At page 201 of my 2016 biography The High Life of Oswald Watt I recorded an episode in May 1918, the last year of the First World War, when Lieutenant Colonel Watt briefly visited the town of Hull, in the central east midlands of England, for a special ceremony. As Watt was the senior Australian Flying Corps officer in Britain, he was required to be present when the local chamber of commerce made a gift of a scout aircraft to the Commonwealth of Australia. Watt was not officially representing the government on this occasion as this role evidently fell to Mr J. C. Manifold, the visiting member for Corangamite (Vic) in the House of Representatives of the Australian parliament.
There was not a lot to be made of the event in the book, since the available sources (Watt’s AIF file in Archives and a single press report) provided little more than ‘bare bones’ to work with. Only in recent weeks has more information surfaced unexpectedly from UK to help explain what the Hull ceremony was really all about.
Until now it had always seemed to me to be a relatively low-key affair, of interest primarily because it appeared to be a variant of the wartime practice in Australia of raising money through public subscription to buy aircraft which were then presented to the forces at the front. Since these ‘presentation machines’ were largely seen as demonstrations of Australian patriotism for the British cause in the war, it merely seemed passing odd that Britain was itself presenting Australia with gift aircraft at the same time.
Photo of the City of Hull presentation from the Eastern Morning News, 27 May 1918; Watt is second from left in the main image. (Courtesy Mr David Marritt)
It is thanks to research conducted by the present-day Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce that we now know the Sopwith Camel (serial no. D3388) presented to Australia on 25 May 1918 was an initiative of a private group called the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, whose president, Lord Desborough (William Grenfell), was also president of the London Chamber of Commerce. Since 1913 the IAF had been actively working to establish British air power by developing aviation across all the dominions of the empire.
The principal activity of the IAF appears to have been a program to fund gift aircraft to each of the dominions in turn, beginning with New Zealand which received a Bleriot XI named “Britannia” in May 1913. The machine arrived in Wellington in September, but was not flown until January 1914 at Auckland. At that time it might have appeared that New Zealand had stolen a march on Australia, which did not get the school for its flying corps functioning until 1 March 1914. In reality, however, the “Britannia” was an orphan machine and served no useful purpose before war broke out in August that year.
Following the initial gift, the IAF Committee went on to present another 12 aircraft—each funded by a British city (eight of these by different chambers of commerce). The machine given to Australia by the City of Hull was apparently No 11 in the series, with 12 presented by Glasgow (to Canada) in October 1918, and 13 by Birmingham in 1919. As Britain bestowed gifts of surplus aircraft on each dominion wishing to establish an air force after the war, that effectively removed the point to the program which the IAF had begun and implemented, and made the IAF Committee redundant.
Before the IAF program closed, both Australia and New Zealand had each received two aircraft. The Hull machine was actually Australia’s second—the first having been received from the City of Liverpool on 23 December 1914; New Zealand received its second gift machine (No 7 in the series) from Nottingham in October 1917, following one given to South Africa by the City of London in May that year. Interestingly, although it was usual that each city only gave one aircraft, Liverpool was the exception because it also gave an aircraft to Newfoundland (not part of Canada until 1949) in May 1918.
In any event, despite the IAF’s original aim, the start of the First World War ensured that all the aircraft gifted (except the last given in 1919) were put to war uses rather than sent direct to the recipient dominions. Even the “Britannia” was offered for war service, being returned to the UK in October 1914 with the first echelon of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
The Sopwith Camel given to Australia at Hull in 1918 was flown to France soon after the presentation, and immediately issued to the first squadron that needed a replacement aircraft of the type—which happened to be No 210 Squadron, RAF, on 5 June. D3388 lasted less than two months in service before it was crashed, by a Canadian pilot, and its place taken by a replacement “City of Hull” machine (another Camel, serial E7189); this also went straight to France where it saw out the war with No 65 Squadron, RAF.
While Oswald Watt’s part in the ceremony at Hull was a fleeting and quite minor exercise in public representation on behalf of the Australian Flying Corps, the true significance of the occasion has long been lost—along with public awareness of the work of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. It also seems that he was not the only uniformed Australian officer present, either, as it was reported that Major Horace Brinsmead (Staff Officer for Aviation at AIF Headquarters in London), who also features in the Oswald Watt story, was in attendance.
For more about the City of Hull presentation, visit https://www.hull-humber-chamber.co.uk/pages/the-chamber-s-camel.