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Leslie Hubert Holden (1895–1932)

by Carl Bridge

This article was published:

Leslie Hubert Holden (1895-1932), aviator, was born on 6 March 1895 in Adelaide, son of Hubert William Holden, commercial traveller, and his wife Annie Maria, née Turner. In 1905 the family moved to Sydney where Holden's father became a partner in the Australian branch of the Nestlé Swiss Milk Co. Holden attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) in 1909-11 before becoming a salesman with Nestlés. He showed an early aptitude for things mechanical.

In May 1915 Holden enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and went to Egypt as a motor driver, though he quickly became interested in flying. A friend remembered how 'we used to lie on the sand at Heliopolis and watch the old Maurice Farmans go lumbering overhead at a scorching 55 miles an hour'. In December 1916, now in France, he was one of the first batch of 200 volunteers to train in England for the Australian Flying Corps. His mechanical sense and his calm but adventurous nature made him a natural pilot and he quickly won his wings as a lieutenant. Flying a D.H.5 in No.2 Squadron, A.F.C., Holden saw the first Australian air action of the war over St Quentin on 2 October 1917. Throughout the battle of Cambrai in November he participated in the hazardous task of strafing the enemy front line from a height of only fifty feet (15 m). His ability to return alive in wrecked machines riddled with bullet holes earned him the nicknames of 'the homing pigeon' and 'Lucky Les'; Three of his machines were 'written off' under him. Perhaps his closest encounter was when the famous von Richthofen fired at him from below and the bullets ripped up through the floor and tore his leggings. He nursed his badly damaged machine home, losing a wing on impact.

Holden was awarded the Military Cross in February 1918 and was promoted captain in March. In May, after having shot down at least five enemy aircraft, he returned to Britain as an instructor. His teaching work earned him the Air Force Cross before he returned to Australia in June 1919. After demobilization he became Sydney manager of Holden's Motor Body Builders, the Adelaide company formed by his uncle H. J. Holden, with his son (Sir) Edward W. Holden, but he yearned for a career in aviation. In 1928, with financial support from friends, he bought a D.H.61 biplane which he named Canberra and operated charter flights from Mascot, Sydney.

In April 1929 Holden was engaged by the Sydney Citizens' Relief Committee to fly to north-western Australia in search of (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm who had disappeared while flying to England. After twelve days Holden found them on a mud-flat on the Glenelg River near the Kimberley and returned a hero, but when newspapers accused Kingsford Smith and Ulm of a publicity stunt, the Sydney committee refused to cover Holden's expenses.

In September 1931 Holden made what was probably the first flight from Sydney to New Guinea, and began a successful air-freight business there. He returned to Sydney next year to purchase extra aircraft and formed Holden Air Transport. On 18 September 1932, while travelling as a passenger in a New England Airways Puss Moth from Sydney to Brisbane, he died instantly when the plane crashed near Byron Bay.

Les Holden was a courageous but modest man with a sunny temperament and whimsical humour. He had married Kathleen Packman at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, on 3 June 1924 and was survived by his wife and three daughters. There is a memorial window in the Sydney Church of England Grammar School chapel.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1923)
  • C. E. Kingsford Smith, My Flying Life (Lond, 1937)
  • N. Buttfield, So Great a Change (Syd, 1979)
  • London Gazette, 1 Feb 1918, 3 June 1919
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), Oct 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Apr, 18 May, 11, 12, 13 June, 8 Oct 1929, 23 Sept, 13, 29 Oct 1932, 27 Apr 1933, 29 Dec 1934
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 22 Sept 1932
  • Sydney Church of England Grammar School records
  • Holden papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Carl Bridge, 'Holden, Leslie Hubert (1895–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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