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Little, Robert Alexander (1895–1918)

by J. C. Little

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Robert Alexander Little (1895-1918), World War I fighter ace, was born on 19 July 1895 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, son of James Little, bookseller and importer of medical and surgical works, and his Victorian wife Susan, formerly Smith, née Solomon. He was educated at Scotch College and later joined the family business as a commercial traveller, living with his parents at Windsor. Rejected with hundreds of others for the four vacancies at Point Cook Military Flying School, he sailed for England in July 1915, at his own expense. He paid for his flying training at Hendon where he gained his flying certificate (No.1958 Royal Aero Club) on 27 October. He entered the Royal Naval Air Service as a probationary temporary sub-lieutenant on 14 January 1916.

Posted to the relatively inactive war flight at Dover, Kent, Little suffered eye and stomach trouble in the air. He married Vera Gertrude Field at the Congregational Church, Dover, on 16 September 1916. Posting to No.1 Wing at Dunkirk, France, in June had brought action at last—against the submarine base at Zeebrugge, Belgium. His physical troubles disappeared with the change to aircraft which did not spray him with castor oil and he quickly established a favourable reputation. The Somme offensive of the second half of 1916 imposed such strain on the Royal Flying Corps that the Admiralty created new R.N.A.S. squadrons for service on the Western Front. In October Little was transferred to the new No.8 Squadron, 'Naval 8', equipped with Sopwith Pups. His plane, N5182, rebuilt, is now on display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon. On 1 November he scored his first aerial victory and by March 1917 was credited with nine enemy aircraft shot down; he was promoted 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. By early August 1917, when he was posted to Walmer on the Kent coast for a period of rest, he had destroyed thirty-seven enemy aircraft and damaged many more. He had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar and the Croix de Guerre; in September he received a Bar to the D.S.O.; in December he was mentioned in dispatches and he was promoted flight commander in January 1918.

Paradoxically, Little was a clumsy flyer with a record of crash landings, but in aerial combat his brilliance derived from a combination of fearless aggression, quite exceptional eyesight, superb marksmanship and close-range firing. His armourers calculated that he fired an average of forty-four rounds per aerial victory. The audacity with which he would, single-handed, attack large enemy formations brought the advantage of surprise. Twice he actually struck enemy aircraft in his eagerness to close the range. He was of average height, stocky and athletic in build. Likeable and friendly with a strong sense of fun, he was a great talker. He devoted much time on the ground to rifle and pistol practice at moving targets. In the air he was a brilliant loner rather than a leader.

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. He was buried in the village cemetery at Norviz and subsequently in Wavans British cemetery, France. He was 22. Conforming to his wish, his widow brought their infant son to grow up in Australia.

Little is officially credited with a tally of 47 enemy planes brought down. He is Australia's World War I ace of aces: the next officially recognized 'victories' of Australians were 39 by his friend Major R. S. Dallas and 29 by Captain A. H. Cobby. Little ranks eighth of all British Commonwealth aces, and fourteenth of all aces from both sides of the conflict. Major (Air Vice Marshal) R. R. Collishaw, his commanding officer in 'Naval 3', wrote of him: 'Little had an outstanding character. Bold, aggressive and courageous yet he was gentle and kindly … his example was a tribute to the high standards of Australian manhood'.

Until very recently the achievements of Little and Dallas were neglected in their native Australia, only those who served in Australian forces being afforded official recognition, an anomaly now being rectified. Photographs, medals and mementoes of R. A. Little are held by the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Haddingham, The Fighting Triplanes (Lond, 1968)
  • K. Isaacs, Military Aircraft of Australia, 1909-1918 (Canb, 1971)
  • L. H. Rochford, I Chose the Sky (Lond, 1977)
  • London Gazette, 16 Feb, 22 June, 20 July, 11 Aug, 14 Sept, 11 Dec 1917
  • Cross and Cockade (USA), 16, no 2, 1975, p 168, and (England), 17, no 1, 1976, p 13
  • Department of Defence (Canberra), Australia's ‘Unknown’ Top Air Ace (typescript, no date, received Feb 1978)
  • R. A. Little, war records file (British Ministry of Defence)
  • war log of Sopwith Pup, 25 Aug 1916–24 Jan 1917, N5182, RNAS (RAF Museum, Hendon, England)
  • combat reports, 6 Apr 1917 to 26 Aug 1917, squadron record book, Naval 8 Squadron (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. C. Little, 'Little, Robert Alexander (1895–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/little-robert-alexander-7207/text12471, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 7 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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