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Inducted in 2019

James Bennett AFM and BAR MSM MiD

1894 - 1922

James Mallett Bennett airman and mechanic, was born on 14 January 1894 at St Kilda, Victoria, son of James Thomas Bennett, tick-maker, and his wife Henrietta Augusta, née McKendrick.

After schooling he trained as a motor mechanic. In 1912 he joined the militia and served for three years with the 49th Battalion. Bennett enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 14 July 1915 and, on the formation of the Australian Flying Corps early next year, was posted to ‘C’ Flight, No. 1 Squadron, as a mechanic. On arrival in Egypt in mid-April, the squadron’s mechanics were split up into several parties and assigned to British units for training.

Bennett joined No. 14 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, and trained as a fitter and turner. After returning to his own unit he was promoted corporal on 24 August; later that year he began duty with No. 67 Squadron, R.F.C., an all-Australian squadron serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Egypt. Except for a brief period spent at its base at Abbassia, he remained with No. 67 Squadron throughout the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. Promoted sergeant in March 1918, he was mentioned in dispatches soon afterwards and was later awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his distinguished service as an air mechanic.

After the Armistice Bennett and Sergeant W. H. Shiers were invited to act as air mechanics for Captain Ross Smith, then attempting the first Cairo-Calcutta flight in a Handley-Page aircraft. Both mechanics received the Air Force Medal for outstanding work under hazardous conditions during the flight. The same crew then carried out a survey by ship of the proposed Calcutta-Koepang (Timor) air route. On 7 July 1919 Bennett was attached to a Royal Air Force unit on the north-west frontier in India; here he superintended the rigging of Bristol fighters for use in reconnaissance and offensive missions during the short but fierce Afghan campaign.

In 1919 the Australian government offered a prize of £10,000 to the first aviator to fly from England to Australia within thirty days. Ross Smith and his brother Keith entered the race with Bennett and Shiers as their mechanics and were the first to reach Darwin. Their success aroused world-wide interest and acclaim. On 22 December the Smith brothers were knighted; Bennett and Shiers received Bars to their Air Force Medals. Popular opinion favoured greater recognition for the mechanics, especially after Ross Smith stated publicly that the success of the flight was mainly due to their skill and zeal. On 19 March 1920 the minister for defence announced that Bennett had been promoted senior warrant officer, class 1; six months later he was granted the honorary rank of lieutenant in the A.I.F. reserve of officers.

Early in 1922 the Smith brothers decided to attempt a round-the-world flight; Bennett and Shiers were again chosen as mechanics. The crew planned to take off from England on 25 April, but on 13 April Ross Smith and Bennett were killed during a test flight at Weybridge, when their Vickers Viking Amphibian crashed. The pioneer aviators were mourned as national heroes and their bodies were brought back to Australia. Bennett was buried in St Kilda cemetery on 19 June 1922 after a lying-in-state at Queen’s Hall, Parliament House. An obelisk in his honour was unveiled at St Kilda on 26 April 1927.

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