New Zealand Embassy Paris, France

New Zealanders in the air war 1914-18

New Zealanders played a modest but significant role in the air war between 1914 and 1918. Between 600 and 700 are thought to have served in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service, merged on 1 April 1918 into the Royal Air Force, along with the Australian Flying Corps.  They fought in the skies over the United Kingdom, the Western Front , Gallipoli, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the North Sea and the Channel.  Many reached high rank. Twelve commanded squadrons and 14 became "aces" with five or more victories. A total of 76 died of whom 65 were killed flying.

Perhaps the most prominent was Captain K L Caldwell, DFC, MC, Croix de Guerre of Auckland who became New Zealand's highest-scoring pilot with 25 victories. He ended the war as commanding officer of 74 Squadron, one of the RAF's leading fighter squadrons.

Captain K L Caldwell

Captain K L Caldwell

Several went on to hold high rank after the war. Major K R Park (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith), a New Zealand gunner who transferred into the Royal Flying Corps where he rose to command one of the premier RFC fighter squadrons and claim 20 victories along with his gunners.  During the Battle of Britain he achieved renown as the commander of  11 Group RAF Fighter Command which bore the brunt of the aerial fighting.

Another, Captain Arthur Coningham with14 victories and originally of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles before joining the RFC, became the leading exponent of close air support during the Second World War and commanded the Desert Air Force as an Air Marshal.

The New Zealand army commenced studies on the formation of an air corps in 1912 and in 1913, the first officers and NCOs were sent to Britain for flying training.  One was a young man originally from Melbourne, Lieutenant William Wallace Allison Burn of the New Zealand Staff Corps. A decision was delayed until after hostilities, primarily on the advice of the Inspector-General of Overseas Forces, General Sir Ian Hamilton who, while visiting in early 1914, suggested deferment given the rapid rate of development of military aircraft.

However, New Zealand's first military aircraft, a two-seater Blériot XI-2, arrived in Auckland at the end of 1913 from an unexpected source, the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, a group of London business associates formed to "strengthen the resources of the Empire in aerial craft".  Before departing, it was named Britannia  by Lady Desborough, wife of the air fleet committee chairman, in the presence of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward who was taken for a flight in the machine.

New Zealand airmen came from three sources: those who joined directly in the United Kingdom, those given basic flying training  by  two private schools, the New Zealand Flying School at Auckland and the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Christchurch  - and those who transferred either from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force or British units.  The two New Zealand schools trained 253 pilots to Royal Aero Club certificate standards.

Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward (right) with pilot Gustav Hamel before his first flight in the Blériot Britannia.

Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward (right) with pilot Gustav Hamel before
his first flight in the Blériot Britannia.

The Blériot was flown briefly then put in store to await the return of the first  New Zealand military pilot, Lieutenant  Burn, from the United Kingdom.  After the outbreak of war, it was shipped  with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Britain where it was received at Brooklands in January 1915 for the Royal Flying Corps and issued to 13 Squadron RFC, at Gosport. On 1 May 1915, it crashed killing the instructor Sergeant W T J McCudden and injuring Second- Lieutenant N H Read. McCudden was a brother of Major James Thomas Byford McCudden VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar, MM, the most decorated British pilot of the First World War, who was killed on 9 July 1918. 

Lieutenant Burn never returned to New Zealand. He was posted to Mesopotamia, now Iraq, with the Australian Flying Corps. On 30 July 1915 he and Lieutenant George Merz  were airborne near Basra and force-landed after their Caudron GIII developed engine trouble. They were killed by local people, apparently after their weapons, and their bodies were never found.

The first airman with New Zealand associations to be killed over the Western Front was actually French. Claude Couturier made his home in New Zealand in 1912 before returning home at the outbreak of war at his own expense when he joined the French air force, the Aviation Militaire.  He enlisted as a pilot under training at Étample on 27 April 1915 and was posted to Escadrille (Squadron) MF2, an observation squadron which "spotted" the fall of French artillery fire, on 20 May 1915.

Claude Couturier and his Blériot at Rolleston, Christchurch

Claude Couturier and his Blériot at Rolleston, Christchurch

On 1 September, barely four months later, Sergent pilot Couturier and his observer Lieutenant Moisan were airborne  reporting artillery fire when they were attacked by two enemy machines.  Within minutes both had received at least four serious wounds. Couturier tried to reach the French lines but died while they were 300 metres above the trenches. The aircraft crashed  near Parois, 19 kilometres west of Verdun and they are buried at Nécropole Nationale de Vauquois, Meuse.

Second-Lieutenant W B Rhodes-Moorhouse VC

Second-Lieutenant W B Rhodes-Moorhouse VC

Many New Zealanders achieved distinction.  One became the first airman to win a Victoria Cross in the First World War, Second-Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse  had strong family connections with Christchurch.  He married in Britain and was serving with the Royal Flying Corps when received his award when he was badly wounded during a low-level bombing raid near Courtrai, France on 26 April 1915.  He died of wounds the following day.  Sadly his son,  Flight Lieutenant William Henry Rhodes-Moorhouse DFC, who joined the RAF in 1937, was shot down and killed over Kent on 6 September 1940 while serving with 601 Squadron flying Hawker Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain. The two are buried side by side at Dorset in the United Kingdom.

Capt R B Bannerman DFC
Capt R B Bannerman DFC

Captain Ronald Bannerman, of Dunedin, joined at the New Zealand Flying School in March 1916 and later the Royal flying Corps in Britain in March 1917. He joined 79 Squadron, which flew Sopwith Dolphins. his first victory came in August 1918. By the end of the war, he had 17 and became New Zealand's third top-scoring "ace".   In the Second World Ward he returned to service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force as an Air Commodore and held senior administrative positions.

Major A de Bathe Brandon, from Heretaunga, joined the RFC in 1915.  He became an early night fighter pilot and shared in the destruction of the first Zeppelin (with Army anti-aircraft artillery) to be brought down over Britain on the night of 31 March -1 April 1916. On the night of 23-24 September that year he brought down his second.  He ended the war as a Major in the Royal Air Force (which retained army ranks until after the war) and returned to New Zealand where he resumed legal practice. However, he made a significant contribution to the future of the air force on his return by assisting Colonel A V Bettington, RAF, who advised the New Zealand government on air force development.

Major A de Bathe Brandon DSO

Major A de Bathe Brandon DSO

Captain Clive Franklyn Collett  MC and Bar, became New Zealand's first fighter "ace" with 11 victories. Born in Blenheim, he studied engineering and while in Britain, joined the RFC. In July 1917 he was posted to 70 Squadron on Sopwith Camels where he acquired a fearless reputation.  His operational flying over, he was testing a captured German Albatros fighter over the Firth of Forth on 23 December 1917 when he  flew into the sea losing his life.

Captain Clive Collett MC with his Sopwith Pup.

Captain Clive Collett MC with his Sopwith Pup.

Auckland airman W M Angus (front cockpit) in an Henri Farman,  serving with No 3 Wing Royal Naval Air Service over Gallipoli.

Auckland airman W M Angus (front cockpit) in an Henri Farman,  serving with No 3
Wing Royal Naval Air Service over Gallipoli.

New Zealanders served with the Royal Naval Air Service which was formed in 1914 but came under full Royal Navy control the following year. It provided squadrons and land-based units. Numbers 2 and 3 Wings were sent to the Dardanelles for the Gallipoli campaign, where they were based at Imbros in the eastern Aegean Sea and made bombing raids on Turkish positions. William M Angus, a co-founder of the Canterbury (NZ) Aero Club with fellow pioneer George Bolt in 1911, served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force before transferring to the Royal Naval Air Service at Imbros.  He returned to New Zealand and became involved in construction.

New Zealand airmen with a Caudron biplane at the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company's flying school  Sockburn, Christchurch, in 1918.

New Zealand airmen with a Caudron biplane at the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company's
flying school Sockburn, Christchurch, in 1918.

Acknowledgements: the pictures are drawn from the collections of the RNZAF Museum Christchurch, the New Zealand Archives and the Imperial War Museum whose assistance is gratefully acknowledged, as is that of New Zealand aviation historian Errol Martyn who provided valuable information as well as the picture of Captain Collett (via C F Collett).

© Brian Lockstone, Paris, October 2012

Official logo for New Zealand's WW100 commemorations

The First World War (1914–1918) was one of the most significant events of the 20th Century and had a seismic impact on New Zealand society. The legacy of the war, the growing attendance at Anzac Day ceremonies in New Zealand, and the steady increase in the number of visitors to battlefields in Turkey and Europe demonstrate a continuing interest in its significance.

The New Zealand Government has developed WW100 New Zealand, an official programme to mark the First World War Centenary from 2014 to 2018. The programme is led by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Hon. Maggie Barry.

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