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.
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.
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 – Unknown Warrior: The search for Australia’s greatest Ace is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing.