Keith Caldwell Great War Story

The video for this story about flying ace Keith Caldwell screened on TV3 News on 5 August 2014.

Keith Caldwell was one of the most widely respected fighter pilots on the Western Front, especially when in command of No. 74 (‘Tiger’) Squadron. He was the highest-scoring New Zealand air ace of the First World War, with 25 credited victories. Had it not been for his indifferent marksmanship, he could have become one of the most outstanding aces of the war. On one occasion Caldwell survived a mid-air collision by skilfully guiding his crippled aircraft to the ground.

Grid's great escape

Early life

Keith Logan Caldwell, born in Wellington on 16 October 1895, was the son of Scottish-born merchant David Robert Caldwell and his wife, Mary Dunlop McKerrow. He spent his early years in Wellington, and then moved with his family to Auckland due to his father’s business interests in the import and manufacturing firm, Macky, Logan, Steen, and Co. He was educated at King’s College in Auckland, Rose Hill in England and Wanganui Collegiate School in Whanganui.


When war broke out in 1914, Caldwell was working as clerk for the Bank of New Zealand in Auckland. Although he had been commissioned in the Defence Cadet Corps while at school, Caldwell’s attempt to enlist in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was unsuccessful, perhaps because of his age.

After this setback, Caldwell switched his attention to flying and raised the £100 necessary to enter the New Zealand Flying School (NZFS) at Kohimarama, on the foreshore of Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour. He began flight training in October 1915, gaining his British Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate – or ‘ticket’ – in December.

One of the first two pilots to graduate from the NZFS, Caldwell sailed to England in January 1916 to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Commissioned a second lieutenant in April, he underwent further training at Oxford, Norwich and Sedgeford. At this stage in the war, the standard of flying training provided for RFC pilots was woefully inadequate. By the time Caldwell sailed for France in July, he had logged just 27 hours flying time in England in addition to eight hours at the NZFS.

To the front

On 29 July 1916 Caldwell joined No. 8 Squadron, stationed on the Arras front. At the time, the squadron was equipped with B.E.2c and B.E.2d reconnaissance aircraft, which were crewed by a pilot and an observer. In September Caldwell shot down his first plane, while he and his observer, Captain Patrick Welchman, were carrying out artillery observation work.

At the end of 1916 Caldwell transferred to No. 60 Squadron, which was equipped with French-made Nieuport 17 fighter planes. It was with this unit that he really came into his own, developing a reputation as an aggressive pilot. Promoted to flight commander in February 1917, he was seemingly fearless and inspired great confidence in those who flew with him.

He soon earned the nickname ‘Grid’, because of his habit of referring to aircraft as grids – New Zealand colonial slang for bicycles. By the time he left the squadron in October 1917 he had added another eight enemy aircraft to his tally and been awarded a Military Cross.

In command

After a period as an instructor in England, Caldwell was promoted to the rank of major and given command of No. 74 Squadron, which was equipped with S.E.5a biplanes. This unit moved to France at the end of March 1918, where it earned the nickname ‘Tiger Squadron’. Under Caldwell’s command, they destroyed or drove down out of control more than 200 enemy aircraft in less than eight months – making them one of the most successful squadrons to operate at the front during that period.

Although it was not common practice for squadron commanders to take part in offensive patrols, Caldwell insisted on leading every patrol he could manage outside of his administrative duties. He believed in getting as close as possible to the enemy and tried to draw German aircraft into combat on the missions he flew.

By the end of the war Caldwell had at least 25 accredited victories – the most by any New Zealand pilot during the First World War. Had he been a better marksman, his tally may have featured near the top of the Allied ‘ace’ list. In addition to the Military Cross, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, the Croix de Guerre (Belgium), and was twice mentioned in dispatches.


Although never shot down or wounded during his combat career, Caldwell had several lucky escapes. In May 1917 he managed to shake off an attack from German ace Werner Voss (who had 48 official victories) by putting his Nieuport fighter into a downward spin and pulling out of the dive just before hitting the ground.

In September 1918 Caldwell’s quick thinking and resourcefulness saved him after he was involved in a mid-air collision during air combat. Struck by another S.E.5a from his squadron at 16,000 feet, the impact seriously damaged his wing struts and sent his aircraft into a semi-flat spin. In an oft-repeated story, it is said that after falling several thousand feet, Caldwell stepped out onto the lower wing in an attempt to control the stricken aircraft’s descent. Holding a wing strut with his left hand, and controlling the joystick with his right, he managed to crash land behind British lines, leaping to safety seconds before the plane hit the ground. In fact Caldwell himself chose to correct the story, though even by his account it is an exciting story of disaster averted by quick thinking:

You refer to the account of my standing on the wing of a SE5 aircraft which had been damaged in a collision. Afraid this is not correct. I think either 'Taffy' Jones, who wrote some war books after WWI, or perhaps Springs may have given this wrong story, as writers sometimes did to embellish situations. What did happen was that I found that I could get the machine under some control by putting my left foot on the right rudder and leaning out to the right as far as I could. All this performance took about 8,000 feet and then I had to lose further height to keep some control and crashed a short distance behind our lines. Aeroplane no good, but pilot cut lip and plenty bruises … Anyone conversant with the controls of a sensitive aeroplane would know that to leave the rudder alone would be disastrous. So much for that episode.

Later career

Caldwell returned to New Zealand in August 1919. He spent a year working at his father’s company in Auckland, before taking up farming in Waikato. A founding member and first club captain of the Auckland Aero Club, he also served with the Territorial Air Force between the wars, commanding it from 1930 to 1937. Caldwell returned to active service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the Second World War, and held a variety of training and administrative posts in New Zealand, India and the United Kingdom. Promoted to air commodore after the war, he retired from the RNZAF in 1956.

Keith ‘Grid’ Caldwell died in Auckland on 28 November 1980, aged 85.

Primary sources

See this Digital New Zealand set for primary text and image sources relating to this story from Archives New Zealand and National Library of New Zealand

Military Cross (MC) citation in London Gazette, 17 September 1917, 9565 (pdf)

Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) citation in London Gazette, 3 December 1918, 14319 (pdf)

'N.Z. Air Ace', Auckland Star, 13 January 1914, p7 (PapersPast)

‘An Intrepid Pilot’, Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle, 4 June 1929, pg. 3 (PapersPast)

Primary source material relating to Keith Caldwell held by the Air Force Museum of New Zealand

New Zealand Flying School cap badge (NZHistory)

Further information


  • Martyn, Errol W. Swift to the Sky: New Zealand’s Military Aviation History. Auckland: Penguin, 2010.
  • Shores, Christopher. British and Empire Aces of World War 1. Oxford: Osprey, 2001.
  • Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: a Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. London: Grub Street, 1990.


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