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Wings over Gallipoli: our stealth mission revealed

Date

By David Ellery

A Royal Navy, Henri Farman, tandem seated float plane, possibly from HMS Ark Royal, returning to its launching ramp. Contributed by Australian War Memorial

A Royal Navy, Henri Farman, tandem seated float plane, possibly from HMS Ark Royal, returning to its launching ramp. Contributed by Australian War Memorial Photo: Australian War Memorial

Australia's Gallipoli landing was a stealthy operation complete with aerial reconnaissance involving home-grown flyboys rather than the botched affair etched into the bloody sands of the Australian psyche.

That's the ripping yarn historian Hugh Dolan is determined to deliver this Anzac Day as he tries to smash the myth that the landing was a monumental cock-up and replace it with a more complex truth.

Dolan, the author of 36 Days - The Untold Story Behind the Gallipoli Landings, says decades of half-truths, misinterpretations and outright fabrications have created a nearly all-pervading belief the Australian landings at Z Beach on the western side of the Gallipoli peninsula had been carried out under British direction, that the soldiers landed in the wrong place, that the landing had occurred in the dawn, and that there was a massacre on the beaches.

Dolan says the Australians planned their own landing, using the best technology available at the time, including aerial reconnaissance with planes from the world's first aircraft carrier.

They landed before the dawn and casualties on the landing beach were minimal compared with the bloodbath further south that was the British landing.

And, most significantly, the Australian boats which had been rowed ashore by men ordered to keep their rifles unloaded to avoid any chance of an accidental shot alerting the enemy, made landfall exactly where they were meant to.

''There was no preliminary bombardment; it was silent, stealthy, professional and very modern.

''By 4.30am the first wave was ashore.

''By 5am [Anzac commander William] Birdwood was crowing to [General Ian] Hamilton that 5500 men had [already] landed.

''Dawn wasn't until 5.20am,'' Dolan said.

Dolan's alternative account of Australia's seminal battle is to be broadcast at 7.30pm tomorrow when the documentary, Gallipoli From Above, based on his book, goes to air on pay TV's History Channel.

Dolan - a former RAAF intelligence officer who directed allied aircrews on their missions during the second Gulf War - also brings to light the Royal Naval Air Service was far from an all-British affair.

At least 26 Australians are believed to have served as either pilots or observers, including Captain Thomas Piper, who had been holidaying in England when war broke out.

An aircrew observer aboard the Ark Royal - the world's first purpose-built aircraft carrier - he flew numerous missions over the Gallipoli peninsula and was involved in an aerial assassination attempt on the German Kaiser when the Kaiser visited Gallipoli after the Anzac withdrawal.

Shot down in 1917, Captain Piper finished the war as a prisoner of war.

Dolan says the Australian commanders, including Duntroon Royal Military College founder General Sir William Throsby Bridges, were forward-looking and innovative - and perhaps more willing to take advantage of new technologies than their British counterparts.

Dolan's determination to get the true story of Gallipoli out is so great he commissioned a factual graphic novel - expected to become a collector's item - and printed 20,000 copies.

Dolan says his use of the ''comic book'' medium as a tool to educate and inform is not a first - but agrees few authors have previously used it to tell stories of this scope.

The real surprise in all of Dolan's work is the extensive use of aerial reconnaissance by the Allies - especially the Australians - in the lead-up to the landings.

The Ark Royal carried sea planes and wheeled aircraft.

While the seaplanes, which were lowered over the side by large cranes, were reusable, the conventional aircraft were not.

The expectation was that after being catapulted off the deck, the pilots would fly their mission, return to the vicinity of the carrier and then ''ditch'' into the sea. The hope was the aircrew would be rescued by the carrier's crew.

Pilots and aircrew carried empty petrol cans as flotation devices and had pistols and rifles so they could take pot shots at the enemy if an opportunity presented itself.

The 7000-tonne, 111 metre-long Ark Royal had been commissioned on December 10, 1914.

Her deployment to Gallipoli came less than four months after the first use of naval strike aircraft against an enemy. On Christmas morning, 1914, nine sea planes had been lowered into the sea 18 kilometres from the German Zeppelin Base at Heligoland in the North Sea. Seven of the planes struggled into the air and, of these, three returned after an abortive attack stymied by fog and low cloud. Despite its lack of success, the operation branded the newly formed Royal Naval Air Service as the most aggressive air force in the world and set the stage for the Ark Royal's sterling service in the Dardanelles.

The book 36 Days is dedicated to Bridges, who died after being shot by a sniper at Gallipoli a few weeks after the landing, and his then aide de camp, Colonel Cyril Brudenell White.

The two leaders, the first Australian commanders to plan a major military engagement, took full advantage of the intelligence gleaned by the RNAS aircrews, who flew a total of 196 aerial missions - including 38 aerial reconnaissance and 18 photographic aerial reconnaissance missions - over the Gallipoli peninsula.

Dolan finds it amazing the courage and initiative of men such as the Anzac intelligence officer, Major Charles Villiers-Stuart, are little known. Major Villiers-Stuart, who had never been in a plane in his life before, took off from the island of Tenedos at 2.20pm on April 14, 1915, to overfly the concealed Turkish positions behind the designated landing beaches. The flight was dangerous. Described as ''one of the crudest and earliest seaplanes ever built'', the Maurice Farman detailed for the task was fragile, tempera- mental, underpowered for the jobs it was called on to perform and, with a top speed of just 95km/h, vulnerable to ground fire. ''The Renault engine had an unsettling habit of cutting out in mid-flight,'' Dolan said. ''To address this potentially disastrous situation, the pilot was instructed to 'juggle' the throttle in the hope the engine would pick up.''

Major Villiers-Stuart returned and reported the presence of previously unknown batteries covering the landing beaches. This, and the other information gathered from the air, meant when the Anzacs did wade ashore before dawn on April 25, 1915, they not only knew where they were going; they also had a good idea of what they were up against.

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