10 Questions with Adam Claasen, author of Grid


Q1: Keith Caldwell was one of the stars of your last book, Fearless, about the New Zealand airmen who flew in the First World War. As you were finishing that book, were you pretty sure you wanted to write specifically about him?

I looked over everyone who appeared in Fearless and realised that one individual stood head-and-shoulders above his peers in terms of achievements and substance. Caldwell was by far the most well-known New Zealand airman of the First World War. His strong personality and command of one of the best squadrons of war meant he appeared in numerous airmen’s memoirs and his name regularly turned up in histories of First World War air fighting. All of this and his amazing exploits made him a natural choice for a biography.

Q2: That was five years of work. How hard was it to find the material you needed?

While Caldwell was an eminent candidate for a book and other authors had made runs at it, there was always the difficulty of finding sufficient material to produce a fulsome and rounded study that looked at him across all seasons of his life, not just the First World War. I already had enough sources to make a start from what I had collected for Fearless and added to these materials from the Whanganui Collegiate School’s archive, the Air Force Museum of New Zealand (AFMNZ), Archives New Zealand and MOTAT. Further work at British institutions — The National Archives (UK), the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon — filled out the operational materials to determine where and what he was doing throughout the war.

Q3: What were the breakthroughs?

The biggest breakthroughs were from the family. His grandchildren were incredibly helpful and furnished me with materials others had failed to uncover. Sally Gordon had a vast collection of letters from the Second World War and Andrew Caldwell plied me with suitcases of letters, old passports, financial records and photograph albums. One of the real delights was very late in the writing when his granddaughter Deborah Stovell delivered a box that contained over two dozen letters written by Caldwell to his mother in the war — these had never been seen before. Another good find was a confidential folder at the AFMNZ that Caldwell had kept while he was Commanding Officer of Royal New Zealand Air Force Station Wigram in the Second World War — it is full of controversy and a bit of intrigue.

Q4: You do an excellent job of describing the era in which he was raised and educated — one where discipline, loyalty to the Empire, privilege and a sort of muscular Christianity prevailed. This was just the perfect fertile environment for manpower for a war, wasn’t it?

Yes, the elite schools of the Empire were well suited to creating young men fit and eager for war. God, king and country were the holy trinity to which the boys were wedded. Sports were often seen as more important than classroom teaching because they created gentlemen (cricket) and men (rugby) of good character steeped in the virtues of sacrifice, honour, hard work and teamwork. War was the ideal environment for such attributes to shine. I think all this goes some way to understanding the eagerness with which many of Caldwell’s generation rushed into uniform.

Q5: That war was his moment. One has the sense that life was somewhat dull for him before he signed up, and he took a while to adjust to civilian life afterwards. And is it incredible that he actually survived it when so many airmen did not?

His prewar life at Whanganui Collegiate School was full of activity, with sporting events, debating and soldering, but he did end up doing clerical work in a bank in Auckland, which was not to his liking. I didn’t put this in the book, but one of the family members told me that when Caldwell got his acceptance into the Walsh brothers flying school at Kohimarama he was at work, and he joyously ripped off his tie and just walked off the job. His twenty-seven months of military air service is phenomenal when the lifespan for many was a matter of days. The slow, plodding training in New Zealand, his very good flying skills and a healthy dollop of luck were all factors in his survival.

Q6: He was always eager for combat but not necessarily the consummate pilot. Was it the case that he was not a great shot?

He was a very good pilot. You didn’t survive that long in the air war against some of the best Central Powers airmen — Caldwell tangled with the Red Baron’s Flying Circus and arguably Germany’s best pilot, Werner Voss — if you’re merely average. You’re also not selected as only one of two airmen on the entire Western Front to evaluate the arrival of one of the most dangerous machines in the Allied inventory, the Sopwith Camel. Regarding his air fighting and marksmanship, it’s complicated. Caldwell
did like to dogfight and mix it with the enemy — he was impossibly aggressive at times — but his lacklustre marksmanship, which is often commented upon, did improve with time and by 1918 he was one of the leading commanding officers knocking down enemy machines. A lot of this improvement had to do with his time at various flying and air fighting schools over the winter of 1917–18. By his own standards he would have said he was not the greatest marksman of the war, but he was certainly in the top echelon of airmen.

Q7: It seems remarkable that he was put in charge of his own squadron when he was only 22. What were the qualities of his leadership?

Heavy losses in the British air service did lead to young men being rapidly elevated to such positions. Caldwell started the war in 1916 as a second lieutenant but by late 1917 he was posted to 74 Squadron as a major in command. He was a team player who had little time for glory-seeking lone wolves. Looking after your fellow brother-in-arms was far more important than individual tallies of victories. He also led from the front. There was general prohibition against squadron commanders flying operationally. Caldwell had specific orders not to do so but regularly ignored this by leading late afternoon squadron offensive patrols. He also eased newcomers into the squadron patrols to give them the best chance of surviving more than a few days.

Q8: You describe how the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) planes evolved over the course of the war. They were so primitive and often so unreliable or flawed. Does this make the pilots’ feats of derring-do even more remarkable?

Early war machines were extremely primitive and underpowered and prone to engine and structural failure, but by 1917 and 1918 they were increasingly robust, with the ability to fly faster and higher. Caldwell’s Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a could exceed 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour) in a dive and climb to 17,000 feet (5200 meters), so it was no slouch and able to sustain considerable amounts of damage. And, of course, all of this was done in an open cockpit. Nonetheless, if the structure of the machine was compromised by a high explosive anti-aircraft round or it caught fire under assault from the enemy, there were no parachutes for British air service pilots. People at the time thought the pilots’ feats remarkable and with the passing of time this has not diminished.

Q9: What element of the story surprised you the most?

I was genuinely taken aback by what he did in the Second World War. I had thought I could cover the period 1939–1945 quickly but found it worthy of more attention. One chapter grew into two and could have been more. His command of RNZAF Station Wigram was fascinating as he negotiated the challenges posed by the largest contingent of women in uniform in New Zealand’s military history and the difficulties arising from the interplay between military personnel and the local community. Caldwell’s work in India was a revelation as was his role in the repatriation of New Zealanders at the war’s end. While the First World War was the dominant event of his life, the war that followed was certainly much more than a postscript.

Q10: What do you hope readers will take from this book?

During his own lifetime Caldwell was relatively well known and even into the 1960s and 1970s regularly popped up in newspaper articles and on the radio. But in the decades that followed, his First World War generation and their achievements became less well remembered. It is my hope that this book captures something of the man and his times and brings back to life the story of a remarkable New Zealander for a twenty-first century audience.