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Category: AFC Aces

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THE throb of a distant drum, the tramp of marching feet, the blaze of a desert sky and a wild, defiant song.

 A column of moving men burned brown as the pitiless sands, mercenary soldiers of many lands, trained to fight to the bitter end.  

A sudden shout, thundering hooves; a Touareg charge. A bugle call. "Aux armes! Aux armes!" and the column snaps into battle line.

 Yes, it's the French Foreign Legion, known to most of us only in story and picture. But how many people know that the Legion is open to airmen as well as to infantrymen?

During the Great War legionnaires fought valiantly in the air. And that brings us to the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Oswald Watt, O.B.E., Legion d'Honneur, Croix de Guerre  with 3 Palms, first a member of the Legion and afterwards Australian Squadron Commander.  

Oswald Watt spent his boyhood in Sydney and his youth in England. He grew into a fine strapping six-footer, and he carried himself with an air. When he became a Captain in the Scottish Regiment in Sydney he was a magnificent figure in his kilted uniform. This he wore more often than his fellow-officers because he was appointed A.D.C. to the Governor.

In the very early days ol flying he became intensely interested in the new science. He learned all he could in Australia, then went to England and joined the Bristol Flying School. That was in 1911.  

His father was a rich man. So when Watt had won his wings he was able to buy a Bleriot monoplane. What a crazy old thing it looks compared with modern aeroplanes! But in those days it was very good and very exclusive. The proud owner took his Bleriot to Egypt, where the weather was most suitable for flying. Then, after many a flight over the desert sands, he took the machine to France. Everywhere in that country were serious faces, whisperings, the rumblings of a coming war. And Watt was determined to be in it, if it came.

War did come. Beating of drums. Rumble of guns. Villages, towns, burning in the night. He donated the aircraft to the French Government. He sought to enlist in the Aviation Militaire of the Foreign Legion. 

This was most unusual. For here, standing before the grim recruiting officers, was no fugitive, no criminal, no man who wished to forget. It was not food and clothing that he sought in the Foreign Legion. And if it was adventure he yearned for, the world was before him; he could afford to go anywhere, to do most things. No, this Oswald Watt was no ordinary recruit for the Legion of the Damned. But the Legion took him, gladly.

He who was an Australian captain and had been aide-de-camp to the Governor of New South Wales was now but a number, and only a recruit at that. He was "soldat de deuxieme class," posted to Bleriot Squadron No. 30.

He loved his fellow-soldiers of the air. Grudgingly, then freely, they grew to love him; and in their own rough manner they showed their affection and respect. When the news leaked out that the big Australian was a captain in his native land they called him "Capitaine."

Watt was transferred to No. 44 Squadron, destined to become famous in the French Army of the Air. 

No. 44 Squadron had Maurice Farmans, clattering old crates we would call them today. 

Those early machines of the Great War were so low powered that it was dangerous for the pilot to attack land objectives in them for the planes could rarely rise high enough to be clear of rifle fire from the ground. 

So clumsy were they to handle and manoeuvre that when shooting at enemy machines the observer was delighted at his good luck if he scored a clean hit. And what do you think! They fought with rifles and revolvers in the air! And they used to drop sharp-pointed darts on the troops below, "flechettes" they were called.

How different to the war planes of today, with 400 m.p.h. speeds, with multiple machine-guns and cannon and revolving turrets, with armour plate and plane-to-plane radio, with ranges running into thousands of miles, and oxygen tanks and cooking facilities and parachutes! Especially parachutes.

When, in the Great War of 1914-18, a machine was shot down, its crew crashed with it. There was no means of escape. Only the balloon observers had "lifebelts of the air."

But what grand men were those pilots of No. 44 Squadron, fliers of the Legion. Bearded, moustached, clean shaven. Laughing men, quiet men, grim men. Men of various nationalities, but all with one thing in common; the desire to fight for La Belle France. And Oswald Watt soon distinguished himself.

This little story cannot tell you all his adventures while he was a soldier of the Legion. It can only touch on a very few episodes, and pass on to his other adventures, only to skim through these and pass on to other great men.

One morning the stalwart young Australian was above the German lines when five German machines dived at him from all angles. In a whirling dogfight he quickly shot down one attacker and put another out of action. With the roar of a machine diving upon him, with another roaring UP from below, he wheeled to fight‑when a crashing blow on his head turned his world to blackness. His machine slipped and, as he fought to regain control, spun earthwards. 

At the last second he did regain control, and his battered machine skimmed drunkenly back over the French lines. When they pulled him from the machine, blood was pouring down his head. But when they wanted to carry him he waved them back. On the arm of a French poilu he walked to a casualty station. The doctor attended the wound, ordered him to hospital. But the soldier of the Legion refused to go. His place, his duty, was with his squadron.

A week later he was in the air again. A Taube dived with a roar. Others came at him from all sides. The ambush had 'been set away, up in a cloud. Again he shot his way back to the French lines, with the soldiers in the trenches blazing up at the pursuing Germans. He landed safely; with the main spar shot through. A miracle! How the crippled machine had held together in the air puzzled even the experts.

"The Australian leads a charmed life," declared a staff  officer. "Nonsense!" frowned a stiff-moustached old colonel. "He is a man of the Legion ! And the devil looks after his own".

Perhaps his most exciting adventure was one day when  he did not even have the thrill of a fight. He was soaring high above the enemy lines, on reconnaissance duty with an observer. Keenly they observed the battle-scarred country below, seeking hidden machine-gun nests and camouflaged        artillery. For from some well-concealed position heavy batteries had roared into action, playing havoc with the French lines. The country-side was vibrant now with the sullen thundering of the guns. Sudden spouts of earth and debris were hurled up by bursting shells. But the special nest of artillery that the lone scouting plane was looking for was  now discreetly silent. Now the plane was rocking to the thunderclaps, the ear-splitting crashes of anti-aircraft shells.

Ever and anon, above the roar of the engine, came the screeching whistle of fragments of exploded shell. A splinter crashed through a strut, a hole appeared suddenly through  the tail of the machine. But still the two airmen gazed down at the enemy lines.

Suddenly, for the crew, came a great, a terrifying silence   the silence of a dud engine. Crash of high explosive and crack of shrapnel could fill the heavens, but for the airmen  whose engine had died there was only silence.

"Crash! Crack! Crash!" The ground gunners were getting dangerous. There was nothing for it - the machine had to be put into a glide. Desperately Watt fought to hold  every foot of height. Rapidly, far too rapidly, the battlefield was coming towards them. Would they clear the German lines? Could they? The pilot doubted it. There was no-man's-land pock-marked with shell-holes, staked with broken strands of barbed wire.

With each split second the detail of its desolation was clearer. Grimly, bravely, the pilot fought his losing battle with the forces of gravity. His hands and feet were busy as his keen eyes swept the approaching earth. And he saw a big haystack, surprisingly, still intact.

Now they were hurtling over the top of the German trenches, skimming the very parapets. Astonished faces stared whitely up at them. The airmen heard the startled shouts of officers. Then the plane hit and crashed, her nose in a shell-hole, her tail in the air. Watt scrambled out and sprang to his observer's side.

"Hurt, old man?" he shouted. "Don't think so! Winded a bit," gasped the struggling observer. Watt lent willing hands, hauling him out of the wreckage.

But the brief show was over. Now the enemy was in action again. A machine-gun stuttered, rifles barked. The Germans in the trenches were firing excitedly at this new and unusual target. On the other side and immediately opposite, the French dared not fire lest they hit the men running towards them.

"Put your best into it," shouted Watt, "head down and go for your life."

Instinctively he was racing towards the haystack. Machine-gun bullets now whistled around them; in moments these bullets would come in a hail. Watt glanced around; the observer was staggering, white-faced, gasping for breath. Watt turned back. The observer waved him away.

He went back and supporting the observer made for the haystack. They made it and after some scary times were able to get back to Allied Lines. For his courage he was promoted to Brevet Capitaine and awarded the Legion d'Honneur. Later this was to be followed by the Croix de Guerre.

But he was getting itchy feet. The only thing he wanted more than to be among the fighting men in the Legion, and that was to be in the newly formed Australian Flying Corps.

The Legion hated losing him; he was one of them. But, fighting together the good fight, Australia and France were one. "He is still one of us," said his commanding officer, "and it is but natural that the young eagle should fly with his own home brood. But we hate to lose him."

So the Brevet-Capitaine was transferred to the Australian Flying Corps.

With his great experience and proven valour Oswald Watt was soon made a Captain and a Flight Commander. Later he was given command of No 2 Squadron AFC.

They trained in England, and No. 2 Squadron took to Watt as the Legion had taken to him. No one could help liking the man. He was a magnificent character, a splendid officer. His squadron flew from its English base to Saint Omer in France in one day. No British squadron had yet done that. Such a short trip seems laughable when we remember the world-travelling machines of today. But in 1916~ 17 the speed and reliability of the planes were far, far less than they are now.

Under the leadership of Oswald Watt No. 2 Squadron soon made its mark. But as a C.O., Major Watt could no longer fly to battle. His job now was that of the planner; the lives of his squadron lay in his hands.

He could not rest when his patrols were out, not until his young flying men were safe home again. His men had a deep and a real affection for him; he was the personal guardian of his officers and men. Not only did he plan their battles but, day and night, he looked after their health and comfort. He insisted that his flying officers should go to bed early, and that they should not be called unless it was absolutely necessary to disturb them. When the squadron was in action there was no rest for Oswald Watt; none until hours after they had returned and been tucked safely away to bed. 

On one of many worrying days a young officer had failed to return on time. Watt could not rest. Fourteen hours later they brought him a wire; the lad had crashed, but was safe. Watt threw his cap in the air in sheer joy and relief. Then and then only he went to rest. 

He was now a rich man, but he lived as simply as his youngest officer. He could have had every military comfort and more. But what was good enough for his young eagles was good enough for him. His was a splendid code.

These written words of an officer who lived and fought under him will tell you more of Oswald Watt:

"He possessed every quality to make him a great leader of men. Courage, determination, an immense capacity for work, a stern and just sense of discipline, unfailing courtesy and thoughtfulness for all his subordinates and, above all, that greatest factor in leadership, a genius for endearing him~ self, without conscious effort, to all who enjoyed the privilege of serving under him. Only too many of us found in him a friend such as we had never found before, and such as we shall never find again."

That, too, is what his own Australian men thought of him. No wonder the Legion also had loved him.

In 1918 he was promoted to be Lieutenant-Colonel and was sent to England to command the Australian Training Wing. It was now very near the Armistice but no one knew that then. Watt immediately set himself the task of training these Australian fledglings to the stern job ahead.

What a joy-loving, heedless, skylarking crowd they were. Firmly but kindly Watt supervised the training that was to turn these lads into cool, quick-thinking men who would prove a winged scourge to the enemy.

The Australian Training Wing was situated in the heart of a fox-hunting county where fox hunting for centuries has been not only a sport, but a solemn rite. One day a great hunt was in full swing over the placid English country-side. Stirring notes of the horn. Mustering of the hounds. The red coats. The lords and ladies and gentry on their beautiful horses. "Tally-ho! " And the fox was away.

Three young Australian pilots joined in the hunt from the air. They thought it glorious fun. They zoomed down with a roar, cheering on the fox. What sacrilege! And what complete confusion! Horses bolted in all directions, hurdling hedges, leaping ditches, galloping madly. Terrified, the hounds scattered. In whooping delight those madcap Australians carried on with the hunt in which only themselves and the fox were left. That fox had the race of his life with three roaring aeroplanes swooping at his tail, over hedges and roads, zooming down over the fields with wheels almost touching the earth. You can imagine how that fox sprinted! But he got away. And the young Australians wished him luck. They thought it was great fun when, in the mess, they told the story of the hunt. 

Oh, but what a row! The hunting people were frightfully angry. Such a thing had never, never happened before. One of the heads was a duke and what he didn't say on paper against those Australian pilots was just too bad! He dispatched a fearsome letter post haste to the Air Ministry. And the Air Ministry, in turn, wrote a terrible letter to the O.C. of the Australian Training Wing. That letter demanded the names of the culprits, and hinted at dire punishments.

Colonel Watt smiled. Then his face grew grim. What had been sheer fun was now a serious matter. The lads really had been at fault, but after all, they had not understood.

The colonel shielded his men, refused to give their names. Instead, he went to the duke. At first His Grace was unbending. But Colonel Watt was very patient, very understanding. He knew that the duke and his friends had a very just cause of complaint, but he wanted them also to realize the Australian side of the question. And as quietly he admitted the justice of the complaint, so the duke began to listen - and presently was completely won over by the charm of the Australian officer. 

They ended up by shaking hands and enjoying a good laugh over it. So the duke withdrew his letter of complaint, the Air Ministry lost its ferocity, and the young offenders, like the fox, escaped with a whole skin. But first they were ordered before their colonel. What he said must have been very effective. For never again did any one from the Wing join in a fox hunt. . . in an aeroplane.

After the war, Colonel Oswald Watt, one-time plain soldier of the Legion, returned to Australia. But his heart was still in the air and with the men he had commanded. A wealthy man, he helped his war birds to employment, helped them in many ways. As President of the New South Wales Aero Club, and in other activities he did great work for civil aviation.

Big business interests soon chained him to the city. But he still loved the bush. He seldom could get far away, but he had a lovely week‑end camp at Bilgola, on the coast north of Manly. Here it was his delight to relax with axe and spade in garden and bush. He loved too, the surf on the pretty little beach. 

  • One morning, he went for a swim. He never came back. 
    • But he left behind an imperishable memory.

Text from Daredevils of the Skies, Norman Ellison, 1940 Angus & Robertson Sydney

Colonel Watt. Drowned near Newport – Splendid war record. (newspaper clipping)

“Colonel Walter Oswald Watt, late of the Australian Flying Corps, and a director of the firm of Messrs. Gilchrist, Watt, and Sanderson, Ltd., was found drowned at Bilgola Beach, about a mile north of Newport, on Saturday morning.

Colonel Watt was staying at his week-end residence there, and went down to the beach alone, evidently for the purpose of collecting wood. He had taken off his bath robe, which he was wearing over his bathing costume, and this, together with his towel, was found on the beach. A number of sticks were piled in a heap close by. These were close to a point where a number of slippery rocks run down to the water’s edge, and not at the place where Colonel Watt usually entered the water when swimming. When the body was examined on Saturday afternoon a bruise was found at the back of the head and a cut in the middle of the forehead. There were also some scratches on one cheek, and these signs suggested that Colonel Watt slipped on the rocks referred to, and fell, striking his head. It is believed that the fall stunned him, and that he was drowned in comparatively shallow water, into which he rolled after the fall.

Mr. Sydney Jones, a caretaker at Colonel Watt’s residence, was the first to notice the body floating in the water. He hurried to Newport to obtain assistance. From there some fishermen proceeded in a boat, and recovered the body. Constable Grant, of Mona Vale, and Mr. Bulfin made strenuous efforts to restore animation, but it was realised from the beginning that there was no hope of success, and after half an hour’s work they had to admit failure. Dr. Richards, of Narrabeen, pronounced life extinct.

…It was in aviation that Colonel Watt achieved his greatest distinction. He was, in fact, one of the first in Australia to take it up seriously.

…Colonel Watt was at this time anxious to become thoroughly proficient in the art of flying, which was still practically in its infancy.

…France declared war on August 2 – two days before Great Britain – and on the same day Colonel Watt offered his services to the French Government, expressing his willingness to serve in any capacity. At the same time he handed over his monoplane to the French Government as a free gift.

His services were readily accepted by the French Government. This was regarded as a great compliment and an excellent testimony to the value of his services as an aviator, as at that time there were only seven foreigners who were allowed to serve with the French army. He was one of the most popular pilots in the French army, and, for the first 18 months of the war, he flew regularly every second day, and met with the greatest possible success.

…Colonel Watt was awarded the Croix de Guerre, to which were subsequently added three of the highly-coveted palm leaves. These were personally presented to Colonel Watt by General Joffre.”

Daily Telegraph, 23 May 1921.


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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces