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Knights of the Air: Rikki, the Hunbuster

Thursday Edition is back - with Australia's highest scoring ace of the Great War.

Robert Little was to become Australia’s top fighter pilot in the First World War, an Ace pilot who claimed 47 confirmed kills before being killed in action.  Robert Little was born on 19th July 1895 in Melbourne, at Hawthorn, son of James Little a seller of medical and surgical books. He was well educated at Scotch College and entered the family business as a traveling salesman. He applied for one of the few vacancies at Point Cook Military Flying School and was rejected along with hundreds of others. He then decided to sail to England in July 1915 were he paid to become a qualified pilot at his own expense gaining his flying certificate with the Royal Aero Club at Hendon in October 1915. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915 and in June 1916 was posted to Dunkirk. He joined the 8th Naval Squadron in October 1916 having married Vera Gertrude Field in the September of that year. The 8th Naval squadron was equipped with Sopwith Pups. Little’s Pup, N5182,  can be found on display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon. On 1 November he scored his first aerial victory, rising to 3 by the end of 1916. In March 1917 he was credited with nine enemy aircraft shot down; he was promoted to flight lieutenant in April.

In 'Bloody April' the R.F.C. suffered appalling casualties while the three naval squadrons (1,3 & 8), re-equipped with formidable new Sopwith Triplanes, were given a wide berth by the enemy. In April-July Flight Lieutenant Little really showed his mettle, mainly in N5493 'Blymp', streaming the cardinal, gold and blue of Scotch College. 'Blymp' became the affectionate nickname of his infant son, while Little himself became 'Rikki' to the squadron, after Kipling's mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the deadly cobra-killer.

On 24 April 1917, Little engaged a DFW C.V, forcing it to land. He then followed the German aircraft down to claim it as captured and personally take its crew prisoner at gunpoint. The Australian flipped his own plane in a ditch after touching down, however, prompting the surrendering enemy pilot to suggest: "It looks as if I have brought you down, not you me, doesn't it?".

Capt. R.A. Little, 203 Squadron, attacked the rear machine of a formation of 12 enemy aircraft and watched it fall completely out of control. Capt. Little was then attacked by six enemy aircraft and was driven down through the formation below; he put his machine into a spin and his controls were shot away, causing his machine to dive within 100 feet of the ground when it flattened out with a jerk, breaking the fuselage just under the pilot's seat.

Capt. Little undid his belt and was thrown clear when the machine stuck the ground. The enemy aircraft continued to fire at him, but he opened fire with his revolver at one aircraft which came down to about 30 feet. The enemy aircraft were eventually driven off by our infantry and machine-gun fire.

By August 1917 he was stationed in Kent for some rest having totaled an impressive 37 victories and having earned the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar and the Croix de Guerre; adding a Bar to the D.S.O in September. He gained promotion to Flight commander in January 1918.

For exceptional gallantry and skill in aerial fighting.

  • On 16th July, 1917, he observed two Aviatiks flying low over the lines. He dived on the nearest one, firing a long, burst at very close range. The enemy machine dived straight away, and Flt. Lieut. Little followed him closely down to 500 ft., the enemy machine falling out of control.
  • On 20th July, 1917, he attacked a D.F.W. After a short fight, the enemy machine dived vertically. Its tail plane seemed to crumple up, and it was completely wrecked.
  • On 22nd July, 1917, he attacked a D.F.W. Aviatik, and brought it down completely out of control.
  • On 27th July, 1917, in company with another pilot, he attacked an Aviatik. After each had fired about twenty rounds, the enemy machine began to spin downwards. Flt. Lieut. Little got close to it, and observed both the occupants lying back in the cock-pits, as if dead. The machine fell behind the enemy's lines, and was wrecked.

Flt. Lieut. Little has shown remarkable courage and boldness in attacking enemy machines.

Supplement to the London Gazette, 14 September 1917 (30285/9537)

Little was a clumsy flyer and had frequently crashed on landing but was fearless and a crack shot in aerial combat. He would gain the element of surprise by attacking large enemy formations with a reckless courage having more than once actually hit an enemy aircraft in his attempts to close for the kill. He frequently practiced while not flying with pistol and rifle vs moving targets honing his skills and although he as well liked and known for a good sense of humour, he was a loner, a dedicated predator of the skies rather than a leader of men.

At Walmer Little was able to enjoy a settled period of family life but in March 1918 he declined a desk job and volunteered to return to France where as flight commander with 'Naval 3' he flew Sopwith Camel B6318. Soon afterwards the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. amalgamated as the Royal Air Force and he became Captain Little of 203 Squadron. The end came on the night of 27 May when he went up alone from Ezil le Hamel to intercept enemy bombers in the dark. Fatally wounded in the groin, he crashed near Norviz where he was found next morning. At 22 he left behind a widow and young son who following his wishes traveled to Little’s native country to live.

Major (Air Vice Marshal) R. R. Collishaw who was at one point Robert Little’s commanding officer described him as “Bold, aggressive and courageous yet he was gentle and kindly … his example was a tribute to the high standards of Australian manhood”.

Robert Little was Australia’s highest scoring Ace in the First World War, his nearest rivals being Major R.S Dallas with 39 and Captain A.H Cobby with 29 victories. Little is ranked as 14th among the Aces of all sides in the conflict.

  • Total victories: 47
  • Flying Sopwith Pup: 4
  • Flying Sopwith Triplane: 24
  • Flying Sopwith Camel: 19

Capt. R.A. Little was buried in the village cemetery at Nœux, before his body was moved to Wavans British Cemetery in the Pas de Calais (photo: Webmatters)

Sources: History Of War, Australian Dictionary of Biography, South Sea Republic, Wikipedia.

Image of the Blymp: Cam Riley (South Sea Republic)

Award Citations from the London Gazette

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