Service Details: Keith Caldwell's military career really began as a kid when he served in the Defence Cadet Corps while at school. He had done well and gained a commission as an officer in the cadets, and when war broke out in 1914 he joined the Territorial Army. He was keen to enlist in the regular army and join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force which was to go off to the war in Europe, but his attempt to enlist was unsuccessful.
He was attracted however to the idea of becoming a pilot and join the newly established Royal Flying Corps. So he managed to raise the necessary £100 fee to gain him entry into the newly established New Zealand Flying School, at Kohimarama on the foreshore of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. His flying training began in October 1915, learning the rudiments of flight in the school's Curtiss flying boats. Six candidates began the first ever course at the school. Keith was one of just two students who completed the course and gained their wings. The other was Geoffrey Callendar, who had also worked at the Bank of New Zealand. Many more would follow them through the school and onto the war.
Upon completing the course and gaining his wings in December 1915, Keith left for England the next month in January 1916. He applied for enlistment into the Royal Flying Corps, and was accepted and commissioned with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in April 1916, commencing further flying training at Oxford, Norwich and Sedgeford.
Once the RFC was satisfied with his level of flying skills, Keith sailed for France in July 1916. There on the 29th of July he joined No. 8 Squadron RFC, which was stationed on at Arras. The squadron was at this time flying the B.E.2c and BE2d aircraft which carried two men, the pilot and an observer. It is believed Keith flew alongside the famous Albert Ball VC who joined this squadron in August 1916.
On the 18th of September 1916, Keith chalked up his first kill whilst he and his observer, Captain P.E. Welchman, were engaged on artillery observation work. They shot down and destroyed a Roland C.II at Grevillers-Bucquoy.
Keith remained with the squadron till November 1916, and then he transferred to No. 60 Squadron where he would now fly the Nieuport fighter. With this squadron he was to really come into his own and develop his skills as well as his reputation. The squadron was famous for nurturing many top pilots, and those who'd been among its ranks already had included such greats as Albert Ball VC, Major C.F.A. Portal DSO MC, Major Harold H. Balfour MC and Major R.M. Hill MC.
Other names to come in the ranks of No. 60 Squadron were Major W.A. 'Billy' Bishop VC, Major Alan J.L. Scott OC (a New Zealander), and Major C.K. Cochrane-Patrick. All these men had scored 10 or more victories in aerial combat. Bishop alone scored 47 kills while in the squadron.
Whilst with No. 60 Squadron Keith downed a further eight enemy aircraft, six of them whilst flying his regular mount, Nieuport B1654.
Sometime in early 1917 Keith gun-tested the first Sopwith Camel to be sent to France, but he never flew the type operationally.
In February 1917 Keith was promoted to flight commander with the rank of Captain, initially in charge of C Flight, and later of B Flight of No. 60 Squadron. He became a good leader too. Though he was never considered a very good shot in the air, he became renowned as an exceptional pilot. He was also very brave.
On one occasion he went to the aid of fellow squadron pilot Billy Bishop when he'd gotten into real trouble with overwhelming enemy fighters. Bishop put it into his own words thus; "In one case I had a New Zealander, Captain out of my own Squadron, come eight miles across the enemy lines after both his guns had choked, and he was entirely useless as a fighting unit, just to try to bluff away seven of the enemy who were attacking me... It was a tremendously brave act on his part, as he ran great risks of being killed, while absolutely helpless to defend himself in any way."
On the 9th of April 1917 Keith was Mentioned in Dispatches, the citation reading:
"For distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty, deserving of special mention. Mentioned in the dispatches of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig"
Another notable combat occurred on the 28th of May 1917, when Keith was attacked by the leader of three German Albatross scout planes at a height of 7000 feet, near Leus. The pilot of the Albatross was extremely aggressive, and while Keith attempted all manner of manoeuvres and stunts to shake him, the German continued to follow. By the time they'd descended to around 1000 feet, Keith feigned that his aircraft was now out of control, and began to spin downwards toward the ground. The German followed to confirm his kill, but Caldwell's Nieuport suddenly pulled out if the dive just before hitting the ground, pulled up and managed to get into an attacking position for the first time. He fired 94 rounds, but the Albatross escaped, unharmed, flying east. This was actually a lucky escape for Keith as he believed the pilot he had so much trouble in shaking was German ace Werner Voss, who at that time had 48 kills to his name. He only realised this point later when he was a witness to Voss's last flight, where he recognised the exact same skills and actions. An anti-aircraft battery west of Leus also reported that the aircraft pursuing Keith on that day had indeed been Voss.
On the 11th of August 1917, after a successful tour of operations which had seen his tally now rise to nine kills, Keith was ordered back to England, where he was transferred to Home Establishment and became a flying instructor. A little over a month later his work on the Western Front was recognised with the awarding of the Military Cross. The citation read:
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when leading offensive patrols. On one occasion he led a patrol of five machines against twelve hostile aircraft, all of which he drove down out of control. He has personally destroyed five hostile machines, and has had over fifty contests in the air, in all of which he has displayed splendid skill and fearlessness, and has set an example to his squadron."
Keith Caldwell had earned a reputation for being fearless and he inspired great confidence in others who flew with him. He had earned the nickname of 'Grid' thanks of his habit of referring to an aircraft as a grid - which was an old Kiwi slang for a bicycle.
In January 1918, following the rest period as an instructor, Keith was promoted to the rank of Major and given command of No. 74 Squadron. This unit was equipped with S.E.5a fighters, and it was written in Keith Caldwell's obituary that appeared in New Zealand Wings magazine in December-January 1981 that;
"Gathering his pilots around him on arrival he gave a pep talk, saying that they were equipped with the finest machine of all time and had three battle-experienced flight commanders, one of whom was Capt. Mick Mannock who was later to be awarded the VC. He went onto say that he expected every one of them to fight like hell and that it must never be said that any of them ever failed to go to the aid of a comrade, regardless of the cost, and that no patrol was ever to be late in taking off. The squadron never let him down and a tradition that has never been bettered begun."
No. 74 Squadron moved to France on the 31st of March 1918. There, the squadron soon earned the nickname 'Tiger Squadron'.
Under Keith's command, the unit was very successful, and No. 74 Sqn were credited with destroying or driving down out of control 230 enemy aircraft in less than eight months, for the loss of just 14 killed on their own side, with five more taken prisoner and six wounded. They became one of the most successful squadrons to operate during that period at the front. Among the pilots in the squadron were Mick Mannock VC, who scored 73 victories, Roxburgh Smith with 16 kills, Kiddie with 11 kills, and Young with 8 enemy aircraft destroyed to his name.
On April 12th, the day Field Marshall Hague issued his famous "Backs to the Wall" statement, the squadron made its first contact with the enemy and showed its worth. They downed five planes that day, one of them being shared by Keith Caldwell and Captain Young.
It was not common practice at that time for Commanding Officers of a squadron to take part in offensive patrols, but Keith insisted on leading every patrol he could when his other administrative work allowed him the time to. He believed in getting as close as possible to the enemy, and if there was no enemy in sight he liked to try to draw them out.
In June 1918 he was leading 19 aircraft on a patrol over the Ypres sector. They found no sign of enemy aircraft. Keith decided to immediately set off for Rouhrs with the squadron, and lead his aircraft around the enemy aerodrome in a challenge to come up and fight. Suddenly enemy aircraft were closing in from every aerodrome within fifteen miles, accepting the challenge. However none got within 400 yards of the British squadron as every time Keith turned them into the attack, the enemy aircraft scattered. This continued for half an hour without either side making any contact, and eventually Caldwell flew home with his men in disgust.
On one occasion in September 1918, Keith's quick thinking and resourceful nature saved him from certain death. Whilst on a patrol, another S.E.5a struck his aircraft, catastrophically damaging his wing struts and altering the aircraft's aerodynamics. Instantly his fighter plummeted 1000 feet and went into a flat spin. Keith knew he was doomed if he didn't attempt something radical. So he stepped his left leg out onto the port wing, and grabbed hold of the strut with his left hand. Attempting to balance the aircraft by changing the centre of gravity, Keith continued to try to fly the aircraft with his right hand on the joystick.
With only 500 feet of altitude left he realised it was hopeless, but this activity had allowed him to guide the aircraft away from enemy territory and over the British lines. Just as the plane was about to impact with the ground Keith jumped, clearing the wreck and getting up to find he'd landed in front of a British infantry dugout. Astonished soldiers saw him get up, dust himself off and walk towards them as if nothing had happened. Escaping the flat spin, guiding the plane away from enemy lines and then jumping clear at the last minute and walking away from the crash is nothing short of a miracle.
Like all amazing tales of heroism such as this, there are different versions. The above was related from a June 1945 article by H.H. Russell in Contact. But the book By Such Deeds by Colin Hanson records the altitudes slightly differently, stating:
"WWI history records that: "in Sep 1918 when attacking German aircraft over the Cambrai sector a member of his formation collided with him buckling his starboard upper wing and forcing him into a dive. After his aircraft had lost about 2000 feet of height the dive gradually developed into a right-handed semi-flat spin. At about 5000 feet Caldwell climbed out of his cockpit, placed his left foot on the lower port mainplane and, grasping the port centre strut with his left hand endeavoured to balance his aircraft, flying it with his right hand and foot. Displaying skill and resource of the highest order he succeeded in guiding his crippled aircraft so that it just cleared the front line trenches and, just as it was about to crash, he jumped off and turned a few somersaults on the ground. He then stood up, brushed himself off and walked to the nearest trench asking to use the telephone."
Regardless of the discrepancies of height, it was an incredible feat of quick thinking, courage and sheer will, and has to count as one of the most amazing last minute escapes from a crashing aircraft there ever was. The event has been depicted faithfully in the Aviation Heritage Centre at Omaka, Blenheim, New Zealand. This incredible museum has displayed a full sized replica SE5a with a dummy of Keith Caldwell above a trench, poised to step off seconds before impact.