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Petre, Henry Aloysius (1884–1962)

by A. D. Garrisson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Henry Aloysius Petre (1884-1962), airman and solicitor, was born on 12 June 1884 at Ingatestone, Essex, England, son of Sebastian Henry Petre, solicitor, and his wife Catharine Elise Wilhelmina, née Sibeth. Educated at Mount St Mary's College, Chesterfield, he was admitted as a solicitor in 1905, but became interested in aviation and in 1910 taught himself to fly at Brooklands. He received Aviator's Certificate No.128 issued by the Royal Aero Club on 12 September 1911 and, abandoning the practice of law, became a flying instructor with the Deperdussin School at Brooklands. He took charge of this school before joining the firm of Handley Page in 1912 as a designer and pilot.

In 1911 the Australian government had decided to form an Australian Flying Corps and advertised in England for two 'mechanist aviators'. The aircraft had already been ordered and included two Deperdussin monoplanes, so that experience with this type of machine was called for. Petre successfully applied and was commissioned as an honorary lieutenant, Aviation Instructional Staff, Australian Military Forces, on 6 August 1912.

Arriving in January 1913, he was appointed the first commanding officer of the Central Flying School, and is thus generally acknowledged to be the founder of the Australian Flying Corps, forerunner of the Royal Australian Air Force. He selected Point Cook in Victoria as the preferred location and had the school ready to accept the first course on 17 August 1914, just two weeks after World War I began.

With Petre and the other successful applicant Eric Harrison as instructors, the course consisted of four officers, all of whom graduated as pilots on 28 November. They were Captain (Sir Thomas) White, Lieutenant (Air Marshal Sir Richard) Williams and Lieutenants G. P. Merz and D. T. W. Manwell. Petre was confirmed in his appointment and promoted honorary captain on 1 October.

In February 1915 the Indian government asked the Australian government to provide an aviation unit for service in Mesopotamia, complete with trained airmen, aircraft and transport. This request was approved, except that no aircraft could be provided and the size of the unit was limited by the number of military pilots available in Australia of whom there were only seven: Petre and Harrison, the four recently qualified pilots and Lieutenant W. H. Treloar who had learned to fly in England. Petre, White, Merz and Treloar were selected to join the unit, known as the Mesopotamian Half-Flight, together with forty-one other ranks including eighteen air-mechanics. Petre was appointed to command as captain from 1 April 1915. This made him the commanding officer of the first unit of the Australian Flying Corps to be formed and of the first to be sent on overseas service.

Petre went ahead to Basra where he was joined by the others on 26 May. They were in action only five days later, operating in support of the Indian (Mesopotamian) Expeditionary Force in a successful action against Turkish forces at Kurna. The half-flight continued in operations until August when, having received reinforcements of men and machines from the British, it became No.30 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. The unit carried out several successful operations during November and December but living and working conditions were appalling and recently arrived aircraft were rejects from the Western Front. There was a serious lack of spare parts and spare engines. The operations were hazardous and resulted in heavy casualties. By 21 November only one aircraft and one pilot (Petre) remained, although reinforcements of men and machines soon began to arrive.

The squadron continued to be heavily and continuously engaged throughout 1916, with Petre continuing in command until December when the unit was disbanded. He was posted to Egypt and promoted major on 16 December. By this time he had been awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches three times (all in 1916). In February 1917 he was attached to No.15 Squadron, R.F.C., in France to obtain experience there before being posted to command No.29 Training Squadron, A.F.C., in England on 1 August.

Petre resigned from the A.F.C. on 31 January 1918 on being commissioned in the R.F.C. and became a major in the Royal Air Force on its formation in April 1918 when he formed and commanded No.75 Squadron. He remained with the R.A.F. until 15 September 1919; he then resumed legal practice with Blount, Petre & Co., solicitors, London, retiring in 1958. In 1929 he had married Kathleen Coad Defries of Toronto, Canada. Survived by her, he died in London on 24 April 1962.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps (Syd, 1923)
  • Australian Government Printing Service, The Golden Years (Canb, 1971)
  • London Gazette, 11 Jan, 4 Apr, 11 July, 17 Oct, 22 Dec 1916
  • RAAF News, Feb 1961, Apr 1962
  • Who Was Who (London), 1961-70
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Apr 1962
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 Apr 1962
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Apr 1962.

Citation details

A. D. Garrisson, 'Petre, Henry Aloysius (1884–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/petre-henry-aloysius-8030/text13999, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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