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MEMORIES OF 3RD SQUADRON, AUSTRALIAN FLYING CORPS:

An interview with Harold Edwards

by Adrian Hellwig 
(Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians)

Mr Edwards gave this interview in 1990, aged 94 years.
He had assisted with the funeral of the Red Baron in 1918 and was to become the
longest-lived veteran of the WWI Australian Flying Corps.


Jack Alexander (Left), Jack Mathewson (Centre), and Harold Edwards (Right), 3 AFC.
[
from Harold Edwards' photo collection]

INTRODUCTION

This report opens with a brief account of Harold's life before joining the Australian Flying Corps, taken from his responses to questions.

Harold Edwards was born on 11 May 1896 at the mining town of Bendigo, Vic., where his father, James Raymond Edwards, had a jewellery shop in Pall Mall, the main street, opposite Roslyn Park and the statue of Queen Victoria.

Harold commenced his education at the Central School, completing the sixth grade.  Later he was enrolled at St Andrew's College where, amongst other subjects, he very reluctantly studied French.  A few years later, serving with the AFC in France, he wished he had put more effort into it.

After finishing school, Harold completed an apprenticeship as a watchmaker.  His brother had been killed at Gallipoli and he was keen to join up but his father said he would not let him go until he was 21.  Harold sought a position in the AIF in which his trade would be useful, so, although not strongly motivated towards aviation, and not yet 21, he wrote to the AFC, asking if they had any vacancies for instrument fitters.  Before sending the letter, he showed it to his father who said, "You should have put there that references can be supplied if necessary".  Harold knew then that he had his father's support.

After passing an examination at Laverton, Vic., he applied for enlistment and was accepted on 3rd February 1917 as a Second Class Air Mechanic in the specialist trade of Instrument Fitter.

The Interview Continues:

Did you go overseas as part of the AFC?

Yes, with the Australian Flying Corps. I was trained as part of the Seventh Reinforcements to the Third Squadron and actually sailed on my 21st birthday! [1] We went first to England for a few months, via South Africa.  At Durban we had the pleasure of meeting a Miss Campbell who was so enamored of the Australians that she wrote a nice poem about us.  She welcomed us to Durban while we were still at sea by means of the art of semaphore signaling which she had mastered.  We were taken around by the people of Durban and had many nice trips to various places of interest that were within reasonable reach.  I remember that while there we had a rickshaw race that proved to be a great lark - how we clapped!  They were indeed very good to us in Durban and we were a bit sad to sail on to Cape Town where we stayed for about three days.  Still, they were good to us in Cape Town too.  When we finally sailed on from there we had to zig-zag because of the danger of submarines.

Actually on one occasion our convoy of about a dozen ships saw one of our escorting destroyers suddenly switch around, fire a broadside and hit a submarine that was coming up about 800 yards from us.

We next touched at Sierra Leone, but we weren't allowed ashore.  The people there had been granted their freedom when slaves in Britain and then taken to Sierra Leone.  They called their capital Freetown.  But the wonderful thing to me was that during the war they took up a collection and as an offering of thanks gave Britain £10,000.  That must have been an awful lot of money to those people.  They were just so grateful that Britain hadn't just set them free to fend for themselves but had actually given them a land of their own.  Anyway from there we sailed to England.

 

Whereabouts in England did you dock?

We put in at Plymouth, then entrained for Exeter. [2]  When the train stopped the ladies at Exeter gave us a cup of coffee and biscuits and I can't tell you how grateful we were for that kindness.  We saw from the train beautiful Britain - the multitude of greens and the lovely colours of that July time were simply wonderful though not customary to our Australian eyes.

 

And where to from Exeter?

We went to Salisbury Plain... Tidworth, I think it was.  We were located near the Southern Aircraft Repair Depot (S. A. R. D.) at Farnborough and were there for some time; in fact till we went to Houghton in Buckinghamshire, where we had our principal training.  Just before leaving there we went down to Gloucestershire to open up a new aerodrome - to put up an extra hangar and so forth.  It took us about a fortnight and then, over to France.

 

When did you see your first aeroplane?

I'm pretty sure it was while we were down at Farnborough.  We saw chaps trying out aeroplanes for the first time - test pilots I guess you'd call them.  One, Noakes I think his name was, would try anything and performed all sorts of what to us were truly amazing stunts with new and untried aeroplanes. [3]  We used to enjoy that but after a while became a bit used to it all and would just get on with our work.

 

Do you remember the names of any of the aircraft?

No, it's really too long ago to remember.  But while we were there we saw Stonehenge.  That was a very interesting thing.

 

I believe that it was nearly destroyed by a Handley-Paqe that had in engine failure on takeoff and just managed to miss it and ploughed into the plain beside it?

Yes, I heard that. But it would take a lot to destroy Stonehenge – it's such a big circle with those great heavy stones.  I remember that went to another Stonehenge-type erection in the lakeland at Cumbria, up in Keswick.  It was smaller than Stonehenge but the horizon around it, instead of being flat as at Stonehenge, was made up of little sharp peaks all way around and all at a more or less even height.  Quite remarkable.

 

Where in France did you land?

Boulogne. We went from there to St Omer where we experienced our first taste of shelling.  We weren't there long but moved out to Bailleul where we spent most of our time. [4]

 

Did you go straight to 3 Squadron AFC?

Yes, and we soon found ourselves with plenty to do.  Bailleul, with its aeroplanes, seemed to have been a point to which enemy shells were coming so we made our acquaintance with shelling once more. [5]

 

What aircraft did 3 Squadron AFC have on strength when you arrived?

Reconnaissance machines, the RE8.  Reconnaissance was the main work of squadron.

 

Did they call them 'Harry Tates' ?

They called them lots of things but 'Harry Tate' was one of them, yes.

 

Was Harry Tate a notable of the time?

I couldn't tell you.  I think we just took it for granted and never bothered to find out.  If anything, I suppose we just presumed it was rhyming slang, something quite common amongst us.[6]  One thing that was very interesting, very soon after we got to the squadron, I heard that pilot and observer were both shot while out on reconnaissance and that aeroplane kept on going till its fuel ran out, flying in great big circle till it came down on a beach of France not far from Calais. All that was wrong with the thing was a splintered undercarriage.[7]  Quite incredible.  Such marvellous stability and balance.

 

What engine did they have fitted in the RE8s while you were there?

I can't think what it was.  I used to hear them speak of different engines Hispano-Suiza and such but no, I couldn't tell you exactly.  I wasn't a mechanic and my ability stopped with watches, clocks and wheelbarrows.

 

From the Army Records listing, apparently 3 Squadron AFC also had Armstrong-Whitworth aircraft on strength at various times and also, Bristol Fighters and Curtiss Jennies?

I don't remember the latter but they might have had them while forming in England. Occasionally there were Sopwith Pups and Camels around but RE8s were our usual aircraft.

 

I believe the squadron also had on its strength a captured Albatros and a Halberstadt.

Yes, I remember that.  In fact, I have a bit of the Albatros propeller.  When they broke it, part of it was put into the handle of a walking stick that one of my friends made for me.  The rest of the stick was made from a broken RE8 propeller from one of our own aeroplanes (the rest of this broken propeller went into the making of Richthofen’s original grave cross I found out from Harold later – author).  I gave it to my Dad when I came back to Australia and he broke it over the back of a troublesome dog.  It was repaired and I have it now.

 

Did the pilots fly the Albatros much?

Not a great deal. I think they just wanted it kept intact as a trophy. I don't remember it going up much at all.

 

What about the Halberstadt, the two-seater?

I don't know. I wasn't very interested in the machines apart from attending to the instruments and when one of the pilots would take me on a joy flight.

 

Did you go up very often?

I suppose I could have but no, not very often.  One interesting time was when I went up to see a horse race.  Actually, a mule race, I think it was, well back behind the lines.  It was a lot of fun seeing the mules trying to run and inexperienced jockeys trying to guide them.

 

When you Joined 3 Squadron AFC in 1917 how long had they been at the front?

Only about three months. They hadn't been very long over in France at all.  They left just before I arrived in England.  The third squadron was one of Australia's own.  We only had the three there at that stage - 1, 2 and 3 - and the 3rd was the first to go across. [8]

 

Was there much liaison between the Australian squadrons?

Not that I was aware of.  They didn't seem to have very much association but of course I was only one of the lower strata, because I was not even an airman.  If I'd been an airman I might have known more about that.

 

What was your official rank?

I was an Air Mechanic 2nd Class.  We ranked more or less as the rank of a Corporal to start with.  We got eight shillings a day [9] whereas the infantry got six.  Of course each one of us was a technician of some trade or profession in any case. We had to be to be in the Flying Corps.

 

Were there mainly Australians in the squadron?

No. We had a lot of lads from England and Scotland.  There was one I remember -'Scotty' Melville.  He and I were detailed to guard the body of Richthofen when it was brought in because he was claimed to have been the Germans' chief airman; that is, the most successful, and it had to be verified by the British and French authorities.  It was him. Scotty, and I had to look after the body.  The plane had also been brought in and it had been our 3 Squadron that had been detailed to do so. [10]

 

Is ''Scotty' Melville still alive?

No, - I don't think so. I remember at the time him saying that he wished he'd known when they found the 2,000 French francs in Richthofen's inner pocket.  He said that if he'd known he would have helped himself.  I told him what I thought of him.  He went and got all fired up and wanted to fight me.  I was on duty at the time watching the body and I said 'Look, if you feel the same way at 1600 meet me here'.  He was there.  So I had to peel off my jacket and hop into him.  Fortunately my arms were about two inches longer than his and I got him on the nose.  When he saw his own blood he didn't like it and took off.

 

I suppose you were fairly well aware at this stage of Richthofen's history and reputation and that there was a lot of excitement around.

Yes, it was all very exciting and we were the centre of attention with lots of bigwigs popping in.  Actually I didn't hold him in such high esteem as many did.  I understood that he would get up early before light and get an umbrella of other chaps all around him, eight or ten chaps (the Circus they called it) and then if they saw something they just all hopped down and when the poor sod they'd caught didn't have a chance, Richthofen had the pleasure of shooting him down.  I didn't look on that as being the wonderful dog-fighter he was credited as being.

 

I suppose their basic idea was to let the best shot have a go uninterrupted. So they protected him, unlike the British who tended to let their 'Aces' mix it more.

Yes.  Anyway, in the case of where he met his death, he was following a man and the fact that he was levelled off and had gone 100 yards on the level indicated to us that it wasn't the airman that shot him down.  Otherwise he couldn't have gone level so long.  But he went a fair distance on the level and was right down, then passed our gunners.  Since I made my views known all sorts of people have written to me.  Even late this year, a chap wrote (actually his daughter wrote for him) saying he had been with the man who actually shot him down.  Once you get into the public eye you get things from everywhere.

 

Is it correct that you made the plaque for Richthofen's cross and coffin?

Yes, there was a roundish one attached to the cross - the wording is pretty well known but it's not so well known that I did it in English and German.  The plate that we placed on the coffin lid had the same wording and was also in two languages and about the size of an A4 piece of paper.


The nameplate engraved by Harold, mounted on the Red Baron's cross in Bertangles Cemetery. 
The cross was fashioned from an RE-8 propeller by 3SQN mechanics.

Getting back to your squadron service, I have here a picture of in RE8 instrument panel.  What can you tell me of it? 

 http://thevintageaviator.co.nz/files/images/re-8-gallery/thumbnail/re8_083_finished.thumbnail.jpg
[Colour photo from "The Vintage Aviator" RE8 Construction Illustrations.]

Let's see ... Ah yes, it's got the altimeter there, the oil pressure gauge, the rev. counter, the inclinometer, compass, air speed indicator and the clock.  Clocks were not considered an integral part of any particular machine, but were issued to the pilots of the squadron by the squadron quartermaster, who guarded them zealously.  In appearance they were more like fob watches than the large dial clocks we are accustomed to seeing on aircraft instrument panels these days.  I still have one of them and, being a watchmaker by trade, I've kept it going.  It goes for eight days without winding.  It did not come with luminous hands or numbers and I painted them on myself.

 

Did you do that to any squadron instruments?

No, just this one, and that when I came back from France.  On the squadron they had a little battery-operated bulb that lit the panel, almost.

 

Did instruments often have to be replaced?

Not at all; very, very seldom.  There weren't many of them and they weren't very complicated.  The worst was the timing mechanism for the gun and the propeller but as that was done by the armoury, I didn't have to worry.  I would have hated to do that job.  Time after time they shot propellers off.  I wasn't on instruments all the time, of course.  Mostly I seemed to be working on officers' watches, and those of their friends.

 

If you couldn't repair in instrument was it just scrapped or were they sent further back?

We sent them further back and then applied for a replacement.

 

After repair - those you could repair - did you return them straight back to the squadron or flight?

Yes, straight back; I can't remember who would then fit them - it wasn't me.

 

What about spare parts and other various bits and pieces?  Did you keep a supply on hand or would you have to send back for them?

I just had to apply for what I wanted; there was no reserve to speak of.

 

Did supplies take long to reach you?

No.  They came forward fairly quickly.  Not much time was wasted.  Usually three to five days got us what we wanted.

 

Was there a supply of spare instruments that you could issue while others were being repaired or adjusted?

No, nothing that organised. It was all rather incomplete, shall I say.  More often than not instruments were replaced rather than repaired.

 

How about new improved instruments? Did any 'Mark IIs ', so to speak, arrive during your time with the squadron?

No, I was there two years but I don't remember any new models in the whole time I was there.

 

Were you the only one on the squadron specifically involved in the repair and maintenance of the instruments?

Yes, that's right.  We all worked together in a large tent.  When I say 'we', there was a tailor by the name of Russell Innes, a sailmaker, the vulcaniser, and of course the photographic section.  They were the principal section there as we were a reconnaissance squadron.  I suppose that there must have been six to eight chaps in that section.  I remember vividly that every now and then they'd have one or two sections vacant on their big picture of the front and sometimes it would take up to six sorties of our aircraft to get the particular bit they wanted; and even then they'd have to enlarge or reduce it to fit the particular mosaic they had at the time.

 

How would you spend an average day?

Well, there always seemed to be fatigues of some type or other, I often did work with the HQ electrician - Jack Jebb.  In fact sometimes, when he was away doing whatever, I'd be the whole day doing electrical fittings without any supervision whatsoever - even though I was never trained for it.  Just around the various huts and hangars, etc. especially if there was a move on because then there was always so much to be done.

 

So instrument fitting wasn't looked upon as a full-time Job?

No, it really wasn't.  I suppose it was in one sense, as I usually spent at least some time on it each day.  But I always seemed to be up for fatigues of some sort.  I remember once going out for a fatigue and coming back after two or three hours to find a daisy-cutter had gone right through the tent where we worked.  If I'd been at my bench, my usual place at that time of day, it would have cut off one or even both of my legs.  My my; I have always been grateful for that fatigue.  There was also my share of guard duties.  Vince Smith, 'the Ram' we used to call him, would come around.  'Edwards, on guard' or 'Edwards, cook house' he'd say.  But usually I'd have my set time each day at my work bench.

 

What was the set-up there?

Well, I had a nice kit of tools and a good lathe.  I'd like to have kept that as a souvenir.  It was well fitted out, my little area, but I also had a few of my own things with me.  For instance, they supplied screwdrivers and such-like, but I had my own set of tweezers, hand made.  I think I got some engineer mates to do them up for me.

 

Did you keep a 'bits and pieces' box for improvisations, etc?

Yes, I had a single box where all my odds and ends went.  I only improvised occasionally, however.  Most of the time it wasn't necessary as supplies were pretty good.  Though we had a good many moves and they had trouble finding us now and again.

 

Was there any combat damage to the instruments to be repaired?

No, usually if combat damage was sustained it was so bad that we just scrapped the instrument.  More often it was damage caused by bad landings and crashes.  These would break fine pinions and put cogs out of alignment causing a need for adjustment or repair.

 

Were adjustments made on a routine basis?

No, we only did them if the instrument was reported unsatisfactory. Of course all these carefully worked out procedures changed with the advent of the following entry in my diary:

Mon. 11.11.18.  The day I came away for: a red letter day in very truth, for if all now goes well the War is over.  During the morning we had it officially stated that Germany had signed the armistice and all fighting ceases at 11 a.m.  I haven't let out a cheer yet but I hope that we will soon hear such definite word that it will be quite safe to do so.  At 10.30 this morning the 1st Division of our chaps marched past, on their way to the front.  Some of them told us that they were going thirty miles beyond the present line, to be part of an army of occupation but whether this is so or not I cannot say.  This evening lights and flares went up for two or three hours after dark but now all is very quiet.  While lying in bed this morning I heard a great lot of cheering and several bells ringing so I am glad to know that there was good cause for it all.

And so it was all over. With a tour of Brussels, Paris and the Riviera (which was something of a lark) and a good few rumours about us becoming part of the Army of Occupation, it was back to England.  Then on Tuesday 6 May 1919 came the long-awaited day and on the ubiquitous Kaisar-i-Hind.  I, and many other members of the Australian Flying Corps, came home. [11]

 

More on Harold Edwards' service in the Australian Flying Corps may be found in his autobiography, The Trusty One, Assembly Press, Queensland, 1985.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF HAROLD RAYMOND GEORGE EDWARDS

- Born on 11 May 1896 in Bendigo Victoria the fifth of seven children.
 

- Enlisted after his eldest brother was killed at Gallipoli
 

- Harold saiIed for war on his 21ST birthday (11 May 1917) his father wouldn't let him go earlier. Joined 3 Sqn Australian Flying Corps and served with them till war's end as the one and only instrument fitter for the Squadron.
 

- On the 21ST and 22ND April 1918 he stood guard over the Red Baron's (Calvary Captain Manfred Von Richthofen) body.  He had a fight with the other guard to stop him robbing the Baron's body of the 2,000 French francs that was sewn in his coat as escape money.  As he was a watchmaker by trade he was asked to do the engraving of the plaques for the Red Baron's cross and coffin.  He wrote:

Calvary Captain Manfred, Baron Von Richthofen

Aged 25 Killed in Action (Aerial Combat)

Near Sailly-le-Sec Somme, France 211411918

(This was repeated in German)

- Harold wrote in his diary that while he was engraving this he was fervently wishing it was for the Kaiser.
 

- 2ND Air Mechanic Harold Edwards AFC was discharged on 16 July 1919.
 

- On returning to civilian life he became an optometrist as his father's watch-making business failed during the depression.  He rose to become president of the State Association (Vic) for a record three terms.
 

- In the early twenties he became a foundation member of Legacy Ballarat and was the last survivor of those founding members.
 

- He was also "in King Solomon's Chair" of "Corona" Freemason's Lodge, Victoria's first temperance Lodge.  (Harold was a strict Methodist.)
 

- As optometry was a protected occupation he was not allowed to enlist in the regular forces in WW2 but this did not stop him joining 5 Battalion Volunteer Defence Corps (Vic.).
 

- After the war Harold's business thrived and he put much of his time and effort back into the community in various roles. He always maintained that the Lord, his "trusty one", as he called him, saw him through thick and thin and it was therefore up to Harold to do the same for those less fortunate.
 

- In 1963 Harold moved to Queensland where he lived till his death.
 

- Harold completed fifty years service as a Methodist Lay preacher and was awarded with a certificate of recognition in 1980.
 

- Harold was also a Lifeline volunteer and a founding member of the local Neighbourhood Watch.
 

- In the last ten years of his life Harold received much attention due to his connection to the Red Baron legend but he always felt it unwarranted.  When honoured at a dinner for and by the current Army Aviation Corps, Harold said he accepted this honour not for himself but for all those who had gone before of whom he was but the last.
 

- Right up until the end, Harold was fit and in possession of all his faculties.  He looked after himself in his own home and would walk around the block each day.  His never-failing good humour, his general sharpness of mind and always welcoming hospitality amazed all who came into contact with him.  A great Australian has died and will be sorely missed.
 

- He passed away in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. in 1998 ... 102 years old.

 

A Poem Written by Harold’s mother in 1918:

 

"WEST"
 

How I shall miss him - when from overseas

The ANZACS come, mid shouts of victory;

When eager voices answering smiles awake,

And hands press hands for old remembrance sake.

 

Full many a face will wear a mask of joy,

With heartstrings aching for the absent boy.

Death hath no bars for heroes such as they;

Led by their Captain - through the gates of day!

 

Oh, tears are pearls - each one a radiant gem,

To shed new lustre of love's diadem.

On higher service still - all wrongs redressed

Our noble-hearted boys have wandered WEST!

 

Don't miss Harold's photo collection.

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ENDNOTES

1. The Embarkation Roll held at the Australian War Memorial (AWM8) shows that the 'February 1917' Reinforcements for the AFC embarked at Melbourne on HMAT A9 'Shropshire' on 11 May 1917 and sailed the same day.  The seven officers and 86 other ranks of the AFC included No.1442, Edwards, Harold Raymond George, 2AM, Age 20, Watchmaker, Single, of Bendigo.

2. AWM7, Troopship War Diaries, 'Shropshire' 171. The voyage report indicates the ship docked at Plymouth on 19 July 1917.  It carried 48 officers, two warrant officers, seven nurses and 1636 other ranks.  The 'detraining' destination of the AFC personnel was Tidworth, apparently via Exeter.

3.  This was probably Captain Jack Noakes MM, RFC, who served as a sergeant pilot in France in 1916 in 15 Squadron (BE2c) and 29 Squadron (DH2).

4. 2AM Edwards and other AFC reinforcements landed at Boulogne from Folkestone on 9 March 1918.  He arrived at 3AFC in Bailleul, via St Omer, on 14 March.

5.  In the lead-up to the 1918 German spring offensive, which opened on 21 March, the town of Bailleul and Bailleul aerodrome came under shellfire and the aerodrome was evacuated on 22 March, 3AFC moving to Abeele in Belgium.  On 23 March the Germans scored a direct hit on the aerodrome with a 14-inch shell, killing one man and wounding two others of the 3AFC rear party.

6.  In rhyming slang, RE8 became 'Harry Tate', after a noted music hall comedian.

7. This episode took place on 17 December 1917.  After a fight in the air with several Albatros scouts, one of which was shot down, the RE8 , with a dead pilot and a wounded and unconscious observer [sic: the observer was actually killed], flew on in circles for some 35 miles, finally crash landing about eight kilometres NE of St. Pal.

8.  Australian squadrons deployed to France were numbered 2nd, 3rd and 4th.  3rd Squadron moved to France first, arriving at St Omer on 9 September 1917 and flying on to its aerodrome at Savy the next day.  The 1st Squadron of the AFC served in the Middle East.

9The daily rate was seven shillings plus one shilling deferred pay.

10.  3 Squadron was the Wing's 'salvage' squadron at the time.

11.  Personnel of all seven AFC squadrons then in England, under the command of Lt-Col. W. O. Watt, OBE, embarked at Southampton on RMS Kaisar-i-Hind, of the P & O Company, on 6 May 1919.  The ship berthed on 16 June at Melbourne, from whence Harold Edwards had departed some 13 months before.