6 Squadron - Redeployment to Mesopotamia 1919
The discovery of a photo album once belonging to an observer who joined 6 Squadron in 1919 has proved to be far more significant than at first glance. By delving deeper, I was able to determine the full extent of the difficulties faced by 6 Squadron at that time, when men who had just come out of a world war were called upon to redeploy to the harsh environment of Mesopotamia.
After the Armistice, 6 Squadron remained in France, continuing to support the cavalry and engaged in aerial policing and photographic duties. At the beginning of 1919, the squadron was based at Gerpinnes in Belgium, having moved thirteen times in the previous twelve months. With the majority of other ranks signing up for the ‘duration of the war’ and many officers having either returned to their army units or left the employ of the RAF, many feared that the squadron would be reduced to a cadre and eventually disbanded, the fate of most RAF squadrons after WW1. Many of the squadron’s older aircraft were in a poor state of repair, with seven RE8s having to be struck off charge due to water damage from prolonged periods in the open air. In an attempt to keep the squadron up to strength, air crew were brought in from other squadrons, 15 Squadron in particular, and the decision was made to include the Bristol FB2 Fighter in the RE8 line-up as and when replacement aircraft were needed.
It was during this period of uncertainty that Lt Ernest Kent transferred to 6 Squadron as an observer, little knowing that in two months he would be stationed in the Middle East. A keen photographer, Ernest brought with him photographs taken during his wartime days at 15 Squadron, a practice he would continue at 6 Squadron.
In April 1919, Major George Pirie (later Air Chief Marshall Sir George Pirie, KCB, KBE, DFC, MC), 6 Squadron’s commanding officer since July 1918, received orders to pack up the squadron immediately and move 600 miles south to Marseilles. From there the squadron would be transported by ship to Mesopotamia where it would join forces with 30 Squadron in a peace-keeping role. With no Bristol Fighters (at that time) in the region, 6 Squadron was brought up to strength with RE8s and its Bristol Fighters sent to other squadrons.
Five days after receiving the order, the squadron travelled by train to Marseilles and over the next two weeks men and equipment were loaded on to three ships, the SS Malwa which left on the 14th May with the majority of officers and other ranks, the SS Syria the following day with most of the remaining officers and men and three weeks later the SS Clan Stuart, loaded with eighteen RE8s as well as the squadron’s lorries and equipment, under the supervision of just one officer and two other ranks. In total, 45 officers and 138 other ranks left for Mesopotamia, the majority of men new to the squadron. Lt Ernest Kent was one of the officers who embarked on the SS Malwa and he took many photos of the journey, a few of which are included with this article.
The seven day voyage to Port Said was fast and uneventful, but instead of remaining on board to pass through the Suez Canal and Red Sea on the final leg of the journey, they were ordered to disembark and wait three weeks in the Suez rest camp. Eventually they were allowed to re-embark, this time on the SS Hong Moh, a ship that had one third the displacement of the SS Malwa and was thirty years older. The journey was cramped and difficult, especially as they encountered bad weather on the Red Sea, and it wasn’t until the 18th July that the ship finally docked at Basra. Note: Two years later, the SS Hong Moh was wrecked during bad weather, with the loss of 1000 lives.
The tribulations were not over for 6 Squadron, for within four days of landing more than one hundred men fell sick with sand fly fever. Though most fully recovered within a couple of weeks, one of the flight commanders, Captain H J Hunter, an ex 15 Squadron associate of Ernest Kent, was struck down twice with sand fly fever and then malaria, all in a space of three months. Never fully recovering, he was eventually struck off the strength of 6 Squadron in January 1920 and returned to the UK for ‘Home Establishment’ duties.
Despite all of these setbacks, including the fact that many of the RE8s had been damaged in transit and that every rigger was suffering the effects of sand fly fever, the first RE8 took to the air on the 23rd July, just five days after being unpacked at Basrah. Two days later, a total of six RE8s had been made airworthy and flown successfully without incident. Six squadron was again operational. “And the rest,” they say, “is history.”
P.S. My thanks to Mark Kent, grandson of Lt Ernest Kent, for allowing me access to his grandfather’s personal photograph album, a few of which are reproduced below that were taken of 6 Squadron's move to Mesopotamia in May 1919.