RAAF Williams – Air bases at Point Cook and Laverton
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Point Cook is recognised as the birthplace of the Royal Australian Air Force.
In January 1913, the Australian Government settled on Point Cook as its preferred site for the establishment of its first Australian Flying Corps.
On a 734-acre sheep paddock purchased from George Chirnside, the Flying Corps pitched its forty-foot square army tents and Australian military aviation was born. Five training aircraft were shipped out from England and in March 1914 the first flight out of Point Cook took to the skies.
Six months later the world was at war and two weeks after that the first pilot training course began in earnest. Four pilots were the first to receive their airwings from the Point Cook base: Lieut. George Merz, Lieut. David Manwell, Group Captain Thomas White and Lieut. Richard 'Dicky' Willams. The base later trained several distinguished flying aces of the First World War including Lieut. Frank McNamara, the Australian Flying Corps' only VC winner of the war and Lieut. Henry Cobby who was to become the highest scoring officer of the corps.
Point Cook had been chosen initially because of its coastal position. However, one of the disadvantages of the Point Cook base was this very same close proximity to the Bay: salty sea air caused equipment to deteriorate. During the First World War early planes were made from canvas and wire but in later years the move to aircraft built from metals, corrosion proved an unnecessary irritation.
Point Cook remained Australia’s only military air base up until 1926 when a second air base was established at nearby Laverton.
As the Air Force moved to separate itself from the other services, and more specifically from the Navy, its relationship to, or need of Naval support, had diminished. Point Cook in those early days was not the easiest place to get to by road, or rail. Laverton was much better situated.
In 1938, Air Marshal Sir Edward Ellington, Inspector-General of the British Air Force was invited by the Australian Government to report on the organisation and efficiency of the Australian Air Force.
While Ellington spoke highly of the service personnel who were training at Point Cook, and of the quality and efficiency of those charged with maintenance of aircraft, he was less impressed by the facilities there.
The air force had begun as a service arm of the Navy and in support of the Army. In fact, the Navy was planning to establish its own Fleet Air Arm at the time of Ellington’s investigation when the air force was fighting to be recognised in its own right.
It was Richard 'Dicky' Williams, a Point Cook trained veteran of the First War who oversaw the establishment of the Australian Air Force. He had to fight long and hard for the force to be recognised as an independent service, and not just a support for the other two established forces. It was not until 1935 when Williams was promoted to Air Vice-Marshall that the Air Force could be considered equal to the other services.
As home to No. 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton was at the heart of Air Force training and administration in Victoria throughout the Second World War years.
The Second World War
On 3 September 1939 the world was once again at war.
At that time the Royal Australian Air Force (R.A.A.F.) had just 3,489 men in uniform. Britain would be able supply only 22,000 of the estimated 50,000 they had calculated they would need in the event of war.
'Dicky' Williams had been in England attached to the Air Ministry in charge of Coastal Command; when war broke out he was recalled to Australia, and although James Fairbairn, Minister for Air, wanted to appoint Williams as Chief of Air Staff, once again he was passed over for a more senior officer.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies appointed senior Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) officer Air Marshal Sir Charles Burnett to take command of the Royal Australian Air Force. Much to William’s disgust Burnett wanted to keep Australian airmen as back-up crew for the R.A.F. denying the Australian force an identity of its own, something Williams had sought for years—that his Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force should be of equal status to the Australian Infantry Force, not a second-string reservoir for the British.
The Empire Air Training Scheme
Britain and its dominions, including Canada and Australia entered into an agreement in December 1939 to contribute pilots and aircrew for service in support of the R.A.F. Australia agreed to supply 36% of the total number required. That meant training 800 new crew every month, a total of 28,000 men over the three years of the scheme. While initial training was undertaken at Point Cook, which had to be expanded to accommodate the large number of trainees, satellite runways were also constructed at Lara, Little River and in Werribee to ease the congestion in the skies.
By 1945, the R.A.F. had more than 173,000 personnel in uniform, including 30,000 Australians, proving the success of the Empire Air Training Scheme scheme, but this rapid expansion had come at considerable cost; almost 3,000 aircrew had died in training accidents across the Empire.
The British had initially promised that Australians would fly in national squadrons but this proved not to be the case. Most Australians flew in British Squadrons and joined in the most historic escapades of the war. Australian crew flew with Bomber Command over Europe and at least 37 Australian pilots flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain in the skies over the Home Counties in 1940.
One Point Cook graduate, Don Bennett, led ‘The Pathfinders’, an elite group within Bomber Command who guided the main bomber force to targets over Germany, marking them with flares and incendiary bombs. Bennett was appointed Air Vice-Marshal, the youngest in the R.A.F.
As part of war-time training planes flew over Werribee dragging parachutes on mile-long wires behind them while anti-aircraft gunners practised firing shells at the 'chutes and bringing down 'enemy aircraft'.
Bombing practice was carried out on open fields, and anti-aircraft gunners stationed at the mouth of the Werribee River fired their guns out into the Bay.
Women in the Air Force
Despite calls to allow women into the armed services, only a small number were able to enlist in any of the services. Women could take up 'war work' in factories or join auxiliary organisations such as the Women’s Air Training Corps and the Volunteer Air Observers Corps, but they would never see active service on board an aircraft. Women were restricted to ground-works with positions as mechanics, radio operators, technical officers and record keepers.
The Badge of the Royal Australian Air Force features a wedge-tailed eagle centred on a roundel with the Latin motto Per Ardua Ad Astra [Through Struggle to the Stars] in a ribbon beneath. The badge, surmounted with an Imperial Crown, was commissioned for the Australian Airforce in 1937, and granted in 1939 by John Heaton-Armstrong, Herald of Arms at the Royal College of Arms, London.
During the Second World War, Heaton-Armstrong attained the rank of squadron leader in the Royal Air Force, giving him a specialised interest in Air Force insignia. Later, as Clarenceaux King of Arms, Heaton-Armstrong held for some time, the honorary post of Inspector of Royal Air Force Badges.
Point Cook is still an operating airfield used only for general aviation purposes. The RAAF Museum is located at Point Cook, and is considered to be the spiritual home of the RAAF. The base is still used by the Air Force but only by the Air Force element of the Australian Defence Force Gap Year Program for post-secondary students.
The airfield at Laverton was decommissioned in the early 1990s and the Australian Government has allowed the airfield and runway to be sub-divided and developed for residential housing and a new commercial centre. While 136 acres have been set aside for conservation, four new neighbourhoods are planned within the suburban precinct which is named Williams Landing.