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.