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On Target: Who was Richard Williams?

Brian Weston 'On Target: Who was Richard Williams?' in Australian Defence Business Review, March-April 2019 p. 82

After several mutually supportive years with Australian Aviation, the On Target column, written on behalf of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, is now to be published in the Australian Defence Business Review.

As background, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation is an independent research organisation whose purpose is to promote the development and effective implementation of national security and defence policies, as they impact on Australia’s ability to generate air power appropriate to Australia’s unique geopolitical environment and values.

The Foundation aims to strengthen Australia’s national security by advocating the need for forward-looking policies which take full advantage of the potential for air power to shape and influence regional security and by promoting constructive debate regarding the implementation of such policies.

The Foundation is pleased to take the opportunity offered by the Australian Defence Business Review. An appropriate topic for this first On Target column would be to outline who was Richard Williams, and why is there a foundation bearing his name.

Richard Williams was born at Moonta Mines ‒ roughly halfway up the eastern coast of the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, on 3 August 1890. After enlisting in the Australian Military Forces, he was commissioned in 1911 and attended the first ‘war-flying’ course at the Central Flying School, Point Cook in 1914.

Following the raising of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in 1915, Williams was posted as a Flight Commander in No 1 Squadron, AFC and accompanied the squadron to Egypt where the unit was to serve with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). For the next two years Williams served with distinction and gallantry, rising to command No 1 Squadron, AFC.

In June 1918, shortly after the merging of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), Williams was appointed to command the 40th (Army) Wing, RAF; comprising No 1 Squadron, AFC and Nos 111, 144 and 145 Squadrons, RAF. To enable him to command the RAF wing, Williams ‒ already commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the AFC ‒ was also commissioned into the RAF.

At the end of World War I, after spending time in London investigating how Australia might follow Britain in establishing an independent air force, Williams returned to Australia where he was the driving force behind the merging of the aviation elements of the army and navy into the Australian Air Force, on 31 March, 1921. Soon after, the Australian Air Force become the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

Wing Commander Williams was appointed to head the RAAF and it fell to him to establish the new service, aided considerably by the gifting of a quantity of war surplus aircraft and equipment from Britain.

For the next 17 years, apart for periods of absence to serve with the RAF, Williams fought tenaciously to keep the small independent Australian air service alive in an atmosphere of hostility and severe financial stringency. Inevitably, during those years, Williams made some powerful enemies, especially in 1929 and 1932, when he convinced government not to abolish the RAAF as had been proposed. Subsequently, Williams went on to lay the foundation on which the RAAF, in World War II, built to a mighty air force of almost 175,000 personnel.

Richard Williams never got the opportunity to command the RAAF in war as following Prime Minister Menzies decision, in 1939, to appoint Englishmen as the chiefs of the three Australian services ‒ a decision Menzies justified on the basis no Australian officer had leadership experience of a service in war. Williams was duly despatched to London and then to Washington to see out World War II.

Williams autobiography bluntly records Williams view on this: “Menzies himself was facing a task beyond his experience but he was not calling for an Englishman to solve it”.

But after the war, Williams was not done with Australian aviation as, following his retirement from the RAAF in September 1946, he assumed the appointment of Director General of Civil Aviation and led the department until 1955. As all Australian aviators know, our country is a nation made for aviation – both military and civil. But who was to build the essential, widespread national aviation support infrastructure on which Australia’s civil aviation could prosper?

Certainly, Australia’s infant civil aviation operators could not. It was a task beyond them but one the Department of Civil Aviation undertook, under Williams leadership.

Sir Richard Williams is the greatest figure in Australian military aviation history and someone who stands tall in the pantheon of great Australians.

His autobiography, These are Facts, The Autobiography of Sir Richard Williams, KBE, CB, DSO, written in 1977, is a must-read for any Australian aviator with an interest in the history and development of Australian aviation.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and On Target is published as a regular column in the Australian Defence Business Review.

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