Little bag of military history found at garbage tip

It has been described as the Australian military history equivalent of discovering a long-lost Don Bradman bat.

Found on a tip in southern Queensland, a brown leather Gladstone bag contained the property of Australia's greatest fighter ace, Captain Robert Alexander (Alec) Little.

A farmer from Stanthorpe, southern Queensland, found the bag, which contained a flying helmet, clothing, a baby photograph and other personal items. The items now have a permanent home at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross.

Melbourne-born Little was killed in May 1918 in a solo night pursuit of a German bomber on the Western Front. He was 22.

In combat in 1916, 1917 and 1918 with the Royal Naval Air Service, he was credited with 47 aerial victories.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Bar, the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and two Bars, and the French Croix de Guerre.

The farmer initially contacted the Australian Society of World War I Aero Historians, who in turn alerted the Australian Fleet Air Arm Museum when the historical significance and potential value of the items was realised.

Australia’s greatest fighter ace, Captain Robert Alexander (Alec) Little.

Fleet Air Arm Museum manager and senior curator Terry Hetherington travelled to Queensland to collect the historic artefacts on behalf of the Naval Heritage Collection, on condition of maintaining the donor's anonymity.

Mr Hetherington said the historic find would now be part of the museum's existing Little display.

About 20 years ago a replica of the Sopwith Pup biplane flown by Little was constructed and installed at the FAA Museum at Nowra.

The Gladstone bag.

A painting by Max Ordinall, which depicts Little's most famous combat, fighting alone against 11 German Scouts northeast of Arras, in which he flew a Sopwith triplane, also hangs in the museum.

"Eighteen months ago, the farmer, something of a collector, was dropping garbage at a waste transfer station near Texas, Queensland, when he saw an old Gladstone bag by the front gate, where locals leave goods which may interest others," Mr Hetherington said.

"He opened the bag, and found a mouse nest inside a tweed jacket, which he discarded. He noticed what he thought was an old leather motorcycle helmet and clothes but left the bag in his shed until he recently acquired a mannequin's head and thought the helmet might look good on it.

"He examined the helmet and felt something concealed in its lining.

"Not wishing to damage it, he had a vet X-ray it, and they saw a small object. The vet cut a few stitches and used forceps to extract what turned out to be an 1884 gold sovereign, with the photograph of a baby folded around it, and the inscription 'With love Vera' on the back.

"Captain Little's name was inscribed in the helmet and on other personal items in the bag.

"This find is hugely significant. Alex Little was our first flying ace.

"He funded his own way to England to fly for the Royal Naval Air Service and was a hero flying Sopwith Pup biplanes.

"We will now examine the finds in great detail.

"I would say this find for Australian military aviation is the equivalent of finding a long-lost Don Bradman bat.

"The intriguing question is how it got to the tip far from Little's home state of Victoria.

"We hope that media publicity may lead to the person who left it.

"We will also respect the confidentiality of anyone who comes forward, if that is their wish."

Melbourne writer Mike Rosel published the first biography of Little in September 2012, called Unknown Warrior: The Search For Australia's Greatest Ace.

Unlocking the treasure 

The silk shirt and waistcoat found in the bag.

The find at the tip in Queensland of Alec Little’s property was extraordinary. The bag contained a number of personal items, many of them in superb condition.

• The flying helmet was hand-printed with the name R.A. Little on the inner lining, plus the Latin words  ‘‘Deo patria litteria’’ (the motto of Scotch College, Little’s old school in Melbourne) and Little’s family address, Windsor, Victoria, Australia.

• The faded baby photograph is presumably Little’s son Alec (nicknamed Blymp), born March 1917; the inscription is from Little’s English wife Vera. 

• There was a silk shirt with faint writing, possibly “RNAS Service”. 

• A waistcoat with an Australian label contained in a crease in the inner fabric the printed name R.A. Little and the family address. 

• There was a paisley cravat made in the UK by Liberty of London.

• A metal spectacles case contained flying goggles with red lenses and pressed wattle and pansy flowers. Little was known to grow flowers near his tent at French airfields. 

• There were two sets of longjohns. 

• A 1898 British penny had a hole drilled in it, presumably for a cord. It bears an obvious impact mark, with small blobs which could be bullet fragments. 

• Two medallions, “Honour to the AIF” and “For King and Country”, were issued by the Victorian Education Board in his home state. 

• The leather Gladstone bag was inscribed on the outside with the initials “W.E.H”. 

• A paper packet contained four glass photographic negative plates and a handwritten note which said “Please return to the Little family Punt Rd Windsor Victoria Australia”. 

• An embroidered silk “Happy Birthday” handkerchief was attached to a French postcard, saying: “To my dear wife wishing you many happy returns and good luck.” 

• There was a plain black cotton necktie and a brown woollen scarf.

Any information on this  discovery can be directed to Terry Hetherington, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Nowra. Email terence.hetherington@defence.gov.au or phone 44242192.

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