The Sopwith swashbuckler

Alex Little, Australian World War I fighter pilot.
Alex Little, Australian World War I fighter pilot.

MIKE Rosel worked for the The Sun News-Pictorial in the 1960s as a hardboiled reporter; he still likes to chase a good Melbourne story and he still favours the direct approach.

I had written in April about a Spitfire pilot whose remains were found 70 years after he got shot down. Then last week Rosel phoned: "Who do you reckon is Australia's best fighter ace?" he barked. "Ever heard of Alec Little?"

Rosel hadn't heard of Little either until he was at the RAF Museum in London and saw a British Sopwith Pup biplane from World War I with a sign saying "Aussie Pups" explaining that "Dominion Aces" such as Captain RA Little had flown them in combat.

Back in Melbourne he found that Little shot down more enemy planes (47) than any Australian pilot in any war, and while he was mentioned briefly in the war histories and noted in the Australian War Memorial and Australian Defence Force Academy, his extraordinary war pedigree lacked detail because he flew for England's Royal Naval Air Service.

Rosel reckoned that the "lest we forget" pledge was not honoured with Little. He's written a book called Unknown Warrior about him. "Why didn't I know about this guy?" he says. "Why doesn't anyone outside of the military aviation historians know about him? Because he wasn't in the Australian uniform." Little was famous only among his peers.

He died in combat in 1918 over France aged 22. There were very few Australian pilots in that war, only four fighting squadrons, one not arriving until near the end. Little tried out for them but was rejected so he got on a boat to England. He started out flying seaplanes. "A bit like condemning Tom Cruise to pilot a Hercules," says Rosel.

Then he went off to the Western front over France in a Sopwith Pup then a Sopwith Camel and finally a Sopwith triplane. He was nicknamed Rikki after the lethal mongoose in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

"He was a hunter," says Rosel. "He was itching for a fight. He saw it as a glorious sport. Biggles has got nothing on Alec Little, let me tell you."

Once, and only a month or so before he finally died after going after a bomber at night alone, he shot down a German Pfalz fighter and was ambushed by six more. His controls were shot away — the old bi and triplanes had open cockpits — and the plane dived and then the fuselage broke behind him.

When the plane hit the ground he was thrown clear but the German planes swooped him like angry Magpies so he started shooting at them with his revolver. They "were driven off by ground fire", he wrote in his logbook.

"He had balls of steel," says Mike Rosel.

Before he went to war Little lived in Punt Road, Windsor. He and his brother went to Scotch College from 1907. He left and started selling medical books with his father.

While stationed in England he married Vera Field, of Dover. They had a son, also called Alec. His nickname "Blymp" was for a time emblazoned on Little's warplane.

When Little died his son and wife settled in South Melbourne then Elwood; Alec jnr later headed a Melbourne University physics workshop.

Vera remarried. Her children are the last remaining link to Little, and her daughter Pam Berttell , 86, still lives in the same Elwood house.

Little's wooden propellor, salvaged from France, once hung on a wall but there's scant trace of him now.

His medals are in Canberra, a Celtic cross made for him by squadron mechanics is in Canberra too.

Although he was never there he was like a "ghost in the house", says Berttell. A presence.

"He had some get-up-and-go about him, didn't he?" she says. "He sounds like an amazing and reckless man."

Unknown Warrior is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. It is launched tomorrow at the Shrine.

This story The Sopwith swashbuckler first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.