Lyell Keith SWANN MM

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SWANN, Lyell Keith

Service Number: 2156
Enlisted: 14 March 1916, Adelaide, South Australia
Last Rank: Lieutenant
Last Unit: No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps
Born: Keyneton, South Australia, 18 May 1895
Home Town: Parkside, Unley, South Australia
Schooling: Kyneton Public School, Unley Public School, Kyre College and Prince Alfred College
Occupation: Bank clerk
Died: Aircraft Accident , Lille, France, 14 November 1918, aged 23 years
Cemetery: Ascq Communal Cemetery
INSCRIPTION HE LIVED AND DIED A GOOD LAD AND A GALLANT SOLDIER Grave D 12
Memorials: Adelaide National War Memorial, Adelaide Savings Bank of South Australia Honour Roll WW1, Australian War Memorial, Roll of Honour, Jamestown Methodist Church WW1 Roll of Honor, Parkside Epworth Uniting Church Honour Roll, Parkside Public School Roll of Honor, Unley Arch of Remembrance, Unley Town Hall WW1 Honour Board
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World War 1 Service

14 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 2156, Adelaide, South Australia
28 Aug 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Sergeant, SN 2156, 43rd Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
28 Aug 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, Sergeant, SN 2156, 43rd Infantry Battalion, HMAT Anchises, Adelaide
7 Jun 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Sergeant, SN 2156, 40th Infantry Battalion, Messines
1 Aug 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Second Lieutenant, 40th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres
2 Apr 1918: Transferred Australian Flying Corps, Second Lieutenant, Australian Flying Corps (AFC), --- :awm_ww1_roll_of_honour_import: awm_service_number: awm_unit: Australian Flying Corps awm_rank: Lieutenant awm_died_date: 1918-11-14
19 Oct 1918: Promoted Australian Flying Corps, Lieutenant, No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps

Lyell Keith Swann, MM - 2013 Premier's ANZAC Prize winning entry - Nathan Rohrlach of Faith Lutheran College Nuriootpa

Lyell Keith Swann, MM - ANZAC Spirit

Background

Lyell Keith Swann, was born on May 18th 1895 in Keyneton, just outside of the Barossa Valley, South Australia. He had two older brothers, Gordon and Roy. He attended Keyneton Primary School until he moved to Adelaide when he was 10. His education continued at Unley Primary school. After primary school, he went to Kyre College (Scotch College), Adelaide, then attended Prince Alfred College in Adelaide in 1908. Bright and a perfect student, he was an excellent player at tennis and cricket.

An active Christian, he worshipped and taught Sunday School at Parkside Methodist Church. He worked as a bank clerk at the Savings Bank of South Australia, on Currie Street, Adelaide until he enlisted in the army at the age of 20.

Swann was under no illusions when he made the most critical decision in his life; to enlist in the war. The horrors of Gallipoli were well underway and his brother, Roy, was fighting there. According to his diaries, Swann believed that God was calling him to do it for his country. However, his reluctant mother, Alvena, discouraged him from enlisting while he was 18. Finally, in 1916, the family fearing they would crush Keith’s purpose in life, agreed.

Life and service on the Western Front.

Swann enlisted on March 14th 1916, and was placed in the 3rd Reinforcements, 43rd Battalion AIF. He embarked on August 28th 1916, from Adelaide on HMAT “Anchises” (A68), as an acting Sergeant in command of his own platoon. Once in Britain, the 43rd Battalion, 3rd Reinforcements was transferred (due to lack of numbers ) to the 40th Battalion (largely a Tasmanian-sourced unit) at Lark Hill as part of the Third Division. This took Swann to the Western Front in early December 1916.

In June 1917, Swann fought in Belgium, in the successful deliberate attack at Messines and later took part in Third Ypres and the bitter attack at Passchendaele. At Messines, he commanded a platoon and seized an enemy trench before attacking and successfully holding four key bridges over the Douvebeek River while under heavy shell-fire. This was a major achievement, as it allowed other battalions to cross the river. Swann was then recommended and awarded the Military Medal. This was given to non-commissioned officers, staff sergeants or below, for gallantry in battle.

Unlike Messines, the Passchendaele attack was devised quickly, ineffectively, and made worse by the torrential rain. Swann diarizes “I was laying in mud 4 or 5 inches deep.” German pillboxes also made it very hard to advance. For the rest of the year, Swann was busy leading fatigue parties and being a platoon sergeant.

Whilst under adverse conditions, Swann, as many men did, complained about the cold weather and muddy trenches in his diaries. For Swann, this was a day-to-day occurrence at the front and like most of his colleagues, he stuck it out.

On August 13th 1917, he had applied for the Australian Flying Corps, believing he could be of greater service and eager for more action, and was accepted on January 22nd, 1918. He graduated as a pilot on October 19th 1918 and was placed in the 4th Australian Flying Corps Squadron and went over to their headquarters in France near Lille.

Finally, on November 11th 1918, Swann was to go on his first mission as a pilot escorting bombers. However, the raid was cancelled, as the war was to end officially at 11am. on that day. On November 13th, he and two colleagues went to practise a formation 'flip' or sortie. However, upon returning they missed the aerodrome due to the weather and landed at the 21st RAF Squadron aerodrome.

The next day, just after 11am. while taking off bound for home base, Swann was seen to spin his plane at about 300ft. before crashing into the ground. Taken unconscious to the 63rd Causality Clearing Station, he had a broken and crushed leg, broken skull and internal bleeding. At 6pm. his left leg was amputated but nothing changed and he passed away, unconscious, at 9:40 pm. Just three days after the end of World War I.

During the war, Swann’s attitudes reflected great conviction. Commanding a platoon and changing an attack plan at the last minute, is one example of resourcefulness and effectiveness that he showed at Messines. Very modest, as a British soldier writes, “he never told us about getting the Military Medal; … when I asked Keith how he won it, he looked very shy and said, ‘Oh! They are not uncommon – it was at Messines. I had to take charge and we came through alright.’” Swann believed he should not have received the medal, writing, he “really did not deserve it but there you are.” The same British soldier also wrote, “he seems to find life a very happy state, abounding with humour, and this in spite of the horrors of war, which fortunately don’t leave ‘the smell of fire upon him."

Swann showed humour in his life and diaries. He also displayed pride, writing, “I received my Commission and I was a very proud man I can tell you.” Another Englishman who served with Swann for a few days mentioned that even though Keith was “only with us for a few days, he made friends with everyone he met.” Friends agreed “to know Keith was to love him.” He also joined the flying corps because he believed he could do more for the war effort in that branch of service.

On October 15th 1918, Swann crashed his first Camel, completely writing it off, Swann later writes, “I was not hurt or shaken up in the least and still have as much faith in the machine as ever.” He was not scared of the machine, but rather loved it. He kept faith in the machine even when he and many others also crashed.

He was an experienced flyer, but even veteran flyers found that the Sopwith Camel was the hardest to fly. 90% of the weight was in the front seven feet making control difficult. Taking off, however, was the hardest to learn and this procedure killed the most people flying the plane. Unfortunately, it included Keith Swann too. The fuel tank affected the front weight of the aircraft especially on take off and is a risk until the planes levels. The rotary engine induced a lot of torque at high revs such as during takeoff and climb out. This is the underlying reason why Swann’s plane accidently crashed.

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Biography

Submitted by Nathan Rohrlach of Faith Lutheran College, Nuriootpa as part of his winning entry in the 2013 SA Premier's ANZAC Spirit Prize Competition.

Lyell Keith Swann, known as Keith, was born on May 18th 1895 in Keyneton, just outside of the Barossa Valley, South Australia. He was the youngest son of George Lomax Swann and Alvena Swann, whose address was 170 Wattle St., Parkside, South Australia at the time of his enlistment. He had two older brothers, Gordon and Roy, both of whom subsequently enlisted for service in WW1.

Keith attended Keyneton Primary School until he moved to Adelaide when he was 10. His education continued at Unley Primary school.

After primary school, he went to Kyre College (Scotch College), Adelaide, then attended Prince Alfred College in Adelaide in 1908. Bright and a perfect student, he was an excellent player of tennis and cricket. An active Christian, he worshipped and taught Sunday School at Parkside Methodist Church.  

He had enlisted in the citizens militia forces after having served in the cadets whilst at Prince Alfred College.  He was serving with an Engineer Squadron at the time of his enlistment in the AIF.

He was employed as a bank clerk at the Savings Bank of South Australia, on Currie Street, Adelaide until he enlisted in the army at the age of 20 on March 14th 1916, He was allocated to the 3rd Reinforcements, 43rd Battalion AIF. He embarked on August 28th 1916, from Adelaide on HMAT “Anchises” (A68), as an acting Sergeant in command of his own platoon.

Once in Britain, the 43rd Battalion, 3rd Reinforcements was transferred to the 40th Battalion (largely a Tasmanian-sourced unit) to make up a shortage of personnel, at Lark Hill as part of the Third Division.  At the time the Third Division was training at Salisbury Plain west of London.  Its commander was Major General John Monash.

The Third Division's first major action was at Messines (warmemorial.erato.vm.e2.com.au)in southern Belgium.

Keith Swann distinguished himself in this battle.  He was awarded the Military Medal 9 July 1917 and commissioned As a Second Lieutenant in the field for his actions at Messines where he commanded a platoon and seized an enemy trench before attacking and successfully holding four key bridges over the Douvebeek River while under heavy shell-fire.

He then took part in the remainder of  the Third Ypres (warmemorial.erato.vm.e2.com.au) campaign, culminating in fighting at Passchendaele in horrendous weather conditions during late October 1917.  He was promoted on 3 November 1917 to First Lieutenant.

He had earlier applied to transfer to the Australian Flying Corps and on January 22nd, 1918 his request was granted.  He spent nine months undergoing pilot training in the United Kingdom.  He lived a life of relative tranquility away from the trenches, but under the pressure of his flying training.  His training was frequently disrupted by weather and he had the opportunity to spend periods of leave where he stayed with his brother Gordon who was a staff officer on Army Headquarters in London.  Flying training was not without incident. Powered flight had only occurred for the first time a mere 15 years earlier and the aircraft of the time were possessed of a number of qualities that made learning to fly them quite hazardous.  A number of his colleagues died in accidents and Keith himself "cracked up" at least one.

He graduated as a pilot on October 19th 1918 and was placed in the 4th Australian Flying Corps Squadron Finally, on November 11th 1918, Swann was to go on his first mission as a pilot escorting bombers. However, the raid was cancelled, as the war was to end officially at 11am. on that day.

On November 13th, he and two colleagues went to practise a formation 'flip' or sortie. However, upon returning they missed the aerodrome due to the weather and landed at the 21st RAF Squadron aerodrome. The next day, just after 11am. while taking off bound for home base, Swann was seen to spin his plane at about 300ft. before crashing into the ground. Taken unconscious to the 63rd Casualty Clearing Station, he had a broken and crushed leg, broken skull and internal bleeding. At 6pm. his left leg was amputated but nothing changed and he passed away, unconscious, at 9:40 pm. Just three days after the end of World War I.

Keith Swann is buried at Asq Communal Cemetery extension, near Lille with 20 or so other Commonwealth personnel all of whom died after the Armistice.

 

Keith Swann kept a very detailed diary of his experiences.  An edited version by Mr Eldon Bryant is available through the State Library of South Australia. It is subject to copyright so is not reproduced here.

 

Nathan Rohrlach June 2013

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