Keith (‘Grid’) Caldwell was one of New Zealand’s most famous fighter pilots and leaders. An aggressive pilot and dashing officer, Caldwell became renowned for his daring exploits.
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. After this setback, Caldwell switched his attention to flying and raised the £100 necessary to enter the New Zealand Flying School (NZFS) at Kohimarama in Auckland, on the foreshore of the Waitematā Harbour. He began flight training in October 1915.
One of the first pilots to train with the NZFS, Caldwell sailed to England in January 1916 to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Commissioned as a second lieutenant in April, he underwent further training at Oxford, Norwich, and Sedgeford. At this stage of the war, the standard of flying training provided for RFC pilots was woefully inadequate. By the time Caldwell crossed to France in July, he had logged just 27 hours flying time in England in addition to 8 hours at the NZFS.
On 29 July 1916, Caldwell joined No. 8 Squadron, which was stationed on the Arras front. At the time, the squadron was equipped with BE.2c and BE.2d reconnaissance aircraft crewed by a pilot and an observer. In September, Caldwell shot down his first plane, whilst 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 – a slang term 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.
After a period as an instructor in England, Caldwell was promoted to major and given command of No. 74 Squadron, which was equipped with SE.5a biplanes. At the end of March 1918 this unit moved to France, where it earned the nickname of ‘Tiger Squadron’. Under Caldwell’s command, its aviators destroyed or drove down out of control more than 200 enemy aircraft in less than eight months – making it one of the most successful squadrons at the front during this period.
Although it was not common practice for squadron commanders to take part in offensive patrols, Caldwell insisted on leading patrols whenever he could get away from his administrative duties. He believed in getting as close as possible to the enemy and tried to entice German aircraft into combat.
By the end of the war, Caldwell had been credited with the destruction of 13 enemy aircraft, including two shared with others, the capture of another and the sending down ‘out of control’ of 11 others including one shared. Had he been a better marksman, his tally may have ranked near the top of the Allied ‘ace’ list. In addition to the Military Cross, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar and the Croix de Guerre (Belgium), and was mentioned in despatches.
Although never shot down or wounded during his long combat career, Caldwell had several lucky escapes. In May 1917, he managed to shake off an attack from German ace Werner Voss (48 official victories) by putting his Nieuport fighter into a spin and pulling out of the dive just before hitting the ground.
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, which he commanded from 1930 to 1937. Caldwell returned to active service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the Second World War, holding 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.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Paul Sortehaug