Flight Sergeant Ernest Handley - 6 Squadron Royal Air Force
In 2016, I received an email from a WW1 researcher who lives at Alton Downs in Queensland, informing me of the surprising fact that a local man apparently flew with 6 Squadron during WW1. Up until that time, I was unaware of any 6 Squadron pilot who originated from Australia. In her email, Gloria Kelley told me she was looking into the wartime service details of the forty-eight soldiers whose names were on the Alton Downs War Memorial. When researching the background of the ten local soldiers who never made it back home after the Great War, she discovered that one of them was in fact a Royal Flying Corps pilot who served with 6 Squadron for eight months before being killed in a flying accident in England. After pooling our resources, Gloria and I were able to piece together the brief service life of Sergeant Ernest Handley. In the course of this investigation, I also came to the surprise conclusion that Ernest Handley would have known and worked with my grandfather (Fred Johnstone) during his time with 6 Squadron’s Wireless Flight.
Here is the story of one of Australia’s early wartime aviators.
In 1915, twenty-one-year-old Ernest Handley was living in Brisbane and was a member of the Queensland Volunteer Flying Civilians, an organisation formed by Thomas Macleod, a Brisbane barrister. The purpose of the organisation was to train civilians as aviators so that they could then sign up for active service. Ernest, along with several other volunteers, helped Thomas Macleod build the first flying machine in Queensland, a Caudron bi-plane reconstructed to incorporate a full-length fuselage. Strangely enough, the work was carried out inside a Brisbane church hall. After learning all aspects of aircraft construction, Ernest was taught how to fly the completed aircraft.
On the 28th December 1915, Thomas McLeod journeyed to England with Ernest and six other pilots, with the intention of enlisting in the Royal Flying Corps. They were following the footsteps of two other members of the QVFC who had left for England three months earlier.
Note: The Australian Flying Corps had already been in existence since 1912 but no flight training took place until 1914. In mid 1915, the AFC had several types of aircraft in operation under the name “Mesopotamia Half Flight” in what is today’s Iraq. However, losses proved to be so great that the MHF was disbanded in December 1915, less than six months after it was formed. Despite this setback, 1 Squadron AFC was raised at Point Cook in January 1916, in response to a British request for Australia to raise a full squadron to serve as part of the Royal Flying Corps.
Upon his arrival in England on the 26th February 1916, Ernest Handley enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, entering his skills as “Aviator for Miscellaneous” on a Short Service Attestation form at South Farnborough before being given the rank of 2nd Class Air Mechanic. Two months later, Ernest gained his Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificate and after a further two months of training was shipped overseas as a pilot and posted to 6 Squadron, based at Abeele in Belgium. Assigned to the Wireless Flight, Ernest was one of only a few pilots in the RFC who did not hold a commission. As such, he was not permitted to enter the officers’ mess and was obliged to mess and bunk with the ‘other ranks’. This strictly-enforced directive made it difficult for Ernest to liaise with his fellow pilots on operational matters, and especially more so with his observer, who most certainly would have been an officer.
At about the same time that Ernest Handley joined 6 Squadron, Thomas MacLeod, who by then was a 2nd lieutenant pilot serving on the Western Front, wrote to the Brisbane Courier to provide its readers with an update as to how the members of the QVFC were faring. He reported that of the nine men who left for England in 1915, five had already been offered commissions in the Royal Flying Corps and that all but one of them had been accepted for pilot training. In what appears to have been an unusual decision on the part of the RFC, and probably due to the volunteers’ previous flying experience in Australia, Ernest Handley and the three other men who were not offered commissions were listed as aviator-mechanics. One of them, Valdemar Rendle, was the man who taught Ernest to fly in Australia.
Note: Valdemar Rendle quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant Pilot after being posted to the Western Front, before being offered a commission as a lieutenant and appointed acting flight commander. Thomas Macleod was promoted from lieutenant to captain by the end of 1916 (with a brief period OC 13 squadron) and was demobilised in 1919 holding the rank of major. It is interesting to note that only three of the original nine QVFC volunteers were killed during WW1.
Ernest Handley quickly settled into his role as pilot with 6 Squadron, flying a two-seater BE2d (one of the first to be received by the squadron) on artillery observation missions that required the use of a wireless set for transmitting messages as well as the occasional bombing mission. The increased capabilities of the BE2d over the ageing BE2c gave it an endurance of close to four and a half hours, bringing distant strategic targets within range for the first time. After less than a month with 6 Squadron, Ernest Handley was promoted to 1st Class Flyer, and a week later, on the 1st August, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
On the 2nd August 1916, Ernest took part in a daring long-range bombing raid involving aircraft from five squadrons. It was a dangerous mission that would earn him the Croix de Guerre medal, though this honour was not gazetted until May 1917. The target for the mission was the Zeppelin storage facility in Brussels, at the extreme range of even the BE2d, especially as each aircraft was required to carry two 112lb bombs. Unable to take an observer because of severe weight limitations, each pilot had to fly alone with no-one to help with the navigation or defend the aircraft. Despite several mishaps, the mission was a success, with Ernest Handley dropping both bombs from 3,000 feet on to the shed at Etterbeek, causing significant damage. After re-grouping to the west of Brussels at Strythem, the BE2s flew home under the protection of two separate sets of escort fighters and landed safely at their respective aerodromes with almost empty fuel tanks. [Ed: If anyone would like the full details of this audacious raid, Steve has assured me he would be only too happy to oblige, having researched the event some years ago for a book he was writing].
Though Ernest Handley remained with 6 Squadron a further six months, there is nothing in the official records that details the rest of his time with the squadron, other than a forced landing he was obliged to make on the 9th August 1916, due to engine failure whilst testing the wireless in his BE2d with Lt W S Wright accompanying him as his observer. Neither man was injured in the accident. In February 1917, Ernest Handley was posted back to England as an instructor with the Wireless and Observation School at Brooklands Aerodrome. According to an interview he had at the time with a London-based journalist from the Townsville Daily Bulletin, Ernest had every intention of returning to the Front. However, on the 20th August 1917, whilst piloting an RE8 on a training flight with his student 2nd Lt H S Jordan, the wings of his aircraft collapsed and the aircraft crashed, killing both men instantly. The following month, Ernest Handley was posthumously transferred to the Australian Imperial Force, but due to bureaucratic delays between the governments of England and Australia, it wasn’t until January 1919 that his personal effects were returned to his mother in Australia.
As a poignant post-script to this story, there is no mention of Sergeant Ernest Handley on the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour because he was not officially with the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) until after his death, nor is his name listed on any British Memorial. Ernest isn’t recognised on the 6 Squadron Roll of Honour either, as his death occurred six months after he left the squadron. Though Ernest died in Surrey, his body was buried two hundred miles to the north near Grimsby, in the small North Cotes churchyard of St Nicholas. I have yet to be able to determine the reason for this, but he may have had a familial link with that area. What makes it all the more intriguing is that he is the only member of the military to be buried in that graveyard during WW1. However, two hundred miles is a small distance compared to the journey Ernest made to England less than two years earlier. All that remains in Alton Downs to remind people of the ultimate sacrifice that Ernest Handley made ninety-nine years ago, is the simple inscription E HANDLEY on the front of a small marble monument that stands in the middle of an isolated paddock next to the Alton Downs Community Hall.
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