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Sir Keith Macpherson Smith (1890–1955)

by John McCarthy

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Ross Macpherson Smith

Keith Macpherson Smith (1890-1955), by unknown photographer, c1921

Keith Macpherson Smith (1890-1955), by unknown photographer, c1921

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 16704 [detail]

Sir Keith Macpherson Smith (1890-1955) and Sir Ross Macpherson Smith (1892-1922), airmen, were born on 20 December 1890 in Adelaide, and on 4 December 1892 at Semaphore, Adelaide, sons of Scottish-born Andrew Bell Smith, station manager, and his wife Jessie, née Macpherson, born in Western Australia. In 1897 Andrew Smith became the manager of the Mutooroo Pastoral Co. and Mutooroo station, a property of some 3000 sq. miles (7700 km²). Both Keith and Ross were educated at Queen's School, Adelaide (as boarders), and for two years at Warriston School, Moffat, Scotland, their father's birthplace.

On returning to Australia, Ross joined the Australian Mounted Cadets and was selected in 1910 to tour Britain and the United States of America as a South Australian representative. He then joined the 10th Australian Regiment, the Adelaide Rifles. Before the outbreak of war in 1914 Ross was employed as a warehouseman in Adelaide for G. P. Harris Scarfe & Co. In August 1914 he enlisted as a private in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force, and on 1 October was promoted sergeant. He embarked for Egypt on 22 October and landed on Gallipoli on 13 May 1915. On 11 August he attained the rank of regimental sergeant major and was commissioned second lieutenant on 5 September. Invalided to England in October, he was promoted lieutenant on 1 March 1916 and three weeks later embarked for Egypt to rejoin his old regiment. With the 1st Light Horse Brigade, 1st Machine-Gun Squadron, his principal action occurred during the battle of Romani on 4 August 1916. In July 1917 he responded to a call for volunteers to join the Australian Flying Corps, the transfer taking effect on 4 August.

Keith's early career was different, yet both were to enter aviation within weeks of each other. Employed by Elder Smith & Co. in Adelaide on the outbreak of war, Keith was rejected for service with the A.I.F. on medical grounds. He underwent medical treatment and paid his own passage to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. Accepted in July 1917 into the Officer Cadet Wing, he was posted in November to No. 58 Squadron, a newly formed bomber unit which left for France in January 1918. Keith, however, was not to see active service. On 24 February 1918 he was posted to No. 75 Squadron, a home-defence formation, as a gunnery instructor. On 1 April he was promoted lieutenant and spent the rest of the war in Britain with training establishments. He was placed on the unemployed list, R.A.F., on 5 November 1919.

In contrast, Ross's air war was most active. Qualifying as an observer in December 1916, and later as a pilot, he served mainly with No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (No. 67 Squadron R.F.C.), a general purpose squadron flying a variety of aircraft in defence of the Suez Canal zone. In January 1918 it was re-equipped with the Bristol Fighter and designated a fighter squadron. As such the squadron was an important element of General (Lord) Allenby's 1918 offensive and took part in the overwhelming air attacks on the Turkish armies in the Wady Fara. By the end of the war Ross had twice been decorated with the Military Cross and three times with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later he was to add the Air Force Cross for non-operational flying. The first Military Cross was awarded while Ross, still an observer, landed in the face of the enemy to rescue a fellow officer who had been brought down. Bombing and photography and air to air combats brought the other operational awards.

By the end of the war Ross had acquired considerable experience flying the twin-engined Handley Page 0/400 bomber which had been attached to the squadron. He had flown it not only on bombing operations in Palestine but also on long photographic flights. He was consequently selected to co-pilot the aircraft in a pioneer flight from Cairo to Calcutta, leaving Cairo on 29 November 1918 and arriving in Calcutta on 10 December. A tentative attempt was made from Calcutta to survey by sea an aerial route through to Australia. This was abandoned at Timor. Nevertheless the experience gained was of great benefit in the successful attempt later undertaken with his brother to fly from England to Australia within thirty days. The prize of £10,000 was offered by the Australian government for the first aviator to do so.

In a Vickers Vimy (a type similiar to the 0/400 bomber), supplied by the manufacturer, and with Keith as assistant pilot and navigator and accompanied by two mechanics, the attempt began from Hounslow, England, on 12 November 1919. Flying conditions were very poor and most hazardous until they reached Basra on 22 November. From Basra to Delhi, a distance of 1600 miles (2575 km), they spent 25½ hours in the air out of 54. A poor landing-area at Singora and torrential rain almost brought disaster on 3 December. Disaster again almost came at Sourabaya where the aircraft was bogged and had to take off from an improvised airstrip made of bamboo mats. By 9 December, however, they were at Timor, only 350 miles (563 km) from Darwin. The crossing was made next day and at 3.50 p.m. on 10 December they landed in Darwin. The distance covered in this epic flight was 11,340 miles (18,250 km). It took just under 28 days with an actual flying time of 135 hours at an average speed of 85 m.p.h. (137 km.p.h.). Both Ross and Keith were immediately knighted; Sergeants W. H. Shiers and J. M. Bennett, the mechanics, were commissioned and awarded Bars to their Air Force Medals, and the £10,000 prize money was divided into four equal shares.

The next proposal, to fly round the world in a Vickers Viking amphibian, ended in disaster. Both brothers travelled to England to prepare for the trip and on 13 April 1922, while Ross and his long-serving crew member Bennett were test-flying the aircraft at Weybridge near London, it spun into the ground from 1000 feet (305 m), killing both. Keith, who arrived late for the test flight witnessed the accident. Ross had not flown at all for many months and had never flown this type of aircraft. The investigating committee concluded that the accident had been the result of pilot error. The flight was abandoned. The bodies of Sir Ross Smith and Lieutenant Bennett were brought home to Australia and after a state funeral Smith was buried in Adelaide on 15 June.

Sir Keith Smith was appointed Australian agent for Vickers and retained the connexion with this British company until his death. Between the wars, however, Vickers took little interest in the small Australian market and despite Smith's efforts, there was no sale of aircraft until the arrival of the Viscount in 1954. One promising venture strongly supported by Smith in the early 1920s was to employ Vickers-built airships on Imperial air routes. A British airship had successfully crossed the Atlantic in July 1919, but projects failed to materialize. The British government changed and so did policy while the airship itself which had crossed the Atlantic, the R34, was destroyed in a sudden and violent storm.

Keith remained, however, possibly the leading Australian spokesman on aviation matters and travelled extensively on Vickers' behalf. He held firmly to the view that Imperial co-operation was vital in aviation and looked for complete standardization of British and Australian equipment. Superior American aircraft and British indifference were to defeat this aspiration. He was to become, however, vice-president of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines, a director of Qantas and Tasman Airways and by the end of his career was in control of the many Australian-based Vickers companies. In World War II he was vice-chairman of the Royal Australian Air Force Recruiting Drive Committee and strongly supported the idea of an Empire air force. In 1924 Keith had married Anita Crawford of Adelaide who survived him when he died of cancer in Sydney on 19 December 1955. He had no children. He left an estate valued in two States at £33,723. Included in his will was a bequest of £100 to W. H. Shiers, the sole remaining crew member of the England-Australia flight. The Vickers Vimy flown on that occasion is displayed at Adelaide airport. Sir Keith Smith was buried near his brother, father and mother in the North Road Anglican cemetery, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • The Sir Ross Smith Flight, Official Souvenir (1920)
  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps (Syd, 1923)
  • A. G. Price, The Skies Remember (Syd, 1969), and for sources
  • London Gazette, 11 May 1917, supplement, 26 Mar 1918, supplement, 24 Aug 1918, 8 Feb, 3 June, 26 Dec 1919, 1 Apr 1920
  • newsclippings and biography, Sir Ross Smith (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Smith, Sir Keith Macpherson (1890–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Keith Macpherson Smith (1890-1955), by unknown photographer, c1921

Keith Macpherson Smith (1890-1955), by unknown photographer, c1921

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 16704 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


20 December, 1890
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


19 December, 1955 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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