Friday 11 November 2016

Remembrance Day: Henry Petre, Aviation Pioneer and the 'Forgotton War' in Mesopotamia

Extracts about the 'Forgotten war' against the Turks in Mesopotamia, taken from "The Family that Flew" by Cambridge author Anne Petre, currently in the final stages of publication by Milton Contact Ltd.

Henry Petre (Formerly of East Anglia and founder of the AFC, later the Australian Air force) left Melbourne on April 14th, 1915 for the greatest adventure, so far, of an eventful life. From there he went to Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf.

The primary purpose of the ensuing campaign was to secure the security of the Anglo-Persian oil wells and the pipeline – all centred near Basra. Later it seems as if there was a secondary objective, to drive the Turks northwards to Baghdad and beyond. After the recent disaster of the Gallipoli landings, a decision was made to secure some success in Eastern Europe and restore confidence in the supremacy of the Western powers. There was a desire to impress the Arabs of the region and in the area between the Ottoman Empire and India. But the fight with the Turks in Mesopotamia was always seen as one of the ‘sideshows’ of World War One.

In Basra, Henry was joined by the rest of his unit and they were in battle five days later. The unit was small: 4 pilots and about 40 mechanics, some of whom were extremely skilful. They had two repair shops mounted on vehicles that were well equipped with lathes, drilling machines, welding plane benches and circular saws. The small force included a number of Indians.

In September 1915, General Townsend, the army commander, tricked the Turks by a brilliant manoeuvre and surrounded the town of Kut. On the junction of important waterways, Kut was of great strategic importance. The aircraft were particularly useful during this action with the pilots conveying intelligence between the different troop commanders. After the battle a new landing ground for aircraft was established at Kut. But the river here was very shallow and there were difficulties moving supplies as the boats were constantly stalling or being thrown into the bank by very strong winds and sometimes overturned. The local river boats were very picturesque but had not been designed as military carriers. There was an extraordinary mismatch between scenes redolent of biblical times and the conflict now taking place over the same desert and rivers with their interlocking waterways and infested marshes. The indigenous Arabs looked biblical.
In October, Henry Petre had several spells in a field hospital with bruises to his face and injury to his left foot. The cause of these injuries is not recorded.

After the capture of Kut, the air reconnaissance was ordered to go in three directions. Reilly in a Martinsyde observed the Turkish forces at Ctesiphon, which was only ten miles south of Baghdad. In what may now be seen as an ill-judged move, in December an advance was made by our forces on Ctesiphon. The force was inadequate; the Turkish kept on sending in reinforcements and the British troops had to retreat and fall back on Kut.

The troops were exhausted when they arrived back at Kut. The Turks surrounded the town and laid siege to it. The air force was based about 80 miles south west at Ali Gharbi. Henry was aided by the air mechanics, who worked unceasingly to keep him airborne in his reliable Martinsyde machine. He made many missions to drop sacks of grain and flour to the beleaguered soldiers. Amazingly, he also dropped some grinding stones for the grain. It was reckoned that in all he dropped 5 tons of flour and some medical supplies. Two Fokker planes with German pilots appeared from the enemy side and tried to interfere with these missions. It must have been a multi-tasked situation to single-handedly pilot the machine, watch out for attacks, and heave sacks of flour and grinding stones from the cockpit to the desperate troops below. He then had to return safely to Ali Gharbi.

Cutlack describes the kind of aeroplane best suited for reconnaissance and for use in the Kut relief missions. He calls it a ‘flying scout’ and says it was best if it was small, a single-seater with high speed and rapid manoeuvrability. (3) However, when such a machine was first fitted with a machine gun, operated by the pilot, there were problems with firing through the propeller. 

Cutlack goes on to describe the qualities needed in airmen as being: ‘Youth, sound sense and good nerve’. He felt that good horsemen had an ability to react very quickly and maintain a sense of control. It was found that men from cavalry units often made good pilots. He also felt that a safe pilot was not necessarily a good fighting airman:

‘He needed to be a bit of a devil but not reckless, with nice judgment of the moment’s risks while flying and fighting, sustained courage and determination without hot headedness, unruffled confidence gained from knowledge of one’s machine’s capacity and the enemy’s ability.’

Henry probably possessed most of these qualities but could never have been described as ‘a bit of a devil’. That sounds more like a description of Edward or Jack. Henry’s two aviator brothers were both excellent pilots but both crashed and died instantaneously from a broken neck. Was there something about Henry’s temperament – an element of caution – that contributed to his long life despite being a courageous airman?

The battle to capture and to hold onto Kut seems central to the Turkish campaign. The loss of machines and fliers meant that for a short time in November 1915 Henry was the only pilot left of the original unit. Henry had a very tough time in Mesopotamia and the citations he received were hard won. Twice he had to have sick leave for attacks of dysentery.

On April 29th, 1916, the British surrendered Kut with its garrison of 9,000 British and Indian troops. A total of 24,000 casualties had been sustained in the battle to hold Kut. A number of men from Henry’s small force had been holed up and became prisoners. Appalling suffering followed for the prisoners of war who were marched by the Turks 700 miles north to Anatolia. Several months later, a Royal Commission found the whole undertaking to capture and hold onto Kut had been a disaster due to lack of adequate forces and proper medical provision.

Henry Petre, Aviation pioneer and founder of the Australian Flying Corps was an outstandingly courageous fighter, as was proved by his being mentioned five times in dispatches, as well as being awarded the D.S.O. and M.C. for his role in the siege of Kut. His brother, Jack Petre was a flying ace fighting in France at the same time. Look out for Ann Petre's 'The Family that Flew' coming soon.

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