The New York Times hailed Ross Smith as the world’s “foremost living aviator” after he completed the awe-inspiring flight from England to Australia in 1919.

The young aviator’s love of heights began early – and a world away from the media spotlight – in the red dust of the South Australian outback.

Born on 4 December 1892, Ross was the third child of Scottish-born sheep station manager Andrew Smith and his wife Jessie. Their first child, Janet, had lived only a month after being born on the remote Mutooroo Station, so Jessie travelled to Adelaide for the birth of her three remaining children: Keith, Ross and Colin.

Andrew Smith managed the 7700sqkm sheep run for prominent South Australian pastoralist Peter Waite (business partner to Thomas Elder and Robert Barr-Smith). And, according to Waite, he did it in exemplary fashion. “Some of the greatest work in this State has been done by Andrew Smith,” he told The Register after Andrew Smith’s death in 1924. “He arrived at Paratoo [another Waite run] in 1879, proceeded to Mutooroo, and has built up, improved, and converted the waterless region into a productive wool country. Last year 129,000 sheep were shorn on the run.”

Peter Waite also told The Register he’d always been sure Keith and Ross would succeed because “they are sons of Andrew”.

The boys spent their early years on Mutooroo, often out riding and hunting kangaroos. A former employee by the name of J. Mount wrote to Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner in 1954, recalling a “flying gadget” they created by fastening wires to a gum tree and securely pegged to the ground some distance away. “A gadget was made to fit on the wires which enabled them to slide slowly to the ground,” Mr Mount wrote. When asked what they were doing they replied ‘We are flying’.”

In early 1900 the boys headed to Adelaide for school at Queen’s College in North Adelaide, where Ross quickly made a name for himself as an all-round sportsman. Fellow boarder and close friend Jack Howard, in a letter written after the epic flight, recalled Ross as “a stocky, sandy-haired boy excelling at all kinds of sport and universally popular”. “He was nicknamed ‘Froggy’, why I don’t know, but the name clung to him to the end.”

Neither Ross nor Keith were particularly academic, with both being described as “unassuming boys who would never set the Thames on fire” by the headmaster, Mr Hood. Ross was clearly a born leader, though, captaining the college’s cricket and football teams. A keen runner, he also won both the junior and senior school championships.

In 1906 the boys headed to Scotland with their mother for two years, attending Warriston preparatory school in their father Andrew’s former home town of Moffat. (Among those to send the brothers a telegram on 10 December 1919 was the Warriston headmaster Mr F.W. Gardiner, who wrote: “Captain Ross Smith, Port Darwin. Well done Ross and Keith; Warriston proud of you.- From Gardiner.”)

On the family’s return from Moffat to Adelaide, Ross got a warehouse job with Harris Scarfe, proving his loyalty to management by driving a cart through a crowd of striking workers and suffering a blow to the head.

In 1910, at the age of 17, Ross joined Adelaide’s mounted cadet squadron of the Commonwealth Military Cadet Corps – and promptly headed overseas on the cavalry regiment’s round-the-world expedition. As author Michael Molkentin explains in the Ross Smith biography Anzac & Aviator, it was on this trip that Ross had the pivotal experience of seeing an aircraft for the first time. Fellow cadet Clifford Browne, who kept a diary of the expedition, wrote that four of the youngsters travelled to Brooklands motor racing track during their time in London to watch a flying exhibition, which was a wondrous experience because none of them had seen an aeroplane before. Little did they know that Ross Smith would be back at Brooklands within a decade, at the Vickers Aviation factory preparing the Vimy for the epic flight.

Back in Adelaide before the war, life for Ross was a series of parties, sunny weekends in the Adelaide Hills and motor bike riding (Jack Howard recalls that “as a beginner he was a hopeless rider and never became proficient” and also “could never affect the simplest repair”).

In her autobiography I’m No Lady (printed posthumously by her son), Adelaide Lady Mayoress and arts patron Lady Constance Jean Bonython writes of her childhood friendship with Ross and Keith. She got to know them through her cousin Matthew Woodley, who also boarded at Queen’s College. “He found great friends there in Keith and Ross (later to become famous aviators) … and as a result those three together with Pauline Schomburgk, my sister Bobbie and I became inseparable companions for years. We would frequently meet up at the Smith’s where those at home were Mrs Smith, Keith and Ross and their much-younger brother Colin. Bobbie was in love with Ross, but although Keith married Anita … Ross was still unmarried at the time of his tragic death…”

War service

Ross enlisted in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment the day after war was declared in August 1914, becoming one of the first South Australians to do so. Departing Adelaide in October 1914 in the first South Australia troop ship, he landed at Gallipoli in May 1915 and was quickly promoted to regimental sergeant major and then second lieutenant before being invalided to England by the end of the year. His medical pass held in The University of Adelaide Library collection shows he had scarlet fever, and on the back Ross has written “My ticket when I left Anzac”. After recovering (and being promoted to lieutenant) he returned to Egypt and was involved in heavy fighting at the Battle of Romani in August 1916.

Throughout the war Ross wrote to his “Dearest Maw” Jessie, providing a terrific insight into his years of service on the ground and in the air. The letters are now held by the State Library of South Australia and have been digitised and transcribed.

Ross transferred to the Australian Flying Corps in October 1916, qualifying initially as an observer and then as a pilot, and quickly established himself as an outstanding aviator conducting air defence, ground attacks, bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions.

In March 1917 he was awarded his first Military Cross as an observer when he and his pilot landed their BE2C in the face of hostile tribesman in the desert while rescuing a downed Royal Flying Corps pilot. While his pilot rescued the downed pilot, Ross kept the approaching enemy at bay with his revolver. Several weeks later, he was involved in his first effective victory when he was injured in shooting down a German Albatross fighter. Ross would go onto record a total of eleven victories in the Middle Eastern campaign – a remarkable record given the paucity of aircraft involved compared with the Western Front where the great majority of aces emerged.

He was awarded a second Military Cross in 1918 for conspicuous action and gallantry in conducting photo reconnaissance and bombing.  He conducted a bombing raid in the huge Handley Page 0/400 during the Battle of Armageddon where he destroyed the critical telephone exchange at El Afule and severely damaged the railway junction. He also flew with the famous T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and is praised in Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom for his grit in taking to the skies to drive off enemy aircraft between mouthfuls of breakfast.

By the end of the war, Ross had accumulated more than 600 flying hours and was one of Australia’ most decorated airmen. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times to accompany his two Military Crosses. He was later awarded the Air Force Cross for non-operational flying. In the official history of  Australian air operations in WWI, F.M. Cutlack wrote that “there was probably no better example of what a fighting pilot should be than the Australian, Ross Smith”.

War’s end

Following the Armistice, Ross was invited by the two highest ranking Royal Flying Corps officials in the Middle East – Major General W.G.H Salmond and Brigadier General Amyas “Biffy” Borton – on a long-range survey mission in the Handley Page from Cairo to Calcutta. He took two air mechanics with him: Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers, who’d gained valuable experience on the Handley Page’s twin Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines during the final months of the war.

After enjoying the Viceroy’s Cup horse race in Calcutta, Ross and Biffy joked that they should fly on to Australia for the Melbourne Cup. There was only one problem – after India, airfields were almost non-existent. The British Air Ministry was keenly interested in carving out aviation routes across the Empire, though, and the men were granted permission to travel by ship from India to the Dutch East Indies to scout potential airfields. The first ship, RIMS Sphinx, was laden with 7000 gallons of petrol to deposit at landing sites, and almost killed the men when it exploded into flames on day two. The second, RIMS Minto, safely transported them all the way down to Timor over the following months, with Ross meeting high-level contacts and carrying out landing site reconnaissance that would prove pivotal in the Great Air Race.

Two things happened on their return to India: they learned that the Handley Page had been destroyed in a storm, so there was no possibility of flying on from Calcutta to Australia; and they learned that Billy Hughes had announced a £10,000 prize for the first Australian airmen to fly from London to Darwin, so they needed to high tail it to England and find themselves a new aircraft before any other competitors set off.

The epic flight

Biffy Borton and Ross had become firm friends, so Ross, Wally and Jim were invited to stay at the 15-century Borton family estate ‘Cheveney’ on their arrival in England. Biffy and General Salmond also played an instrumental role in convincing Vickers Aviation to provide Ross with a plane, despite initial reluctance due to the high risk of the pioneering flight to Australia and the fact the company had recently gained massive positive exposure from the first successful trans-Atlantic flight in a Vickers Vimy by Brits John Alock and Arthur Whitten-Brown.

On 12 November 1919, the Smith crew took off from Hounslow in the Vickers Vimy G-EAOU (which Ross joked stood for “God ‘Elp All Of Us”) and set course for France. The weather had been declared totally unfit for all flying but Ross took off anyway, determined to make up ground on popular French aviator Etienne Poulet who was ineligible to win the prizemoney but highly capable of stealing the glory for France. And he was thousands of miles ahead! You’ll find daily posts on the crew’s awe-inspiring flight – including many first-hand accounts from Ross Smith’s memoir 14,000 Miles Through the Air – in our timeline.

On 10 December 1919, after covering 18,500km and spending 135 hours in the air over 27 days and 20 hours, the Vimy landed in Darwin. Telegrams streamed in from around the world:

  • King George V: “Delighted at your safe arrival. Your success will bring Australia nearer to the Mother Country, and I warmly congratulate you and your crew.”
  • Lloyd George, British Prime Minister: “Heartiest congratulations. Your flight shows how inventions of war can advance progress of peace.”
  • Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War (and later British Prime Minister): “Well done. Your great flight shows conclusively that the new element has been conquered for the use of man.”
  • Billy Hughes, Australian Prime Minister: “You have … proved that with relays of machines and men, Europe can be brought within 12 or 15 days of Australia.”

In Adelaide, The Advertiser quickly informed Jessie Smith of the news at her home in Stephen Terrace, Walkerville. “Oh thank you, thank you,” she said, and The Advertiser noted that “the tone in which the phrase was uttered was more expressive than the words convey”. Immediately afterwards the news was transmitted to the Lord Mayor from The Advertiser office, and a “merry peal was rung from the Town Hall bells in honour of the marvellous feat performed by the gallant young Adelaide aviators”.

The four men became national heroes (and household names internationally) and within a fortnight Ross and Keith were knighted for their achievement by King George V.

When Ross received the £10,000 winner’s cheque he immediately split it four ways – a gesture which went a long way to ensuring the mechanics would be better recognised than merely receiving a bar to their Air Force Medal. Upon discharge from active service later that year, both were made honourary lieutenants in the AIF Reserve of Officers.

Over the next two years the Smith brothers were mobbed wherever they went, with Ross speaking in lecture halls to hundreds of thousands of people across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. He was inundated with marriage proposals and feted by politicians, socialites and royalty alike. As Ross Smith biographer Michael Molkentin writes in Anzac & Aviator, a portrait of Ross painted in 1920, and now hanging in the Australian War Memorial, suggests Ross “seems to have been diminished, not magnified, by fame”.  “The artist, William McInnes, represents Ross as weary and worn thin by four years of war, a flight halfway around the globe and six months living in the glare of publicity,” Molkentin writes. “His hair is receding and his distinctive hooded eyes seem tired – perhaps even sad; he looks considerably older than his 28 years.”

The world mourns

Tragically, Ross died in front of his brother in an aircraft accident on 14 April 1922 at Weybridge in England, where he was test flying a Vickers Viking amphibious aircraft ahead of an around-the-world endurance flight. Jim Bennett was in the plane with him, while Keith missed the test flight after being delayed  in London. He arrived to see the plane nose-diving to the ground. The coronor  ruled that the men died “by misadventure”, while – as noted in Anzac & Aviator – the Air Council attributed the accident to “an error of judgement” that resulted from Ross’s inexperience with the Viking and limited hours in the air since the epic flight.

A large memorial service was held at St Clement Danes, the church of the Royal Air Force in central London, before Keith escorted the bodies home. After lying in state at Adelaide’s St Peter’s Cathedral, Ross was buried at North Road Cemetery on 15 June 1922. It’s estimated that 100,000 people – one fifth of the state’s population – lined the streets to pay their respects as his casket was conveyed on an aeroplane trailer to the cemetery. His devastated mother Jessie told reporters: “Before Ross died he belonged to us, but now he belongs to the Empire.”

Crewsell Gardens monument

A shilling fund was established for the creation of a monument to commemorate South Australia’s “most famous son” and his pioneering flight from England to Australia. British sculptor Frederick Brook Hitch won a competition to design the statue – which was bronze sculpted in Ross’s image on a base of granite sourced from Murray Bridge. Completed in August 1927, the monument was unveiled in Adelaide’s Creswell Gardens on 10 December 1927 by Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Murray, with three Royal Australian Air Force aircraft circling overheard and surviving Vickers Vimy crew members Keith Smith and Wally Shiers in attendance. Creswell Gardens, beside Adelaide Oval, was chosen as a fitting location for the memorial because Sir Ross had advocated that very site for the construction of a monument in honour of those who’d served in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. The statue gazes towards Mount Lofty, where the Vimy was first spotted when the Smith crew flew into Adelaide on 23 March 1920.

Written and researched by Lainie Anderson, author of Long Flight Home.

Photo gallery

Sources and additional information

  • Molkentin, Michael, Anzac & Aviator, Allen & Unwin, 2019
  • Smith, Sir Ross, 14,000 Miles Through the Air, Macmillan & Co, 1922 (reprinted as Flight to Fame by Wakefield Press in 2019)
  • Price, A. Grenfell, The Skies Remember, Angus & Robertson, 1969
  • Eustis, Nelson, The Greatest Air Race: England–Australia 1919, Rigby Limited 1969
  • The State Library of South Australia’s digitised Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith collection
  • Sir Ross Smith KBE, an article by A.A. Lendon first published in the Queens College Magazine in December 1928, a reprint of which is held in the State Library [PRG 128 Series list]. Jack Howard’s letter mentioned above was addressed to Dr Lendon and formed part of his research for the article.
  • Ross Smith’s letters to his mother during WWI, now held by the State Library of South Australia, and available in both digitised and transcribed form.
  • State Library of South Australia: Papers of Air Vice-Marshall A.E. (‘Biffy’) Borton [PRG1067]
  • I’m no lady : the reminiscences of Constance Jean, Lady Bonython, O.B.E. 1891-1977, edited by C. Warren Bonython. State Library of South Australia. SA Ready Ref Books 929.2099423 B723
  • Knights of the Air, an essay by Jim Morgan published in The Best Australian Essays 2001 by Peter Craven. Published by Black Inc. 2001
  • Cutlack, Frederic Morley, Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914–1918 (11th edition, 1941) held by the Australian War Memorial
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • South Australian Aviation Museum
  • The University of Adelaide Library’s Sir Keith and Sir Ross Smith collection
  • Warriston School and Moffat Museum websites

Keith Smith was the only member of the Smith crew not to serve with No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, during WWI.

After being rejected for service on medical grounds in Adelaide, he paid his own way to London and signed up with the Royal Flying Corps, serving out the final year of the war as an aviation instructor in the skies over England. His flying experience in wintry European conditions proved crucial on the very first day of the epic flight.

Keith was born in Adelaide on 20 December 1890 – the first son of Scottish-born outback station manager Andrew Smith and his wife Jessie (nee Macpherson). The Smith’s first child Janet survived only one month in the harsh South Australian outback, and is buried near Cockburn on the Barrier Highway. Jessie went on to have three sons: Keith, Ross and Colin.

The boys spent their early years in the red dust of Mutooroo, a 7700sqkm sheep run on the NSW border near Broken Hill, learning to ride, hunt and read the terrain. The property was owned by prominent SA pastoralist Peter Waite (also a business partner to Thomas Elder and Robert Barr Smith) who later said that Andrew Smith had carried out some of the greatest work in South Australia. Innovations including designing massive dams, including ‘Perseverance’ which took 10 years to engineer, and building hundreds of kilometres of fencing and pipelines. As a result, up to 130,000 head of sheep were being shorn on the desert run annually.

Like Ross, Keith attended Queen’s College in Adelaide as a boarder from about 1901, and earned the nickname “Buck” because of his teeth. According to a 1920s article in the Queen’s College Magazine,  the headmaster Mr Hood once noted that the Smith boys were “unassuming” lads who “would never set the Thames on fire” (apparently infuriating Jessie). However, another school master also recalled them as “dear little chaps”. From 1906 to 1908, the boys attended Warriston School, a preparatory school for boys in Moffat, Scotland, where their father had also studied.

On their return to Adelaide, Keith accepted a position at Elder Smith & Co. (In 1920, when the Smith boys made their triumphant return to Adelaide aboard the Vimy, the company had a giant “K” cut  out and adorned on top of the CBD building, and held a “smoking party” in honour of their famous former employee.)

Jack Howard, a fellow Queen’s boarder and close friend of the Smith boys before the war, wrote in a letter in 1927 that they’d “always lunched in a little private room at Kindermann’s Cafe” on Rundle Street. They often spent their weekends at parties in Mt Lofty, sometimes at ‘Nara’, the family home of politician Henry Downer. And when they’d purchased motorcycles, Keith proved to be “a most capable rider and excellent mechanic”, in stark contrast to Ross.

The Smith boys were with Jack Howard and his brother at a dance in Adelaide on the night the war was declared, and all four boys decided to enlist the following day. “In the meantime Ross, who always dominated, decided that Keith being the elder must remain at home and look after his mother,” Jack Howard writes. “Keith never questioned any decision of Ross.”

Medical certificates held in The University of Adelaide Library’s Sir Keith Smith and Sir Ross Smith collection show that Keith attempted to enlist in Adelaide in both July and October of 1916 and was declared medically unfit for duty. The specific medical grounds were not recorded.

In 1917 he paid his own way to London aboard the RMS Medina – a voyage which almost ended in disaster when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Devon. Newspaper reports reveal passengers escaped onto lifeboats with little more than the clothes on their backs.

On Keith’s arrival in England he worked briefly as a scrutineer for the Australian Government, helping to oversee voting by soldiers in the second conscription referendum (which failed). He was accepted by the Royal Flying Corps’ Officer Cadet Wing in July 1917 and in January 1918 was posted to France with No. 58 Sqn – a newly formed bombing unit. He didn’t see action over the Western Front, however, as by 24 February 1918 he was back in England as a gunnery instructor with No. 75 Sqn. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 April and spent the rest of the war instructing pilots and navigators.

In an interview for Vickers News in January 1949 (a copy of which is held by the State Library of South Australia in the A. Grenfell Price collection), Keith said that Ross had contacted him from India in 1919 to say he’d heard about Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ plans for the Great Air Race, and asking him to stay on in England while Ross and the mechanics made their way to London.

The article also reveals how tough it was for Keith as navigator: “The Vimy carried no radio, and, with navigation dependent on visual contact with the ground, the only map of Siam available, printed in Siamese characters, did not make it easy to keep on course.”

Charles Tullett, who was working as an erector on the Vickers Aviation assembly line in Weybridge in 1919 and helped to build the Vimy, was interviewed by the Daily Mail for the 50th anniversary of the epic flight in 1969 and recalled working with the Smith boys ahead of the race.

“I knew both the Smith bothers,” he told the newspaper. “I think Keith (the navigator) was the more forceful of the two. I remember the excitement building up among the lads in the Weybridge factory as the day approached for the flight. I can also remember the jubilation when the news came that they had reached Australia. We were all given a day off to celebrate.” (You can read the full article below.)

Ross’s faith in his brother as the Vimy’s navigator paid off on day one of the epic flight, when the weather at Hounslow aerodrome was declared totally unfit for all flying but Ross took off anyway in a bid to claw back the huge lead of Frenchman Etienne Poulet.

A fierce snowstorm over France forced Ross to take the Vickers Vimy G-EAOU to 9000ft. Their goggles froze, their gauges froze – even their sandwiches froze! Keith, unable to make out any landmarks below, sat with a compass and marked tiny lines on a map to indicate the Vimy’s approximate location. After six long hours, Ross spotted a break in the clouds and spiraled down, to find they were only 40 miles from their destination in Lyons.

You’ll learn lots more about Keith’s role in the epic flight – including his ingenious idea of laying bamboo matting for a runway over mud in Surabaya – in our timeline. Many of the photos you see of the epic flight and places along the route were taken by Keith. Kodak offered £1000 in prizes for the best photographs taken as part of the Great Air Race, with all Australian competitors on every plane receiving a camera and film. Keith and the Smith crew won. Some parts of the world were photographed from the air for the very first time.

Like Ross, Keith received a knighthood from King George V on 22 December 1919, for his role in the pioneering flight from England to Australia. The next two years were taken up in a lecture tour of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, in which Keith often shielded his incredibly popular brother from the media and increasingly zealous crowds.

By 1922, Keith and Ross were planning to circumnavigate the globe in a Vickers Viking amphibious aircraft. Vimy mechanic Jim Bennett had joined them in Weybridge for final preparations, and on 14 April both he and Ross were taking part in a test flight when the Viking spiralled to the ground from about 300 metres. Both men died within minutes.

The Melbourne Herald reported on 15 April 1922 that Keith had arrived late for the test flight, “having been detained at a wireless school”.

“We looked up and saw the machine about 1000 feet up commence to spiral down,” the article states. “The movement became swifter and the sweep of the circles narrower… Sir Keith stood petrified with horror, and when the machine neared the earth he buried his face in his hands and flung himself to the earth in order to avoid seeing his brother crash to his terrible fate.”

Keith sent a cable home with the tragic news to ensure his parents didn’t hear about it from the press: “Ross and Bennett killed instantaneously this morning knew nothing I am all right inform mother love Keith Smith.” He also personally oversaw the repatriation of both bodies to Australia.

Keith initially said he would merely postpone the attempt to circumnavigate the globe, however it never took place. In 1923 he became involved with the Aviation Department of Vickers and soon became the company’s general representative in Australia.

He married Anita Crawford (nee Schmidt) in 1924. They had no children. Their great niece Penelope McGorm (nee Saunders) remembers them both. “Sir Keith married my grandmother’s younger sister after the epic flight,” she says. “They lived in Sydney when I was small, so I only met Uncle Keith two or three times. I knew Auntie Anita better when she came to live in Adelaide after he died. She lived in Brougham Place, North Adelaide, and we would visit her there. My mother Judith Saunders (nee Goss) would make her deviled almonds and sugared almonds, which she loved. The epic journey was always discussed in my family. As a teenager, going to the tennis at Memorial Drive or the cricket at Adelaide Oval, we were always dropped off and picked up at OUR statue (of Sir Ross Smith) in Creswell Gardens.”

Keith was actively involved in RAAF recruitment during WWII, with other roles throughout his life including vice-president of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines and a director of Qantas and Tasman Airways. He also played an instrumental role in relocating the Vickers Vimy from Canberra to Adelaide in the late 1950s after it was mothballed from the Australian War Memorial.

Sir Keith Smith died of cancer in Sydney on 19 December 1955, a day before his 65th birthday.

Written and researched by Lainie Anderson, author of Long Flight Home.

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Sources and additional information

Daily Mail article from 1969 featuring interviews with Vickers factory workers who knew the Smith brothers. Courtesy Brooklands Museum library.

Melbourne-born James Mallett (Jim) Bennett was five years younger than fellow Vimy mechanic Wally Shiers and only 25 at time of the epic flight.

Born on 14 January 1894 at St Kilda, Jim was the third child (and only son) of tick-maker James Thomas Bennett his wife Henrietta Augusta, née McKendrick.

Not a lot is known about his early childhood, however Melbourne’s Age newspaper reported on 13 March 1909 that a 15-year-old boy by the name of James Mallett Bennett was missing from his Hawthorn home. It noted that “ships had a strong attraction for him”. Subsequent reports – including an interview with his sister Brenda in the wake of Jim Bennett’s death in 1922 – reveal he’d stowed away on a ship to Fremantle in a bid to get out of his apprenticeship with printing firm Sands and McDougall. Far from being angry, Jim’s father at first asked the ship’s captain to take good care of his son, and when Jim returned home his father helped him to secure a motor mechanic traineeship at a local garage. In 1912 he joined the militia and served for three years with the 49th Battalion.

An article in Britain’s Flight magazine on 6 November 1919, just before the epic flight, noted that Jim spent 14 years of his early life at Hawthorn, Melbourne, “where he received a public school education, and attended night technical classes”.

“He took great interest in all things connected with the early progress of the internal combustion engine,” according to the Flight article, “both for car and aviation use, received a thorough and early training with Salway motor engineers, and was employed for a considerable time with other prominent motor firms in Australia. At the outbreak of war in 1914, he was on the mechanical staff of Messrs. Denny Lascells, Motor Department, Melbourne, but enlisted in the Mechanical Transport, Australian Imperial Forces…”

According to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Jim enlisted in the AIF on 14 July 1915 and the following year was posted as a mechanic with the Australian Flying Corps. “On arrival in Egypt in mid-April, the squadron’s mechanics were split up into several parties and assigned to British units for training,” the entry states. “Bennett joined No. 14 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, and trained as a fitter and turner. After returning to his own unit he was promoted Corporal on 24 August.” Later in 1916 he began duty with No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (where he met Ross Smith and Wally Shiers) and was promoted Sergeant in March 1918. Jim was mentioned in dispatches soon afterwards and was later awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for distinguished service as an air mechanic.

By war’s end Jim was working with fellow mechanic Wally Shiers on the twin Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines of the monster Handley Page 0/400 aircraft flown with devastating effect over Palestine by Captain Ross Smith.

When the war ended, Ross Smith was invited by the two highest ranking Royal Flying Corps officials in the Middle East – Major General W.G.H Salmond and Brigadier General Amyas “Biffy” Borton – on a long-range survey mission in the Handley Page from Cairo to Calcutta. Ross chose Jim and Wally Shiers as the mechanics to accompany him on what was to become the longest endurance flight in the world up to that time. For their efforts in maintaining the huge engines and manually refilling the 1000-litre fuel tanks, both men were awarded the Air Force Medal.

During their time in India, Jim and Wally Shiers were briefly attached to 31 Squadron (RAF) to oversee the rigging of aircraft flown in the 3rd Afghanistan Campaign on the North West Frontier. The men were still out East when they learned about the  Great Air Race from England to Australia. Not surprisingly, when Ross Smith jumped on a ship to London to enter the race, he took his two highly experienced air mechanics with him.

During the epic flight from England to Australia, the role of the Vickers Vimy mechanics was pivotal. Despite rapid advances in WWI, aircraft were still incredibly rudimentary: made of wood, wire and fabric; open cockpits; little more than a compass for navigation. With no support crew, and indeed very few airfields after India, the mechanics often worked all night under spotlights in all extremes of temperature. Jim was responsible for the starboard engine and Wally Shiers the port engine. The Vimy wasn’t once under cover, and more often than not the mechanics slept with the aircraft. When the plane was in the air, for up to nine hours at a time, they were squeezed into the back cockpit with their tools and spare parts.

Jim proved his worth many times over during the epic flight from England to Australia. In Pisa he ran beside the Vimy’s fuselage, holding down the tail wing while Ross Smith taxied over the waterlogged airfield, before jumping into the back cockpit as the plane left the ground. In Singapore, he scrambled out of the back cockpit and shimmied down the fuselage to the tail wing to bring the Vimy to an abrupt halt on a tiny racecourse that had been turned into a makeshift landing site.

He really came into his own on the first leg of their journey around the Australian continent from Darwin to Adelaide. They were flying over the Northern Territory desert on day two out of Darwin when they heard a loud crack as an entire blade of the port propeller split from the tip to the centre. Over three days in 50-degree heat that melted the men’s goggles and the Vimy’s windscreens, Jim carried out what Ross Smith later called “a unique piece of skilled workmanship” on the split propeller. He glued tiny bits of wood from an old packing case into the crack and then cut inch-wide strips of galvanised iron to bind around the blade. Screws were taken from the floorboards of the Vimy to fasten the iron into place. The opposite blade was treated in exactly the same manner to avoid vibration.

You’ll learn lots more about the mechanics’ ingenuity in our timeline.

Ross Smith knew better than anyone how crucial Wally and Jim Bennett’s role had been, and later wrote that his “master mechanics” shared equally in the worthiness of the first flight across the world. In fact, the last words of his memoir 14,000 Miles Through The Air read: “Their loyalty and devotion to duty have done much to bind closer the outposts of the Empire through the trails of the skies.”

Following the epic flight, Jim was awarded a Bar to his Air Force Medal and promoted to Senior Warrant Officer, Class 1. Later in 1920 he was made an Honourary Lieutenant in the AIF Reserve of Officers.

Jim used his quarter share of the £10,000 Great Air Race prize money to open a garage on St Kilda Road, before being enticed back to England with Ross and Keith Smith for a bid to circumnavigate the globe. It was there that tragedy struck on 13 April 1922, with Jim losing his life alongside Ross Smith on a test flight of their Vickers Viking amphibious aircraft.

Just as one fifth of the South Australian population turned out for the funeral of Ross Smith, Melbournians also flocked to farewell a popular national hero. Tens of thousands paid their respects as his body lay in state in Queen’s Hall, Parliament House on Melbourne’s Spring Street (then the seat of federal parliament). At his memorial service it was said: “Sir Ross Smith and Lieutenant Bennett were martyrs in the conquest of the air. No men knew better the risks they ran, but cheerfully they were prepared to meet them. If they failed, they failed for all mankind.”

Jim was buried in St Kilda Cemetery on 19 June 1922. A memorial fund was opened, and five years later an obelisk in his honour was unveiled on the St Kilda Esplanade. His entire estate of £2787 was left to his father, and included real estate valued at £800. He’d used part of his £2500 share of the air race prize money to buy a garage in Melbourne.

In 2019, to coincide with the epic flight centenary, Jim and Wally Shiers were inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith were inaugural inductees in 2012.

Written and researched by Lainie Anderson, author of Long Flight Home.

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Sources and additional information

Adelaide-born Walter Henry (Wally) Shiers was the oldest of the four Smith crew members and one of a dozen Shiers siblings.

Born on 17 May 1889 in Norwood and raised in Hilton, he attended Richmond Public School in Keswick before gaining work in a market garden where he learned the basics of pump and motor mechanics. The earliest known photo of Wally appeared in a 2010 article in The West Torrens Historian. Then about 11 years old, he’s sitting atop a cartload of hay in 1900, outside the home and dairy of George Robert Poole at Torrensville.

Wally’s father William Thomas Shiers was a plasterer of some note in Adelaide. A small obituary which appeared in The Advertiser after his death in 1936 stated that “some years ago he was entrusted with the interior plastering decorations in St Cecilia’s chapel at the Convent of Mercy, Angas street, City. The ceiling is coated with gold leaf, which was put on by Mr Shiers.” The article continues that the chapel “is reputed to be the most beautiful in Australia”. Today it’s known as the Cunningham Memorial Chapel and is located within the grounds of St Aloysuis College. You can see a photo of the chapel’s interior along with other Shiers family images below.

The same Advertiser obituary also noted that five of Mr Shiers’ six sons had served in WWI, with one, William, killed in action. At the time of Mr Shiers’ death, he had 38 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Wally’s mother Annie (nee Haire) had died much earlier in 1907. It was then that Wally left Adelaide, joining his oldest brother on the North Mine in Broken Hill. An article in the Barrier Miner in 1919, titled Captain Ross Smith’s Party Includes Broken Hill Man, reveals Wally excelled at gymnastics and football as a member of the Barrier Boys’ Brigade. He was also taken under the wing of the local Meathrill family. “He was with the Meathrill family for years, and they speak very highly of him as a youth of good character, amiable disposition, energetic, enthusiastic, and ambitious, who did his utmost to make up for the somewhat scanty education he received as a boy.” Mr Meathrill helped Wally to study for his electrical tickets, and when WWI broke out he was working as an electrician in the NSW Riverina town of Leeton. During this time he also met his sweetheart (and future wife) Helena Alford in the neighbouring town of Narrandera.

Wally enlisted as a trooper with the 4th Light Horse Regiment in Sydney in April 1915. According to a 1966 interview with oral historian Hazel De Berg, he’d travelled by train to Sydney from the Riverina to buy orange trees and was convinced to enlist by a policemen. He embarked on the HMAT Vestalia on 22 June 1915 and initially served with the Light Horse Ammunition Reserves in southern Egypt and the Sinai, including at the Battle of Romani. In October 1916 he was attached to the Australian Flying Corps as a driver. He was remustered as a fitter and turner in June 1917 and promoted to 1st Class Air Mechanic in December 1917. According to a 6 November article in Britain’s Flight magazine (written just ahead of the epic flight), Wally earned a reputation in the AFC as a a bloke who could fix just about anything: “…owing to his ability and resourcefulness he was on many occasions sent out in the desert to bring in crashed or damaged machines, which was at times a most difficult and arduous task.”

By war’s end Wally was working with fellow mechanic Sgt Jim Bennett on the twin Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines of the monster Handley Page 0/400 aircraft flown with devastating effect over Palestine by Captain Ross Smith.

When the war ended, Ross Smith was invited by the two highest ranking Royal Flying Corps officials in the Middle East – Major General W.G.H Salmond and Brigadier General Amyas “Biffy” Borton – on a long-range survey mission in the Handley Page from Cairo to Calcutta. Ross chose Wally and Jim Bennett as the mechanics to accompany him on what was to become the longest endurance flight in the world up to that time. For their efforts in maintaining the huge engines and manually refilling the 1000-litre fuel tanks, both men were awarded the Air Force Medal.

During their time in India, Wally and Jim Bennett were briefly attached to 31 Squadron (RAF) to oversee the rigging of aircraft flown in the 3rd Afghanistan Campaign on the North West Frontier. As a result, they were both awarded the India General Service Medal with Afghanistan NWF 1919 bar (and were two of very few AFC personnel to receive it).

The men were still out East when they learned about the  Great Air Race from England to Australia. Not surprisingly, when Ross Smith jumped on a ship to London to enter the race, he took his two highly experienced air mechanics with him. On their arrival in England the men initially stayed at ‘Cheveney’, Biffy Borton’s 15th century estate near Maidstone in Kent. Letters written in the 1960s from Biffy to Smith brothers biographer Grenfell A. Price, author of The Skies Remember, reveal the friendship that developed between Wally and Biffy Borton’s father, Colonel Arthur Borton: “During the weeks they were waiting for their Vimy, they made my home theirs,” Biffy wrote. “Shiers endeared himself to my father who admired his head for heights when put on to prune the top branches of the tallest trees.” Price’s book also notes that “the mechanics attempted to repay the General’s kindness by rehabilitating his electric power plant and two of his motor cars”.

During the epic flight from England to Australia, the role of the Vickers Vimy mechanics was pivotal. Despite rapid advances in WWI, aircraft were still incredibly rudimentary: made of wood, wire and fabric; open cockpits; little more than a compass for navigation. With no support crew, and indeed very few airfields after India, the mechanics often worked all night under spotlights in all extremes of temperature. Wally was responsible for the port engine and Jim Bennett the starboard engine. The Vimy wasn’t once under cover, and more often than not the mechanics slept with the aircraft.

In Cairo, when a cracked induction pipe in the port engine threatened to bring the Smith crew’s race to an end, Wally came up with the idea of using chewing gum supplied by race sponsor Wrigley to fashion a repair. In his 1966 interview with Hazel de Berg, he recalled: “After a while, walking around and thinking it was terrible, terrible … I suddenly thought ‘Blimey, we’ve got chewing gum on that boat.’ We started chewing it up, little flakes you know … until we got quite a ball of it.” Wally flattened out the chewed gum to create a length of tape, before wrapping it around the cracked pipe and covering it with ignition tape and layers of shellac. “Within about an hour or so, we were up in the air flying around, and that was absolutely wonderful.”

You’ll learn lots more about the mechanics’ ingenuity in our timeline.

Ross Smith knew better than anyone how crucial Wally and Jim Bennett’s role had been, and later wrote that his “master mechanics” shared equally in the worthiness of the first flight across the world. In fact, the last words of his memoir 14,000 Miles Through The Air read: “Their loyalty and devotion to duty have done much to bind closer the outposts of the Empire through the trails of the skies.”

Following the epic flight, Wally was awarded a Bar to his Air Force Medal and promoted to Sergeant on 22 December 1919. Upon discharge in 1920, he was made an Honourary Lieutenant in the AIF Reserve of Officers.

During the Smith crew’s victory lap of Australia in early 1920, Wally married his Narrandera girlfriend Helena Alford in a novel ceremony in Sydney. New South Wales politician, theatre promoter and British Empire League president Hugh McIntosh hosted a garden party in honour of the Smith crew and at the last minute it also doubled as the wedding. According to an article in Sydney’s Sunday Times on 22 February 1920, guests included the New South Wales Premier William Holman, Sydney socialites and highly decorated soldiers. “As Capt. Chaplain Wilson remarked, the wedding was arranged by the photographers and not by the clergyman,” the article says. “Sir Ross Smith was best man, and incidentally hastened to kiss the bride after the Chaplain had warned the bridegroom that he had better be quick if he wished to secure the first kiss.”

Wally and Helena moved to Sydney, where he used his quarter share of the £10,000 prize money to buy a garage in Bondi. He did some lectures on the flight, including at Sydney’s 1922 Royal Centenary Show where the Vickers Vimy was on show to raise money for a new Australian War Museum. Wally later gained his pilot’s licence and began barnstorming with a young pilot by the name of Dave Smith, even attempting a flight from Australia to England in 1930. The flight was called off after forced landings in northern WA and Thailand. Wally served for many years as chief engineer with New England Airways, later Airlines of Australia, and during WWII worked with the Light Aircraft Co in Sydney to manufacture parachutes for the war effort.

After Helena’s death in the 1950s, Wally suffered deteriorating health. He was the only surviving crew member at the opening of the Vickers Vimy hangar at Adelaide Airport in 1958. Gary Shiers, whose grandfather was Wally’s brother William (Bill) Shiers killed in Pozieres in WWI, recalls Wally visiting Adelaide in the 1950s: “Telephones were rare in households then, but my father Lawrence had one in his butcher shop in Hilton. When Wally came to visit, he always stayed at Uncle Art’s in Bennett St, around the corner. I helped to clean the shop after school, and on a couple of occasions I witnessed my father answer the phone and I could hear a lady shouting (it was common for people to shout into a phone in the Fifties). It was Lady Anita checking on Wally’s whereabouts. Upon hearing Lady Anita’s voice, my Dad would stand ramrod stiff to attention and he stayed that way until he hung up the phone. I still have a memory of my Dad in full butcher’s gear standing at attention.”

In 1965 Wally moved back to Adelaide permanently to live with his brother Arthur in Bennett St, Hilton. Wally’s close friend Dorothy lived with them too.

Wally died of heart failure at the age of 79 in 1968 and his death was noted with seven brief sentences on the front page of The Advertiser under the headline “Last Flier in Pioneer Crew Dies”. The final paragraph of his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography notes: “Friends and acquaintances remember Wally as a short nuggety man of great character who had a strong will and abrupt manner. He was generous to a fault, had a disregard of material gain and placed a high value on comradeship.”

Wally is buried in the military graves section of Centennial Park Cemetery.

In 2019, to coincide with the epic flight centenary, Wally and Jim Bennett were inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith were inaugural inductees in 2012.

In 2019, to coincide with the epic flight centenary, Jim and Wally Shiers were inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith were inaugural inductees in 2012.

Written and researched by Lainie Anderson, author of Long Flight Home, an historic fiction about the Great Air Race told through the eyes of Wally Shiers.

Photo gallery

Sources and additional information

  • National Library of Australia: Album of Walter (Wally) Shiers memorabilia relating to the 1919 Ross Smith flight, 1919–1986 [NLA MS 8627]
  • National Library of Australia: Papers of Ernest and Virtie Crome, 1784–2005, relating to Ross Smith and Wally Shiers [MS 1925, MS Acc11.005]
  • National Library of Australia: Walter Henry Shiers Interviewed by Hazel De Berg in the Hazel De Berg Collection [Sound Recording]. Oral TRC 1/182-184.
  • State Library of South Australia: Papers of Air Vice-Marshall A.E. (‘Biffy’) Borton [PRG1067]
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • South Australian Aviation Museum profile
  • The West Torrens Historian newsletter 2010
  • National Archives of Australia RecordSearch for WWI service records:
  • Account of the Wrigley chewing gum engine repair, researched by Vickers Vimy enthusiast Arthur Robertson. (PDF)

Sir Ross Smith was one of the most highly decorated allied airmen of World War I, being awarded the Military Cross and Bar, the Distinguished Cross and two Bars and the Air Force Cross. He was knighted in December 1919 for his flight from England to Australia, and was also awarded the Hejaz Order of the Nahda, Fourth Class, of the Kingdom of Hijaz.

Sir Ross was awarded two Military Crosses.

Military Cross. Gazetted London Gazette 11 May 1917

Lt Ross Macpherson Smith. Australian Light Horse Regiment attached to Australian Royal Flying Corps.

The Citation read:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when his pilot descended to the rescue of an officer who had been forced to land. On landing, he held the enemy at bat with his revolver, thus enabling his pilot to rescue the officer and to safely fly away his machine.”

Military Cross Bar.  Gazetted London Gazette 24 August 1918

Lt Ross Macpherson Smith. Australian Light Horse Regiment and Australian Flying Corps.

The Citation read:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He was one of two pilots who carried out a remarkable series of photographs in one flight, completely covering an important area of forty-five square mile. On a later occasion he successfully bombed an important bridge head from a low altitude, and his work throughout, as well as his photography, has been invaluable and characterised by the most consistent gallantry.”

The British Military Cross (MC)

The MC is awarded in recognition of “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land” to all members of the British Armed Forces and formerly of the members of the forces of Commonwealth countries.

It was established during World War I for junior officers, as there was no decoration for them for acts of bravery in the face of the enemy. Awarded to members of the Australian Flying Corps who came under Army control and to junior officers in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Awards were extended to majors by an amending warrant of 1931. 

The award is no longer awarded in the Australian Honours system.

Description. An ornamental cross with straight arms terminating in broad finials. On the finials of each arm of the cross is an Imperial Crown and in the centre of the cross is the Imperial and Royal Cypher of the reigning sovereign (GV, GVI, or EIIR). The reverse is plain with the year of the award engraved on the lower arm.

Ribbon. A watered white ribbon (1.375″ wide), with a central purple stripe (0.5″ wide). 

Sir Ross was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Distinguished Flying Cross.  Gazetted London Gazette 8 February 1919

Capt. Ross Macpherson Smith, MC.  Australian Light Horse and Australian Flying Corps. Egypt

The Citation read:

“During the months of June and July, these officers (Smith and his observer Lieut Walter Kirk) accounted for two enemy machines, and they have be conspicuous for gallantry and initiative in attacking ground targets, frequently at very low altitudes. The keenness and fine examples set by these officers cannot be over-estimated.”

Distinguished Flying Cross Bar.  Gazetted London Gazette 8 February 1919

Capt. Ross Macpherson Smith, MC, DFC.  Australian Light Horse and Australian Flying Corps. Egypt

The Citation read:

“During the operations prior to October, 1918, he took part in numerous engagements involving flights of 150 to 200 miles, and succeeded in doing extensive damage to the enemy’s hangars, railways etc. Captain Smith displayed most consistent gallantry with marked ability in all his work, whether bombing by night or day or in personal encounters in the air. Whilst operating with the Sheriffian forces he destroyed one enemy machine and brought down two others out of control in the desert.”

Distinguished Flying Cross Second Bar.  Gazetted London Gazette 8 February 1919

Capt. Ross Macpherson Smith, MC, DFC  Australian Light Horse and Australian Flying Corps. Egypt.

The Citation read:

“On the 19th October this officer, with Lieut A.V. McCann as observer, engaged and drove down an enemy two-seater. As it appeared to land intact he descended to a low altitude and, with machine gun fire, forced the occupants to abandon the machine; he then landed alongside it, and while his observer covered the enemy officers, he set light to their machine and completely destroyed it. To have effected a landing in an unknown country, many miles in rear of the enemy’s advanced troops, demanded courage and skill of a very high order.”

The British Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

The DFC is awarded to officers and Warrant Officers for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy. A straight silver bar with an eagle in the centre is awarded for a further act or acts. The year of the award is engraved on the reverse. The award was established on the birthday of King George V, June 3, 1918. Until 1919, the stripes were horizontal.

Description. The award is a cross flory terminating with a rose, surmounted by another cross made of propeller blades charged in the centre with a roundel within a laurel wreath. The horizontal arms bear wings and the crowned RAF monogram at the centre. The reverse has a central circle the Royal Cypher (GV, GVI, EIIR) appears above the date 1918. The year of issue is engraved on the lower arm. 

Ribbon.  The ribbon is 1.25 inches wide, and consists of alternating deep purple and white stripes (0.125 wide) leaning to the left at 45 degrees from the vertical. The deep purple colour is to appear in the bottom left and upper right corners when viewed on the wearer’s chest.  Until 1919, the stripes were horizontal. 

Air Force Cross. Gazetted in London Gazette 3 June 1919

In late 1918 Sir Ross was detached from 1 Squadron for special duty with the Royal Air Force in connection with completing an endurance flight from Cairo to Calcutta in a Handley Page O/400 aircraft.  In early 1919 he reconnoitered a route between India and Australia and in July 1919 was attached to 31 Squadron RAF in India.

The Citation read:

“This Officer accompanied Major-General Sir W.G.H Salmond on an aerial journey from Cairo to Calcutta – a trip of 2,548 miles, in a machine that had previously flown from London to Cairo.”

Air Force Cross (AFC)

The award was established on 3 June 1918, shortly after the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF). It was originally awarded to RAF commissioned officers and Warrant Officers, but was later expanded to include Royal Navy and army aviation officers.  The AFC is awarded for gallantry and distinguished service in flying which was not in active operations against the enemy.

Description. The medal is a silver cross, representing aircraft propeller blades, with wings between the arms.  The obverse depicts Hermes, riding on the wings of a hawk holding a laurel wreath. At the top of the upper arm is the royal crown, while the other three arms bear the royal cypher of the reigning monarch at the time of issue. The reverse is plain, except for a central roundel bearing the reigning monarch’s cypher and the date ‘1918’. Originally awarded unnamed, from 1939 the year of issue was engraved on the reverse lower limb of cross, and since 1984 it has been awarded named to the recipient.

Ribbon. The ribbon was originally white with red broad horizontal stripes, but changed in July 1919 to the current white with red broad diagonal stripes at a 45-degree angle.

Knight Commander of the British Empire. Gazetted in London Gazette 26 December 1919

The Citation read:

“In recognition of valuable services tendered to aviation by the recent successful flight from England to Australia.”

Order of the British Empire

The Order ofn the British Empire was established during World War 1 for King George V to reward  services to the war effort by civilians at home and servicemen in support positions. Originally established at only one level, the Order was divided into Civil and Military in 1918 and then evolved into a system of rewards with five levels. The first two (Knight Grand Cross Order of the British Empire and Knight of the Order of the British Empire) confer knighthood, the three lower levels are Commander [top left], Officer [top right] and Member [bottom left]. The order was created mainly to award non-combatant services to the war and included women, whom most orders excluded. It was conferred for services to the Empire at home, in India and in the Dominions and colonies, and at any level could be awarded for gallantry as well as for service.

The medals of the order were changed considerably in 1937 when the insignia was redesigned and the colour of the ribbons were changed. The Commander has a blue enamelled cross, the Officer has a gold cross and the Member has a silver cross.

Hedjaz Order of Nadha, Fourth Class. Gazetted in London Gazette 1 April 1920

The Hejaz Order of the Nahda, 4th Class, was awarded to Captain Ross Macpherson Smith on 1 April 1920 for “Conspicuous services rendered whilst serving with the Australian Imperial Force”.

Hedjaz Order of Nadha

The Order was established to commemorate the revolt of the Hejaz against the Turks during the First World War. The 4th Class of the Order was awarded to Military Officers, Civil Officials of the Fourth Class and local people of corresponding status. It was awarded by the King of Hedjaz, King Hussein Bin Ali. It is believed more than 50 British subjects who fought in the Middle East were awarded the Fourth Class of the Award including several other Australians. Richard Williams, Sir Ross Smith’s Commanding Officer at 1 Squadron was awarded the Third Order of the Award on the same day.

Description. The medal is of hexagonal design bearing a six pointed star with a palm frond between each arm. The bulk of the design bears a central circular plaque of two concentric circles. In the centre there are two crossed Hijazi flags with a five-pointed star in the centre. Affixed to the medal with a piece of red silk are three cords – white, black and green respectively.

This article was researched and written by Group Captain Greg Weller, RAAF Base Edinburgh.  

Since 1919, the epic flight has inspired place names, street names and memorial parks across Australia – and even the architecture of a small private school in the inner northern suburbs of Adelaide. For a comprehensive look at statues and memorials built in honour of the Vimy crew, please check out our Collections section.

Darwin, NT

A civilian aerodrome was established at Parap, Port Darwin, for any aircraft that made it to Australia  in the 1919 Great Air Race from London. A memorial, pictured left, now marks the hallowed turf where the Vimy first touched down in Australia on 10 December 1919.  The Parap Aerodrome closed in 1946, and the main runway has subsequently become a major road which is suitably named Ross Smith Avenue.

Sydney, NSW

The Vimy arrived in Sydney on Valentine’s Day 1920, landing at Mascot Aerodrome.  While Mascot has subsequently become Kingsford Smith Airport, the major roads in and around the terminals are named after each of the Vimy crew.  Keith Smith Avenue services the approach to the domestic terminals and Shiers Avenue runs from the Sydney domestic terminals north to the Sydney suburbs.  Ross Smith Avenue provides the means for airport staff to reconnoiter the airfield perimeter (much as Ross would have done prior to each day’s departure en-route from London to Australia). There is also a Vickers Avenue at Sydney Airport in honour of the Vimy’s manufacturer.


The designers of Canberra’s western suburbs have payed due respect to the Vimy in their naming of the streets of Page. Although the suburb is bounded by the major roads of Kingsford Smith and Southern Cross Drive (reflecting the later achievements of the ‘other’ Smith), the suburb is bisected by Ross Smith Crescent. The crescent provides important access to the Page shops, and schools, and is essential to the life of the suburb.


The Melbourne suburb of Alphington, pictured below, is home to the adjacent streets of Ross Street, Bennett Street, Shiers Street and Smith Street. To mark the Epic Flight Centenary of 10 December 2019, neighbourhood residents came together in a local park for  the unveiling of a Vickers Vimy model created by a local aviation enthusiast.


The Vimy arrived in Adelaide on 23 March 1920 and landed at the then Northfield Aerodrome, owned and operated by Harry Butler.  The aerodrome has long since disappeared and is now taken up by the inner-north suburbs of Northfield, Northgate, Lightsview and Oakden.

The development of Northgate in 2000 included the naming of key streets and a reserve in honour of the Vickers Vimy and her inspirational crew.  Vickers Vimy Reserve, pictured left, is a landmark in the suburb and provides aeronautical inspiration to those seeking leisure and recreation.  Both Vickers Vimy Parade and Shiers Avenue provide modern amenity for the residents of Northgate.

Oakden was established a few years earlier in 1993 and is immediately east of the Northfield Aerodrome site.   The main road, which winds through the Oakden estate and leads towards the old aerodrome site, is aptly named Sir Ross Smith Boulevard, pictured right.

Cedar College was established in Northgate in close proximity to the Vimy landing site, and has embraced this powerful history within its architecture.  The roof line of the buildings at Cedar College reflect the classic aerofoil shape, and this drives a narrative of exploration and discovery.  Indeed, the resource centre, which is the school’s technology hub adjoining the science wing, is topped by a triple-winged roofline. Inside is suspended a 1:20 scale Vimy model, built by one of the high school teachers with a small group of Cedar College’s inaugural students in recognition of the historic connection between the college and this aircraft.  Students still learn about the feat each year.

A trip to the cricket or footy at the Adelaide Oval brings you face to face with statues of champions of both games. Just to the east on War Memorial Drive, facing King William St and looking across the city to Mount Lofty, is a statue of Sir Ross Smith. Dawn is the best time to visit, before the streets are busy, and when you can image Ross completing his pre-flight checks and walking the airfield looking for any hazards that might affect his morning’s departure.

And there’s more…

Streets, parks and reserves across Australia and overseas have been named in honour the Vimy and her crew.  You might live in Sir Ross Smith Drive, North Haven, SA, or know a bloke in Bennett Street, Bondi, NSW.  In a strange coincidence, Wally Shiers lived out the final years of his life in Bennett St, Hilton, SA until his death in 1968. This brief sojourn through Darwin, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide features some important markers in the history of the arrival of the Vimy to Australia.  Explore for yourself and see the many places that reflect the past and give hope for our future.

This article was researched and written by James Blagg, Royal Aeronautical Society (Adelaide Division).

South Australia punched above its weight with aviation pioneers. Four of the six Australian crews competing in the 1919 Air Race were led by South Aussies: Sir Ross Smith; Hubert Wilkins; George Matthews and Cedric Howell. The “father” of the RAAF, Sir Richard Williams, was born in Moonta. You’ll find sources on SA aviators below.

Captain Henry John “Harry” Butler was a national hero when he returned from WWI, and was considered to have pioneered aviation in South Australia. He established the state’s first airfield at Northfield, where the Smith crew landed in 1920. Harry flew out to greet the Vickers Vimy in his little crimson monoplane The Red Devil on their arrival.

Harry established, with engineer Harry Kauper, the first aviation company in South Australia and undertook the first passenger flights (first at Northfield, then at Hendon) and aerial photographs. He also undertook the first flight and airmail over a significant body of water in the southern hemisphere, when he travelled from Adelaide to his hometown of Minlaton on 6 August 1919, carrying 4000 postcards in his Bristol M1C monoplane The Red Devil.

He was also dubbed ‘The Red Devil’ after his monoplane.

During WWI, Harry became a fight instructor at the School of Aerial Gunnery, Turnberry, Scotland (where he did the first airmail from Glasgow to Turnberry), and Chief Fighting Instructor at the Yorkshire School of Aerial Fighting, training around 2,700 pilots with the Royal Flying Corps. He also helped to protect the UK through home defence sorties, chasing German planes that dropped bombs on Ramsgate and German zeppelins that had made their way over the English Channel. He was mentioned in despatches for his operational service (linked to his part in capturing a German submarine) and received the Air Force Cross for his contribution to pilot training and the war effort.

On his return from war, Harry performed aerial stunts over the city of Adelaide and in rural regions, raising money for the Peace Loans which were used for the rehabilitation of returned soldiers, and to build WWI soldier memorials around South Australia. He also was a founding member of the Australian Aero Club (SA branch). Governor Henry Galway was hugely supportive of Harry’s efforts to establish aviation in South Australia.

Harry became a public figure and hero at a time when the community was grieving in the aftermath of WWI. He had a strong affinity for the people of South Australia, and especially children who would chase after Harry’s motorbike or greet him upon arrival in his red monoplane. He would go out of his way to fly over the children’s hospital in North Adelaide or Minda Home at Brighton, and children would even write to him to ask him to fly over their own house.

Crowds attending the Aerial Peace Loan Derby race over Adelaide, or his stunting displays, reached 20,000 to 40,000 people! His marriage to Else Birch Gibson (later Elsa Hay-Taylor) was attended by thousands of members of the general public, standing on rooftops and balconies, vying for a glimpse of the intrepid aviator. Harry even became part of the vernacular, and when told to “hurry up” or “get a move on”, a common contemporary response was “I’m not Harry Butler!”

Harry’s aviation business was eventually liquidated, and Hendon aerodrome was also sold in stages (part of it becoming the first commonwealth government airport in South Australia). The streets of Hendon were said to be named by Harry Butler himself, and bear the names of aviation companies, planes and aviators. Kauper Street is in adjacent Royal Park.

Harry’s motto was “Luck, Pluck and Ability”, and he regularly attended fortune tellers, but his luck ran out when in 1922 his Avro biplane crashed outside Minlaton, leaving him with severe injuries which led to multiple operations. Sadly, he died two and a half years later from a burst brain abscess, on 30 July 1924, aged 34 years.  His death shocked the SA community, with The Register saying that “no name was better known, and no individual more sincerely esteemed and beloved than Harry Butler”.

Harry was accorded a funeral with military honours, and many hundreds lined the streets of Adelaide from his home in Clarence Park to North Road Cemetery where his funeral was held in the chapel. According to an article published in Adelaide’s News on 31 July 1924, his “one wish was to be buried along side Sir Ross Smith”, whose funeral he had attended just two years earlier. His grave is near the Smith family’s plot at North Road Cemetery.

After his death, the community raised funds to commemorate Harry’s life, with many contributors being children who donated their pocket money. Among the contributors were Mr and Mrs Andrew Smith, the parents of Ross and Keith. The memorial is the portrait by George Webb, which is owned by the State Gallery of South Australia and on loan to the Minlaton Branch of the National Trust where it can be seen. Other memorials include the 150th jubilee plaques on North Terrace and at Hendon, the 1958 memorial at Minlaton which houses The Red Devil monoplane (the only existing one of its kind in the world) and the 2015 bronze statue of Harry at Minlaton.

Written and researched by Samantha Battams, who joined Minlaton’s Les Parsons in writing The Red Devil: The story of South Australian Aviation Pioneer, Captain Harry Butler, AFC

Excerpt from “Too Young To Die”, a page 1 article in Adelaide’s News on 31 July 1924. Source: Trove. Feature image of Harry Butler top left courtesy SLSA [B 52778]

Other South Australian aviation pioneers

Many daring aviators have retraced the England-Australia route of the Vickers Vimy since 1919 – from competitors in the MacRobertson race in 1934, to Australian adventurer Michael Smith in 2019.

1934 – MacRobertson Centenary Air Race

Australian confectionary giant Sir Macpherson Robertson offered a prize pool of £15,000 for competitors in the 1934 MacRobertson Centenary Air Race from Mildenhall (near London) to Melbourne. The race formed part of Melbourne’s centenary celebrations but also marked 25 years since the epic flight and included five compulsory stops where the Vickers Vimy touched down: Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville. Twenty crews took part from seven countries, with 11 aircraft completing the gruelling journey. South Australia’s dashing young aviator Jimmy Melrose was among those to make it home, finishing second in the handicap division. You can watch a video of the race on YouTube.

Jimmy Melrose, the popular Adelaide aviator and youngest competitor in the 1934 race from England to Australia. [SLSA PRG 995/23/8]

1969 – London to Sydney Air Race

The 1969 London  to Sydney Air Race commemorated the 50th anniversary of the epic flight and the bicentenary of Captain James Cook’s discovery of Australia’s east coast, with nearly 200 competitors from 16 nations taking off from Gatwick on 17 December. The New York Times reported that on the final day of the $112,000 race, 59 planes (mostly light aircraft) landed within an hour at Sydney’s Bankstown Airport. You can watch archival vision of the race on YouTube.

The 50th anniversary was also celebrated with philatelic mail from England and many countries along the route of the epic flight, with Great Britain, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Portuguese Timor and Australia among those releasing commemorative stamps. The Australian Air Mail Society chartered a TAA DC3 to fly the mail from Singapore to Melbourne. On board was Reg Williams, co-pilot of the Blackburn Kangaroo aircraft which took part in the 1919 Great Air Race.

1994 – Lang Kidby and Peter McMillan

In 1994, Australian adventurer Lang Kidby and American Peter McMillan built a replica Vimy before flying the aircraft from London to Darwin. Lang, pictured top left, later described the aircraft as a “dog of a plane to fly”, with the two propellers spinning very close to the cockpit and setting up pressure waves. “It was like having someone drumming their fingertips on the top of your head. After nine hours of that, it was like torture.” The replica Vimy, pictured below, can today be found at Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, UK, where the original Vimy was built and where the Smith crew also prepared for their epic flight. The 1994 Vimy is one of only two replicas in existence – the other is housed at the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, London. You can see vision of the replica Vimy on YouTube.

2019 – Australian adventurer Michael Smith

Australian adventurer Michael Smith, below centre, re-enacted the flight from London to Australia in late 2019. His Southern Sun amphibious aircraft landed in Darwin on 10 December at 3.45pm, exactly 100 years after the Vickers Vimy touched down. Michael, named Australian Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2016 after his solo circumnavigation of the globe, also took part in the re-enactment flight from Darwin to Adelaide coordinated by Tom Lockley from the Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW). The group, pictured below, arrived in Adelaide in March 2020 to celebrate the centenary of the Smith brothers’ victorious homecoming to South Australia.