Air Aces of World War One

Captain Robert Alexander Little – Australian Ace – 1895 / 1918

Little was born on the 8th of July 1895 at Hawthorn, a suburb of Melbourne, to Canadian James Little, a seller of medical and surgical books and his Victorian born wife, Susan. His family heritage was Scottish, and he was educated at Camberwell Grammar School and Scotch College, Melbourne, where he was a swimming medallist. He entered his father’s business as a travelling salesman, and was living with his family at Windsor when World War One broke out in August 1914.

With a life long interest in Aviation, Little decided to apply for pilot training at the Australian Army’s Central Flying School at Point Cook, but with only four vacancies, he was rejected along with hundreds of other like minded individuals. He then decided to sail to England in July 1915 and become a qualified pilot at his own expense. Gaining his flying certificate with the Royal Aero Club at Hendon in October, He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in as a probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant on the 14th of January 1916. He suffered badly from air sickness early in his career, most likely bought on by the fumes from the castor oil that was employed as an engine lubricant in the Aircraft that he flew in England.

Little arrived in France in June 1916 for service with No.1 Naval Wing at Dunkirk, where he initially flew Sopwith One and a half strutters in bombing raids. He married Vera Gertrude Field at the Congregational Church, Dover on the 16th of September. The following month he was posted to No.8 Squadron R.N.A.S. ( Naval Eight ) flying Sopwith Pups on the Western Front, under fellow Australian Stanley Goble. Little scored his first aerial victory on November the 23rd destroying an enemy two-seater north-east of La Bassee. By the following February he had four victories to his credit and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross ( DSC ) for ‘conspicuous bravery in successfully attacking and bringing down hostile machines’. In one action on the 4th of December, Little and Goble ‘fought like mad’ against a large formation of German fighters, each of them claiming an Halberstadt. Little did not return to base with Goble and was feared lost, but had only landed near Allied lines to clear a machine gun blockage before taking off again to continue the fight.

On the 24th of April 1917, Little engaged a DFW. CV, forcing it to land. He than followed the German aircraft down to claim it as captured and personally take its crew prisoner at gunpoint. The Australian flipped his own plane in a ditch after touching down, however prompting the surrendering German pilot to suggest, ‘It looks as if I have bought you down, not you me, doesn’t it?’ Naval Eight’s conversion to the Sopwith Triplane in April saw Little begin to score heavily, eventually registering twenty – four victories on the type to bring his total up to twenty – eight by the 10th of July, including twin victories in a day on four occasions. He was the Squadrons top scorer in the Triplane, mostly in one particular aircraft, N5493, that he christened the ‘Blymp’ which also became the nick-name of his baby son.

The unit then began flying Sopwith Camels, in which he scored a further ten kills in July to make a total of fourteen for the month. When he subsequently rotated back to England for rest, he was ranked as Flight Lieutenant and credited with a total of thirty – eight victories, including fifteen destroyed or captured. A Bar to his D.S.C. on the 29th of June, for ‘Exceptional daring and skill in aerial fighting on many occasions’, and he received the French Croix de Guerre on the 11th of July, becoming along with fellow Australian Naval Ace, Roderic ‘Stan’ Dallas, one of the First three British Empire pilots to be so decorated. In August he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, ‘For exceptional skill and daring’ followed by a Bar to the decoration in September, ‘For remarkable boldness and courage in attacking enemy machines.’ He was mentioned in despatches on the 11th of December and promoted to Flight Commander the following month.

Despite Little’s prowess in combat, as an aviator he was ordinary at best, enduring a number of crash landings. What gave him his edge as a fighter pilot was his keen eye, excellent marksmanship, and the willingness to single – handedly take on entire enemy formations and close in on his prey – down to twenty – five yards on occasion – before opening fire. Fellow No.8 Squadron colleague Reggie Soar recalled, ‘Although not a polished pilot, he was one of the most aggressive…. An outstanding shot with both revolver and rifle.’ Whilst fellow ace Robert Compston described him as, ‘ Not so much a leader as a brilliant lone hand ….small in stature, with face grimly set, he seemed the epitome of deadliness. His squadron nick – named him ‘Rikki’ after the mongoose ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ which outstrikes cobras, in the story of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. Many who knew him saw a sensitive side however, Soar noting that besides his skill with guns, Little was also ‘a collector of wild flowers,’ and his wife contending his appearance in photographs belied his sense of humour. Squadron commander Raymond Collishaw, who would finish the war as the RNAS’ top – scoring ace summed up Little as, An outstanding character, bold, aggressive and courageous, yet he was gentle and kindly, A resolute and brave man,’

Following a period of rest in England, Little turned down a desk assignment and volunteered to return to action on the Western Front, joining Lieutenant Colonel Collishaw’s No.3 Squadron RNAS in March 1918. This unit evolved into No. 203 Squadron Royal Air Force on the 1st of April 1918, formed after the merger of the R.N.A.S and R.F.C. Now with the rank of Captain, and again flying Sopwith Camels, Little gained a further nine victories, Beginning with a Fokker Triplane on the !st of April, and concluding with two kills in one day on the 22nd of May, an Albatros and a DFW. During this stretch of victories, on the 21st of April 1918, he was bought down unharmed by Friedrich Ehmann. On the 27th of May, Little received reports of German Gotha bombers in the vicinity, and took of on a moonlit evening to intercept the raiders. As he closed with one of the bombers his plane was caught in a searchlight beam

and he was struck by a bullet that passed through both his thighs. He managed to crash land in a field near Noeux, and bled to death, before he was discovered the next morning by a passing Gendarme. Little’s skull and ankle had also been fractured in the impact, his body was identified by his friend and fellow ace, Charles Dawson Booker. Colonel Collishaw launched an investigation but it was never established whether the single bullet that killed Little had come from the Gotha or from a gunner on the ground.

Of Little’s 47 victories, 20 were credited as destroyed, 2 as captured and 25 as out of control, he was believed to be responsible for many others driven down or forced to land, none of which were counted in his official score. This score made him the highest scoring Australian ace of all time, ahead of ‘Stan’ Dallas whose official score was 39. Little’s awards were The Distinguished Service Order and Bar, The Distinguished Service Cross and Bar, Mentioned in Despatches and the French Croix de Guerre.

(C) Damian Grange 2021

6 thoughts on “Air Aces of World War One

  1. Different nations had very different ideas on what constituted a confirmed victory. This was particularly difficult for the Austro-Hungarians and Italians who for the most part were fighting over the Alps.

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