Australia’s greatest air ace

RACV RoyalAuto Magazine

A century ago this month, Royal Naval Air Service officers were threatening to kick out a Melbourne pilot undergoing advanced training at an airfield east of London.

“Has a bad manner,” they wrote on the file of 20-year-old Alec Little from Prahran. “As an officer is quite hopeless and likely to remain so … he is to be informed that if a further adverse report is received, his Commission will be terminated.” Rather more pertinently, it added “… has a trick of landing outside aerodrome”.

Paid his own way

All this, notwithstanding their need for trained pilots, and that the volunteer had paid his own way to war, and then funded his own expensive basic training. His successful courting of a pretty Dover girl, Vera Field, may also have concerned those British officers who feared married men would be too cautious in combat.

To be fair, this was probably more than just Royal Navy hierarchical types persecuting a poor colonial who’d left school at 15: his pilot licence photo captures an aggressive young man glaring at the camera. He’d left Scotch College – bastion of imperialism – to help his Canadian father sell medical textbooks. He’d always wanted to fly but battled to master aeronautics, primitive aircraft, rotary engines, machine guns and meteorology.

Reading the riot act worked and Alec was assigned to pilot lumbering flying boats. He hated it.

Consummate fighter pilot

Not until the Somme offensive of July 1916 which saw the Navy required to release squadrons for the Western Front, did the brave, reckless Alec emerge as a consummate fighter pilot, soon nicknamed Rikki after the lethal mongoose in Kipling’s Jungle Tales. His file now noted “exceptional courage and gallantry … brilliant fighting officer … leader of great daring … good command of men”.

Captain Robert Alexander Little of Naval 8 squadron would end his war with 47 victories, ranked eighth of British Commonwealth aces, and greatest of all Australian aces in all wars.

His commanding officer wrote of his “tremendous bravery … air fighting seemed to him to be a gloriously exhilarating sport … he never ceased to look for trouble, and very little escaped those keen eyes. His dashing methods, close-range fire and deadly aim made him a formidable opponent, and he was the most chivalrous of warriors”.

Ruthless predator

While the Australian Dictionary of Biography later characterised Alec as “likeable and friendly with a great sense of fun, he was a great talker,” in the air he was a ruthless predator, often seeking to fight alone. He survived pleurisy, fought nausea from the engine’s castor oil fumes, and in infamously-fragile aircraft dived faster than prudent wingmen.

In July 1917 he shot down 14 aircraft in his Sopwith Triplane bearing his son’s nickname Blymp. Honours accumulated: Distinguished Service Cross and Bar; Distinguished Service Order and Bar; Croix de Guerre.

Some combats seemed the stuff of comic books, especially a solo fight against 11 Germans, and a 1918 scrap when his fantastic luck appeared to run out. “Had my controls shot away and my machine dived,” he scrawled in his logbook. “At 100ft from the ground it flattened out with a jerk, breaking the fuselage just behind my seat. I undid my belt and when the machine struck the ground I was thrown clear. The (enemy aircraft) still fired at me … I fired my revolver at one which came to about 30 ft.” A former wingman later added a Pythonesque footnote explaining his rage: “He’d fallen into a manure heap.”

On the night of 27 May 1918 acting Squadron Leader Little took off after a Gotha bomber. Next morning his wrecked Camel was found near Noeux-les-Auxi, a village outside Abbeville 200km north of Paris. He had been shot through the hips.

Wooden cross

Pilots jested about winning a Wooden Cross; the squadron mechanics crafted exactly that for his grave at Wavans, near Abbeville. In Melbourne, The Herald’s overblown obituary concluded: “Before he perished he wrote his name in the sky, and he died on the wings of fame.”

“Wings of fame?” Hardly. Dying for his country, but not in an Australian uniform, won Alec only modest, fading formal recognition.

Alec soon ended in the back row of history, quite literally at Wavans, where he lies at the rear of the 44 graves while the front-row headstone of British ace James McCudden VC is often decorated by visitors.

He’s not on those numbing walls at the Australian War Memorial listing 102,000 war deaths, but is in a Commemorative Roll incorporating those killed in Allied units. At the Shrine in Melbourne, he’s in the ‘Sundries’ book.

In Canberra’s aviator-themed suburb of Scullin, it seems ironic that Little Place is a dead-end street.

Alec vanished from the memory of all but military aviation enthusiasts until a 2012 biography introduced him to a wider audience. The subsequent astonishing find of a bag of his belongings at a Queensland waste depot was widely reported.

There’s one last Wooden Cross for Alec Little. Every Remembrance Day, Scotch College erects small white crosses with the names of 226 old boys who died in the Great War.

Story: Mike Rosel, WHO is the author of Unknown Warrior: The Search For Australia’s Greatest Ace, first published by Australian Scholarly Publishing of Melbourne.

FOLLOW our coverage of the veterans on ANZAC Day, 25 April, on Facebook.com/racv and Instagram: @theracv

Written by Mike Rosel
April 04, 2016

AIR ACE LANDMARKS

Australia

See a replica 1916 Sopwith Pup – Alec Little’s first fighter – flying from the RAAF Museum at Point Cook. The Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin includes Little memorabilia: a penny apparently used for target practice, and his long johns. They’re on loan from the Fleet Air Arm museum at Nowra, NSW, which displays all the other belongings found in Queensland.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra exhibits his grave cross and medals, and has other items, including his logbooks.

Britain

The Sopwith Pup in which Alec won his first four victories is on display at the museum at RAF Cosford, near Birmingham.

In Kent, Alec’s name is on a Royal Naval Air Service memorial at Walmer, a former hilltop airfield overlooking the Channel, now Hawkshill Freedown public space. Below is Henry VIII’s Walmer Castle artillery fort, where long-serving Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies once regularly resided as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

France

The farmland airfields around Arras from which Naval 8 pilots challenged the Germans reverted to agriculture postwar. While his crash site near Noeux-les-Auxi is not known, you can find Alec’s grave in the nearby Wavans war cemetery.