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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
did come. Beating of drums. Rumble of guns. Villages, towns, burning in
the aircraft to the French
sought to enlist in the Aviation Militaire of the Foreign Legion.
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,
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
at that. He was "soldat de deuxieme class," posted to Bleriot
Squadron No. 30.
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."
was transferred to No. 44 Squadron, destined to become famous in the
French Army of the Air.
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.
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.
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!
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."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
your best into it," shouted Watt, "head down and go for your
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.
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.
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.
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."
the Brevet-Capitaine was transferred to the Australian Flying Corps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
written words of an officer who lived and fought under him will tell you
more of Oswald Watt:
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."
too, is what his own Australian men thought of him. No wonder the Legion
also had loved him.
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.
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.