1919 Air Race. Ross Smith to HMAS Sydney: 'Very glad to see you...'

Darragh Christie, 9 December 2019 · #

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?

Vickers Vimy as first sighted by HMAS Sydney. Source: State Library of Victoria H20031.

Timor Sea 09/12/1919: Sydney sighted

Photographer: Hurley, Frank. Vickers Vimy crew during flight. Source SLSA PRG 18/9/1/47A

Ross Smith, high above, recalled:

Our watches registered 11:48 when Keith nodded ahead, and, dead on the line of our flight, we made out a faint smoke haze that soon resolved itself into the smoke-plume of a fighting-ship. It was the Sydney, and we knew now that, whatever might befall, we had a friend at hand.

Photo by Sir Ross Smith. Source: SLSA b3198834 Keith Smith recalled HMAS Sydney was ‘a very cheery sight.’

We swooped low, and exactly at twelve minutes past noon passed over the vessel seeing plainly the upturned faces of the sailors and their waving hands. It was a cheer of welcome quite different from anything we had experienced on the long journey. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that the result of our snapshot was blurred through the shaking of our camera

Near midday, 10th December 1919: The moment onboard HMAS Sydney when the Vimy was sighted. Officers and sailors point to the sky with great excitement.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 artifacts held by the State Library of NSW:

[Bottle, containing a message which was dropped from the plane by Ross Smith and party on the first flight from England to Australia, and picked up by HMAS Sydney, 1919; with typescript statement by Capt. Cayley of HMAS Sydney, 1922]1919; 1922 by Sir Ross Macpherson Smith. Source: State Library of NSW

The bottle and message are accompanied by a typescript statement by the donor, Capt. H. Cayley, who was in command of HMAS Sydney when the vessel picked up the message 180 miles from Port Darwin. Capt. Cayley’s statement records the time and position of the encounter, and refers to the prior arrangement to guide the aviators by steering for Port Darwin. Source: State Library of NSW

HMAS Sydney positioned itself to point the aircraft to Darwin. As ship’s Captain 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.

Arrival of Vickers Vimy at Mascot Aerodrome, 1920 / photographed by William Kimbel Source SLNSW Call no: 447269

But for now the Smith brothers and their crew having sighted the ship, landed on home soil. Exhilarated and exhausted.

Inaugural flight from the UK to Australia, by Captain Ross Smith in 1919. Call no: PXB 1694 Source: Mitchell Library, SLNSW Courtesy of Mr Justice Ken Handley

The fate of the other air race contestants is viewable here.

‘Of Arabia’

This painting shows the first landing of the Handley Page near Amman when Sir Ross Smith first went out to meet Colonel Lawrence. The aircraft is a Handley Page O/400 bomber… The Arabs received the Bristol Fighters with acclamation, but when next day the giant Handley-Page machine arrived at Um es Surab the tribes were moved to the wildest enthusiasm. They sang, danced, and cheered around it, firing volleys into the air in an ecstasy of delight.’ Source AWM ART14279

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 relevant to this story:

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

HMAS Sydney. Source AWM EN0194

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.

Observer, pilot, and Bristol Fighter F2B aircraft, Serial B1146, of No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. The pilot (left) is Captain (Capt) Ross Macpherson Smith, MC and bar, DFC and two bars. Capt Hurley visited No. 1 Squadron on the 25 and 28 February 1918 and this photograph was probably taken on one of these days. This image is a colour Paget Plate. The same image is available in black and white and is held at B01633. Source: AWM P03631.013

Title: Ross Smith in his B1229 N.S.W. No. 11. Date taken[approximately 1917]. Description: Ross Smith in his Bristol F.2 B Fighter plane, number B1229 N.S.W. No. 11. B1129 was part of No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, serving in the Middle East. B1129 was a ‘presentation’ aircraft, meaning that it was procured from a donation by the Macintyre Kayuga Estate of NSW…Source: SLSA PRG 18/4/18

Capt. Ross Smith played his part in knocking the German air-force out of the skies. No.1 AFC destroyed German and Turkish troop columns, transport, 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.5

The burnt out remains of a German aeroplane. Source AWM: J01042

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 [Bomber] 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.’6

A Handley-Page 0/400 aircraft with some Bristol Fighter machines at the aerodrome of the Australian Flying Corps at Haifa. Captain Ross Macpherson Smith frequently piloted this aircraft. Source AWM B02114

And indeed with air superiority the Turks were bombed and machine-gunned in retreat, as their Empire collapsed. The Middle East was then divided up,. A legacy we live with today.

In Memoriam

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.)

Credit: LEE_G (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gibbons, O. (1919). SL Victoria.

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.

Related stories

1919 England to Australia Great Air Race: The contestants

1919 England to Australia Great Air Race: Why Smithy couldn’t fly the Kangaroo

1919 England to Australia Great Air Race exhibition at the ANZAC Memorial, Hyde Park. Photo by the author.


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.

3 Ibid.

4 This aircraft was probly brought down by another of 1 AFC’s F2b’s

5 Lawrence, T. E. (Thomas Edward), Seven pillars of wisdom : a triumph J. Cape, London, 1935.

6 Ibid.

Bibliography/ recommended reading & viewing:

In Print;

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


Well written article for Australian Geographic by Alasdair McGregor

State Library NSW, Manuscripts, oral history and pictures catalogue

State Libraries of South Australia and Northern Territories collections and current exhibitions on the centenary of the flight are well worth a look.

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

The Sir Ross Smith aeroplane race game [game] : for two or more players. Source: State Library of NSW