Wellington lawyer Alfred de Bathe Brandon was the first New Zealand airman to receive a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) during the First World War. (Hugh Reilly’s DSO award was published in the London Gazette a fortnight after Brandon’s, but it was in recognition of service that took place the year before Brandon’s actions of 1916.)
Born and raised in Wellington, he was working for his father’s legal firm, Brandon, Hislop and Johnston, when war broke out in August 1914. Active in both the Volunteer and Territorial Forces, Brandon resigned his commission in the 5th (Wellington) Regiment to go to England and learn to fly at his own expense. After seven weeks’ instruction at the Hall Flying School at Hendon, he qualified as a pilot.
Brandon joined the Royal Flying Corps in December 1915, and earned fleeting fame for his courageous attacks on German Zeppelins over eastern England the following year. On the night of 31 March 1916, his flimsy BE.2c biplane attacked Zeppelin L-15 at 9000 feet above London. The massive airship later crashed into the English Channel and all but one of its crew taken prisoner. Brandon was credited with the victory until investigations concluded that anti-aircraft fire had inflicted the crucial damage. In a subsequent action on the night of 23 September, he helped bring down Zeppelin L-33.
Awarded the DSO and Military Cross and mentioned in despatches for his wartime exploits, Brandon attained the rank of major on being appointed to command No. 50 (Home Defence) Squadron from October 1917 (taking over from another New Zealander, Major Alexander Watson).
In May 1919, Brandon returned to New Zealand a war hero. Although he never flew again, he did make a further contribution to military aviation, helping senior Royal Air Force officer Colonel Arthur Bettington draft a report for the New Zealand government on the country's air defences. After reviewing existing and potential airfields, Brandon prepared a section of the report dealing with landing grounds. This task took him six months, after which he resumed practising law.
Alfred de Bathe Brandon died in Upper Hutt on 19 June 1974, aged 90.
Adapted by Gareth Phipps from the DNZB biography by Geoffrey Bentley