1919 Air Race: Why Smithy couldn't fly the Kangaroo

Darragh Christie, 9 December 2019 · #

‘…two other Smiths, Ross and Keith, flew their Vickers Vimy out to Australia in 28 days, winning the prize of £10,000 and knighthoods for this magnificent feat.’

-Charles Kingsford Smith on the England to Australia air race he couldn’t enter.

And then suddenly it was all over

No. 19 Squadron RFC with Smithy second row, second from the right- the one with no cap.

Smithy had survived numerous close calls with death, including being blown up, shot down, and the deadly ‘Spanish flu’. He recalled:

There was I with the remains of a war wound, a war gratuity and a war decoration, with the wide world before me…We were young and full of beans and ready for anything…In fact the new days of Peace seemed strangely dull and flat after the old days of war.1

But he found ways to break the boredom. On one occasion he was caught by a landowner shooting pheasants from the air for the officers weekly dinner:

Thereby breaking some ancient feudal lore. The penalty for this, according to the farmer, was deportation or transportation to Australia2

The charge of poaching a hare was eventually dropped. Smithy’s response was to write a dirty ditty. He sang it to banjo accompaniment in the mess, to everyone’s amusement. But this was not the first, or last time, Smithy would fall foul of the establishment. More on that later.

In 1919 he co-founded a charter company. They ‘clubbed together’ and purchased two DH6 aircraft. By his own account:

…very cheaply from Air Ministry war stocks, which were surplus…we flew them on sundry commercial jobs, joy riding, taxi flights and so on.

The first joy-riding venture in England. Smithy is on the left. The aircraft appears to be a DH6.

Smithy recalled how pioneering aviation at the time had set the public’s imagination alight:

1919 had come in with a rush…new marvels were being accomplished. Alcock and Brown had flown across the Atlantic; Harry Hawker had become a national hero, and to us a tempting prize was held out by the Commonwealth Government which offered £10,000 to the first Australian who could fly from England to Australia.

…it was such an adventure that appealed to people like us, and others like us, too. There were dozens of Australian airmen in England at the time, and they all began feverishly to lay their plans for the flight.
Our idea was to fly in a Blackburn Kangaroo twin-engine machine, and it seemed a very good idea at the time…3

Blackburn Kangaroo: 1919 England to Australia air race contestant.

It seemed like a very good idea at the time…

Smithy, years later, brushed over what must have been a painful rejection at the time:

Smithy blamed Billy Hughes as ‘a n_ in the woodpile’. Hughes’ referendums on Conscription split the nation

W.M. Hughes, our war-time Prime Minister, who was all-powerful those days…put his foot down. We were too young ; we were too inexperienced; particularly we had no navigation knowledge or experience for such a tremendous journey. He absolutely forbade it and that was the end of the plan.
We sold the machine after an official veto had been placed on our venture by the Air Ministry. There was nothing else to be done…4

In the late 1950’s Norman Ellison explained in detail Smithy’s reasons for disqualification. Whilst interesting and recommended reading, it is to another Journalist, Ian Mackersay, we turn. He noted:

  • The ‘Kangaroo’ belonged to Blackburn. They couldn’t sell it even if they wanted to.
  • The British air ministry did not forbid the flight. An Australian government race was really none of its business.
  • It was unlikely that Prime Minister Hughes would have intervened. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the event and in London he attended at least one planning meeting with Cyril Maddocks.

The club had never taken to vet all entrants and refuse the unsuitable, and there is no evidence it rejected the applications of Kingsford Smith, Maddocks and Rendle.

  • Smithy’s navigation skills weren’t an issue:

Smithy had proved himself a pilot of above average competence and experience on nearly two dozen aircraft types at a time when long-distance navigation didn’t exist as an aviation science. Most of those entering the race had been wartime fighter pilots whose operational flights had rarely exceeded 50 miles. Had a lack of navigation skills been a genuine concern, it would have disqualified most of the other entrants. In any case the navigation issue had been taken care of by the Royal Aero Club. In the middle of June, it had declared that all competing aircraft would be required to carry ‘ a competent navigator’ who would be one of the pilots. At the same time the Australian government had arranged for the RAF to provide navigation training for any pilot who wanted it. Had this been the only impediment Smithy would have taken a short course.5

We need to look for other reasons why he couldn’t compete.

We would dash back and buy others to replace the crashed machines.

‘We were young and full of beans and ready for anything’Smithy, Cyril Maddocks and Val Rendle in 1919.

Smithy worked on the Kangaroo with Blackburn when not doing paid flights.

He wrote home on 13 June:

I’m quite confident she’ll pull through…The Shell company are cabling to all their representative in the Dutch East Indies to assist us in every way and Rolls-Royce are fitting special 270hp engines…We had to borrow a hundred quid for the entrance fee for the race as well as spend lots rushing around.6

Several months later his letter was less confident, indicating a split with Blackburn:

I’ve written to two or three other concerns asking for particulars of equally capable machines and the cost of equipping one for the flight. I’ve also written to Harold to see if he knows anyone in America who would finance the journey. It would be better on our own, independent of the Blackburns altogether.’7

In desperation, Smithy asked his brother Harold for a £2000 loan (several years earnings). Harold declined.

So why had his relationship with Blackburn broken down? The press were touting Smithy as the up-and -coming lead pilot for the Kangaroo. He’d even had letters of support from General’s Monash and Birdwood.

King Dick

Smithy was nick-named ‘King dick’ at his training base, and kept up his reputation as a ladies man after the war. John Stannage, later Smithy’s wireless operator, friend and confidant recalled the story of their first crash:

Smithy and Maddocks were flying home after a hard day’s work giving rides at the village fair…An argument arose whether they would fly straight home or land at the estate of a gentleman whose daughter Smithy was, at that moment, quite ardently in love. Smithy hauled one way on the controls, Maddocks the other. Presently something snapped. It was a control wire.’8

In the forced landing the aircraft crashed into a ditch and was wrecked. Mackersay writes:

A few weeks later, trying to land in fog, Smithy crashed a second aircraft, wrapping it round an oak tree…Both aeroplanes were replaced in a deal with Aircraft Disposals Board which, according to Stannage, was ‘shrouded in mystery’. The planes were being replaced by the insurers, who became alarmed when a third aircraft went up in smoke following an engine fire in mid-air. The fourth aircraft to go was one of the replacements.

Smithy had developed a practice of offering flights to casual female acquaintances on the pretext of giving them flying lessons. The trips would often end in secluded trysting spots. On the last occasion, said Stannage, ‘he was taking a very lovely little nurse for a short instruction flight.’ Preparing to land, the frightened pupil gripped the controls so hard that Smithy couldn’t move them. The aircraft hit the ground, badly damaging the undercarriage and wing. ‘There was by this time insufficient money to pay for repairs,’ said Stannage, ‘And most certainly they could not ask for more machines.’9

Crashed Be2. These and other WW1 training aircraft such as DH6 and Avro aircraft were purchased. Source: AWM H12729/13

More than the value of our buses

As Mackersay surmises:

They were not only crashing their aeroplanes at a frequency reflecting little credit on someone with Smithy’s above-average piloting skills, but they had also, with the unwitting help of the insurers, who were covering their machines extremely well, become profitable aircraft-traders.

From his letter home is seems Smithy saw the whole thing as quite enterprising:

Maddocks and I made about £40 in two afternoons with that one remaining machine…we sold it to three chaps, who thought it looked easy to make money that way, for twice as much as we paid for it….We had enough cash to buy three new and better type machines…I bet before we start our flight to Australia we’ll make more than the value of our buses.

But as Mackersay points out, others took a dim view of this behaviour:

…the extrodinarary toll of accidents and rumours about questionable insurance claims and the hedonistic activities of the directors of Kingsford Smith-Maddocks Aeros Ltd came to the attention of the highly principled Robert Blackburn), who was not amused. He called for a report into the company. What he learned was quickly to bring bad news for Smithy.10

The Air Marshal’s recollection

Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel (front, second left) and Lieutenant Colonel Williams (front, second right) with No. 1 Squadron Bristol Fighters, February 1918 Source: Wikipedia)

Former RAF flying officer Lieut. Colonel Richard Williams was a commanding forthright figure sporting a handlebar moustache. He retired as an Air Marshall and wrote in his autobiography:

The manager of the Blackburn Company in London, whose office was near Australia House, asked me to call and see him. When I did so he asked me if I would have any objection to replacing Kingsford Smith as a pilot for the Kangaroo…I said that provided he was Australian, it was no business of mine to say who should or should not be the pilot of a competing aircraft. In this case it was obviously a matter entirely for the people supplying it. I had not met Kingsford Smith, who was of course to become one of the world’s great pilots.11

Air Marshall Richard Williams

However as I was interested to know why the company desired a change and was informed that the pilot concerned had, with his friends, purchased an aircraft from the Government Disposals and was barnstorming in the country and, contrary to civil air regulations, was landing in fields not approved for that purpose. I was also told that he had found that he could insure his aircraft for an amount in excess of that for which he could replace it – and there had been some crashes. The Blackburn view was that this was undermining not only civil aviation control (they knew that the British government would be reluctant to prosecute a Dominion serviceman awaiting repatriation) but it was damaging aviation insurance, which was just getting established.
It had been stated by more than one source that Mr Hughes had prevented Kingsford Smith taking part in the race. I know of no foundation of this assertion.12

The Air Marshall was also unaware of any pilot’s application having been refused on the irrelevant grounds of lack of navigation skill. Aerial navigation was an unknown at the time,

He only wanted to say nice things about them.

The Blackburn Kangaroo left London’s Hounslow Aerodrome on 21 November 1919, the fourth of six aircraft, Mackersay notes:

not only was Kingsford Smith absent from the crew, but so was Cyril Maddocks, possibly as a consequence of his own involvement in the insurance hanky-panky.13

Only Lt. Val Rendle flew as a co-pilot with Lt. Reginald Williams. Arctic explorer Capt. (later Sir) George Hubert Wilkins navigated and Lt. Garnsey Potts was their mechanic. After leaving England the aircraft flew to France through appalling weather. Lt. Reg Williams recalled:

It was bitterly cold all the time. On the first day out from England, we flew for about four hours in a snow storm with no means of navigating, just a compass.14

The crew conversed by sending notes to each other via a pulley and wire attached to the side of the plane. Problems were experienced with the engines, and the plane was forced down over France. Repairs were made and the flight continued, still with engine problems. On 8 December 1919, the aircraft crash-landed at Suda Bay, Crete, ending up against the fence of a mental hospital. The crew luckily escaped without injury.

Blackburn’s Kangaroo entrant of the 1919 air race after crash-landing in Crete.

The Hon. Mrs. Beryl Evans, daughter of Lt. Reg Williams was interviewed by Mackersay:

All his life Daddy [Reginald Williams] was extremely tactful and discreet about it…He was anxious not to say anything publicly that might harm the Kingsford Smith image. However in private, he would confirm almost exactly [air Marshall, no relation] ‘Dickie’ Williams’ version of events.’ Before her father died, Mrs Evans said, she had persuaded him to write for the family an account of his life , including the part he played in the 1919 race. ‘when he came to deal with Kingsford Smith and Maddocks he decided not to relate the full facts, just in case his memoirs ever got published. You see he only wanted to say nice things about them.’15

Years which the locusts had eaten

Smithy having blotted his copybook with Blackburn, was unable to find another backer. Though this may have been a devastating and depressing turn of events, Smithy was more determined than ever:

My mind was filled with aviation to the exclusion of everything else.

Like other ex-pilots he was forced to find work where he could. Arriving in the US with nothing but his suitcase and old uniform. He set off to Hollywood to find employment as an aerial stuntman:

I very soon realised that my flying life would be short indeed if I continued at that game very long. The people who attended these exhibitions were too bloodthirsty for my taste. They wanted too much for their money. They weren’t satisfied with flying and wind-walking and other pleasant manoeuvres. I could see what they wanted. They wished to see a body carried off the field, and I did not want to be that body.16

Charles Kingsford Smith stunting for the movies, California, 1922. After serving in Australian squadrons in the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1, Kingsford-Smith travelled to Hollywood to do stunt flying. Among the stunts were wing-walking and hanging by his legs from undercarriages. (NLA 3723531)

He arrived back in Australia completely broke. After trying his hand at various ventures, by 1927, he felt :

I had nothing to show for those ten years which the locusts had eaten. It was time to be up and doing. One had to do something to attract notice. It was a record-breaking era, so to speak, when a new record got your name in the papers, and generally made a success out of you.

A big idea

Charles Ulm and Kingsford Smith

It was at this time that I met Charles Ulm. Ulm had similar ideas to mine. He was ambitious; he wanted to do something to make the world sit up; he had a good business head; in fact, he was a born organiser.
We began to talk of some big feat which would bring us what we wanted, fame, money, status. We wanted also to do something which would not only advance aviation and confound the skeptics, but something that would bring fame to our country.

…we had no money, no aeroplane, and no means of securing either. We were just three musketeers, Ulm, Keith Anderson and me- and our sole asset was a Big Idea.17

The Big Idea? Crossing the world’s largest ocean. The Pacific.

Promotional pamphlet for The Southern Cross Museum Trust. Source: National Museum of Australia

1919 England to Australia GreatAir Race: Message to HMAS Sydney: ‘Very glad to see you…’ Ross Smith and the Great Air Race, 1919

1919 England to Australia Great Air Race: The contestants


Footnotes: 1-4; 16,17. Kingsford-Smith, Charles and Rawson, Geoffrey My flying life : an authentic biography prepared under the personal supervision of and from the diaries and papers of the late Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. Aviation Book Club, London, 1939.

Footnotes: 5-14. Mackersey, Ian Smithy : the life of Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. Little, Brown & Co, London, 1998.

Footnote: 15 Centenary of WW1 in Orange. retrieved 19/03/20

Phot credits. Ellison, Norman and Kingsford-Smith, Charles, 1897-1935 Flying Matilda : early days in Australian aviation. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, N.S.W, 1957.

Video: Vickers Vimy replica at Caboolture ’94