“Oswald Watt: a legend of the Australian Flying Corps” - By Dr Chris Clark

It is now almost a year since my book The High Life of Oswald Watt was published. In fact, the book was officially launched last September by His Excellency Mr Christophe Lecourtier, the French Ambassador to Australia, at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in Canberra—the appropriateness of which will be explained very shortly.

I thought tonight would be a fitting occasion to state why I felt it important that Oswald Watt’s story be told, and what drew my attention to him in the first place. Knowing this background might help explain the approach that I took with my book, which is only the most recent of half a dozen biographies of World War I figures that I have written. When I began the project, I originally had a readership in mind that was wider than the military audience I have usually addressed, so I did not even plan it as a conventional military biography.

Perhaps I should begin by briefly identifying exactly what are the elements of the Oswald Watt legend that I am talking about.

Walter Oswald Watt (better known as just Oswald, or by his nickname of “Toby”) came to greatest national prominence as an aviator during World War I. He did have a public profile before 1914 but this was not primarily in the military field, even though he was constantly referred to from 1901 as ‘Captain Watt’.

Initially, and uniquely for an Australian, he rose to fame as a member of the French Foreign Legion serving in the aviation service of the French Army during the first 20 months of the war. He did achieve some distinction in front-line flying, being awarded both the Legion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre, but despite later claims (by others, not him) was never involved in aerial combat. Not only was he never an ace (for shooting down five opponents) but he never claimed a single aerial victory.

At the beginning of 1916 he managed a transfer to the AIF at the time that the Australian infantry divisions were beginning to make their appearance in France, and was appointed as a Captain and flight commander in No 1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps soon after that unit arrived in Egypt in April 1916.

 

March 1916 at Toul, France. Oswald Watt (right) in front of his MF.11bis decorated with Australian motifs

 

After only about four months with 1 Squadron he was appointed to command a second squadron that had been decided to raise locally from surplus ground staff. This new unit became No 2 Squadron, with Watt in command as Major, and was despatched to Britain in January 1917 to complete its equipment and training (along with two other new AFC squadrons, Nos 3 and 4).

During this month of August a hundred years ago, he had just arrived back in England with other pilots of 2 Squadron, after several weeks of familiarising themselves with combat flying conditions over France. The unit was about to become the first Australian fighter unit to make its appearance on the Western Front (although it was actually the second AFC combat squadron sent to France in September 1917 – the third squadron, also a fighter unit, joined them in December).

Watt’s unit arrived in time to take part in the great offensive at Cambrai (20 Nov-4 Dec), which has come to be regarded as a landmark battle of the war because it was the first time that tanks, artillery and aircraft had all been closely orchestrated to support infantry in breaching strongly-entrenched enemy lines. Cambrai is now widely considered as the true forerunner of the tactics said to have inspired the German “blitzkrieg” doctrine of World War II (not Australia’s general John Monash’s battle at Hamel seven months later, as often claimed).

Cambrai is not generally viewed as an “Australian” battle today, largely because it involved just one air squadron rather than any of the AIF’s infantry divisions, but it was highly memorable in the story of the AFC. The two weeks of this one battle saw six pilots of 2 Squadron awarded the Military Cross, while four ground staff received the Military Medal for bravery in salvaging downed aircraft under fire. Inevitably the battle also established Oswald Watt’s name as a significant unit commander in World War I.

 

December 1917 at Baizieux, France. Watt (centre with baton) with surviving pilots of No 2 Sqn after Cambrai.

 

Oswald Watt’s reputation as a leading figure of the AFC was cemented in the wake of Cambrai, when he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in February 1918 and posted to command the new 1st Australian Training Wing in England. This meant that he was not only the AFC’s first wing commander, but also the Corps’ senior officer.

Once the Wing was fully functional by early April 1918, Watt had about 1000 personnel under his command (which was then the largest concentration of Australian airmen anywhere in world, even back in Australia). This set the scene for a number of anecdotal stories about Oswald’s supposed Australianist attitude towards the AFC’s relationship with the Royal Flying Corps and later the Royal Air Force. It also provided the basis for him being described later as “Father of the Flying Corps”.

Oswald Watt’s fame grew and his national standing was enhanced once the bulk of the AFC returned home from England in June 1919. His reputation as Australia’s senior air veteran saw him take a leading role in all the main end-of-war celebrations and commemorations in Sydney, and sometimes elsewhere. He also became a leading figure in the various veterans’ organisations that sprang up in the post-demobilisation period.

He especially retained his stature among AFC veterans. One story goes that he responded so freely to frequent requests for personal assistance by men experiencing hardship in the difficult post-war economic conditions that he was jokingly known as the “Minister for Repatriation”.

Oswald was also asked to provide commentary of drafts of the volume in the WWI official history series dealing with the AFC, written by journalist and lawyer, Fred Cutlack. Clearly, Watt was someone that Cutlack felt he needed to consult, and perhaps defer to, in getting right important aspects of the AFC’s experience in the war.

While Oswald Watt sank himself back into the business interests he had pursued before the war, he also found an important public role as president of the Australian Aero Club, a new organisation formed to help shape and drive efforts to develop civil aviation in post-war Australia. In this capacity he was regularly called upon to take a leading part in marking aviation milestones and highlights (for example, when welcoming aircrews involved in the pioneering England-to-Australia flights, some of them ex-AFC men who had served under him).

He eagerly took up the challenge to promote and foster public and government interest in the new aviation industry, particularly in lobbying federal and state governments to create public confidence in air travel and transport through regulating to ensure safety and airworthiness standards, and the proper licensing of pilots.

Oswald Watt’s interest in the field led to him being offered the post as Controller of Civil Aviation, which was a Public Service position established to head an administrative branch within the Defence Department in December 1920. He declined, citing business commitments, but this still led to him being later hailed as the “Father of Australian Aviation”.

Oswald’s pre-eminence is also said to have led to him being considered for a leading role in the formation of the Royal Australian Air Force when this was brought into being in March 1921. This was despite the fact that he was not the sole Australian airman holding Lieutenant-Colonel’s rank at the war’s end. However, he was the most senior of the four possible contenders, and among those four he was one of only two who had commanded anything larger than a squadron.

His rival in this last regard was Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Williams, who stayed on in the Military Forces (whereas Watt took his discharge from the AIF in August 1918) and eventually became known as “Father of the RAAF”. As I made clear in my book, I could not find evidence that Oswald Watt was ever considered to head up the Air Force, but the fact that such a claim was later made has also subsequently served to burnish the Oswald Watt legend a little more brightly.

Oswald Watt’s fame and the basis of the legend was well and truly established by the time that he drowned at Bilgola, on Sydney’s northern beaches, in May 1921. This was an event initially reported in mysterious terms (sometimes seemingly with hints of possible suicide) but eventually it was officially ruled as a tragic accident.

Apart from a spectacular send-off in Sydney, his passing acquired a few more legendary elements when it was discovered that his will contained several bequests intended to promote lasting interest in aviation matters in several important ways.

One bequest allowed the Commandant of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, to award a prize to the cadet winning an annual essay competition bearing his name. This prize has been retained to this day, though not still for an essay competition.

Another bequest provided for the creation of a gold medal to be awarded annually by the Australian Aero Club in recognition of Australian aviation achievement. Again, this is an award continued to the present day, though now administered by the Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia and not always presented annually. The most recent award was in 2015, to Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston for leading investigations into the loss of two Malaysian Airlines passenger aircraft during 2014.

The residue of Oswald Watt’s considerable estate (valued after tax at about $20 million in today’s values) went to the University of Sydney, but only after a lengthy legal tussle with New South Wales tax authorities which ended up in the High Court and was not finally resolved until five years after his death. For several decades afterwards, the “Oswald Watt Fund” formed a significant part of Sydney University’s finances.

Oswald Watt’s stature in Australian history was finally cemented by a booklet published as a tribute to his name by his brother, Ernest Watt, and a large group of friends and admirers within a year of his death. Although this account is more adulatory than analytical, and often glosses over or ignores significant episodes in Oswald’s story, this book remained the principal source of information about him for 70-odd years, and was only supplemented by a semi-autobiographical volume about his brother Ernest published by Susie Rankine in 1998.

This is essentially the Oswald Watt legend as I first came across it nearly 30 years ago, in the late 1980s, while researching a book to commemorate the first decades of the RAAF between the world wars. I still remember being shown the Oswald Watt tribute book for the first time during an early research trip to the RAAF Museum at Point Cook.

By that stage I already knew something about Oswald’s significance apart from the reputation he made for himself during World War I, as a result of other writing projects that I had worked on. For instance, I knew that it was Oswald Watt who, in 1912, came up with a recommendation to establish Australia’s first military flying school at Canberra (on the site of the current airport), to operate in conjunction with the Royal Military College nearby. I even knew a bit about the process by which that recommendation had been overturned, leading to the school being eventually established at Point Cook instead.

I also knew at first-hand something of Oswald Watt’s other lingering legacies. As a final-year cadet at RMC Duntroon in 1972, I (along with my classmates) had been required to write an essay on an aviation topic to enter for the Oswald Watt Prize. Like everyone else at that time, I had no idea who Oswald Watt was, or why it was that future Army officers were being asked to write on such “non-core business” as aviation—with logic that was probably typical for that time, I am pretty sure I questioned ‘Don’t we have an Air Force for this?’. Needless to say, I didn’t win the prize that year!

Strange to relate, it was only because Oswald Watt’s name kept bobbing into view in a range of contexts during the nine years I was RAAF Historian (2004-13) that my interest in him continued to be fuelled. Several times the thought was prompted that he might be worth looking into more closely whenever I had time (which turned out to be after I retired from the Defence Department).

What particularly kept grabbing my attention was the number of misconceptions and outright errors of fact that were continually being attached to Oswald Watt’s name, despite an increasing amount of published material becoming available about him (even without anyone being tempted to undertake a full or proper biography).

There were repeated references to Oswald Watt being an ‘British Army officer’ before World War I, obviously based of the undeniable fact that his birthplace was Bournemouth in England, and his frequent appearance in pre-war decade wearing the army rank of Captain. These were assumptions made by people who had no idea of the Watt family’s long and deep connection with New South Wales (which had seen Oswald’s father himself rise to eminence in Sydney as a wealthy merchant and long-time member of the colonial parliament), the particular circumstances about why Oswald Watt happened to have been born in Britain, or fact that his only military service pre-war had been in a volunteer unit of the militia in New South Wales (and largely in an honorary capacity as aide-de-camp to a couple of State Governors.

On the other hand, people kept making wild assertions about Oswald Watt’s strident nationalist sentiments and views that he supposedly expressed during World War I, seemingly completely unaware of his equally staunch imperial patriotism (which drew him into the orbit of Australia’s secret right-wing armies after the war, such as the King and Empire Alliance). This misrepresentation ignored his teenage upbringing in Britain and education at Cambridge University, along with his family’s ongoing class links with the British establishment, which rather put him out of step with evolving Australian nationalism of the second half of last century.

There was also the inappropriate characterisation of Oswald Watt as some sort of farmer by occupation before World War I, based on the description he often applied to himself as ‘grazier of Howlong estate’ at Carrathool, in the Riverina district of New South Wales. In fact, Oswald only inherited Howlong on his elder brother’s death in 1908, and made only short visits there. The only time he lived in the country was when he bought Wivenhoe estate outside Camden, south-west of Sydney, as a residence for himself, his wife and son, during 1906-08. In reality, he never showed any direct interest in pastoral pursuits. The focus of Oswald Watt’s life in Australia was always Sydney, particularly the Union Club and a weekend cottage at Bilgola Beach that he bought in 1912.

Compounding my sense of frustration that people seemed to have such a hazy idea of who Oswald Watt was, and what he really represented or stood for, were other instances where knowledge about his activities and contributions to the course of events were either unknown or incompletely realised. This left me wondering whether I accurately understood him and where he fitted into Australian history in the decade before World War I.

For instance, I was left trying to understand the depth of his involvement and commitment to developing military aviation in Australia. He had privately gained a pilot’s certificate in England in 1911, and this fired him up with a desire to become an aviation adviser to Australia’s Department of Defence and even prompted several notable articles in the Commonwealth Military Journal. But his role fizzled when personal circumstances took him out of play in 1912, so it became clear that Oswald was never the influence that he hoped and wanted to be.

I was also left trying to work out the basis for later claims that Oswald Watt had played a notable role as a pioneering motorist, based on published claims he was responsible for starting a ‘craze’ for setting records with high-speed interstate road dashes between Australia’s major cities. It took quite a while to track down the truth behind all this, and I will only say that, even where I found the legend lacking in substance, the real story was found to be no less interesting and important, not least because of evidence which emerged that it was Oswald’s interest in motoring that led him into aviation in the first place.

Finally, there was a need to come to grips with Oswald Watt’s position in Sydney high society in the first decade after Federation. It was this that kept his name on the social pages of newspapers, not just in Sydney and his wife’s hometown of Melbourne, but literally across Australia and even New Zealand. This was never more so than during the messy court case in 1913, when he allowed his wife to divorce him on the grounds of his alleged adultery. In this matter it was not just a case of getting to the real story behind the scandal, but understanding the part that this episode played in pushing Oswald to take up aviation seriously barely six months before the world was propelled to war in mid-1914.

Remarkably, it was in the period January-June 1914 that Oswald Watt made his name as an aviator in international circles through his activities in Egypt and France (both as a flyer and correspondent for several British aviation journals). This is the point to the little triple-loop motif on the title page of The High Life of Oswald Watt, because it is this period than can be said to mark the true start of the legend of Oswald Watt the aviator.

There were so many episodes of this type which arose while writing the book that at times I began to question whether the project was actually worth finishing, because the story behind Oswald Watt did not seem to be what I thought it was when I started research.

My confidence on this score probably took its biggest hit when I discovered a French source that seemed to suggest that even the incident in October 1914 that led to Oswald receiving the award of Legion d’honneur appeared to have a very different slant to it than previously thought, because it brought into question his flying skills and abilities.

I nonetheless pressed on to complete the book once I realised that the real story of Oswald Watt’s life was still sufficiently colourful and interesting to sustain a biography, not least because the picture presented of Australian life in the first two decades of the twentieth century is, I think, quite unlike anything one finds elsewhere—even though it portrays a social circle unrepresentative of most of Australia at the time, although in this it is, of course, no different to movie magazines and gossip columns of today!

But I also realised that if I didn’t finish the project, all those misconceptions and erroneous assumptions would continue to be mouthed and committed to print, unchecked and uncorrected, so that people would still have quite the wrong idea about the Oswald Watt legend.

The biggest challenge that emerged after obtaining the fullest picture of Oswald Watt’s life and legacy that is possible today was to arrive at a balanced and accurate summation and evaluation of his lasting impact and achievements. Ultimately I concluded that I had been looking at the story of a relatively ordinary man who had been born and raised in privileged and comfortable family circumstances (even though he lost his mother in his infancy), had been given the best advantages of upbringing and education, and who inherited such great wealth at the age of 20 that he never needed to work for a living. The biggest challenge Oswald Watt ever faced was to find a meaningful purpose to his life.

In this respect, it was Oswald Watt’s great fortune that, having originally taken up flying as little more than a rich man’s pastime, he found himself in the box-seat during a period of rapid development of aviation during World War I. He was then able to parlay the experiences of the war into helping to promote an industry of vital importance to Australia’s national development.

There is no evidence that Oswald Watt was a deep or original thinker. He seemed more inclined to throw his efforts and reputation behind established orthodoxies than seek new and original solutions. His imperial patriotism was simply the logical position for a man of his background to adopt. It becomes hard, then, to find enduring relevance for his vision of where Australia would eventually find its place in the world.

For all that, for as long as the Oswald Watt Gold Medal for Australian achievement in aviation continues to be awarded, I suspect a use will still be found for the Oswald Watt legend.

MHHV Members
Previous MHHV events