 OODNADATTA                 Alice Springs                 300                3.20

                                                 Birdsville                       325                3.38

                                                  Brown's H. S                 160                1.46

                                                 Charlotte Waters           140               1.33

                                                   Hergott                            220                2.26

                                                   Mirra Mitta                     230                2.33

                                                   Todmordcii H. S.             75               0.50

                                                 William Creek                  90              1.00

CLONCURRY                     Camooweal                     175                  2.00

                                                Alexandra                        275                 3.00

                                                Bourketown                    230                 2.33

                                                Morn'ton Isld                 320                3.32

                                                 Normanton                      225                2.30

                                                Springvale                      200                 2.14

                                                 Lake Nash                       200                 2.14

KATHERINE                      Darwin                             160                 1.46

                                               Booraloola                        300                 3.20

                                                 Daly Waters                      150                1.40

                                                 Powells Creek                  275                3.00

                                                 Victoria River Depot       160                1.46

                                                 Wave Hill H.S.                260                2.53

                                                Wyndham                         300               3.20

From Oodnadatta, Alice Springs is about three and a half hours trip.  Overland it takes nine DAYS -- long ones too.

In the not-very-distant future, if our church folk only realise the need, I can see a missionary doctor administering to the needs of men and women scattered between Wyndham and Cloncurry, Darwin and Hergott.  If the nation can do so much in the days of war, surely it will do its "bit" in the coming days of peace - and here is its chance.

But the cost ?

Outlay. Four machines (one for each base and one for a doctor working between the three bases) carrying 2,500 lbs., less petrol, oil, and pilot, for 700 miles, doing 90 miles per hour.

CAPITAL: 4 machines at 2,500 pounds .... 10,000 pounds

SHEDS: 3 capable of holding 3 machines, each 600 pounds … 1,800 pounds

RUNNING EXPENSES: 700 miles; 56 gals. petrol, 12 gals. oil @ 8d. per mile

Depreciation and Repairs. An overhaul is considered necessary after every 100 hours flying.  The expenses of this will naturally depend on the conveniences at hand.


Total carrying power                                              2,500 lbs.

Petrol and Oil ....                                                     -556 lbs.

Pilot ....                                                                     -170 lbs

Spare rations, water and repair kit                       -40 lbs

                                                                                 (-766 lbs.)

Total available for passengers, supplies, etc.     1,734 lbs.

The credit side of the ledger I leave for those interested in the development of our hinterland to compute.  Sufficient to say that the heroes of the Inland are laying the foundation stones of our Australian nation.

We will do our share proportionately as the sense of our brotherhood with our fellows directs our thoughts and actions.

Australian Flying Corps, A.I.F.
At Sea, 20/11/17.

The seed had been sown and Peel went on to begin his life as a wartime airman.

On the way to England, the Nestor stopped-over in Suez and Cliff had a brief opportunity to meet up with his younger brother George, who, as a Corporal in the A.I.F., had fought at Gallipoli and had been Mentioned in Dispatches [MiD]. He had also been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal [DCM].

A few weeks later, on the 24th of January, 1918, the Nestor docked at Southampton.  Peel’s orders were to proceed to Wendover, from where he was posted to the A.F.C. Training Depot at Halton Camp from the 4th of February. On the 1st of March, he was transferred to Reading, one of the two English "Schools of Air" established for the Royal Air Force.  (The other was only 25 miles further north, at Oxford.  These were the two schools where every A.F.C. trainee pilot received his "Wings" after appropriate training, before he was posted to one of the A.F.C. Squadrons that had been fighting in France since late 1917.)

About six weeks later, on the 16th of May, Peel was posted to No.7 (Training) Squadron at Leighterton, Gloucester, in the Stroud District near the Cotswold Hills.  In the same area were Numbers 5, 6, and 8 (Training) Squadrons A.F.C., which, with No.7 Squadron, gave newly-graduated pilots "hands-on" experience in a variety of different aircraft prior to their move to the front.

During the three months or so that Peel spent in Leighterton, he learned to fly many different types of aircraft, including RE8s, in preparation for his later front-line war service.  The social life for the young flyers was exceptionally good, because the neighbouring English people living around the Stroud District particularly liked the Australian officers.  Many close associations were made.  He received his official appointment as a pilot on 25 June 1918 and he remained in Leighterton until his orders for an overseas posting came through towards the end of August.

Upon his arrival in France, he proceeded to the 2nd Aeroplane Supply Depot on 31 August, from where he was posted to 3rd Squadron A.F.C. on 2 September 1918.

At that time, 3 Squadron was short of at least one pilot, since Lieutenant James Lee SMITH had been hospitalised after being badly wounded by ground-fire during a patrol a few weeks earlier.  The Squadron required a replacement to rebuild strength, in order to maintain the busy offensive against the Germans, who were rapidly being pushed back towards their own Hindenburg Line.  The Squadron was flying their RE8 aircraft from their base at Villers Bocage but, to be more effective, all aircraft were landing at an advanced landing ground at Glisy, to re-fuel and carry out further reconnaissance tasks nearer to the front-line, before returning to Villers Bocage at night-fall.

The particular task for the RE8s was to assist ground forces to assault "The Hindenberg Line" by carrying out both reconnaissance and contact patrols.  Reconnaissance was the main purpose for which the RE8 aircraft had been designed and RE8s were used extensively in France for this purpose by both the A.F.C. and the R.F.C.  The actual task of reconnaissance was shared by the two-man crew, with the pilot flying the machine and firing the forward machine gun when necessary and the Observer sitting in the cockpit behind him to scan the sky and use the rear machine guns when attacked by enemy aircraft.  Generally, both independently tracked their whereabouts, to maintain course and reach target areas.

From 3 September, these patrols were carried out from a new advanced landing ground at Proyart, where the Squadron was to move permanently on 6 September. Enemy aircraft were providing stiff opposition, in an all-out effort to stop our aircraft reconnoitering their lines, so it was probably unfortunate for Lieutenant Peel that his introduction to combat flying was at that particular time.

Bad weather was also a problem for the Squadron as a whole.  On 17 September cyclonic gales swept through the aerodrome at Proyart, damaging and, in some cases, destroying the Squadron's canvas hangers and aircraft alike.  But, as a result of a tremendous joint effort by pilots and ground crew, 15 serviceable RE8s were ready for duty by the next day, allowing Lieutenant Peel and his Observer, Lieutenant J. P. Jeffers, to join three other RE8s on a patrol dropping smoke bombs east of Malakoff Farm and north-west of Bellicourt.

On the following day, which was 19 September 1918, Lieutenants Peel and Jeffers were ordered out on a reconnaissance patrol to photograph the line of the St. Quentin Canal from south of Bellenglise to Bellicourt in their RE8.  By late afternoon, they had failed to return...  No further observations came in concerning their fate.  Peel and Jeffers were posted "Missing in Action".

The Arras Flying Services Memorial commemorates nearly 1,000 airmen who were killed on the Western Front and have no known grave. 
Peel and Jeffers are the only names from 3AFC, as the vast majority of 3AFC battle casualties were (fortunately) recovered for burial. 
However, for the AFC as a whole, the Arras Memorial to the Missing has the largest collection of Australian WW1 flyers' names of any commemorative site in France or Belgium, reflecting the large number of pilots lost over enemy territory from the Australian fighter squadrons 2AFC and 4AFC.

A telegram notifying Cliff's parents reached Inverleigh a few days before the wedding of his brother George (25th of September), but the shocking news was withheld by his parents until after the wedding. 

For many years, a mystery endured regarding the fate of Lieutenant John Clifford Peel, his Observer Jeffers and their aircraft [RE8 serial E120].  In the meantime Peel's name had become immortalised throughout the world as an outstanding man with the tenacity to develop and share his aviation dream.  By doing so, he helped to shape the destiny of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The Australian War Memorial has a fascinating file which details the enquiries undertaken by the Red Cross to find out about Cliff's disappearance (tragically only seven weeks before the First World War ended).  In it, the insidious influence of the weather is described.  Peel and Jeffers crewed one of two 3AFC RE8 aircraft that were detailed to photograph a very dangerous sector of the German "Hindenberg Line".  The two RE8s were meant to fly together, for mutual protection; they were also provided with an escort of British Sopwith Camel fighters.  Unfortunately, as they reached the front line, Peel flew around a large cloud bank and was lost to sight of the other RE8 crew and the escort formation.

What happened next can be deduced from German records.  It appears that Cliff continued with his photographic mission (involving straight-and-level flight over enemy territory, while his automated camera exposed the plates) until his lone RE8 was jumped by German fighters near the village of Bellenglise.  The authors of the book Bloody April + Black September have unearthed a matching aerial victory claim by the German fighter pilot Leutnant Julius Schulte-Frohlinde, of Jasta 11.  [This victory marked Js11's last success against a British aircraft in WW1.  Js11 was the highest-scoring German fighter unit of the war, with 350 victory claims.]  The Germans thought that Cliff was flying a "Bristol Fighter" - which is quite a compliment, as the "Brisfit" was a very potent fighting machine compared with an RE8 (although similar in configuration).  If nothing else, it sounds as if Peel and Jeffers must have put up an impressive fight. 

Service Record Summary of John Clifford PEEL

[Full record available online in National Archives of Australia.]

- Born at Inverleigh, Vic., on 17th April, 1894.  Appointed 2nd Lieutenant on 16th October, 1917. 

- Embarked at Melbourne for England with the Special Draft Australian Flying Corps per HMAT Nestor on 21st November 1917. 

- Disembarked at Southampton on 24th January, 1918.  Taken on strength of Australian Flying Corps Depot at Wendover on 4th February, 1918. 

- Transferred to the School of Air, Royal Air Force, Reading, on 1st March 1918. 

- Transferred to the 7th AFC Training Squadron on 16th May 1918.  Appointed Flying Officer (pilot) on 25th June 1918.

- Taken on strength of the 2nd Aeroplane Supply Depot, France, on 31st August 1918.

- Transferred to 3rd Squadron AFC on 2nd September 1918. 

- Killed in Action on 19th September 1918. 

- Commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial, France.  Medals issued: British War Medal. Victory Medal.

[Clifford Peel willed 40% of his estate to various church charities, including the Australian Inland Mission.]

On 21 July 2015, the NSW Minister for Roads and the Chief Executive of the Royal Flying Doctor Service cut a ribbon to officially open the Lieutenant J Clifford Peel Airstrip on a newly-revamped section of the Silver City Highway north of Broken Hill, NSW.  This 1.5km-long airstrip is suitable for 24-hour all-weather use by the RFDS (when required to service medical emergencies in this remote area).  It is the first airstrip incorporated into a State road in NSW and features a large visitor-information board explaining Cliff’s contribution to the RFDS.

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