Group Captain Robert Halley DFC & 2 Bars, AFC


Group Captain Robert ‘Jock’ Halley was born in Perth in November 1895. He was the second son of Bailie and Mrs Robert Halley, 5 Barossa Place, Perth. He was educated at Perth Academy and was following out agricultural work at Ardoch of Gallery, near Montrose when on reaching military age, he enlisted. Halley was a prominent member of Perthshire Cricket Club, second eleven and was regarded as a very good slow bowler.

He joined a cyclist unit of the Royal Highlanders (HCB) in February 1915 at Montrose. In February 1917, he transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) at RNASTE Vendôme, France taking his officers commission as a Probationary Flight Officer. The airfield operated over 100 Caudron G.III tractor biplane trainers and some Maurice Farman S.7 Longhorn pusher biplanes. 

On graduation, he was posted to Naval ‘A’ Squadron (later 16 Naval Squadron and 216 Squadron, R.A.F.), flying twinengine Handley Page 0/100 (H.P.11) bomber aircraft. Later he flew out of Ochey aerodrome, near Nancy in France. His observer was usually the American millionaire, Bobbie Reece. 

Halley took part in over 20 night-bombing missions before the end of the war. These were very daring long-distance strikes against targets in Köln (Cologne), FrankfurtStuttgart, and Mannheim (6 times). Naval “A” Squadron had been hurriedly formed at Manston in 1917, the Germans had been bombing London and cities in the south-east and civilians were crying out for reprisals. They were initially equipped with Handley Page 0/100 night bombers and sent out to Ochey aerodrome to bomb the Rhine towns.

The first squadron crash of all occurred when Flight Lieutenant (later Captain) Halley came down in the middle of a wood at Chancenay, near Saint-Dizier. The machine (3140) practically buried itself in the mud and slush, only the engines being saved. All the occupants were uninjured.

The weather on 24 August 1918 was not good, but despite this, the Squadron was ordered to mount a maximum effort that night. The main target being the railway station and sidings at Frankfurt am Main and the secondary, the Burlach works at Saarbrücken. Shortly after dusk, the squadron of six Handley Page V/100 and V/500 twin-engine bombers, each with a crew of three, took off. It became apparent that reaching the target was a near impossible task and four aircraft turned back. One of the remaining two chose to bomb the aerodrome at Boulay, leaving Handley Page V100 No.3138 crewed by CHalley, Lieutenant Robert H Reece DFC (observer/navigator) and 2nd Lieutenant C W Treleaven (gunner) to continue the mission.

On the Allied side, a number of automated signal lights flashed a predetermined Morse Code letter as a guide for the night bombers. Steering a course of 39 degrees from D lighthouse at an average altitude of 6,000 feet, they encountered only sporadic flak from the towns they passed over. They arrived at their target at midnight and were greeted by a heavy anti-aircraft barrage and numerous searchlights. Switching off the engines, Halley glided the aircraft down and Reece dropped the bomb load of a single 550 lb and four 112 lb bombs onto Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.

They all missed, but damaged a number of properties including the docks at  Westhafen. Course was set for the most direct route home, over 100 miles away. The storm had cleared but to add to their problems, there was another storm ahead. They elected to fly underneath it as they did not have sufficient fuel to climb above it. Fierce winds tossed them about, lightening flashes illuminated them and they were soaked by driving rain for hours. Searchlights occasionally caught them out and the aircraft was hit by shrapnel numerous times.

The storm cleared again just enough over the town of Kaiserslautern for them to check their course and make a correction. But now they flew into another, even more violent storm. Unable to follow a compass course, all they could do was use all their remaining strength and will to keep the aircraft flying. Just as dawn was breaking, they arrived south of the Marne-Rhine canal and headed for the nearest aerodrome. Shortly after crossing into friendly territory their engines stopped due to lack of fuel and they were forced to make a safe landing in a field near Lunéville, eight and a half hours after setting out.

Halley was awarded Bar to his DFC for this effort and was selected to be one of four pilots for a top-secret mission to to attack ‘the right spot’, bomb the German capital, Berlin.

The following message was received by RAF 216 squadron at the termination of WW1 hostilities:

D.S.O.

To O.C. No. 216 Squadron

Sender’s Number G.O.C./211.

AAA On the Armistice being singed I would like to congratulate you on having materially assisted in bringing about this desirable result by creating demoralisation in Germany AAA It was only by the determination of the Ground Personnel in keeping the machines in an efficient condition and of the Pilots and Observers in getting the distance that this result was brought about AAA I hope to be able to come and thank you personally shortly AAA I would like you all to remember however that although the Armistice has been signed we must keep our weapons ready for instant use in case the enemy shows any signs of negligence to carry out the conditions AAA

From General Trenchard, H.Q., I.F.  

( AAA was standard telegram-ese for a full stop)

Asleep in bed one night following another long night bombing raid on Mannheim, he was awoken and told he had to leave for England the following morning. A destroyer was waiting for him at Dunkirk and a car would meet him at Dover to take him to London. Halley was to fly the new Super Handley V/1500′, very large, four-engine biplane designed to carry a 3,000 lb bomb load and fly from airfields in East Anglia, the distance to Berlin and back. The V/1500 was the very first aircraft to feature a gun turret in the tail and its size was not surpassed until the Boeing Super Fortress arrived in WW2. Before these Berlin raids could be carried out, the war ended, the Armistice was agreed with Germany and the war ended. 

A few weeks later, in December 1918, Halley with Major A S McLaren as co-pilot (and Maltese Terrier, ‘Tiny’), Flight Sergeant SmithSergeant Crockett, and Sergeant Brown as the crew set off to fly to India from Ipswich in Handley Page V/1500 J1936, ‘HMA Old Carthusian‘. They also carried a passenger, General Norman McEwen who was to take over as A O C in IndiaThe planned route was via Paris, Rome, Malta, Cairo, Bagdad, and Karachi – a distance of 5,560 miles accomplished in a time of 72 hours and 41 minutes, at an average speed of 77 mph. 

The London Daily Mail was keenly interested in the great adventure. The following account was published:

“A British Aeroplane left England today, Friday (13 December 1918) for a flight to India.

At 9.30 a.m., a giant Handley Page, of V/1500 type, carrying six members of the Royal Air Force, rose from the aerodrome at Martlesham, near Ipswich, and headed for the Channel and France on a flight to Karachi, and hence to Delhi.

The huge craft crossed the Channel, but ran into a bank of thick fog and was compelled to land at a small town near the French coast. It is hoped that the weather tomorrow morning will allow a continuance of the journey, and that Miramas, near Marseille, may be reached to-morrow night.

On the front of the engines was “H.M.A. Old Carthusian.” She was named by chief pilot, Major Archibald Stuart McLaren, M.C., A.F.C., who was a Charterhouse boy, as was one of the passengers, General McEwen.

If everything goes well and the most sanguine of hopes are realised the journey may be made in seven stages.

The Handley Page V/1500 had a wing span of 126 ft and four Rolls Royce Eagle engines between them developing 1,400

On reaching India, Halley was ordered to carry out a daring bombing strike on Kabul, Afghanistan. At 03.00 hours on 24 May 1919, they took off. The route was northwest towards the Khyber Pass, on up the Kabul river and followed a rough road to Jalalabad as the sun was coming up. Then west another 90 miles to Kabul. They pressed on despite an starboard engine water leak coming from the second cylinder.  The precipitous mountains ahead were the next concern, they just managed to clear the gap where the road went through the 8,000 feet ridge of Jagalak Pass. 

Old Carthusian‘ dropped 20 bombs, one 112 and three 20 pound on the Amir’s palace sending the ladies of the royal harem into the streets in terror, causing great scandal. Another three 112 and seven 20 pound bombs hit the royal arsenal at Arg causing a large explosion. Six hours later they landed at Risalpur, now in Pakistan.

King Amanullah had declared Jihad on 3 May 1919, and sent the 50,000 strong Afghan army supported by 120,000 frontier tribesmen into British India to start the Third Afghan War, known in Afghanistan as the War of Independence. The Treaty of Gandamak in 1879 had held for 40 years, but now they wanted to be free and independent of existing treaties with British India.

The purpose of the Halley raid was to alarm King Amanullah and it did so successfully, attaining an immediate message to the Viceroy in India that the Afghans wanted peace. Halley later claimed to have ‘ended the war on his own’.  An armistice was signed on 8 August 1919.

A Bristol Fighter, BF4626 aeroplane of RAF 20 Squadron was lost on 30 July 1919 during the conflict. Acting Captain George Eastwood was shot through the chest by a party of tribesmen concealed on the hillside. The observer, 2nd Lieutenant David Lapraik was also injured. A rescue mission was undertaken by the Kurram Militia from the post at Badama. Both airmen survived, George Eastwood was discharged from the RAF in December 1919 and David Lapraik in May 1920.

The founding editor of the British weekly The AeroplaneC. G. Grey wrote:

 ‘The raid on Kabul was made with decisive effect – that was when Jock Halley blew out the walls of the King’s Harem and started the fashion of female emancipation in Afghanistan!’. C G Grey was also the second editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. 

D.F.C. London Gazette 3 August 1918:

‘A gallant and determined leader in long distance night bombing raiding. He has been most successful in many of these raids, generally under adverse weather conditions and intense anti-aircraft fire from the enemy and having had to fly by compass owing to density of mist. In his last raid the flight outward and homeward lasted eight hours.’

Bar to D.F.C. London Gazette 1 January 1919.

Second Bar to D.F.C. London Gazette 12 July 1920 (Afghanistan).

A.F.C. London Gazett22 December 1919.

First and Second D.F.C.s – Night Bomber Pilot

Group Captain Robert Halley DFC & 2 Bars, AFC (Air Force Cross) died on 13 December 1979, exactly 61 years since his departure to India. His obituary stated that he was ‘one of the aviation ‘greats’ of all time, a man cast in the ‘heroic mould’. 

RNASTE (Royal Naval Air Service Training Establishment) Vendôme was located between Le Mans and Orléans. 

Bobbie Reece first flew with the La Fayette Escadrille, a French WW1 flying unit made up of U S. volunteers. Reece apparently crashed so many planes that they let him go. Halley described Reece as ‘ham-handed’ as a pilot, but had managed to wrangle his way into becoming his observer in RAF 216 Squadron. Bobby Reece won a DFC at the same time as Halley on a bombing mission to Germany, one of the few Americans to do so.

The airfield at Risalpur was created in 1910 by the Royal Flying Corp. RFC/RAF No. 31 Squadron flew B.E.2c and Farman biplanes in a ground support role from Risalpur. In 1947, it became the airfield of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). In 1967 it was upgraded to the Pakistan Air Force Academy Asghar Khan.

On 17 May 1919, a Handley Page Type O/400, D5439 of RAF 58 Squadron carrying Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) on a flight to Cairo, Egypt crashed at the airport of Roma-Centocelle. T E Lawrence had been attending the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris and had hitched a ride in order to collect from Cairo documents relating to his service in the Middle East during the Great War. The pilot and co-pilot were both killed; Lawrence survived the incident with a broken shoulder blade and two broken ribs. The latter injury troubling him for the rest of his life.

Captain John William Alcock DSC and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown of the RAF aboard Vickers Vimy F.B.27A Mk.IV biplane bomber made the very first successful non-stop trans-Atlantic crossing by air on 14-15 June 1919.

Group Captain Robert Halley

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 68142) Handley Page V/1500 night heavy bomber. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205315435

BRITISH AIRCRAFT IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 67636) Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber biplane. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205184431

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1918-1939 (H(AM) 194) A Handley Page V/1500 bomber, which made the first flight from England to India in January 1919. In May 1919 it bombed rebel Afghans in Kabul, and was thus the only V/1500 to see action. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205125510

Picquets from 2nd Battalion, 61st King George’s Own Pioneers, overlooking the Khyber Pass, 1919, 3rd Afghan War. Image from the National Army Museum, NAM Accession Number NAM. 1983-12-4-45. Copyright/Ownership
© National Army Museum, Out of Copyright. Location, National Army Museum, Study collection

The Khyber Pass is a 53-kilometer (33-miles) passage through the Hindu Kush. It connects the northern frontier of what is now Pakistan with Afghanistan. During the three Afghan Wars the pass was the scene of numerous skirmishes between Anglo-Indian soldiers and local tribesmen who tried to control access to it.

BRITISH AIRCRAFT IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 67636) Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber biplane. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205184431

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 68142) Handley Page V/1500 night heavy bomber. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205315435

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 67547) Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber biplane. This is the second form of the first prototype. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205314777

The de Triomphe style arch, Zafar Arch or Arch of Victory (Persian: طاق ظفر‎ Taq-e Zafar) is located in Paghman Gardens. It was built by King Amanullah in commemoration of the War of Independence in 1919. Pagman is a town in the hills near Afhganistan’s capitol of Kabul.
This content is freely available under simple legal terms because of Creative Commons, © Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. From the National Library of Scotland. Black-and-white photographs mainly of the Western Front during the First World War. Official British war photographers took many of them for propaganda purposes. Unless otherwise stated, titles are the photographs’ original captions. From the papers of Field Marshal (Earl) Haig (1861-1928). The Haig Papers also contain Douglas Haig’s diaries.

Photographs taken by Tom Aitken, a newspaper photographer from Glasgow who was assigned in December 1917 as a war photographer along with David McLellan and Armando Consolé. McLellan’s work also features in the National Library of Scotland’s Haig Papers. War photographers held a hybrid position during World War I, being part of yet not ultimately responsible to the military.

(65) N.498 – Air mechanics seeing that all’s well before the Handley-Page sets out to bomb the Germans
Permanent URL: https://digital.nls.uk/74549110

(66) N.499 – One of her propellers
Permanent URL: https://digital.nls.uk/74549112

(69) N.510 – Up in the air in a Handley-Page, showing another Handley-Page making for the enemy’s lines
Permanent URL: https://digital.nls.uk/74549118

(68) N.508 – Handley-Pages setting out to bomb the Germans
Permanent URL: https://digital.nls.uk/74549116

(67) N.501 – Nose of a Handley-Page manned by three men
Permanent URL: https://digital.nls.uk/74549114