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Caldwell, Clive Robertson (1910–1994)

by Kristen Alexander

This article was published online in 2018

Clive Caldwell, c.1943

Clive Caldwell, c.1943

Australian War Memorial, SUK12082

Clive Robertson Caldwell (1910–1994), air force officer and businessman, was born on 28 July 1910 at Petersham, Sydney, only child of New South Wales-born parents John Caldwell, banker, and his wife Annie Selina, née Smiles. Clive was educated at Balmain Public School and at Trinity and Sydney Grammar schools before entering the Bank of New South Wales in 1928. Resigning in 1931, he worked as a jackeroo for two years then operated a garage at Darlinghurst with a friend. In 1937 he joined the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Co. Ltd and on 13 April 1940  he married Jean McIver Main, a nurse who had trained at Wootton private hospital, Kings Cross. The ceremony took place at a small chapel located on the Main family’s grazing property, ‘Retreat,’ close to Cootamundra.

Caldwell learned to fly with the Aero Club of New South Wales, before enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 27 May 1940. Mistakenly believing he was too old to be a fighter pilot, he understated his age. He trained in Australia under the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS). Commissioned in January 1941, Caldwell embarked for the Middle East on 3 February. After a brief attachment to 73 Squadron, Royal Air Force, he transferred to 250 Squadron, RAF, flying P-40 Tomahawk fighters.

Lean, broad-shouldered, and just over 6 feet two and a half inches (190 cm) tall, Caldwell was a snug fit in the cockpit. Based in Libya, he gained much success in strafing enemy land forces but was not a natural fighter pilot; it was some weeks before he scored his first combat victory. Eventually, by firing at the shadows of his comrades’ planes and observing where the bullets struck the desert sand, he learned how far ahead of an enemy aircraft to aim in order to hit it.  His technique, known as ‘shadow shooting,’ proved so effective that all desert fighter squadrons were required to adopt it. His fighting philosophy was: ‘Always attack. Always be aggressive and determined. Never relax that attitude. Be decisive and quick’ (Waters 1945, 22).

In July 1941 Caldwell was promoted to flying officer and two months later to acting flight lieutenant. His score of destroyed enemy planes mounted and he acquired the sobriquet ‘Killer,’ which he despised. After five aerial victories he became an ace and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his ‘splendid work in the Middle East operations’ (London Gazette, 26 December 1941, 7298). On 5 December he accounted for five Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers in a matter of minutes, for which he was awarded a bar to his DFC. Although his fellow pilots disapproved of his ‘lone wolf’ attacks on the enemy, he demonstrated leadership potential and, on 21 December, was appointed commanding officer of No. 112 Squadron, RAF. Flying P-40 Kittyhawks, he was promoted to acting squadron leader in January 1942. His aggressive leadership resulted in personal and squadron success, and he left the Middle East in May as the top-scoring desert fighter pilot and leading Kittyhawk ace. He was later awarded the Krzyz Waleoznych (Polish Cross of Valour) in recognition of his ‘buoyant co-operation’ with the Polish pilots of No. 112 Squadron (London Gazette, 4 August 1942, 3410).

After publicity tours in America and experience flying Spitfires with 127 Wing at Kenley, Surrey, England, Caldwell returned to Australia. Promoted to temporary flight lieutenant on 1 October 1942, he spent some time as an instructor before taking command of 1 Fighter Wing in November. He was promoted to acting wing commander in January 1943 and led the wing to the Northern Territory for the defence of Darwin. In action against the Japanese, he added to his score of victories. Although he directed his wing with dynamism and skill, Air Vice Marshal (Sir) George Jones found fault with his tactics in a major engagement on 2 May in which the RAAF suffered heavy losses. Air Commodore Francis Bladin, air officer commanding North-Western Area was critical of his commitment to ineffective ‘big wing’ formation attacks.

Caldwell could be dogmatic. He held strong opinions and was not averse to stating them to senior officers. Consequently, notwithstanding a brilliant war record, he did not always find favour with them. Despite some negative evaluations, however, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leadership; his citation noted his ‘inspiration to his wing’ and that he was ‘worthy of the highest praise’ (London Gazette, 19 October 1943, 4621).

After a posting to 2 Operational Training Unit, Mildura, Victoria, where he was appointed chief instructor, Caldwell returned to Darwin in May 1944 to command 80 Fighter Wing, equipped with Spitfires. On 1 August he was promoted to acting group captain. In December, as part of the First Tactical Air Force, 80 Wing deployed to Morotai Island, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), for night-fighter defence. RAAF infrastructure was at first wanting and Caldwell used his personal liquor store to trade goods and services with the Americans who were based nearby. This contravened Air Board orders and, in April 1945 under section 40 of the Air Force Act, he faced court-martial. Simultaneously, he and seven other RAAF officers who were critical of the futile operations they had been required to carry out attempted to resign from their commissions. As a consequence of the so-called ‘Morotai Mutiny’ (Sir) John Barry, KC, was appointed to inquire into liquor trading, the resignations of the officers, and First TAF operations.

In his report of 14 September Barry found that a state of discontent existed in the South-West Pacific Area; some senior officers had failed in their command; and seven of the eight officers had resigned because of dissatisfaction with RAAF actions and leadership. As a result, three senior officers were relieved of their commands. Caldwell and his fellow officers claimed their actions had been vindicated. In Barry’s opinion, however, Caldwell had been more concerned with his own prospects, and alleged that Caldwell’s request to terminate his commission related to his impending court martial. At the hearing in January 1946 Caldwell did not deny trading but maintained it was to obtain American equipment needed by his wing, which the RAAF could not supply. He was found guilty and demoted to flight lieutenant. His appointment was terminated on 5 March. Despite his career’s ignominious end, his popularity was unaffected.

Returning to civilian life Caldwell engaged in a number of enterprises, including importing surplus aircraft and other military equipment. He joined a cloth import/export company in Sydney eventually becoming its managing director. Later he became a partner and in 1957 established Clive Caldwell (Sales) Pty Ltd, a successful enterprise specialising in fabrics. Shunning publicity, he disliked being photographed, refused to participate in marches, and did not want his biography written. A keen golfer, he was a member of the Royal Sydney Golf Club. He died on 5 August 1994 at Darlinghurst and was cremated. His wife survived him; the couple had no children.

Acknowledged as Australia’s highest-scoring fighter pilot of World War II, with an official tally of 27½ destroyed enemy aircraft, Caldwell received many public tributes. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds his medals and a portrait by Harold Freedman, while his medal miniatures and a portrait by John Baird are in the Darwin Aviation Museum’s collection.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Alexander, Kristen. Clive Caldwell: Air Ace. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006
  • Australian War Memorial. PR00514, Pilot’s Flying Log Book Caldwell, C. R.
  • Caldwell, Jean. Personal communication
  • Cooper, Anthony. Darwin Spitfires: The Real Battle for Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2011
  • London Gazette, 23 December 1941
  • London Gazette, 4 August 1942
  • London Gazette, 19 October 1943
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Caldwell C. R.
  • National Archives of Australia. A471, 79104, Caldwell, Clive Robertson
  • Odgers, George. Air War Against Japan 1943-1945. Vol. II of Series 3 (Air) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957
  • Waters, John Carl. Valiant Youth: The Men of the RAAF. Sydney: F.H. Johnston. 1945
  • Williams, Reginald Ross. Personal communication.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Kristen Alexander, 'Caldwell, Clive Robertson (1910–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/caldwell-clive-robertson-27649/text35138, published online 2018, accessed online 17 November 2019.

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