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Robert Alexander Little
19 July 1895 – 27 May 1918 (aged 22)
Robert A Little A05200.JPG
Studio portrait of Robert A. Little
Nickname "Rikki"
Place of birth Hawthorn, Victoria
Place of death Nœux, France
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Naval Air Service
Royal Air Force
Years of service 1916–1918
Rank Flight Commander
Unit No. 8 Squadron RNAS (1916–17)
No. 203 Squadron RAF (1918)
Battles/wars World War I
Awards Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Distinguished Service Cross & Bar
Mentioned in Despatches
Croix de Guerre (France)

Robert Alexander Little DSO & Bar, DSC & Bar (19 July 1895 – 27 May 1918) is officially regarded as the most successful Australian flying ace of World War I, with a total of forty-seven aerial victories. Born in Victoria, he travelled to England in 1915 and learnt to fly at his own expense before joining the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Posted to the Western Front in June 1916, he flew Sopwith Pups, Triplanes and Camels with No. 8 Squadron RNAS, achieving thirty-eight "kills" within a year and earning the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, and the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar. Rested in July 1917, he volunteered to return to the front in March 1918 and scored a further nine victories with No. 3 Squadron RNAS (later No. 203 Squadron RAF) before he was killed in action on 27 May, aged twenty-two.

Contents

Early life

Little was born on 19 July 1895 at Hawthorn, a suburb of Melbourne, to Canadian James Little, a seller of medical and surgical books, and his Victorian wife Susan. His family heritage was Scottish, and he was educated at Scotch College in Melbourne, where he was a swimming medallist, before entering his father's business as a travelling salesman.[1][2] He was living with his family at Windsor when World War I broke out in August 1914.[1]

World War I

Long interested in aviation, Little decided to apply for pilot training at the Australian Army's Central Flying School in Point Cook, but with only four vacancies, he was rejected along with hundreds of others. He then decided to sail for England in July 1915 and become a qualified pilot at his own expense. Gaining his flying certificate with the Royal Aero Club at Hendon in October, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as a probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant on 14 January 1916. He suffered badly from air sickness early on, most likely brought on by fumes from castor oil that was employed as an engine lubricant in the aircraft he flew in England.[1][3]

Little arrived in France in June 1916 for service with No. 1 (Naval) Wing at Dunkirk, where he initially flew Sopwith 1½ Strutters in bombing raids. He married Vera Gertrude Field at the Congregational Church, Dover, on 16 September.[3][4] The next month he was posted to No. 8 Squadron RNAS ("Naval Eight") flying Sopwith Pups on the Western Front, under fellow Australian Stanley Goble. Little scored his first aerial victory on 23 November, and by the following February had four "kills" to his credit and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for "conspicuous bravery in successfully attacking and bringing down hostile machines".[4][5] In one action on 4 December, Little and Goble "fought like mad" against a large formation of German fighters, each claiming a Halberstadt; Little did not return to base with Goble and was thought lost, but had only landed near Allied lines to clear his jammed gun before taking off again to continue the fight.[6]

When No. 8 Squadron converted to the Sopwith Triplane in April 1917, Little began scoring heavily, bringing his score up to eighteen by the middle of May, including twin victories in a day on three occasions. His unit began flying Sopwith Camels later in May, and after six kills with the type through to the end of June, he registered fourteen in July. When he rotated back to England for rest that summer, he was ranked Flight Lieutenant and credited with a total of thirty-eight victories, including fifteen destroyed or captured.[4] A bar to his DSC was gazetted on 29 June, for "exceptional daring and skill in aerial fighting on many occasions",[7] and he received the French Croix de Guerre on 11 July, becoming—along with fellow Australian RNAS ace Roderic (Stan) Dallas—one of the first three British Empire pilots to be so decorated.[1] In August, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order "for exceptional skill and daring",[8] followed by a bar to the decoration in September for "remarkable courage and boldness in attacking enemy machines".[9] On 11 December, he was Mentioned in Despatches.[1]

Sopwith Triplane of the RNAS, c. 1917–18

Despite Little's prowess in combat, as an aviator he was ordinary at best, enduring a number of crash-landings. What gave him his edge as a fighter pilot was his keen eye, excellent marksmanship, and willingness to single-handedly take on entire enemy formations and close in on his prey—down to twenty-five yards on occasion—before opening fire.[3][5] Fellow No. 8 Squadron member Reggie Soar recalled, "Although not a polished pilot, he was one of the most aggressive ... an outstanding shot with both revolver and rifle, and also a collector of wild flowers",[10] while ace Robert Comptson described Little as "not so much a leader as a brilliant lone hand ... Small in stature, with face set grimly, he seemed the epitome of deadliness".[10] His squadron nicknamed him "Rikki", after the mongoose "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", which outstrikes cobras in the story of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.[1]

Following a period of rest in England, Little volunteered to return to action and joined Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Collishaw's No. 3 Squadron RNAS as a Flight Commander in March 1918. The unit evolved into No. 203 Squadron of the new Royal Air Force on 1 April. Again flying Sopwith Camels, Little gained a further nine successes, including two kills in one day on 22 May. On 27 May, after receiving reports of German Gotha bombers in the vicinity, he took off on a moonlit evening to intercept the raiders. As he closed with one of the bombers, his plane was caught in a searchlight beam and he was struck by a bullet that passed through both his thighs. He crash-landed in a field near Nœux, and bled to death before he was discovered the following morning by a passing gendarme. His skull and ankle had also been fractured in the impact; it was never established whether the single bullet that hit him had come from a gunner in the Gotha or from the ground.[1][4]

Legacy

Little's grave in Wavans Cemetery, France

Little was buried in the village cemetery at Nœux, before being moved to Wavans British Cemetery in the Pas de Calais.[3][11] Aged 22, he left a widow and a son; in accordance with her husband's wishes, Vera travelled back to Australia to raise the boy.[1][4] Of Little's forty-seven confirmed victories,[1][12] twenty were credited as "destroyed", two as "captured" and twenty-five as "out of control."[4] As well as the eighth most successful British Commonwealth ace of World War I, this score makes him the most prolific Australian ace of all time, ahead of Stan Dallas with an official score of thirty-nine,[13][14] although modern research also credits Dallas with a tally numbering in the fifties.[15]

The propeller blade from Little's Sopwith Triplane was transported back to Australia in three pieces by his widow; it later went on display at the Australian War Memorial, along with his awards and the wooden cross of his original burial place at Nœux.[16] The Sopwith Pup he flew with No. 8 Squadron RNAS, N5182, was rebuilt for display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.[3] One of the buildings of the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra, opened in 1986, was named in Little's honour.[1]

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Garrison, Australian Fighter Aces, pp. 43–48
  2. ^ Franks, Sopwith Triplane Aces of World War 1, p. 23
  3. ^ a b c d e Little, Robert Alexander (1895 – 1918) at Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved on 28 December 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Newton, Australian Air Aces, pp. 45–47
  5. ^ a b London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29947, p. 1649, 16 February 1917
  6. ^ Franks, Sopwith Pup Aces of World War 1, p. 10
  7. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30147, pp. 6256–6257, 22 June 1917
  8. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30227, p. 8206, 11 August 1917
  9. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30285, p. 9537, 14 September 1917
  10. ^ a b Franks, Sopwith Triplane Aces of World War 1, pp. 47–48
  11. ^ Little, Robert Alexander at Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved on 28 December 2009.
  12. ^ Shores, British and Empire Aces of World War 1, pp. 77–78
  13. ^ Garrison, Australian Fighter Aces, pp. 26–28
  14. ^ Wilson, The Brotherhood of Airmen, p. 31
  15. ^ Newton, Australian Air Aces, pp. 32–34
  16. ^ Captain Little’s propeller at Australian War Memorial. Retrieved on 28 December 2009.

References

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