Timor Sea 09/12/1919. Around Midday.
The image below captures a moment in time, exactly 100 years ago. A ship’s mast rises upwards. Do you recognise it? High in the sky the outline of an aircraft can be seen…
So what is going on in this photo?
Historian Michael Molkentin explains what was happening in the aeroplane, high above:
While [Capt.] Ross [Smith] made routine checks of his [aircraft] instruments and engines, Keith [Smith] and the Mechanics watched the horizon for the light cruiser [HMAS Sydney]…which the Defence Department had stationed to patrol the waters between Timor and Darwin in case the Vimy came down in the sea. At 11:48 am, two and a half hours after leaving Timor, Keith spotted smoke on the horizon, directly on their bearing- a ‘very cheery sight’, he thought. Twenty minutes later Ross flew over the ship low enough to see the faces of sailors looking up and waving.1
Message in a bottle
Keith Smith then dropped a bottle with a message inside. It read:
The Air 0/12/19 Vickers Vimy
The Commander, H.M.A.S.
Very glad to see you. Many thanks for looking after us. Going strong.
Keith Smith Ross Smith Sgt. J. Bennett Sgt. W. H. Shiers
The message and bottle are now artefacts held by the State Library of NSW:
HMAS Sydney was positioned to point the aircraft to Darwin. However as Capt. Cayley wrote:
As far as could be judged no corrections were necessary…proof of the wonderfully accurate navigation on the part of the navigators.
Molkentin relates what happened next:
When a wireless transmission from the Sydney, reporting the Vimy’s position, reached Darwin [180km away] a few minutes later, the news spread quickly. An exodous from homes and workplaces began, reminding one journalist of ‘an old time gold rush in the west’. Riding horses, walking, a minority in motorcars, the people of Darwin headed for the cliffs…where the Defence Department had cleared a space for the Vimy to land.2
This ‘gold rush’ excitement was repeated wherever they landed in Australia.
But for now the Smith brothers and their crew having sighted the ship, landed on home soil. Exhilarated and exhausted.
Ross Smith’s flying began during the Great War. He first enlisted with 3rd Light Horse. they sailed for Egypt in 1914. Molkentin’s newly released book decribes one memorable event:
The most exciting part of the voyage occurred nine days out from Albany, when one of the convoy’s escorts, HMAS Sydney , engaged and destroyed the light cruiser Emden. Ross happened to be up on deck when the Sydney received a distress message from the wireless station on the nearby Cocos Islands, reporting it was under attack from the German raider. Ross watched as the Sydney suddenly went to full speed, its four funnels belching smoke, and passed close by to the Port Lincoln ‘It was all very thrilling,’ thought Ross, despite not knowing what was happening. ‘She was out of sight in no time, and we heard nothing for eight hours, when news came through.’ The two ships had exchanged fire for over 90 minutes until the Emden , badly damaged, was wrecked on North Keeling Island.3
Sargent Ross Smith fought with the 3rd LH at Gallipoli. He was commissioned after the battle of Romani in Palestine, before applying for the Flying Corps in 1917. Ross took photos recording his service and was photographed by Frank Hurley after joining No.1 (Australian Flying) Squadron.
Capt. Ross Smith played his part in knocking the German air-force out of the skies. No.1 AFC destroyed Turkish troop columns, transport, German airfields and supply depots. During his military career Smith was awarded the Military Cross (twice) and Distinguished Flying Cross (three times). He was credited with 11 enemy aircraft.
T.E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) mentions Smith in his war autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
Before dawn, on the Australian aerodrome, stood two Bristols and a DH9. In one was Ross Smith, my old pilot, who had been picked out to fly the new Handley Page…it was breakfast time with a smell of sausage in the air…the watcher on the broken tower yelled ‘Aeroplane up’…Our Australians, scrambling wildly to their yet-hot machines, started them in a moment. Ross Smith with his observer, leaped into one, and climbed like a cat up the sky.
There were one enemy two-seater and three scouts. Ross Smith fastened on the big one, and, after five minutes of sharp machine-gun rattle, the German dived suddenly towards the railway line… As it flashed behind the low ridge there broke out a pennon of smoke, from its falling place a soft, dark cloud. An ‘Ah!’ came from the Arabs about us. Five minutes Ross Smith was back, and jumped gaily out of his machine, swearing the Arab front was the place.4
The wreck of a two-seater and badly burned bodies of German airmen were discovered a few days later.
Smith flew Lawrence, supplies and spares in a giant Handley Page bomber. The Arab tribesmen were awestruck. Lawrence reported:
At Um el Surab the Handley stood majestic on the grass, with Bristols and 9A fledglings beneath its spread of wings. Round it admired the Arabs, saying, ‘Indeed and at last they have sent us THE aeroplane, of which these things are foals.’5
The Sydney tripod mast seen in the photograph is a permanent memorial at Bradleys Head (comparing photographs, it appears the ‘crows nest’ and attendant topmast have been removed along with original rigging.)
On April 13 1922, Ross Smith and his crew were killed testing a Vickers Viking amphibian aircraft for another record breaking flight. They were filmed just before the tragic incident. The crash site was just near where he first flew from England in 1919. His State funeral in Adelaide appeared in newsreels, to a nation in mourning. G-EAOU is now on display at Adelaide Airport in memory to the Great Air Race winner.
1 Molkentin, Michael and Thomas, Andrew (Andrew S. W.), 1951-, (author of introduction, etc.) Anzac & aviator: the remarkable story of Sir Ross Smith and the 1919 England to Australia Air Race. p 270
2 Molkentin, Ibid.
4 Lawrence, T. E. (Thomas Edward), Seven pillars of wisdom : a triumph J. Cape, London, 1935.
Bibliography/ recommended reading & viewing:
Eustis, Nelson The greatest air race : England-Australia 1919. Rigby : McPherson’s Printing Group, Adelaide, 1994.
Lawrence, T. E. (Thomas Edward), Rogers, Bruce, 1870-1957, (former owner.) and Pforzheimer Bruce Rogers Collection (Library of Congress) Seven pillars of wisdom : a triumph. J. Cape, London, 1935.
Molkentin, Michael and Thomas, Andrew (Andrew S. W.), 1951-, (author of introduction, etc.) Anzac & aviator: the remarkable story of Sir Ross Smith and the 1919 England to Australia Air Race. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 2019.
Molkentin, Michael (2012). Fire in the sky : the Australian Flying Corps in the First World War. Crows Nest, N.S.W. Allen & Unwin pg 270
State Library NSW, Manuscripts, oral history and pictures catalogue
SBS Doco The Greatest Air Race
Michael Molkentin’s interview with John Ulm about his book on Charles Ulm and Kingsford Smith .
The 1919 Air Race is commemorated in an exhibition at the ANZAC Memorial, Hyde Park