Remuera contribute many men and women to the Great War, across all the services. In this special feature to commemorate Anzac Day, Remuera Heritage chair Sue Cooper honours six WWI pilots who never returned home.
The Walsh brothers, Leo and Vivian, assembled New Zealand’s first aircraft, the Manurewa — in Māori, drifting kite — in 1911, in the basement of their home in Orakei Rd, Remuera. When New Zealand entered WWI in August 1914, they asked Prime Minister William Massey’s government for help with training pilots, but were refused.
Not to be deterred from the war effort, a signal was sent to the British government, as commanders of Imperial forces, asking whether New Zealand-trained pilots would be acceptable to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and what qualifications they would require. The Brits replied that all suitable candidates qualifying for the Royal Aero Club’s certificate in New Zealand would be accepted for commissions in the RFC. And could they please send as many candidates as possible, immediately?
With that imprimatur, the Walsh’s devised a six-month training course in flying boats at Kohimarama. Of the 110 men who did the course, 68 qualified for the RFC, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) or, from April 1, 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF). They were the middle-class sons of New Zealand — doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, farmers. Flying was appealing to men who wanted a commission, and who didn’t want to go into — or worse, return to — the wretched trenches of the Western Front.
Six Remuera men obtained their Royal Aero Club Certificate (like a private pilot’s licence today), but all met a tragic end Three were killed in air accidents, two on air operations and one at the battle of the Somme. Air accidents outside of battle were extremely common in WWI and the early years of WWII. Those lost in air accidents between 1915 and 1942 formed one-third of all who died flying.
Here are the stories of Remuera’s lost WWI pilots.
WILLIAM ARCHIBALD BUCHANAN
Billy Buchanan lived at 27 Victoria Ave, and attended King’s College from 1908-12, before going England to attend the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. When WWI broke out in 1914, he joined the Connaught Rangers and went to France with his regiment. Lieutenant Buchanan saw a great deal of service at Neuve Chapelle, including the second battle of Ypres in 1915, when the regiment suffered very heavy casualties. On April 25, 1915, William was invalided to England with a severe wound in the leg and the Medical Board declared him to be unfit for foreign service. After recovering, he headed for Birmingham in November, to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
By January 1916, he’d obtained his Royal Aero Club certificate, and in May, his pilot’s badge with 1 Reserve Squadron. On June 2, 1916, he was training with 24 Reserve Squadron of the RFC on the Salisbury Plain, in a Morane-Saulnier Type L monoplane.
The plane, piloted by Buchanan, started up in one of the hangars, taxied out, but on lifting off, banked steeply and sideslipped into the ground. Almost immediately, the overturned plane burst into flames. The trapped observer, Capt. L Prickett of the Royal Garrison Artillery, died before he could be extricated from the wreckage. Fatally injured, Billy Buchanan died at the Tidworth Military Hospital five days later. He was two weeks short of his 22nd birthday. He is buried at Tidworth Military Cemetery in Wiltshire, and commemorated on the memorial Celtic cross at St Aidan’s Church, Remuera.
GEORGE EDMOND VERNON AIMER
George Aimer attended Remuera Primary School, and in 1910 started working for the Bank of New Zealand and also attended Auckland University College (as Auckland University was then known) in 1913. He was very popular in athletic circles, and had been captain of the then-Parnell based St. George’s Rowing Club.
In August 1915, he obtained extended leave of absence from the bank, and proceeded to England for “health reasons”. After a short time in hospital for treatment, he offered his services to the War Office, but they were not accepted, due to his health. Aimer instead studied aviation at the London and Provincial Aviation Company Flying School at Hendon, and after qualifying for the RAC pilot’s certificate in February 1916, was appointed an instructor at the Aviation Company’s school.
Three months later, he was given a commission as lieutenant in the RFC. But barely three days after earning his RFC pilot’s wings, his war abruptly ended. Aimer was at Northolt, Middlesex, on June 17, 1916, and on his third flight of the day in a Martinsyde single-seater biplane, when it went into a spin at about 3000 feet, and crashed vertically to earth. Rushed to the RFC hospital in London, 30-year-old George Aimer died later that day.
A verdict of accidental death was returned.
JAMES DALTON DINNEEN
Jimmy Dinneen was the fourth of Michael and Mary Dinneen’s brood of six. The family lived in “Unchinagh” on Mountain Rd, which today is 16 Upland Rd, Remuera. Dux of Auckland Grammar, Dinneen was teaching at the school when war was declared. He requested a year’s leave in order to go to England to study for his pilot’s certificate, and qualify for service in the RFC. Before he left, he was presented with a wrist watch by Grammar headmaster, J.W. Tibbs, on behalf of the staff. Dinneen left Wellington for the UK on February 1, 1915, aboard the steamer Remuera, accompanied by his sister, Charlotte.
He received a commission as a lieutenant in the RFC, and his probationary flying certificate after three weeks at a military school in Surrey. He was required to complete three months further flying training before being considered for active service.
But his plans were not fulfilled. Dinneen had to relinquish his commission owing to an eyesight problem which meant he couldn’t properly calculate his plane’s landings. Reported to be an excellent officer, he instead started in September at London’s Inns of Court Officer Training School. While an infantry commission in Kitchener’s army was in the offing, Dinneen wished to serve in the NZ forces, and made his way, at his own expense, to join the NZ Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in Egpyt. He was, he wrote, “anxious to get to work as soon as possible”.
Now Captain Dinneen, he arrived in France in mid-April, 1916, with the 1st Battalion Auckland Infantry Regiment (1-AIR). The Kiwis joined the fighting on the Western Front in the French Armentieres sector, where Dinneen earned praise for his efforts in the trenches. For the next three months, trench warfare went on without respite, and gradually increased in intensity, when on July 1, 1916, the storm burst on the Somme.
On September 27, 800 men of the 1-AIR mounted an attack on the German forces. They came up against uncut barbed wire and were mown down by machine-gun fire as they attempted to find gaps. When the line was taken, 200 men were left.
James Dinneen was Mentioned in Despatches by Sir Douglas Haig. The citation read “For gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his company brilliantly in the attack on Gird Trench on September 27th, 1916. He was first hit by a machine gun bullet, but kept on till hit by a shell. Unfortunately he has since succumbed to his wound. France, 1 October 1916.”
Dinneen is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-l’Abbe, Somme, France, and is commemorated on the memorial cross at St Aidan’s. He was 33-years-old.
FRANK HAMILTON BULLOCK-WEBSTER
Frank Bullock-Webster was born September 24, 1885, at The Lake House, Hamilton, the eldest son of Harold and Maud Bullock-Webster, before the family moved to Remuera. As a young man, his father Harry went from Worcestershire to the Canadian northwest, where he joined the Hudson Bay Company to hunt and deal in fur-trading.
Bullock-Webster attended King’s College in 1898 and St John’s College in 1899, and then followed in his intrepid father’s footsteps, and had an adventurous life as a game hunter in Canada and Alaska.
Lieutenant Bullock-Webster joined the Canadian Forces as an officer in the Machine Gun Corps, and became an expert in machine gunnery. He fought in France with the Canadian force up to the battle of the Somme, leaving France in early 1916, when he fell ill with trench fever.
After recovering, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an instructor in aerial gunnery. By September 1917, Bullock-Webster was with the 23 Squadron based near Poperinge in Belgium. He took off on an offensive patrol on September 20, 1917, from La Lovie aerodrome in a SPAD 7 B3493 biplane. The plane was hit and forced to land in a shell hole, completely wrecked. Although rushed to hospital, he died later that day. He was 32.
Frank Bullock-Webster is buried at Ypres in the Menin Rd South military cemetery, Belgium. His name can be found on memorials in Lloydminster, Canada, on the St Aidan’s memorial cross and on the King’s College Roll of Honour.
TREVOR DUDLEY HALL ALDERTON
Trevor Alderton was born on January 5, 1894, in Whangarei, the son of George and Ida Alderton. George Alderton was a champion of modern Kerikeri, newspaper proprietor and editor — he started the Northern Advocate — orchardist, land agent and founder of North Auckland Land Development Corporation. Nonetheless, the Aldertons moved to Remuera around 1905, to 17 Remuera Rd (now 101 Remuera Rd).
At 13, Alderton started at Grammar. He was a member of the College Rifles Rugby Football Club, and also in the Territorial Reserves (NZ Divisional Signallers Company) as a 2nd Lieutenant. After school, he joined the engineering branch of the Public Works Department, and by 1915, was an assistant engineer. He was in charge of work on the Matiere section of the Main Trunk Railway Line, supervising 120 men in earthworks, construction of reinforced concrete bridges, and supervision of the 1.5km long Okahukura Tunnel. He was described by his employers as an energetic and capable engineer, and later, a reliable and intelligent officer, capable of handling and controlling a large number of men.
In April 1917, Alderton requested he be allowed to enlist as a private, with six months leave of absence without pay, so that he could qualify at the Walsh brother’s school in Kohimarama for the flying certificate. He qualified for the Royal Aero Club’s Certificate in August 1917, and was called up in the 11th ballot in October.
Although he attested for service in the NZEF, he had qualified for admission into the RFC. Shortly after the ballot, Alderton left with the 30th Reinforcements on the Corinthic, arriving in Liverpool in December and to a place in the newly-formed RAF. In May 1918, Alderton was reported as having completed his training at Reading along with a number of other New Zealanders, and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant.
But only a month later, his war ended in a training accident in Norfolk. His Airco DH.4, a two-seater biplane bomber, suffered engine failure immediately after take-off, and stalled on turning back towards the airfield, side-slipping into the ground. The student pilot at the controls was injured but survived, but Alderton was killed. He is buried at Narborough cemetery.
Alderton’s Auckland Grammar School obituary reported: “He was in one of six De Havillands which were to do a formation flight. Three of these came to grief. And it is generally believed they had been tampered with. He had completed his flying test only the day before and his commanding officer said that he was the best flyer he had put through, and had appointed him an instructor. He was 23 years of age.”
THOMAS GREY CULLING
Tom Culling holds two distinguished titles in New Zealand aviation history. He was not only the youngest of the air aces, WWI or WWII, but he was also New Zealand’s first air ace.
Culling was born in Dunedin on May 31, 1896, the only son of Thomas and Fanny Culling, later of 23 Victoria Ave, Remuera. He attended King’s College from 1909-13. In 1914, Culling had just finished his schooling and was working as a salesman for A J Entrican and Company, general merchants in the city.
Like Trevor Alderton, he was a member of the College Rifles Club and just four days after the declaration of war, left with a contingent from the club for Wellington. Here he immediately volunteered for military service with the Advance Force, which was to leave to remove the German military from Samoa. Culling’s father was unhappy about his son going off to war at the young age of 18, and was successful in preventing him embarking for Samoa. A year later, Culling did leave, bound for Britain and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
In 1916, German Albatros planes had dominated the skies, with the loss of three British planes for every German one. In December 1916, the RNAS squadron began updating with the new British Sopwith triplane, being the first unit to receive it. The pilots nicknamed it the Tripehound, or Tripe. It was powered by a 130hp Clerget rotary engine and had a Vickers machine gun, synchronised to fire through the propeller. Its unique wing development gave the plane a phenomenal rate of climb, exemplary manoeuvrability and a top speed of 120 mph at 10,000 feet. The Sopwith triplane was a wonderful development and had an advantage over the enemy fighters then at the front.
Culling was attached to Australian Flight Commander Roderic Dallas, Australia’s most successful pilot of the war. He was assigned to fly Sopwith Triplane No. N5444 with 1 Naval Squadron. He began to score victories in Bloody April 1917, with his first three coming that month. The third one was significant; it was part of one of the war’s epic dogfights. The combat of April 23 became known as one of the classic air battles of the Great War. Dallas and his wingman Tom Culling took on a squadron-sized formation of 14 German aircraft, having gained an altitude edge over their foes. The naval aces exploited this edge by making quick diving attacks from opposite sides, culminating in short bursts of machine gun fire. Using the triplane’s superior climbing ability, they would then bob back up to position themselves for the next assault.
In contrast to the usual hit-and-run tactics of most dogfights, the RNAS duo launched at least 20 gunnery runs over 45 minutes. The Germans were forced progressively lower, into disarray, and then chased back over their own lines. While they shot down three of the German planes, Dallas and Culling also achieved a more important outcome by blocking, and then breaking up, a determined effort against the British ground offensive. The action led to the award of a Bar to the Distinguished Service Cross for Dallas, and, in June 1917, a Distinguished Service Cross for Culling.
Having successfully negotiated the most dangerous part of that year, Culling then fell in an airfight against an opposite from the German Maritime Air Service, during an offensive patrol on the morning of June 8, 1917, just inside Belgium. This time, Culling was defeated. The 21-year-old’s body was not recovered and consequently his name is inscribed on the Arras Flying Services Memorial, which commemorates nearly 1000 airmen with no known grave.
In memory of her son, Fanny Culling gifted two stained-glass windows to the King’s College Memorial Chapel. They were dedicated by Archbishop Averill at the Anzac Day memorial service at King’s on April 25, 1927.
Tom Culling was a typical young New Zealander of his time. He possessed youthful exuberance, a patriotic fervour and a desire for adventure but sadly, his life was cut short before he could receive the honour he deserved. He is commemorated at King’s, on the Remuera Primary School gates, at St Aidan’s Church, on the College Rifles’ Roll of Honour and the Warbirds of Wanaka’s Fighter Ace Wall, which commemorates pilots who have scored at least five victories in air-to-air combat.
For more on Remuera’s servicemen and women, see remueraheritage.org.nz