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Leslie Hubert (Les) Holden
Informal half portrait of man in flying suit with cap and googles emerging from the open cockpit of an aeroplane
Les Holden at Mascot, after finding the Southern Cross in 1929
Nickname "Lucky Les"; "the homing pigeon"
Born (1895-03-06)6 March 1895
Died 18 September 1932(1932-09-18) (aged 37)
Place of birth East Adelaide, South Australia
Place of death Byron Bay, New South Wales
Allegiance Flag of Australia.svg Australia
Service/branch Australian Imperial Force
Years of service 1915–1919
Rank Captain
Unit Australian Light Horse (1915–16)
No. 2 Squadron AFC (1917–18)
No. 6 Squadron AFC (1918–19)

World War I

Awards Military Cross
Air Force Cross
Other work Office manager; commercial pilot

Leslie Hubert (Les) Holden MC, AFC (6 March 1895 – 18 September 1932) was an Australian fighter ace of World War I and later a commercial aviator. A South Australian, he joined the Light Horse in May 1915, serving in Egypt and France. In December 1916, he volunteered for the Australian Flying Corps and qualified as a pilot. As a member of No. 2 Squadron on the Western Front, he gained the sobriquets "Lucky Les" and "the homing pigeon" after a brace of incidents saw him limping back to base in bullet-riddled aircraft. He was awarded the Military Cross, and went on to achieve five aerial victories flying Airco DH.5s and Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s.

Promoted to captain, Holden finished the war as an instructor with No. 6 (Training) Squadron in England, where his work earned him the Air Force Cross. After leaving the Australian Flying Corps in 1919, he became a manager at the family firm of Holden's Motor Body Builders, before setting up as a commercial pilot and establishing his own air service. In 1929, he located Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in the north-west Australian desert after the pair was reported missing on a flight to England in the Southern Cross. Holden was killed in a passenger plane crash in September 1932, at the age of thirty-seven.

Early lifeEdit

Holden was born on 3 March 1895 in East Adelaide, South Australia, to travelling businessman Hubert William Holden and his wife Annie Maria. The elder Holden landed a partnership with Nestlé in 1905, and the family moved to Turramurra, New South Wales. Completing his education at Sydney Church of England Grammar School, Les joined Nestlé in 1911 as a salesman. By the time World War I broke out in August 1914, he was an assistant manager.[1][2]

World War IEdit

Close-up portrait of man with short dark hair

Les Holden, c. 1915–18

Holden enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 26 May 1915, joining the 4th Light Horse Brigade as a private. He departed for Egypt aboard the transport A29 Suevic on 13 June.[3] Serving as a driver first in the Middle East and then in France, his mechanical ability and sense of adventure led him to volunteer for the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in December 1916. After qualifying as a pilot in England, he was commissioned a lieutenant and posted to No. 2 Squadron.[1] Commanded by Major Oswald Watt, No. 2 Squadron's personnel included many former Lighthorsemen, as well as mechanics from the AFC's first combat formation, the Mesopotamian Half Flight. The force trained extensively in England commencing in January 1917, before deploying to the Western Front that September.[4][5] Holden was involved in the AFC's first day of combat in France when he and his wingman engaged a German two-seater in the vicinity of Saint-Quentin just after noon on 2 October, but the latter managed to escape.[6]

Because its Airco DH.5s were handicapped as fighters by engine problems and low speed, No. 2 Squadron was employed mainly on ground support duties.[4] During the fog-shrouded opening day of the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November, Holden bombed and machine-gunned a German communications trench from altitudes as low as twenty or thirty feet.[2][7] He returned to a forward airfield near Havrincourt Wood with his plane, in the words of the official history of Australia in the war, "a flying wreck. Every part of it was shot full of holes, including petrol-tank, tail-plane, both longerons, and part of the undercarriage, while the elevator control was shot clean away."[7] Two days later he repeated the exercise with similar consequences for his aircraft, "clear evidence of the dangers of the work and of his own good luck".[2][7] This brace of close calls gained him the nicknames "Lucky Les" and "the homing pigeon".[1][8] He was recommended for the Military Cross on 3 December for his action of 20 November,[9] the award being promulgated in the London Gazette on 4 February 1918,[10] and the citation appearing on 5 July:[11]

Portrait of twenty-four men in military uniforms and flying suits, with a dog sitting in foreground and a cat on one man's lap

Captains Holden (front, second from left) and Roy Phillipps (front, third from right) with officers of No. 2 Squadron and their four-legged mascots, March 1918

Lt. Leslie Hubert Holden, F.C.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst on a special mission he dropped a bomb direct on a support trench full of the enemy, causing them to scatter, and another bomb upon a strong point which was holding up our advance. He also bombed a large group of enemy infantry, and turned his machine gun on them from a height of 100 feet. He rendered very valuable service throughout the operations.

Holden claimed his first aerial victory while No. 2 Squadron was still flying DH.5s, prior to it commencing its conversion to Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s in December 1917. On 18 February 1918, he shared in one of its first two victories in the S.E.5, helping send an Albatros down in a spin.[12] He claimed another three aircraft shot down over the following month, giving him a total of five victories.[2][13] At least one of these took place during the Spring Offensive, on 22 March, when all available Allied aircraft were thrown into battle to stem the German advance.[8][14]

Promoted to captain in March 1918, Holden was posted to England in May as a flying instructor with No. 6 (Training) Squadron at Minchinhampton.[1][15] The unit was part of the 1st Training Wing, led by the former commanding officer of No. 2 Squadron, Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Watt.[16] Holden briefly took command of No. 6 Squadron from 25 July to 11 August,[17] while his skill as an instructor led to him being awarded the Air Force Cross, promulgated on 3 June 1919.[1][18]

Post-war career and legacyEdit

Two women standing in front of large biplane with man in flying gear seated in open cockpit

Holden in the cockpit of Canberra, his DH.61 Giant Moth, with passengers at Mascot Aerodrome, c. 1930

No. 6 Squadron was disbanded in March 1919 and Holden returned to Australia on 6 May.[15][17] Leaving the Australian Flying Corps soon after, he took part in the Commonwealth government's Peace Loan flights before joining the Adelaide-based family firm of Holden's Motor Body Builders as its Sydney manager. On 3 June 1924, he married Kathleen Packman at St Mark's Anglican Church in Darling Point. Still hankering after flying, he enlisted the help of friends to purchase a De Havilland DH.61 Giant Moth in 1928. He named it Canberra, and used it to start a charter operation out of Sydney's Mascot Aerodrome.[1][2]

Holden became a national celebrity in April 1929 when he successfully undertook an aerial search of the north-western Australian wilderness to locate Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, after the pair had gone missing on a flight from Sydney to England in the Southern Cross. In a tragic adjunct, however, two other searchers, Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock, were lost in their aircraft the Kookaburra, and the media of the day turned on Smith and Ulm, accusing them of a publicity stunt. The controversy resulted in the Sydney Citizens' Relief Committee, which had commissioned Holden to undertake the rescue operation, withholding payment of his expenses.[1][19] He nevertheless continued flying commercially, and is credited with making—in September 1931—arguably the first flight from Sydney to New Guinea, where he started an air freight service.[1] He expanded his operations the following year in Sydney with more aircraft, establishing Holden's Air Transport Services.[1][2]

On 18 September 1932, Holden was travelling as a passenger aboard a New England Airways DH.80 Puss Moth from Sydney to Brisbane when it crashed at Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, killing him instantly.[2] The other occupants, pilot Ralph Virtue and joint owner of the Canberra, Holden's schoolfriend Dr George Hamilton, also perished. Investigations determined that the Puss Moth, VH-UPM, had gone down as a result of wing failure caused by aileron flutter.[20][21] A crowded memorial service for Holden and Hamilton took place at Sydney Church of England Grammar School on 20 September; they were cremated that afternoon at Rookwood Cemetery, where eighteen aircraft piloted by friends and associates of the pair overflew the chapel.[22] Holden was survived by his wife and three daughters.[1] His father Hubert carried on operating Holden's Air Transport Services, floating it as a public corporation and serving as chairman.[23] Les Holden, George Hamilton, and one of their schoolmates who had also recently died, Henry Braddon, were commemorated with a memorial stained-glass window at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School chapel in 1934.[21]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Holden, Leslie Hubert (1895 – 1932) at Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved on 8 March 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Newton, Australian Air Aces, pp. 38–39
  3. Leslie Hubert Holden at The AIF Project. Retrieved on 8 March 2010.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 16–19
  5. 2 Squadron AFC at Australian War Memorial. Retrieved on 8 March 2010.
  6. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 178
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, pp. 184–185, 191
  8. 8.0 8.1 MacDougall, Australians at War, pp. 148–149
  9. Recommended: Military Cross at Australian War Memorial. Retrieved on 8 March 2010.
  10. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30507. p. 1606. 4 February 1918. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
  11. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30780. p. 7936. 5 July 1918. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
  12. Wilson, The Brotherhood of Airmen, p. 26
  13. Franks, SE5/5a Aces of World War 1, pp. 42–43
  14. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, pp. 228–230, 235
  15. 15.0 15.1 6 (Training) Squadron AFC at Australian War Memorial. Retrieved on 8 March 2010.
  16. Garrisson, Australian Fighter Aces, p. 12
  17. 17.0 17.1 Captain Leslie Hubert Holden at Australian War Memorial. Retrieved on 8 March 2010.
  18. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31378. pp. 7032–7033. 3 June 1919. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
  19. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother, pp. 297–303
  20. Kepert, J.L. (March 1993). Aircraft Accident Investigation at ARL: The First 50 Years (Report). Defence Science and Technology Organisation. AD-A267 086. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Memorial Windows: Shore Grammar School". 29 December 1934. Retrieved on 6 April 2010. 
  22. "Air Crash Victims: Memorial Service". 21 September 1932. Retrieved on 8 April 2010. 
  23. "The Late Mr. Hubert William Holden". 16 January 1935. Retrieved on 6 April 2010. 


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