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Daredevils enthral with derring-do

3 November 2012 2,382 views No Comment

WARREN Brown’s stirring story of Francis Birtles, a most unusual Australian adventurer – and a hugely popular one in his time – is a pleasure to read.

Brown, a cartoonist with Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, has produced a thoroughly researched and well-illustrated biography of Birtles, whose motto in life was “Chance it”. It’s a life with all the elements of a Boy’s Own adventure.

Born on November 7, 1881, in the slums of Melbourne’s inner-city Fitzroy, the third of nine children, Birtles was a character indeed: intrepid Boer War scout and Australian bushman, pioneering cyclist, long-distance motorist, aviator, author, amateur anthropologist, photographer, filmmaker and international celebrity.

Yet at the same time, he was a daring and enduring rogue who left behind a trail of personal and financial destruction.
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Much more at home in the desert than in any metropolis, the weather-beaten Birtles possessed, as Brown explains, “the desire to do and dare something outside the humdrum limits of city life”. In late 1927, after surviving many setbacks in Australia and elsewhere, he became the first person to drive a car overland from London to Melbourne.

As Brown’s gripping account of this seemingly impossible journey makes clear, Birtles hauled his car up mountain passes, cut vehicular access through snake-infested jungles and even outwitted the headhunters of the Naga Hills in Burma. Against all odds, Birtles arrived home in Australia to a hero’s welcome. The year before, in the same car, his “Sundowner” Bean, Birtles had accomplished a record-breaking drive from Darwin to Melbourne.

There is so much to enjoy and tantalise in this captivating tale of Birtles’s amazing life. But so as not to spoil the fun for what I trust will be many readers, I will only hint at the intertwined appearances in this brilliant biography of characters as diverse as the rabid, half-blind Australian anti-communist Malcolm Ellis; famous Australian aviator Bert Hinkler; and Lawrence of Arabia, then working under an assumed name as an RAF mechanic.

Of the scores of superb photographs in Brown’s book I have two favourites. The first is of Miss Australia, Phyllis Von Alwyn, farewelling Birtles outside Australia House on the Strand as he begins his drive from England to Australia. The other is a photograph of Birtles’s beloved bulldog, Wowser, sitting up the front of a battered car wearing goggles.

Brown makes it clear that while this idiosyncratic Australian loved dogs (his other great canine companion was named Dinkum), he had little time for people and, especially, for women, even though he was married twice.

Yet none of Birtles’s personal failings can detract from his many achievements as a distinctly Australian adventurer. His tales of derring-do demonstrate that, despite all the obstacles, with enough tenacity and persistence, there’s almost nothing in life that is impossible.

Although not as captivating as Brown’s Birtles book, Unknown Warrior, by Melbourne writer Mike Rosel, is also an important book opening up another hitherto largely unknown Australian to public gaze. Subtitled The Search for Australia’s Greatest Ace, this fine biography focuses on the life and exploits of Captain Robert Alexander (Alec) Little, a Melbourne boy born in Hawthorn on July 19, 1895, and educated at exclusive Scotch College.

Little, who combined reckless bravery with unerring marksmanship and, for a time, a great deal of luck, was arguably Australia’s finest, and most unyielding and lethal combat pilot.

Although only 22 when he died on May 27, 1918, in a solo flight in pursuit of German bombers above the Western Front, the highly decorated Captain Little – who until this book has been known only to aviation enthusiasts and World War I historians – is credited with downing 47 enemy planes. If that figure is accepted as true, and I am convinced by Rosel’s meticulous scholarship that it is, this remarkable tally of aerial victories makes Little, who flew for the Royal Naval Air Service, the most successful Australian ace of all wars. In World War I, Little ranked eighth of all British Commonwealth air aces and 14th of all aces from both sides.

In this well-written, short biography, Rosel performs a useful service in combining Little’s sometimes poignant and puzzling personal history with the story of intriguing Anglo-Australian realities and relationships at the beginning of the 20th century. Rosel also canvasses Little’s loving marriage to his wife, Vera, who was from Devon in England.

As Rosel concludes, Little’s heroic life deserves wider recognition. Unknown Warrior is a good start. This highly personalised account of Little’s life does a notable Australian airman proud.

Francis Birtles: Australian Adventurer
By Warren Brown
Hachette Australia, 400pp, $35

Unknown Warrior: The Search for Australia’s Greatest Ace
By Mike Rosel
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 127pp, $34.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.

The Weekend Australian November 3-4 2012, Review, Books p 20

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