- Stevens, Errol
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval Aviation, History - WW1
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
R.A. LITTLE DSO,* DSC,* C de G. (1895 -1918)
Robert Alexander Little is almost unknown in his native Australia as he served in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in World War One (WWI) and is therefore not included in any official Australian Service records. With at least 47 enemy aircraft shot down he is the highest scoring Australian ace of any conflict, the 8th highest of all Allied and 14th highest of all aviators on both sides in WWI.
He was born in Melbourne on July 19, 1895, the second son of James and Susan (née Solomon) Little. His parents were of Scottish descent and emigrated to Australia via Canada. His father was a bookseller and importer of medical equipment in Collins Street, Melbourne. Little was educated at Scotch College where he was awarded a swimming medal. On graduation he worked as a travelling salesman for his father. After the outbreak of WWI in 1914 he, along with some 500 others, applied for one of four vacancies for pilot training at the Military Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria. He was unsuccessful and so paid his own fare to England where he was rejected by the RNAS and Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Being very determined, at a cost of £100, he paid for private flying lessons at the London and Provincial Aviation Co. at Hendon. On completion in October 1915 he was awarded Royal Aero Club Certificate No. 1958 and immediately reapplied to join the RNAS. This time he was accepted and on January 14, 1916 he was appointed as a Probationary Temporary Flight Sub Lieutenant and posted to the Dover area. Here, in a relatively quiet area, he went on patrols and improved his flying skills. In 3 months he had 3 forced landings with engine trouble in one of which he suffered slight concussion. On separate landings he collided with an aircraft on the ground, and on another occasion overturned.
ACTIVE SERVICE 1916
In June 1916 he was posted to RNAS No.1 Wing at Dunkirk, France where he saw his first real action, flying patrols and primitive bombing missions against German naval targets in the Ostend/Zeebrugge area. On July 7 whilst on a fighting patrol near Ypres he was attacked by a Fokker, but eventually damaged it enough to force it to land in a field behind enemy lines.
During a brief leave, he married Vera Gertrude Field, an English girl, in Dover on September 16.
By this time the Somme battles had severely stretched the RFC and they requested RNAS assistance on the Western Front. No. 8 Squadron (Naval Eight) was hastily formed in October by taking a Flight from each of the three naval Wings in the Dunkirk area, with Little amongst the pilots of B Flight under the command of Flight Commander S.J. Goble another Australian. Little flew mainly Sopwith Pup No. N5182 which has been restored and is still on display at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
By January 1917 Little had at least 4 victories and in February Naval 8 started re-equipping with the new Sopwith Triplanes known as Tripes. They were as good as, if not better than, any other fighter at the time. On February 16 Little was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for “conspicuous bravery in successfully attacking and bringing down hostile machines on several occasions“. In the period April to July Little really established that he was an outstanding fighter pilot.
He achieved 24 additional victories in Sopwith Triplanes, mainly flying Tripe N5493. His plane was painted in the Scotch College colours of cardinal, gold and blue and nicknamed BLYMP after his baby son. Little’s nickname in the Squadron was RIKKI after Rudyard Kipling’s character RIKKI TIKKI TAVI the deadly snake killing mongoose. His wife always referred to Little as Alex when talking about him. He was of average height and athletic build. He excelled as a rifle and pistol shot and spent a lot of his spare time shooting at moving targets such as rats. Some sources have described him as a clumsy, or not a polished flyer. These descriptions, if correct, could only be applicable in his early days. His successes were achieved mostly by brilliant aggressive flying and superb marksmanship at very close ranges.