The Corfu Disaster and the four aviators who gave up their lives to win the Great Air Race

Although the 1919 Great Air Race is remembered for the success of Sir Ross Smith’s record-breaking flight to Australia, we must also remember the Corfu Disaster and the four young aviators who gave up their lives to try and win the race.

Date Published August 6, 2018
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Although the 1919 Great Air Race is remembered for the success of Sir Ross Smith’s record-breaking flight to Australia, we must also remember the Corfu Disaster. This is the story of the four young aviators who gave up their lives to try and win the race.

Two of these airmen were Cedric Howell and George Fraser. Both men were experienced aviators, so it is surprising that their Great Air Race experience ended in disaster. Captain Howell was born in Adelaide. He later served with the Flying Sopwith Camels in Italy during WWI. He was awarded a D.S.O in October 1919, with the citation: Captain Cedric Ernest Howell, M.C., D.F.C recently attracted an enemy of 15 aeroplanes and succeeded in destroying four of them. Two days later, he destroyed another enemy machine and on the following day, he led three machines against sixteen enemy scouts, destroying two of them. Captain Howell was a very gallant and determined fighter who takes no account of the enemy’s superior numbers in his battles. During the RAF service he was credited with having destroyed 32 aircraft.”

George Fraser was born in Coburg, Victoria. He also served as an air mechanic in WWI. He was employed immediately after armistice with Rolls Royce. At age 40, he was the oldest person to compete in the Great Air Race.

On October 15, 1919, Howard Fraser entered their Martinsyde A1 Biplane into the race. They nominated Howell as pilot and Fraser as mechanic. They took off from Hounslow airfield at 9:34am on Thursday December 4 in their single-engined aircraft, fitted with a 275 horse power Rolls Royce Falcon engine.

Plans for the Howell flight had been organised by the Martinsyde company, with fuel supplies arranged at all possible landing points. After so much strategic planning, no one envisioned such a terrible disaster. They carried letters on board for Australians, including one for Prime Minister Hughes. Messages for a safe trip were also received from Prince Albert and Winston Churchill.

After stops en-route at Lyon, Dijon, Pisa, and Taranto, they headed for Athens: four flying hours away. Approaching Corfu in heavy mist they ran out of fuel and landed in the ocean, just short of the coast. Cries for help were heard by some peasants on the sea-shore but the sea was to rough for an immediate rescue. As soon as conditions moderated, a navel motorboat sped to rescue them. But it was too late. Fraser’s body was never found, but the body of Captain Howell finally washed ashore. Howell’s body was eventually brought by steama to Melbourne, where he was buried with four military honours at Heidelburg Cemetery on April 22, 1920. The Corfu Disaster was the second of two fatal aircraft crashes in the air race. It is truly a tragedy that these four young Australians perished.

Material sourced from:

Eustis, Nelson. The Greatest Air Race: England- Australia 1919. Rigby Limited, 1969.

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