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.
Ernest Handley was one of Australia’s first wartime aviators. In 1915, twenty-one-year-old Ernest was living in Brisbane. He became a member of the Queensland Volunteer Flying Civilians, an organisation formed by barrister Thomas Macleod to train civilians as aviators prior to them signing up for active service.
Note: Though the Australian Flying Corps was formed in 1912, no flight training took place until 1914. In mid 1915, the AFC had several types of aircraft on charge under the name “Mesopotamia Half Flight”, operating 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. Whether Thomas McLeod and his band of aviators would have been able to join the AFC had they remained in Australia instead of sailing to England, is a moot point.
Ernest, along with several other members, helped Thomas Macleod build the first flying machine in Queensland, a French Caudron bi-plane reconstructed to incorporate a full-length fuselage, the work being carried out inside a Brisbane church hall. After learning all aspects of aircraft construction, Ernest was taught to fly the completed aircraft.
On the 28th December 1915, Thomas McLeod travelled to England with Ernest and six other newly-trained pilots with the intention of enlisting in the Royal Flying Corps. They were following in the footsteps of two other members of the QVFC who left for England three months earlier.
Upon his arrival in England on the 26th February 1916, Ernest Handley enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, stating 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 as a 1st Class Flyer on the 21st June 1916. Assigned to the Wireless Flight, Ernest was one of only a few pilots in the Royal Flying Corps who didn’t hold a commission and the first of several who would serve with 6 Squadron over the next two and a half years. A member of the ‘other ranks’, he was not permitted to enter the Officers’ Mess and was obliged to mess and bunk with his peers. This strictly-enforced directive made it difficult for Ernest to liaise with his fellow pilots on operational matters, nor plan missions with his observer, who almost certainly would have been an officer.
At about the same time that Ernest Handley joined 6 Squadron, Thomas MacLeod, who was already 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 in Europe. Macleod 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 of its type to be received by the squadron) on artillery observation missions that required the use of a wireless set for transmitting messages, as well as several bombing missions. 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 in the war.
On the 2nd August 1916, Ernest took part in a daring long-range combined 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 defending the aircraft. Despite several mishaps along the way, the mission was a success, with Ernest Handley dropping both of his bombs from 3,000 feet on to the Zeppelin 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 (one of the FE2b escort fighters was flown by the then Sergeant James McCudden) and landed safely at their respective aerodromes with almost empty fuel tanks. The planning and execution of where and when the escort fighters would intercept the returning bombing force was finely calculated, leaving little to chance, but the plan worked. Note: For anyone wishing to know more details of this mission, please send me a message via the Contact page of this website.
Though Ernest Handley remained with 6 Squadron for 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 made on the 9th August 1916 after the engine failed on his BE2d while he was out testing the wireless with Lt W S Wright accompanying him as observer. Neither man was injured in the accident.
In February 1917, Ernest was posted back to England as an instructor with the Wireless and Observation School at Brooklands Aerodrome in Surrey. According to an interview he had at that 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 the aircraft collapsed in mid-air and it crashed, killing both men instantly. As it was impracticable to send Ernest’s remains back to Australia, his body was transported two hundred miles north to the tiny village of North Coats, near Grimsby, and buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas. Ernest Handley’s grave is the only Royal Flying Corps grave in the cemetery at St Nicholas, though the headstone was carved in the same fashion as for any other Royal Flying Corps grave across the World (the photograph shown on this page was kindly provided by Brian Stafford, a resident of the North Coates region). North Coates was the birthplace of Ernest’s father, who died in 1906 of appendicitis at his home in Alton Downs, Queensland, but there were distant relatives of the Handley family still living in North Coates. The following month, Ernest Handley’s name 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 Ernest’s personal effects were returned to his mother in Australia. In a cruel twist of fate, Ernest was killed only six months after his step-father died of natural causes.
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 listed 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. All that remains today in Alton Downs to remind locals of the ultimate sacrifice that Ernest Handley made more than a century ago, is the simple inscription E HANDLEY on the front of a small marble WW1 memorial that stands in the middle of an isolated paddock next to the Alton Downs Community Hall in Queensland, Australia.