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Royal New Zealand Air Force


BY the end of the war New Zealand realised the importance of aircraft as a means of defence. The work of the private flying schools had shown that pilots could be successfully trained locally, and this, combined with the recent advances in aviation in other countries, encouraged the Government to take a more active interest. General opinion at the time was that civil rather than military flying should be fostered as it would be cheaper and would still provide potential reserves for wartime use; but the return of hundreds of trained men from overseas seemed to provide a perfect opportunity for the formation of at least the nucleus of an Air Force.

The British Government was asked to send out an officer to advise on aviation policy, and in response to the request Colonel Bettington, RAF,1 arrived in New Zealand early in 1919. He brought with him two RAF mechanics and four aircraft, two DH4s and two Bristol Fighters. The aircraft were sent to Sockburn and housed by the Canterbury Aviation Company until the Government built two hangars for them.

While he was in New Zealand three officers with RAF experience were attached to him as staff: Major Brandon,2 Captain Don,3 and Lieutenant Shand.4 Captain Don was appointed to take charge of the aircraft at Sockburn.

After examining the country's air defence needs, Bettington made a report to the Government in June 1919. In it he showed really remarkable foresight. He had no faith in the possibility of a lasting peace brought about by the proposed League of Nations, and prophesied that the Pacific would become a centre of trouble. In particular, he pointed out that Japan had emerged from the war

1 Gp Capt A. V. Bettington, CMG; born England, 12 Jun 1881; served in South African War, 1899–1903; Zulu War, 1906; First World War, 1914–19; commanded RAF in Ireland, 1922; retired 1931; recalled to active list for special duties, 1939–45; died 1950.

2 Maj A. de Bathe Brandon, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Heretaunga; born 1884; barrister; joined RFC 1915; decorated for his part in the destruction of Zeppelin L.15 on night 31 Mar–1 Apr 1916 and of L.33 on night 23–24 Sep 1916.

3 Capt J. H. Don; Timaru; born Dunedin, 18 Sep 1892; dental surgeon; 1 NZEF 1914–19; attached RAF 1919.

4 2 Lt E. T. Shand; born Taieri, 28 Feb 1891; sheep farmer; 1 NZEF 1916–17; RFC 1917; died 15 Jan 1938.

page 8 relatively much stronger than she had been before and that she would be looking for an outlet for her surplus population. New Zealand, he considered, should be prepared to play an active part in Imperial defence, and should establish close liaison with Australia and with the Air Ministry. Also, because of its distance from sources of help, it should be ready to defend itself immediately against attack. In his assessment of the situation he was not led astray, as were a number of later planners, by the existence of a supposedly impregnable base at Singapore.

He recommended that the Government should immediately start to form an Air Force, using trained men who had returned from the RAF to provide the initial personnel requirements and taking over the Canterbury Aviation Company's School as a training centre.

The minimum units required to form an efficient operational Air Force were:

  • 1 Corps reconnaissance and fighter squadron

  • 1 large day-bombing squadron

  • 1 large night-bombing squadron

  • 1 scout fighter squadron

  • 1 squadron of torpedo planes and ship bombers

  • 2 squadrons of large flying boats

  • 1 aircraft depot

  • 2 aircraft parks

All these should be formed immediately in cadre and should be capable of rapid expansion into fully mobilised units. In addition, it would be necessary to provide large reserves of men and material to meet wastage in time of war. A headquarters staff should be established to administer the force, and a liaison officer should be appointed to Air Ministry to keep New Zealand in touch with RAF developments.

His final report, presented in July, envisaged a permanent establishment of 70 officers and 299 airmen being attained in four years, while a Territorial force of 174 officers and 1060 airmen was to be built up within eight years. The estimated expenditure on aerodromes, buildings, and equipment in the first four years was £701,250, and the total cost for the same period £1,294,000.

While Colonel Bettington was formulating his recommendations, the British Government offered New Zealand a hundred aircraft as a free gift ‘to assist the Dominion to establish an Air Force, and thereby develop the defence of the Empire by air.’1

1 The following types were offered:

  • DH9 (BHP engine)

  • DH9A (Liberty engine)

  • Bristol Fighter (Arab engine)

  • SE5 (Hispano Suiza engine)

  • Dolphin (Hispano Suiza engine)

  • Avro (Clerget, le Rhone or Mono engine)

  • Salamander (BR2 engine).

page 9

No immediate reply was made to the British Government, and in the meantime Bettington was asked to prepare a less ambitious scheme. He did so, eliminating three of the squadrons he had originally planned, and concentrating all land planes at Sockburn and flying boats at Auckland. Even this was too much, and on 27 August Cabinet decided that it was ‘impracticable to involve the country in the large expenditure that would be required for any air scheme which would be of value for defence or postal purposes.’ Finally Bettington recommended the following temporary measures ‘pending a more settled state of the political outlook in New Zealand’:


The appointment of an Air Adviser.


Subsidising the civil flying schools at Auckland and Christchurch.


Refresher training for ex-RAF personnel.


The transfer of a number of Territorial personnel for air training.


The acceptance of some, at least, of the gift aircraft.


The allotment of £25,000 for expenditure on the above.


Experiments with an airmail service.

Thereafter, he returned to England feeling that he had not been able to accomplish much in New Zealand.1

The aircraft he had brought with him were retained at Sockburn. In November Captain Isitt,2 who had recently returned from service with the RAF, was posted there to relieve Captain Don. His duties entailed looking after the aircraft, acting as liaison officer between the Canterbury Aviation Company and the Government, and supervising military flying training—if and when it took place.

Having disposed of its expert adviser, the Government set up an advisory committee of its own to bring down recommendations concerning aviation generally, and the British offer of aircraft in particular.

After lengthy discussion it was decided to ask for twenty Avros and nine DH9As, and for six flying boats instead of the balance of the 100 aircraft originally offered. The request was signalled to

1 The measure of enthusiasm which Bettington's report aroused in New Zealand military circles can be gauged from the fact that by 1920 it had been lost and only odd papers could be found in the Defence Department. Not until 1929 was a complete copy found, in private hands, and placed on file.

2 AVM Sir Leonard M. Isitt, KBE, Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Christchurch, 27 Jul 1891; 1 Canterbury Regiment 1911; NZ Rifle Brigade, 1 NZEF, 1915–16; RFC and RAF 1916–19; appointed military equipment and instructional officer NZ Air Service, 1919; gazetted Captain, NZ Permanent Air Force, 1923 and appointed to command Wigram Aerodrome; attached RAF and appointed NZ Air Liaison Officer at Air Ministry, 1926–28; AMP 1937–40; NZ representative on Supervisory Board of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1940–42; Air Attache, Washington, 1942; DCAS 1943; CAS 1943–46; represented NZ at Japanese surrender in Tokio Bay, Sep 1945; retired 1946; Chairman of Directors, NZ NAC.

page 10 London in January 1920. A fortnight later Air Ministry replied that, owing to the long delay between the making of the original offer (11 July 1919) and its acceptance (28 January 1920), no surplus DH9A machines were then left; nor could the six flying boats be supplied.

New Zealand then took prompt steps to reserve what aircraft were then still available, and some months later 33 machines were shipped out, comprising 20 Avros, 9 DH9s, 2 Bristol Fighters, and 2 DH4s. Of these, when they arrived, six were retained by the Government and stationed at Sockburn for military purposes, and the rest were lent to private flying enterprises which were being formed in various parts of the country.