WWI Keith Logan Caldwell M.C., DFC (1122 WWI, 1075 WWII)

Major Keith Logan Caldwell (AWMM).

Keith Logan Caldwell, Gp Capt. 23 Nov 1944 (Clifton Firth photographer. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-C426)

KL Caldwell. 3rd from left 2nd row. Officers of Royal Flying Corps. Colonials-Christ-Church-Oxford.-Auckland-War-Memorial-Museum-PH-ALB-546-p6-6)

Keith Logan Caldwell was born on 16 October 1895 in Wellington. He was the son of David Robert Caldwell, and Mary Dunlop Caldwell (nee McKerrow).


Keith was to become the most successful New Zealand fighter pilot of the First World War with 25 victories in aerial combat.

Keith’s father, David Caldwell, was born in Scotland and had come to New Zealand as a young man and had business interests in the manufacturing and wholesale firm ‘Macky Logan Caldwell’, and from 1915 when the company moved to Auckland from Wellington, David Caldwell became the company’s chairman, dividing his time between Hamilton Road, Cambridge and Auckland. The family lived in Remuera in 1905-6 and David Caldwell retired to 16 Arney Road, Remuera, according to the electoral roll for 1935.

In 1947 the Remuera Round interviewed fellow Kings College friend, Nelson Pierce, and reported his exploits on the steep slopes of Ohinerau Mt Hobson:

“A fine place that mountain for boys. Great lumps of scoria lay over it, ready to be sent bounding down; in summer, its slopes had a fine slipperyness for tobogganing, in winter just right for breathless descents in trolleys. Among those who went skidding down the hillside with young Nelson Pierce was Keith Caldwell, his father, D. R. Caldwell, a member of the firm of Macy, Logan and Caldwell. The Caldwells lived in Arney Road. Even in those days the quality of dash about Keith-he did the all-time long in a trolley on the west side of the mountain, for he passed through a fence in the process! Later came the First World War. He collected an M.C. and a D.F.C., the last for some feat on the wing of his crippled plane. Anyone, particularly interested in his life in those days can read “War Birds” – he crops up in that. He’s also well known today as, Squadron-Leader K. Caldwell with a C.B.E. added to his decorations. Obviously, Mount Hobson’s steep slopes were a pretty good training ground.” [1]

Keith attended King’s College, Remuera, Auckland, from 1903-08, then Rose Hill in England and Wanganui Collegiate School (now Whanganui Collegiate School) and he was a member of the Wanganui Collegiate Senior Cadets.

After leaving school, Keith was employed as a Bank Clerk with the Bank of New Zealand in Auckland and while working there, he also was a member of the Territorial Army Unit, the Ponsonby Senior Cadets.

Keith was unsuccessful in enlisting into the army in for the First World War, so decided to become a military pilot. Keith raised the £100 (or about $33,000 in 2020) necessary to enter the New Zealand Flying School (NZFS) established by Leo and Vivian Walsh of Remuera at Kohimarama, on the foreshore of Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour. Keith began flight training in October 1915, gaining his British Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate or ‘ticket’ or ‘wings’ in December 1915. Keith was one of the first two pilots to graduate from the NZ Flying School with Geoffrey Callender.

He sailed to England in January 1916 to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was accepted and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in April 1916, from there, he underwent further training in England at Oxford, Norwich and Sedgeford, in East Anglia. At this stage of the war, the standard of flying training provided for RFC pilots was woefully inadequate. By the time Keith was sent to Northern France in July 1916, he had logged just 27 hours flying time in England in addition to eight hours at the NZFS. [2, 3]

He joined No 8 Squadron stationed on the Arras Front. While engaged on artillery observation work, Keith and his observer shot down their first enemy plane.

He earned the nickname ‘Grid’, because of his habit of referring to aircraft as ‘grid’ was an old New Zealand colonial slang for bicycle. By the time he left the squadron in October 1917 Keith had added another eight-enemy aircraft to his tally was awarded a Military Cross.

The Military Cross citation, Supplement to the London Gazette, 17 September 1917:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when leading offensive patrols.”

On one occasion he led a patrol of five machines against twelve hostile aircraft, all of which he drove down out of control. He has personally destroyed five hostile machines, and has had over fifty contests in the air, in all of which he has displayed splendid skill and fearlessness and has set an excellent example to his squadron.

Keith spent some time in England at Upavon, instructing at the Central Flying School, there he was promoted to the rank of Major and given command of No 74 Squadron, which was moved to France on 31st March 1918, where the Squadron earned the nickname ‘Tiger Squadron’. Under Keith’s command, they destroyed or drove down more than 200 enemy aircraft in less than eight months – making them one of the most successful squadrons to operate at the front during that period.

In the late summer of 1918, with only weeks left of fighting in the war, Keith spotted a German aircraft and went in for the attack. Unfortunately he collided with another Allied plane and started a flat spin plummeting towards the ground – it looked like a death plunge. But Caldwell was able to gain enough control of his plane to get out onto the wing – “he waited for the last moment and, in the heartbeat between flying and crashing, leapt. He hit the ground, somersaulted a few times and, to the surprise of the horrified watching infantry, simply stood up – a bleeding lip and considerable bruising the extent of his injuries – shook off the dirt,”.[4]

In addition to the Military Cross, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar on 4th September 1918. The Distinguished Flying Cross citation, Supplement to the London Gazette, 3 December 1918: citation reads:

“A fine fighting airman of courage and determination. On 4th September 1918, when on offensive patrol, he, in company with another machine, attacked four Fokker biplanes; one of these was driven down by this officer. He has accounted for five enemy machines.”

After the war more accolades came, with a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross awarded on the 31st of December 1918, the reason simply described as “For distinguished service”.

On the 15th of July 1919 he received the Croix de Guerre (Belgium), that country’s highest military honour. The citation stated it was,

“In recognition of valuable services rendered in connection with the war.”

On the 9th of April 1917 Keith was Mentioned in Dispatches, the citation reading:

“For distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty, deserving of special mention. Mentioned in the dispatches of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig”

By the end of World War One Keith had flown over 1800 hours.

In August 1919 Keith returned to New Zealand. He worked for a year at his father’s manufacturing and importing company, and then took up farming at Glen Murray in the Waikato.

On the 16th of May 1923 Keith married Dorothy Helen Gordon, of Hillsborough, Auckland. She was the sister of fellow 74 Squadron pilot Freddie Gordon. They were married at St Mark’s Church, Remuera. Keith and Dorothy had four children, two boys and two girls.

In April 1928 he became a founding member of the Auckland Aero Club, and was their first club captain. The Auckland Aero Club was based at Mangere so not too far away from his Glen Murray farm. He remained involved with the aero club for the rest of his life and was its patron at the time of his death. He was also patron to the Auckland Brevet Club, a club for former and present allied air crew.

Between the wars he served with the New Zealand Territorial Air Force in command from 1930 to 1937. In February 1936 it was recorded he had flown 2200 flying hours.

During the Second World War Keith served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and was station commander at Woodbourne, near Nelson and then Wigram, near Christchurch. He was posted to India in 1944 and England in 1945. That year he was made Acting Air Commodore; and achieved full rank in 1946. He retired from the RNZAF in 1946 and was transferred to the Reserve of Officers until 1956.

Keith was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 1 January 1945, for “distinctive service in action”.

After he retired, Keith farmed in the South Auckland area, moving to 755 Riddell Road, Glendowie, Auckland in 1970. He died of cancer at Auckland on 28 November 1980, aged 85, and was survived by his wife, Dorothy, two daughters and two sons. He was buried at Purewa Cemetery, Auckland, and later, his ashes were buried at Glen Murray Cemetery, Waikato, next to his wife. [5, 6,7]

He is remembered in the display of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Scars of the Heart World War I and in many references (see in References below). His aeroplane exploits are also shown in the scenario in the Omaka Aviation Centre in Blenheim.

G Ralph
June 2020