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The RAAF History

1921 - 1996


Volume 1 The Third Brother (1921 to 1939) - Dr Chris Clark

Volume 2 Going Solo (1946 to 1971) - Dr Alan Stephens

Volume 3 Taking the Lead (1972 to 1996) - Air Commodore (Dr) Mark Lax



Royal Australian Air Force

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2021

Hardback – Box set     2034pp    RRP $69.99


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, September 2023


In the years after the first World War, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) gifted Australia with a significant number of military aircraft that were surplus to the RAF's post-1918 requirements. These aircraft were the base around which the Australian Defence Forces would build a new air service, separate and distinct from the Army and Navy, to replace the Australian Flying Corps, initially formed around a Central Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria, in 1913, and disbanded in 1919.

There were several hundred Flying Corps members, both aircrew (pilots and observers) and technical and administrative ground staff, who were available to join this new arm of the Australian Military Service. [My late uncle, WO Stanley Robertson MSM, had served as an engine fitter with No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, during the Palestine Campaign].

This three-volume history of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) focuses on the issues that arose, and had to be addressed by, the ex-Australian Imperial Force and Australian Flying Corps officers, whose role and duty it was to design a new service, define its role, establish a doctrinal structure under which it would perform its functions, as an independent Service and not as two ancillary support components of the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Navy.

The Federal Government agreed to commit £3 million, over three years, to finance a new and independent military aviation arm. There was strong opposition from the two existing Services, which feared erosion of their already limited budgets. The final decisions were influenced by the decisions taken in Britain in 1917, to bring the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service together as a single, separate Arm of the British defence forces.

It was not easy to do this, as there were ongoing disputes with the Army and Navy (each of which wanted control of its own dedicated aviation force), about its size, equipment, personnel and future roles. Both also feared that the Federal Government, at that time unwilling to allocate money to the armed forces, would reduce their financial budgets to cover the cost of an independent aviation arm of the Commonwealth's Defence Forces.

A further complication was that the officers appointed to create and lead this new Service sometimes sought different routes to different goals. They did not always get approval from the appropriate Federal Cabinet members for their suggested policies and functions. A large part of the first volume is taken up with a well-researched account of the attempts by the three military services , the Government and the Public Service, to come to some agreement on each of these issues.

The Royal Australian Air Force was eventually formed as 'The Third Brother', an independent Arm of Service, commanded and led by its own officers. Faced, as it was in 1936-1939, with the prospect of another major war, the RAAF was barely prepared. The World War One vintage aircraft were being replaced by more modern designs, either purchased from the United States or ‘begged’ from British manufacturers, but only in small numbers, and not with first-line aircraft. As the war developed, thousands of Australians, trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme, served in the European and Middle Eastern theatres, almost always under Royal Air Force Commands, so that few RAAF officers were able to gain experience in higher ranks and appointments in the Service.

A short-coming in Volumes 2 and 3 is that the authors touch only lightly on the contribution of RAAF personnel in World War 2, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and other conflicts between 1939 and 1996. Coverage is given to changes in equipment, and especially to the conversion from piston-engine to jet-engine aircraft and the introduction of helicopters, and to the changes in recruitment, training, pay scales and career paths for personnel. There are good accounts of the contributions made in all these areas by senior officers, across all these aspects of the service's history.

Volume three records the transition of the air service from a small force designed to protect Australia to a more technically sophisticated participant in smaller wars and conflicts, and in different roles – such as peace-keeping, aid programs after natural disasters, and support to the civil authorities in times of flood, fire and famine, both here in Australia and overseas.

The authors have tried to present a holistic view of the problems facing a small group of permanent service officers who were, over many years, trying to create a complete armed service with little knowledge of how this should be done or what was needed, and while facing down opposition to their endeavours from more experienced and more senior officers in the other two services. This situation was further complicated because few of the political ‘masters' to whom the service officers were answerable had any great knowledge of aviation, especially within the context of what was expected and needed to create a viable organization which could, should the need arise, contribute to the defence of Australia in time of war.

To the credit of the publishers the three volumes are very well presented, with numerous photographs (mostly of senior officers), but the writing style is pedestrian. The history contains over 1,750 pages of text, plus extensive Prefaces, Bibliographies and Indices, and the reader may find that the narrative flow is disjointed, and sometimes lacking in detail. Much of the content is presented in short blocks, without adherence to a consistent time continuum, so there is a lack of 'flow' to the narrative. The reader, if interested in any one aspect of the RAAF's story, may find it necessary to jump from one chapter to another, not necessarily in the same volume.

It is apparent, from the way the RAAF's story is developed in these books, that the aviation arm of the defence forces, especially in 1938-1940, was not prepared for World War 2 of 1939-1945, because initially its equipment was obsolete or inadequate. The service, early in the war, had no clearly defined strategic doctrines, and was to a significant extent lead by officers who were working within a framework based on the knowledge and experiences they and their predecessors had gained in a past war. But they were working in a wider environment where strategy, tactics and technology were changing rapidly and in wide-ranging and challenging ways. It was also handicapped by the almost complete lack of an aviation industry in Australia, and so they were reliant largely on America for more modern aircraft – at a time when both British and American manufacturers were fully committed to meeting the needs of their own national air service and could spare little to help Australia.

For the reader interested in the way a technologically complex arm of service can be created, and its leaders met and solved the many problems encountered, these three books would be of interest and of value. However, this is a history only of the men who created the Royal Australian Air Force, it records few of the achievements, in both peace and war, of the many thousands of men and women who were the Royal Australian Air Force over some seventy-five years. Too often, they served with inadequate equipment, against over-whelming odds and in difficult and dangerous environments.

Without them, the RAAF would have been a futile collection of semi-obsolete aeroplanes standing idle on deserted airstrips. Those many who served, and particularly those who gave their lives in wars and conflicts over the period covered in this history, deserved better than that.

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