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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Atkinson, Richard Ashley (Dick) (1913–1944)

by David Vincent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Richard Ashley Atkinson (1913-1944), by unknown photographer

Richard Ashley Atkinson (1913-1944), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, SUK13392

Richard Ashley (Dick) Atkinson (1913-1944), air force officer, was born on 21 May 1913 at Emmaville, New South Wales, second child of John Atkinson, a mine manager from England, and his native-born wife Emily Henrietta, née Grant. Educated at The King's School, Parramatta, Dick belonged to the rifle-shooting team and rowed in the first VIII. He enrolled at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of London (B.Sc.Eng, 1935), joined the Royal Air Force's reserve in 1933 and learned to fly. Atkinson later worked as a mining engineer at Wiluna, Western Australia, Broken Hill, New South Wales, and briefly at Ranong, Siam (Thailand). Mobilized on 31 August 1939, he was posted in October to No.205 Squadron, R.A.F., a long-range reconnaissance unit based in Singapore.

While patrolling three hundred nautical miles (556 km) north-east of Singapore on Christmas Day 1941, his Catalina flying boat was attacked by a Japanese aircraft and set on fire. Atkinson was forced to put the machine down in the sea. He and his crew, all suffering from burns, spent eight hours in the water before they were sighted from the air and subsequently rescued by a Dutch submarine. For his steadiness and courage throughout the ordeal, Atkinson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Seconded to the Royal Australian Air Force in March 1942, he became a flight commander next month in No.11 Squadron; he flew bombing, reconnaissance, supply-dropping and sea-rescue missions in Catalinas. In September he was promoted temporary squadron leader. Posted to command a detachment of No.11 and No.20 squadrons at Cairns, Queensland, he took part in night-raids on Rabaul, New Britain, on 8 and 9 October, with his aircraft hazardously laden with incendiary bombs: the operation involved two eighteen-hour flights in a period of forty-two hours. Appointed commanding officer of No.11 Squadron in January 1943, Atkinson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his determination in the face of the enemy.

On 6 March 1943 in St John's Anglican Church, Cairns, he married 20-year-old Joan Patricia Jackson, a stenographer. Promoted acting wing commander in May, he supported the use of Catalinas for aerial minelaying, then in its infancy. Having served at No.3 Operational Training Unit, Rathmines, New South Wales, from June to October, Atkinson returned with his wife to England. In April 1944 he was posted to Coastal Command's No.248 Squadron, based at Portreath, and flew Mosquitoes on anti-shipping sorties. Transferring to No.235 Squadron in August, he commanded this unit from October, after it had moved to Scotland as part of the formidable Banff Strike Wing; his leadership and tactical ability were evident in a number of successful missions. Atkinson was 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with brown eyes and dark brown hair; quiet and unassuming, he was well liked.

Leading an attack on enemy ships lying in Vilnesfjord, Norway, on 13 December 1944, he had reached the target when anti-aircraft fire severed his Mosquito's starboard wing and his plane crashed into the sea. Atkinson's body was never recovered; his wife and 3-month-old son survived him. A Bar to his D.F.C. was awarded posthumously and his name is inscribed on the Runnymede Memorial, Surrey.

Select Bibliography

  • D. N. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • D. Vincent, Catalina Chronicle (Adel, 1978)
  • R. C. Nesbit, The Strike Wings (Lond, 1984)
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

David Vincent, 'Atkinson, Richard Ashley (Dick) (1913–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Richard Ashley Atkinson (1913-1944), by unknown photographer

Richard Ashley Atkinson (1913-1944), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, SUK13392