Where angels fear to tread: Smithy’s baptism of fire

Darragh Christie, 14 August 2017 · # ·

Charles Kingsford Smith’s record-breaking flights made him a household name between and after the wars. His experiences as a combat pilot in 1917 are lesser known. In August 1917, he forged his flying career in the fires of adversity. In his autobiography My flying life he recalled

Sometimes our squadrons would sweep the sky in bands 20 strong, looking for trouble in the shape of Hun machines, and generally finding it. We flew low over enemy aerodromes and trenches, ground strafing and attacking anything in sight with our drums of Lewis fire. At other times we flew high, waiting At 15,000 ft. to pounce on our enemies, and there were exciting and adventurous occasions when we deliberately cultivated a spinning nose dive to in an effort to avoid attack, or with nonchalant abandon rolled carefree.

..We did the job to the best of our ability in what seemed to be the craziest old antiquarian contraptions imaginable- the machines of the Royal Flying Corps.. And we were up against an enemy that was ahead of us in aircraft design, and certainly not our inferiors in courage, élan and dash.

The ‘Terror of Mosman’

Despite a good family upbringing1, and education at St Andrews Choir school. Charles Kingsford Smithy walked, rode and flew, where angels feared to tread.

Charles (or ‘Chilla’, his family’s nick-name) was a handfull as a teenager. After acquiring a second-hand motorbike, complaints from irrate neighbours were followed by Police warnings. The terror of Mosman’s hooning career ended with a bang. After crashing through a dairy wall, his 2-wheeler was written off amidst a pile of broken milk bottles and confectionery.2

Sapper Charles Edward Kingsford Smith of Neutral Bay (left) and friend after enlisting in the Australian Army. Picture: Australian War Memorial

Like many young men at the time, Chilla found the Empire’s call irresistible. On his 18th birthday he enlisted with the AIF, transfered to the the 4th Light Horse, and was shipped off to Gallipoli via Egypt.3

In a letter home Smithy described how

Snipers are pretty bad at the foot of our gully and get our chaps fairly often. One has to do a sprint or have a bullet after him.4

A bullet-holed cap was sent home as evidence of a close call5. Did his family feel relieved or anxious receiving his proud memento in the post? We can only guess.

CKS survived running messages between trenches at Gallipoli. He was then sent to France.

Behind the front lines Smithy’s motorcycling skills were put to good use as a despatch-rider6 Once again he had some close calls, surviving 2 near-misses from German shells.7

Out of the Frying Pan..

Charles’ letters home were usually upbeat. But after seeing the front-line 1st hand, he confessed

Some of the sights out there are really sickening.8

A.I.F. causalities after Western Front Battle: Photograph by Frank Hurley

Due to a pilot shortage, the opportunity arose for men of the A.I.F. to apply for the Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C) . Sgt. Kingsford Smith jumped at the chance. After passing the R.F.C.’ s vetting process and training program,9 Smithy graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant with less than 10 hrs flying experience10 to 23 Squadron.

At 23 Sqn. he got his ‘wings’ with 30hrs flying time in the French designed SPAD VII fighter.11 The SPAD was flown by British, American and French aces.

Postcard ‘“Spad”, du Captaine Guynemer’, Source: Barry O’Keefe Library ‘Trace’ digital archive. This item belonged to Wilfred Joseph Allan Allsop.

Smithy’s initial assessment of his new ‘bus’12 was favourable. It could potentially fly to 20,000 ft., was good in the dive and climb and fairly manoeuvrable. It could also take a bit of punishment (as he was later to find out.)

The Spads are great machines[he wrote]. They fly at 140 m.p.h., Some going, eh?

SPAD VII of 23 Squadron, RFC.

…into the fire.

Smithy’s 1st combat patrols occurred in July 1917. On the 14th he wrote home

Just a short note this time to let you know I’m alright, etc. I got my 1st Hun this morning. 8 of us attacked about 20 Huns and had the dickens of a fight. One.. dived across in front of me. So I got my sight on and let him have about 50 rounds before he could get out of the way. I had the satisfaction of seeing him chuck up his arms and fall back. The machine glided on for a while and then nose-dived straight for the ground.. I had bad luck after bagging my first bird. My gun jammed and I had to leave the scrap and tootle off home.

Yesterday we had another scrap and I had a rather narrow squeak. My gun jammed early in the fight and I put my nose home to get it fixed, when 3 spare Huns sat on my tail and kept there all the way..[they] were firing all the way down. I landed with holes all over the machine and one burst of a dozen alongside my ear. I was rather badly scared..13

On landing he found a bullet hole in the collar his tunic. Another souvenir. Another close call.

23 Sqn was also tasked with ‘balloon busting’ (shooting down Observation Balloons.) ‘Dirigibles’ or ‘O.B.s’ were important intelligence assets. They were usually well defended and counted as a ‘kill’ if shot down.

Ground targets: munitions, transport, buildings and enemy troop formations were also strafed or bombed, if the opportunity presented.

Filled with an unearthly joy

At the end of one patrol, Smithy looked down to the ground far below. He saw a grey line snaking through the obliterated landscape. German troops en route to the front, resting ‘in one mass of humanity’. He broke formation and swooped his SPAD into a screaming dive.

‘He attacked Huns with a ferocity he never knew he possessed’ Illustration by J.D. Carrick

Over my sights, I could see men moving down the road, but there were too many of them to move quickly. I pressed the trigger. Tracer bullets zipped along the road and I saw men falling, and hundreds of them scrambling to get out of the way. I was filled with an unearthly joy.

Smithy shouted over the roar of engine noise as he lined up for another pass. It was like shooting Feldgrau (field-grey) mice in a barrel. He couldn’t miss.

I kept my finger pressed hard on the trigger. Then I turned and roared back with my machine gun spitting death. I saw dozens of men bowled over..14

After emptying his Vickers gun, Smithy put his SPAD into a climb. The cracks of rifle shots followed the aircraft, heading for home. He landed at the aerodrome, cut the ignition and climbed out of the cockpit.

After the noise of the engine and the gun, everything, all of a sudden, was quiet. I could hear birds whistling and men laughing and talking. Contact with these realities suddenly made men realise the horror of the thing that I had done. I leaned against the fuselage and vomited. I was twenty years old, I had just killed men and I hadn’t the faintest idea why. For those few minutes I had gone completely insane. Now I felt utterly miserable and hated my weakness for doing what I did.15

Smithy tried to keep a positive spin on things for the folks back home. He wrote

Got another Hun this morning. We were out at 4:30 am looking for something to strafe. I saw this chap flying very low just below the Hun trenches. So I dived and fired at him, driving him back into Hunland and lower all the time, until he hit the ground and turned right over. So I came at him again and had the satisfaction of seeing him catch fire. Later on I killed a lot of Hun troops and set fire to some wooden huts in Hunland. So you see I had a good morning. I am mentioned in the commander’s report as having done bold and valuable service.16

Smithy’s devil-may-care bravado would take a few more knocks before his war ended. He later wrote

It will soon be winter now, and we RFC people will get a spell - thanks goodness. We are doing frightful quantities of work now and couldn’t keep it up indefinitely, or our nerves would go to pieces.17

When Smithy first arrived at La Lovie aerodrome18 he noticed

.. many vacant places at the dining table and in the sleeping quarters. And the survivors, all youngsters like me..[had]..the faces of much older men.19

Smithy probably felt ‘older’ himself after 6 weeks. By then only 3 of the 16 pilots he had graduated with were still in the air20. Every week that passed, and combat patrol flown, increased the odds of him leaving his chair empty.

The hunter becomes prey

Heading home from a regular patrol on the 14th of August, Smithy noticed something. An aeroplane from his flight broke formation. Thinking the other pilot had spotted an enemy aircraft, he followed. Smithy flew into black bursts of AA fire, then after losing his wing-mate, turned back.

In a letter home on the 29th, he recalled what happened next:

I spotted two Hun 2 seaters away below me…I proceeded to turn the old bus on her nose and dived…. I sort of recollect a fear-full clatter in my ear and a horrid bash on my foot, which made me think the whole leg had gone. Then I fainted. It turned out the bullet had busted numbers of nerves, and the shock sent me off.

When I came to -30 or 40 seconds later, or whenever it was - I was spinning, nose first, down to Hunland. The little holes and chips of wood, etc., were suddenly appearing all around me where the Hun’s bullets were chewing things up. I tried to turn round to scrap but my whole left leg was paralysed, and I could only fly ahead as fast and as steadily as I could for our lines, and pray that he wasn’t a very good shot. [21]

A German fighter, stalking him in clouds above, had pounced whilst he was diving on the 2-seater. The Jasta scout swooped into Smithy’s blind spot, with perfect timing . Smithy’s SPAD was sprayed with a burst from 2 Spandau machine guns at point blank range.

Smithy’s adversary followed the stricken SPAD down, to finish it off

..which, thank goodness, he failed to do..

The deadly game of aerial cat-and-mouse lasted all the way to the British lines, as Reinhard tried to get Smithy’s SPAD in his cross hairs, and issue the coup-de-grace.

Albatros D.V of Obltn. Wilhelm Reinhard, Jasta 11, 1917/18; The ‘Hun’ thought to be responsible for shooting Smithy down.22

I was feeling fairly groggy .. Blood was gradually filling my boot up past the knee….more by instinct than anything else, I made a moderately good landing, and then crawled out of the bus and fairly collapsed. They rushed the ambulance up and took me away to the C.S.S, where they operated.23

By his own admission

It was a marvellous escape, considering there were 180 bullet holes in the machine and dozens round my head, within inches. Fortunately any that hit the engine didn’t do any damage, and it never "conked out."24

..a certain satanic aspect

Smithy, like his engine, ‘conked out’ before undergoing surgery. Whilst recovering he wrote home, attaching a gruesome post-operative photo. It showed 2 missing toes and a large v-shaped wound.

As my foot will heal, it will give me a certain satanic aspect- a cloven foot as it were. But it doesn’t matter as long as I can walk all right25

His cloven-hoofed foot gave him pain and a noticeable gait. His mental state was also severely strained. He wrote

My nerves have gone to the pack. I’m afraid I’m in for a breakdown if they get worse.

A cablegram boy delivered Smithy’s next message to his home in Neutral Bay. The Kingsford Smith’s apprehensions eased when they read:

Wound improving. Awarded Military Cross

Valuable work or foolish acts?

2nd Lt. Charles Kingsford Smith’s M.C. was Gazetted on 26/09/1917. His Citation appeared in the Gazette on the 9th/01/191826.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty… His efforts and fine offensive spirit and disregard of danger have set a very fine example

The citation mentions 4 enemy aircraft as having been shot down during his 1st month at the front. It also cited

most valuable work in attacking ground targets and hostile balloons. Of the latter he forced at least nine to be hauled down by his persistent attacks, during which he was repeatedly attacked himself by large hostile formations, and his efforts undoubtedly stopped all hostile balloon observation during a critical period.27

In Nov. 1917 Lieut. C.K.S. was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the King. After George V had pinned an M.C. onto his chest, Smithy took a step back. Somewhat embarrassingly, he got tangled up in his crutches and ended up in a heap on the floor. He later would joke that he had been given the award for "various acts of foolishness." [28]

After the war he remained ambivalent about his achievements29

..why linger over those hectic days on the Western Front? In our funny old machines, prodigious feats were performed by "intrepid airmen" in things tied up with bits of string, and when it was not unknown for the London Gazette to announce a packet of twenty Military Crosses had been handed out to as many young subalterns and airmen for "distinguished service."

I managed to shoot down a few "Huns", as we called them in those good old days, and I managed to get wounded and shot down myself. It was service all right, though I doubt whether it was very distinguished, all the time we were youngsters learning a lot. We were imbibing an immense store of flying experience and technical knowledge, and we were learning something to my mind is far more valuable- the capacity to look after yourself, the instinct to do or to die, the desire for action, without of thought of the risks and dangers.

You hardly ever heard ever heard of an airman having a nervous breakdown in those days, though how we managed to avoid them with all that immense output of energy, I do not know.

I expect it was just youth living off its nerves.30

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

Pretty, pretty uniform

In early 1918 Smithy returned to Sydney on sick leave. In an interview for the Sydney Morning Herald, March 6 he sounded his usual upbeat self

The Huns," he says, "are well licked," and they know it. My opinion is that we have them beaten. The British air service can fairly claim to be superior to that of the enemy; all the facts point to it. The German is a good pilot, but when it comes to actual fighting. In the air he has to play second fiddle to our men. The Australians have their own air service, and are doing remarkably well.

Chilla’s brash and confidant public persona however had been rattled by his experiences,

…to the surprise of those that knew him well, Smithy, when he reached home, was retiring almost shy; he was embarrassed by the interest shown by strangers in his distinctive uniform- until a girl, a close friend of the family successfully used guile. She was a pretty girl and Smithy had asked out to afternoon tea..she declared..she was going to wear her best and look her smartest. And if people looked at them, she would be the subject of their admiration. Thereafter, Smithy did not have to be cajoled into wearing his uniform

..If his limp , which still demanded the use of a walking stick, added a touch of romance, it did not register with a pair of young men, apparently able bodied, the day Smithy and his brother Leof were walking to their seats on the Mosman ferry boat. One of the two strangers looked at smithy and then, grinning, spoke to his companion. Smithy caught the term “pretty, pretty uniform”. Dropping his stick, he swung towards the pair, grasped the neck of each of his suspected detractors, and bashed their heads together resoundingly. He said nothing.He joined Leof as if nothing had happened. Smithy was always strong in action, weak on explanations.31

The only official duty Smithy performed on his leave was to investigate a reported sighting of aircraft at over the Entrance, Tuggerah lakes. This proved to be a false alarm as Smithy declared them to be nothing more than a flight of large birds. (Pelicans?)

He finished the war (like many survivors with frayed nerves) in the U.K. as an instructor. Smithy also earned the nick-name "King Dick" for his pursuits on and off the airbase.32

One of his fellow instructors recalled ‘He enjoyed life to the full and he enjoyed especially the company of young ladies’

King Dick was without doubt the fastest worker.. we were billeted at a hotel where 2 girls were resident.. He amazed us all by sampling the bed-worthiness of both within a couple of days. At the same time he was having an affair with an Italian violinist playing in the orchestra up in London. He just seemed to hypnotise women.33

After the war Smithy tried unsuccessfully to enter an air race to Australian in a Blackburn Kangaroo. The GBP 10,000 prize was won by 2 other Smiths, Ross and Keith in their Vickers Vimy.

Blackburn Kangaroo

In the 1920’s he took up work as a commercial and stunt pilot in Australia and the U.S..Smithy’s flying career highlights included 2 record breaking trans-Pacific flights in 1928 and 1934 with Mosman Great War survivors, Charles Ulm and ‘Bill’ Taylor , the subject of our next story…

Recommended reading / Bibliography

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

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. A. Melrose, Ltd, London, 1937.

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

Stannage, John and Kingsford-Smith, Charles, 1897-1935 Smithy. Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, London, 1950.


1 Morris, Phillipa Mosman salutes those magnificent aviators mosmanhistoricalsociety.org.au/data/sites/default/files/MHS%20newsletter%20Feb-2017.pdf retrieved online 24/05/17 "Kingsford Smith’s family lived close by, in Yeo Street Neutral Bay [No. 68], but also had Mosman connections – two of his brothers married Mosman girls, and Smithy is said to have played tennis with friends in Mosman."

2 Mackersey, Ian Smithy : the life of Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. Little, Brown & Co, London, 1998. P. 19

3 Charles Edward KINGSFORD-SMITH fm12.littleman.com.au/fmi/iwp/cgi?-db=ASWW1%20Aero%20Historians&-loadframes retrieved 28/07/17

4 Mackersey, Ian p. 21

5 Ibid. p. 22

6 As a Sergeant with 4th Div. Signal Co.

7 Mackersey, p. 23

8 Ibid. p.23

9 His family background and private schooling would have helped. A lot of pilots had to embellish their applications in regards age and education in order to be considered.

10 Mackersey, p.25

11 Designed by a French Company founded by Bleriot, who made the historic 1st flight across the English channel.

12 Ellison, Norman and Kingsford-Smith, Charles, 1897-1935 Flying Matilda : early days in Australian aviation. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, N.S.W, 1957. p 225. Elllison notes ‘Australians in particular will note in this letter Smithy’s use of the term "old bus", a term which he was to write into air history.’

13 Ibid. p. 229

14 Mackersey, p. 27

15 Ibid p.28

16 Ellison, Norman and Kingsford-Smith p.230

17 Mackersey, Ian p.28

18 Retrieved 28/07/17 www.theaerodrome.com/services/gbritain/rfc/23.php

19 Years later Smithy co-authored his war experiences with his radio-operator John Stannage, (Smithy Oxford University Press, London, 1950.)

20 Mackersey, Ian Smithy : the life of Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. p. 29

21 Ellison, Norman and Kingsford-Smith, p. 232

22 There are some doubts about whom Reinhard shot down on this day GWF: 1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?/topic/233100-23-sqn-rfc-and-kingsford-smith retrieved 28/07/17

23 Ellison, Norman and Kingsford-Smith, p. 233

24 Ibid p.233

25 Ibid p.234

26 Supplement to the London Gazette 9 January 1918 www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30466/supplement/643/data.pdf retrieved 28/07/17

27 Ibid.

28 Mackersey, p.32

29 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. A. Melrose, Ltd, London, 1937.

30 Ibid

31 Ellison, Norman and Kingsford-Smith, p. 238

32 Mackersey, p. 33

33 Ibid.


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