The young airman plucked from the wreck of a burning plane believed Corporal Matthew Horne should have received more than the Meritorious Service Medal he was awarded for his role in the daring rescue.
Matt, as he was known to his comrades in the Australian Flying Corps, suffered superficial burns to his face and hands rescuing trainee pilot Les Morcom as his crashed biplane was engulfed in flames more than three metres high.
The drama occurred on May 21, 1918 at the aerodrome at Leighterton in Gloustershire, England, with the impact of the crash rupturing the aircraft’s fuel tank, creating a fireball.
In a report to the Officer Commanding the Australian Flying Corps number 7 Training Squadron, an eyewitness, Lieutenant S J Moir, said that only the prompt action of Corporal Matthew Horne and First Air Mechanic Edward Spike had saved Cadet Morcom’s life.
“I wish to bring to notice the action of Corpl. Horne and 1/AM Spike who immediately rushed up, before any fire extinguishers could be got going and climbed on to the burning machine, raised Cadet Morcom off the safety belt, unfastened it and lifted him out of the machine,” wrote Lt Moir.
“During this time the flames were rising 10 feet round the Pilot. By the time they got him out several fire extinguishers were being played on the fire but Cadet Morcom had been rather severely burnt; Cpl Horne was also slightly burnt about the hands and face and 1/AM Spike on the arm.
The two rescuers were recommended for the Meritorious Service Medal by Major W H Anderson, who said that without their rapid response “Cadet Morcom would undoubtedly have burned to death”.
In the days following the accident, Cadet Morcom was “dangerously ill” in hospital, suffering concussion, a dislocated right hip and serious burns to both hands which resulted in the amputation of a number of fingers.
However, Les Morcom considered himself lucky to be alive and before leaving England in December 1918 wrote to Matt’s mother expressing his gratitude.
“I am a poor correspondent but I must let you know I have got your son Matt to thank that I am alive today and not wasted as was very nearly the case,” wrote the now Lieutenant Morcom, 26.
“You have probably heard what happened, how I caught fire etc so I will not worry you with it again, anyhow it was very good of Matt to risk what he did & I am very pleased he got the Meritorious Medal, although it was not enough.
“I am returning to Australia in a few days, so will probably be there almost as soon as this. My address at home is Bay Street, Keswick, SA, so I would be pleased if you would tell Matt to drop me a line when he gets back, which should be very soon now.
“I will close for now. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.”
Matthew Horne had enlisted in the AIF on December 31, 1915, shortly before his 23rd birthday and three months after his 18-year-old brother Arthur Horne.
Born at Ipswich, Matt was the eldest son of James Horne and had completed a five-year apprenticeship at his father’s engineering works at Beaudesert.
Matt had married his sweetheart, Elsie May Tucker, before embarking for overseas service from Adelaide on the HMAT Suevic on May 31, 1916, as a Sapper with the 11th Field Company Engineers.
He arrived in Devonport, England, on July 21 and two months later left for France. After further training, Matt joined his unit in the field on January 28, 1917.
The next month Matt requested the transfer of his brother, Arthur, from the 1st Anzac Cyclist Battalion to the 11th Field Company Engineers. The pair served together on the Western Front for the next six months.
The engineers were tasked with finding practical solutions to the problems faced by the fighting men, whether crossing shell-ravaged battlefields, constructing lines of defence and tunnels and trenches, establishing observation posts and communication lines, building temporary bridges, or repairing roads and railway lines.
On August 5, 1917, Matt transferred to the Australian Flying Corps – the fledgling RAAF – in England, leaving his brother with the engineers on the Western Front.
A qualified fitter and turner, Matt was a natural choice for the AFC’s ground crew.
He was promoted to Corporal at Leighterton in March 1918 and within weeks of helping to rescue Cadet Morcom from the burning plane was promoted to Sergeant and then Sergeant Mechanic.
The award of the Meritorious Service Medal was promulgated in the London Gazette of July 2, 1918. However, the citation barely described Matt’s bravery and life-saving effort, stating instead that the award was for “meritorious service and devotion to duty on the occasion of an outbreak of fire in a Government Establishment”.
Matt left England on the Kaisar-I-Hind on March 6, 1919, and arrived in Sydney on June 19. He was discharged from the Australian Flying Corps in Brisbane on August 4.
Returning to live in Brisbane, Matt and his wife built a modest war service home at Fern Street, Buranda. Matt worked for a number of industrial firms before becoming a machinery inspector with the Main Roads Department, where he worked until his retirement.
Matt and Elsie raised two children, a daughter, Daphne, born in 1924 and a son, Victor, born in 1928.
Vic, now living at Morningside, has fond memories of polishing his father’s medals for ANZAC Day parades.
Matt maintained his interest in aviation throughout his life and became involved in the Air Force Association, becoming the organisation’s Queensland president.
“When the first jet plane landed in Brisbane at Eagle Farm, we took him out to see it and it brought him to tears,” said Vic.
“He could not believe a plane could fly without a propeller.”
Vic said his father rarely spoke about the war but he might have been affected by his war service, suffering a form of depression that convinced him he would not live past the age of 40. In fact, Matt lived to 73, passing away on July 18, 1966 while staying with his daughter in Ayr.
One of Vic’s most vivid memories as a boy was seeing his father’s reaction to the radio broadcast of September 3, 1939, at the outbreak of World War Two. At the melancholy announcement by Prime Minister Robert Menzies that Australia was again at war, Matt had burst into tears.
Vic, keen to serve his country, had pestered his parents to let him enlist in the Merchant Navy which took boys as young as 13. With misgivings, they finally gave in and Vic spent his 16th birthday on a ship in Sweden.
Vic would have been able to give a first-hand account of the opening of Canungra’s war memorial in 1938 – if the event had not been an ‘adults only’ affair. While their parents attended the opening function, Vic, then 10, and his sister had to amuse themselves, heading off to the creek.
“Mum was worried we would drown in the creek and Dad said to look out for death adders,” said Vic.