2017 Premier’s Anzac Spirit School Prize Essay – John Rutherford Gordon

Source: Lily Bright, Loxton High School

The letters combined to form the word ANZAC seem minimal, compared to the greatness of their true meaning. Originating in 1915 as an acronym for the historic words ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’, not only does the word ANZAC represent this title, it also encompasses a much deeper meaning. John Rutherford Gordon was a young and brave South Australian soldier who was sent overseas in 1914, at the age of just 19. His story is a truly unique and remarkable one, in that he not only endured the Gallipoli campaign but also became a fighter pilot, surviving the remainder of WWI before enlisting as a pilot in WWII, where he returned home safely once again. He was a very fortunate and driven young man who demonstrated the true ANZAC spirit in the way he conducted himself on and off the battlefield. In many ways John was excited to be taking on his role as a soldier, however the conditions and confrontations which lay ahead, were yet to be realised.

John Rutherford Gordon began his life in South Australia, he was born in Gilberton, a suburb of Adelaide on 18 June 1895. John was the son of politician, Sir David John Gordon and Anna Louisa Gordon; he had three siblings his brother Douglas, and his two sisters Jean and Doris. John attended Sturt Street Primary School, and then spent three years of high school at Adelaide High before attending Saint Peters Collegiate for his final year. Here, he showed off his athleticism by being selected in four intercollegiate teams, cricket, tennis, football and athletics, a rare feat. During this time, he also spent six years as a member of the cadet corps, which instigated his army career. His natural athletic ability, fitness and passion for the war held him in good stead in his preparation for war. After the completion of his schooling John began working as a clerk, this was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Britain appealed to the Australian Government, asking them to send a voluntary force of 20,000 men to join their country in the war against Germany. Once Australia agreed John Rutherford Gordon did not hesitate to enlist, he was honoured to serve his King and country and was ready to live and breathe the ANZAC spirit.

John, due to his previous military experience held the rank of Acting Sergeant when he boarded the HMAT Ascanius on 20 October 1914, along with the many other brave, young men. The ship departed from Outer Harbour, Adelaide’s main shipping terminal with a large crowd that had gathered to see them off. John was ready to begin his war journey and had many mixed emotions including being excited while also apprehensive. He was excited to join forces with his English counterparts and willing to defend his country no matter the circumstances, seeing it as an opportunity to defend his freedom, showing his true ANZAC spirit.

On the 25th of April, John Rutherford Gordon was one of the many heading blindly into battle with only the notion that he had to fight to the death for his beloved country. The battalion landed at the cove during the night and waited in small boats close to the shore for the signal to move forward. However, this was not the case when the first bullets were fired, they moved forward to the shore despite the spray of bullets coming towards them. According to Silent Voices, page 85, they had been told to ‘GO LIKE HELL’, whatever happens ‘you must press on’.

John had no choice but to keep moving forwards courageously, dodging the oncoming bullets. He was among the first, if not the first boat to land on the Gallipoli soil and played a major part in establishing and defending their position. Some would say this was the birth of the ANZAC spirit. On the 20 August, John was invalided out of Gallipoli and admitted into hospital in Australia, suffering from enteric fever (typhoid). There he spent a year recuperating and serving as a recruiting officer. He had a strong desire to return to action overseas, so when he was deemed medically fit for action in April 1917, he applied to join the Australian Flying Corps. In May, he began pilot training at Point Cook which he was unable to complete after suffering from an attack of pleurisy. Nevertheless, John persuaded the authorities to agree to let him become an artillery officer and travelled to England aboard the HMAT Suevic.

From here he was appointed a flying officer where he observed the No.62 Royal Flying Corps Squadron in France. John then twisted the story and became paired with the captain of the Squadron Lieutenant Bill Staton, gaining their first aerial victory on 21 March 1918. They then went on to attain 14 more victories during the war. As stated in, A Pilot’s War 1915-1918 John Rutherford Gordon engaged in the following victory, “At 11:30 South of Armentieres, Lt.s Staton and Gordon in a general engagement with enemy aircraft fired on an Albatross D.V at close range which spun down and crashed 2 miles south of Armentieres. Rejoining their formation at 11.40 they found an enemy two seater C type behind and below, they fired on it and the aircraft was seen to crash a mile south east of Ploegsteert Wood.” John was clearly a determined and resilient young man talking all opportunity to return to the war, a clear demonstration of the Anzac Spirit.

John was the only Australian member in the British Squadron, however this did not stop him building a great sense of mateship with his whole Squadron, particularly with his crew member Lieutenant Bill Staton. True to the Anzac Spirit the pair perfected their manoeuvres in-between missions, constantly pushing the boundaries of life and death. They had several victories doing this, which showed off their determination. According to A Voyage around my Father, on one occasion in France, John had an extremely lucky miss in the plane. There was not a cloud nor aircraft in site when he heard a whoosh, he did not have the slightest idea what it was, and later found out it was a huge German gun mounted on a railway track which could fire shells 80 miles into the air. If he and his partner had been hit, they would have been the unluckiest airmen in the war. John and Staton owed their survival throughout all their missions to the true mateship they shared.

In March 1918, the Germans began their big push to end the war, they broke through Allied lines and seemed like they were on their way to victory. The order to the Allied pilots came saying: “Squadrons will bomb and shoot everything they could see on the enemy side of the line. Very low flying is essential. All risks to be taken. Urgent.” (Gordon, 2011) This began the most dangerous and horrific episode of the war for John, his strong Anzac character giving him strength to fight on. John stated with amazement that the Germans were incapable of taking action, “They simply lay down on the road and waited to be shot. If they had set up a fixed machine gun we would have been shot out of the sky, but thankfully they never did.” (Gordon, 2011) In mid-1918 John returned to England to finally complete his flying training, then serving as a SE5a fighter. The completion of the war resulted in him returning to Australia.

Qualities of the Anzac Spirit such as, John’s leadership and commitment resulted in him deservedly being awarded the Military cross for effective ground attack actions during the German March/April 1918 offensives. ‘Lt. John Rutherford Gordon, AFC and RFC. (Australian Flying Corps and Royal Flying Corps) “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when, as an observer on an offensive patrol, he shot down and destroyed three enemy machine. Previous to this he had shot down two enemy tri-planes, one of which crashed to the ground in flames. He also has effectively and repeatedly scattered mass bodies of enemy troops by accurate shooting of 100 feet. His skill and daring have been of the highest order.” (RSL Virtual War Memorial, 2014).

John Rutherford Gordon went onto serve for the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, where he managed to bravely fight yet again for his country and was lucky to survive. In 1965 John Rutherford Gordon was one of the surviving Gallipoli veterans who returned to ANZAC Cove for the 50th anniversary pilgrimage. He was the last survivor of the 10th Battalion Section 1, and died in 1978 at the age of 83. The army was a field which John was extremely passionate about, he was courageous and willing to sacrifice himself for his King and country.

John was born with the Anzac Spirit in him, each day it strengthened and shaped the extraordinary person he became.