No.5786 Lieutenant John Alexander Hunter McKeown
John Alexander Hunter McKeown was born in 1894 at Romsey in the Macedon Ranges, some 60kms north of Melbourne. He was the eldest of three brothers. Before the turn of the century, the family had relocated to Werribee and were living on Watton Street. Both of John’s brothers were born in Werribee:
- Carlyle in 1899
- Gordon in 1901
John McKeown - a baker by trade - enlisted on 16 February 1916 aged 21. His attestation papers show that he had served three and a half years with the 29th (Port Phillip) Light Horse Regiment during his youth. After a short spell at the Royal Park Camp near Melbourne Zoo, he was assigned to the 18th Reinforcements, 7th Battalion. During basic training at the huge Broadmeadows Camp, he was made acting Corporal.
The 7th Battalion had suffered heavily at Gallipoli in 1915. It was sent to France in May 1916 and was mauled again at Pozieres in July and August – one of the many costly 'sideshows' that made up the Somme offensive that had begun on 1 July 1916. By the time John McKeown arrived in France in November 1916, the Somme offensive had ground to a halt. The Battalion spent much of the winter in the Somme – at Bernafay Wood Camp, Dernancourt, St Vast, Guedencourt and Mametz. It spent time in the trenches, participated in working parties, but also had periods of rest and training.
The Australian War Memorial describes the winter of 1916-17 as 'horrendous'. More than 20,000 Australians were evacuated with exhaustion, frostbite and trench feet. Another danger was trench fever described as a moderately serious disease transmitted by lice….constant companions for soldiers who fought in the trenches, even in the freezing cold. One of those casualties was Private John McKeown. He was evacuated to England for treatment in January 1917 and then contracted influenza. It was at some point during his treatment and recuperation that he decided to apply to join the Australian Flying Corps. Australia was the only country in the dominion to establish its own air force during WWI.
When the war started in 1914, Australia’s only military air base was at Point Cook, barely 11 kilometres from Werribee. It consisted of two instructors and five flimsy training aircraft. Cadet McKeown received his training in England at the Royal Flying Corps' School of Military Aeronautics at Reading. In April 1918, he was appointed Flying Officer and then 2nd Lieutenant while conducting courses on aerial combat at Turnberry – around 80kms south of Glasgow in Scotland. At the end of June 1918, he was sent to France, but was hit by influenza again in July. Following recuperation, he was taken on strength on 18 August with No 2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps which was attached to the 80th Wing, Royal Air Force at Reclingham – around 60kms south of Calais.
On 1 October, the squadron moved to Serny aerodrome – just six kilometres away but closer to the front. By this stage of the war, the allied air forces had achieved air superiority over their German counterparts. The role of the aeroplane had changed considerably since the early days of the war. In addition to reconnaissance, patrolling and air combat, they now attacked ground targets with both bombs and machine guns. Now a full Lieutenant, John McKeown was flying SE5a (Scout Experimental 5) aircraft – a timber-framed, British designed aircraft with a top speed of 222 kilometres per hour. It was armed with both a Vickers and a Lewis machine gun.
According to the 2nd Squadron war diary – an astonishingly detailed daily account of flying operations and combat – Lieutenant McKeown had already shot down at least one German aircraft. His combat report for 9 October reads: "At about 10.10am whilst on an offensive patrol between Lille and Armentieres, eight Fokker biplanes were seen at 15,000 feet over Lille. We engaged these at 1015 and immediately a large formation of Fokkers appeared. The flight attempted to cut off four of them but E.A. (enemy aircraft) got back towards Lille. I dived on a Fokker from the East and fired a burst of 75 rounds at close range. The E.A. got into a vertical dive and was last seen diving vertically about 1,000 feet from the ground off s-west corner of Lille."
Just five days later, Lieutenant John Alexander Hunter McKeown failed to return from another offensive patrol. He was killed less than a month before the armistice was signed aged just 24. He was buried at the Tressin Communal Cemetery some 8kms west of Lille. In the late 1920s, his remains were re-interred at the Laventie Military Cemetery – around 45kms east of the 2nd Squadron’s base at Serny.
Medals & Entitlements:
[received by his now widowed mother]
- British War Medal (received in the 1920s)
- Victory Medal (received in the 1920s)
- King’s Message, memorial scroll and plaque
Service record citation: NAA: B2455, MCKEOWN JOHN ALEXANDER HUNTER
7th Battalion and Australian Flying Corps war histories and war diaries - Australian War Memorial