The Flying Kangaroos: Australian Pilot Training in the Cotswolds

In the cemetery of the small Cotswold village of Leighterton, there lies a large plot of Commonwealth War Graves, one of the few lasting signs of the village's war history. These 24 Australian graves represent Leighterton's enduring connection to its wartime residents: the pilots and engineers of the Australian Flying Corps' 7th and 8th Training Squadrons.

The squadrons arrived in Gloucestershire in early 1918, supplementing those at nearby Minchinhampton. These were cadets, sent here to learn how to fly before going on to serve on to the Western Front.  An aerodrome was constructed for them at Bowldown Farm on the edge of Leighterton, with at least 14 hangars for the aircraft in addition to a whole host of other supporting buildings, including accommodation huts.
Aerial photo of Leighterton aerodrome (source)
7th Squadron's first training flight took off on 21st March, the first of hundreds that would take off in the forthcoming year. The young cadets would arrive in Leighterton after a 6 week military aeronautics foundation course in either Reading or Oxford, and would then be expected to undertake three hours of dual training and 20 hours of solo flight, before being considered ready for active service. Turnover would therefore have been relatively quick, with many young Australians passing through Leighterton on their way to war.

Despite the relatively short time pilots spent at the aerodrome, every effort was made to provide entertainment and comfort for them, as well as to support the engineers and other permanent staff. The aerodrome became in effect a self-contained village. Foremost in the 7th battalion's war diary was the construction of a cricket pitch for use between training. Other sports provisions included the arrangement of football matches, and running meets with local clubs including at Dursley and Tetbury.

There was also a YMCA hut, providing the usual refreshments and recreation space. It also oversaw the organisation of boxing with 'exhibition spars' being held there, supporting the competitive sporting desires of the young men. On Sundays the hut was used by the chaplain, Rev. Keith Norman for the hosting of Protestant parade services, suggesting both that there were no other church premises on the aerodrome, and that the YMCA must have been of a large enough size to fit all the men.
The 'Flying Kangaroos'' Programme for 6th November 1918 (source)
Providing their fellow Australians with entertainment were the 'Flying Kangaroos', a group consisting of fellow airmen who organised music hall-style shows. The above programme from November 1918 gives a good idea of their content, as well as the names of those involved. Those with the rank 'AM' were air mechanics, permanent staff to the airfield. Their concerts would almost certainly have been held in the YMCA.

Today, just one of the brick huts remains on the site. It consists of one large central space, with smaller rooms at either end. Aerial photos from the war show the majority of the buildings being of similar construction, so it is difficult to know what this hut was used for,  especially as no maps appear to have survived. The main airfield has long since been returned to agriculture, so the only traces are seen in one overgrown corner, where a few other parts of walls survive, along with several concrete floors, now partially covered over.

Even though it has little resemblance to its operational state, it's nonetheless a really interesting place to visit. There's just something about being able to stand on the spot where they lived, and look out over the open fields above which they learnt to fly. I'm sure it would make for a really interesting archaeological project, much like the Time Team dig at Belton Camp.

Down the lane into the main village, comparatively little appears to have changed in the last century. Standing in the small streets between the old houses, one can only imagine the excitement with which the villagers would have watched the loop-the-loops and other brave manoeuvres learnt by the pilots. Flight was still very much in its infancy in 1918 and it is unlikely the locals would have seen anything like it before the war. Yet, the youth of the technology also made it very dangerous, and even basic training could often result in crashes, especially for the inexperienced pilots.
An RE8 plane crashed into a Cotswold dry stone wall (source)
The Australian War Memorial website has numerous photos of these crashes, many with the small planes nose-diving into the ground, and others, more seriously, crumpled into heaps. Injuries were relatively common, with pilots often having to be evacuated to the cottage hospital in Tetbury or to Southmead, Bristol. But for 24 men, their crashes were fatal. This works out as approximately two deaths per month of the airfield's operation.

In St Andrew's, the small village church, there is a roll of honour remembering these men, giving a number of biographical details for each of them. One name that stands out is that of Thomas Llewellyn Keen, who was British-born, growing up in Kent and Sussex. At some point after the 1901 census he emigrated to Australia and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at New South Wales in October 1914. He served in the 7th Light Horse Regiment, rising from the rank of Trooper to Sergeant while in Gallipoli. In October 1915 he was evacuated off the peninsula with a fever, recuperating in Cairo.

After spending 1916 defending the Suez Canal, the Australian Mounted Division took part in the Palestine campaign of 1917, resulting in the capture of Jerusalem shortly before Christmas. Following this action, Keen was awarded the Military Cross for 'maintaining communications' by having 'had to expose himself to exceptionally heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire and it was owing to his resource in taking and sending messages that the regiment was kept together'. They left Egypt in May 1918 and Keen, having already served an impressive army career, returned to England to begin his AFC training, first at Oxford and then Minchinhampton. He was killed on 12th March 1919 when flying through low mist. He crash-landed in nearby Miserden Park, aged 28, and is among those buried in Leighterton Cemetery.

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Another trainee pilot killed was Lieut Geoffrey Dunster Allen of New South Wales. Having worked as an accountant, he enlisted in the AFC in June 1917, aged 21 and sailed from Melbourne that August. A year later he was killed on 7th September 1918, during what should have been one of his final acrobatics training sessions. Unfortunately, he lost control of his Sopwith Camel and crashed into a hay shed. Although he is buried in the CWGC plot at Leighterton, his family have had a private headstone built for him. It's made of Portland stone like the standard ones, but is a much squarer block, with a model propeller mounted to the front. Although there is no cross, his epitaph is a biblical quote from the Beatitudes: 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God'.
Memorial service, 19th November 1918 (source)
Although training continued until the Spring of 1919, a memorial service was held shortly after the Armistice to remember those who had died in flight training. The AFC men were paraded to the cemetery, where local residents gathered, for a service led by Padre Norman. Photos of the service show a large crowd present and those who had died to be buried under simple wooden crosses - the permanent headstones would have been placed in the following years. The view around the cemetery remains largely unchanged today, although the war graves are now surrounded with civilian burials.

The village's connection with the Australian Flying Corps also remains to this day. Every year ANZAC Day is commemorated in the village, with a parade passing through from the school to the cemetery, usually in the presence of the Australian Air Attache from the London Embassy. Three more recent memorials also remember the AFC training base. A small plaque was placed on the cemetery wall in May 2009, on the 90th anniversary of their departure. It was sponsored by P&O Cruises, upon whose ship they sailed home to Sydney. Another, a large Portland stone memorial, was unveiled in the cemetery on 14th April 1994 by the Prince of Wales, who has a personal connection to the village.

Most recently, however, is a memorial built beside the A46 from the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust to the memory of the airfield itself. It was unveiled just two months ago on 2nd June, 2019.




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