The War in the air

Page 4 – New Zealand's air war 1914-1918

With no military flying corps in New Zealand, the many hundreds of adventurous Kiwis keen to be part of the war in the air had to make their own arrangements. By war’s end some 800 had served with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) or Royal Air Force (RAF), and a further 60 with the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). About 200 of them either made their own way to Britain during wartime to join or were already working or studying there at the time. Approximately 300 others entered the air services by transferring from other British units or the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), two thirds being via the latter. In New Zealand two private enterprise flying schools were established that, with the agreement of the Army, trained over 250 pilots to Royal Aero Club aviator’s certificate standard by the time of the Armistice, 225 of whom went on to Britain.

Eighty percent or more served as aircrew, though, among others, a large portion of the trainee pilots from the New Zealand flying schools arrived on the scene too late to complete ground and/or flying training. About 10 % of the aircrew were observers, a few of whom later retrained as pilots. There was also a small number of New Zealanders serving as kite balloon observers, equipment, technical, administration or medical officers. Most of those who flew were officers (or cadets learning to fly and thereby become officers).

While aircrew were numbered in the thousands, backing them up on the ground were tens of thousands who by far made up the larger part of the air services. They were primarily from the ranks and operated in roles as diverse as clerk, driver, carpenter, fitter, rigger, mechanic and hydrogen worker. In the case of New Zealanders, however, for a variety of reasons, the proportionality of their contribution was the reverse, in that the bulk of their number were aircrew (or working towards that role) with only a 100 or so to be found in the ranks.

Only about 250 of the air and ground crew actually saw service with operational squadrons. For pilots, in particular, the route to get there was not always an easy one. It took time to train a man to fly (though not enough was given to this in the first half of the war). He might be killed or injured in a crash, washed out part way through this training or, having graduated and awarded his ‘wings’, be taken off flying temporary or even permanently as a result of fatigue or medical condition brought about by the rigours of hours of flying in the high altitude cold air in an open cockpit, while being buffeted about by slipstream and turbulence and assailed by continuous and unsuppressed engine noise. Once operational, there was then the additional stress of combat and the ever-present threat of death (especially the fear of it by fire in the air, there being no parachute available as a means of escape). 

Flying schools

Following the outbreak of war, would-be pilots in New Zealand wrote to the Defence Department asking how they could qualify to join the Royal Flying Corps. Aviators Vivian and Leo Walsh also received enquiries and persuaded the government to approach the British authorities. They agreed to the granting of a Royal Aero Club aviator’s certificate (or ‘ticket’) by cable for each pilot upon graduation, provided official military observers had witnessed the qualifying flights.

Pioneering aviators Vivian and Austin Leonard (‘Leo’) Walsh opened their New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama on Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour in October 1915. Each student paid £100 (equivalent to around $13,700 today) for a ground course and flying lessons; the British government refunded successful trainees £75. Pilots learned to fly in small flying boats operating from the beach. Initially, those who earned their ‘ticket’ and embarked for Britain received a temporary commission as a second lieutenant in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. From October graduates were embarked as cadets, with the promise of a commission later in England. In July 1916, Vivian Walsh became the first New Zealander to obtain an aviator’s certificate in New Zealand. By the Armistice, he and his fellow instructors had trained 83 pilots, 75 of whom embarked for Britain and of whom about a third got to serve with an operational unit.

In the South Island, aviation visionary Henry Wigram established the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Sockburn (now Wigram) aerodrome near Christchurch, in 1916. Training commenced on Caudron biplanes in August 1917 and 170 pilots had graduated by the Armistice. All but 20 sailed for Britain (as cadets temporarily attached to the NZEF), but only a handful got to fly operationally.

New Zealand airmen

New Zealand pilots enjoyed success disproportionate to their numbers. At least 12 commanded their own squadrons, including Keith Caldwell, Roderick Carr, Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham, Cuthbert Maclean and Keith Park, all of whom were to serve with distinction during the Second World War.

‘Grid’ Caldwell, the second pilot to pass through the New Zealand Flying School, was one of the most widely respected fighter, or ‘scout’, pilots, on the Western Front. Under his astute leadership, No. 74 (‘Tiger’) Squadron became one of the RAF’s premier fighting units, being credited with more than 200 victories in 1918. Another Kohimarama trainee, Ronald Bannerman, enjoyed rapid and spectacular success, being credited with the destruction of 15 aircraft and a balloon in the space of three months from 4 August 1918. The intensity of air operations during this time of the Allied counter offensive against the Germans may be gauged by the 20 out of control claims recorded in his log book in addition to those credited as destroyed. Harold Beamish, Clive Collett and Malcolm ‘Mad Mac’ McGregor were other outstanding New Zealand fighter pilots.

When A Flight dived on some Huns below them, we went down to assist. As we started down I looked back, and saw the enemy machines to the east beginning to come down on top of us. When we arrived in the scrap there seemed to be Fokkers everywhere as, counting the 12 that followed us down, there must have been about 30 of them. Some neighbouring S.E.'s [British fighters] also joined in, and we had a great old scrap for about 15 minutes. How we avoided collisions I do not know. You could get your sights on a Hun for a second and then have to pull out to avoid being rammed by another S.E. converging on the same target. I fired at several, but could only be sure of one chap. He was only about 30 yards in front, firing at one of our machines, and by some lucky chance I managed to get about 40 rounds right into his cockpit. He went down vertically, completely out of control, and was seen to crash by one of our pilots.

Malcolm McGregor in Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon and Kynan Gentry (eds), The Penguin book of New Zealanders at war, Penguin, North Shore, 2009, p. 235

Kiwi aces

Some fifteen New Zealand airmen are considered by some to have achieved 'ace' status during the First World War by destroying or driving down out of control at least five enemy aircraft, including the bringing down by fire of observation balloons. The most successful New Zealander was Ronald Bannerman closely followed by Keith (‘Grid’) Caldwell. The others were Keith Park, Arthur Coningham, Euan Dickson, Herbert Gillis, Clive Collett, Malcolm McGregor, Frederick Gordon, Herbert Drewitt, Thomas Culling, Forster Maynard, Carrick Paul and Alan J. L. Scott.

New Zealand airmen excelled in a range of roles and served in most theatres of the war. Wellington lawyer Alfred de Bathe Brandon hunted Zeppelin airships in the skies above England. On the night of 31 March 1916, his BE.2c biplane attacked Zeppelin L15 over London. The massive airship later fell into the English Channel, all but one of its 18 crew surviving to be taken prisoner. Credited with the victory, Brandon achieved fleeting fame until investigations concluded that anti-aircraft fire had inflicted the crucial damage. Awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for his war service, Brandon remained convinced until his death in 1974 that he had shot down L15. Another New Zealander engaged in anti-Zeppelin work was Samuel Dawson of Masterton. In July 1918, he took part in the first ever air attack launched from an aircraft carrier, taking off from the converted cruiser HMS Furious in the North Sea to raid a German airship base at Tondern in Denmark.

Thames engineer Euan Dickson was one of the most successful bomber pilots of the war, taking part in 175 daylight raids (believed to be a record) over Belgium and Germany. Nelson pilot Reginald Kingsford flew long-range night bombing missions with Independent Force, a precursor to RAF Bomber Command. Hugh Reilly, from Hawke’s Bay, commanded No. 30 Squadron in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). As an officer in the Indian Army he learned to fly in 1912 and in 1913-1914 played an important role in the formation a Central Flying School in India. He became the first New Zealander to see action in the air, flying reconnaissance missions in France in September 1914, before being posted to Egypt, then to Mesopotamia in April 1915. He took command of the RFC Flight at Basra (which later became No. 30 Squadron) operatiing in support of operations against Ottoman-held Baghdad. Also serving in this unit was William Burn, the first New Zealand airman to die on active service. Returning to base on 30 July 1915, Burn’s aircraft suffered engine failure and had to make an emergency landing in a remote area. Attacked by Arab tribesmen, observer Burn and his Australian pilot were killed following a running battle.


New Zealand’s air war casualties were relatively high; by the Armistice at least 65 had lost their lives while flying. Nearly half of them perished in accidents – a result of poor training, ignorance, and the pressure to replace losses with inadequately qualified pilots. Another 10 pilots died before demobilisation, including Samuel Dawson, who was lost off the coast of Finland in September 1919 while engaged on an operational flight from HMS Vindictive during the northern Russia campaign. Somewhat more fortunate were the two dozen forced to land or crash in occupied or neutral territory and taken prisoner or interned.

Those who survived the war experienced mixed fortunes. A select few gained permanent commissions in the pared-down RAF, some going on to play significant roles in the Second World War. The majority returned to New Zealand and hung up their flying helmets. A handful kept flying, giving ‘joyrides’ or attempting to establish more viable commercial ventures. A small number became flying instructors with aero clubs as they were formed from the late 1920s, or joined the territorial or permanent arm of the fledgling New Zealand air force, which utilised their experience and knowledge during the Second World War.

How to cite this page

'New Zealand's air war 1914-1918', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jul-2014