Robert Little was to become Australia’s top fighter pilot in the First World War, an Ace pilot who claimed 47 confirmed kills before being killed in action. Robert Little was born on 19th July 1895 in Melbourne, at Hawthorn, son of James Little a seller of medical and surgical books. He was well educated at Scotch College and entered the family business as a traveling salesman. He applied for one of the few vacancies at Point Cook Military Flying School and was rejected along with hundreds of others. He then decided to sail to England in July 1915 were he paid to become a qualified pilot at his own expense gaining his flying certificate with the Royal Aero Club at Hendon in October 1915. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915 and in June 1916 was posted to Dunkirk. He joined the 8th Naval Squadron in October 1916 having married Vera Gertrude Field in the September of that year. The 8th Naval squadron was equipped with Sopwith Pups. Little’s Pup, N5182, can be found on display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon. On 1 November he scored his first aerial victory, rising to 3 by the end of 1916. In March 1917 he was credited with nine enemy aircraft shot down; he was promoted to flight lieutenant in April.
Little’s tally of victories started to rapidly increase when the squadron converted to Sopwith Triplanes, with eight victories each in April and May; four in June; and fourteen in July 1917 when he began flying a Sopwith Camel. Little was nicknamed Rikki by his squadron mates after the cobra killing mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in Rudyard Kipling stories. By August 1917 he was stationed in Kent for some rest having totaled an impressive 37 victories and having earned the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar and the Croix de Guerre; adding a Bar to the D.S.O in September. He gained promotion to Flight commander in January 1918.
Little was a clumsy flyer and had frequently crashed on landing but was fearless and a crack shot in aerial combat. He would gain the element of surprise by attacking large enemy formations with a reckless courage having more than once actually hit an enemy aircraft in his attempts to close for the kill. He frequently practiced while not flying with pistol and rifle vs moving targets honing his skills and although he as well liked and known for a good sense of humour, he was a loner, a dedicated predator of the skies rather than a leader of men.
In March 1918 he joined the unit which was to become 203 squadron in April with the creation of the Royal Air force. On 27th May 1918 his luck ran out. He took off from Ezil le Hamel in the dark to intercept a group of German Gotha bombers. He was fatally wounded in the groin and crashed being found the following morning. At 22 he left behind a widow and young son who following his wishes traveled to Little’s native country to live. Major (Air Vice Marshal) R. R. Collishaw who was at one point Robert Little’s commanding officer described him as “Bold, aggressive and courageous yet he was gentle and kindly … his example was a tribute to the high standards of Australian manhood”.
Robert Little was Australia’s highest scoring Ace in the First World War, his nearest rivals being Major R.S Dallas with 39 and Captain A.H Cobby with 29 victories. Little is ranked as 14th among the Aces of all sides in the conflict.
Total victories: 47
Flying Sopwith Pup: 4
Flying Sopwith Triplane: 24
Flying Sopwith Camel: 19
Royal Air force museum Hendon London