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Cobby, Arthur Henry (1894–1955)

by Keith Isaacs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Arthur Henry Cobby (1894-1955), airman and administrator, was born on 26 August 1894 at Prahran, Victoria, the second of four sons of Arthur Edward Stanley Cobby, tramway conductor, and his wife Alice, née Nash. Harry, as he became known, was educated at a state school and at University College, Armadale. He gained a commission with the 46th Infantry (Brighton Rifles) in 1912, while working as a clerk with the Commonwealth Bank, Melbourne. He joined the Australian Imperial Force in 1916 and was posted to the Central Flying School, Australian Flying Corps, Point Cook, and completed his initial instruction in December.

Lieutenant Cobby embarked with No.4 Squadron, A.F.C., in January 1917 and arrived in England in March. The squadron flew its Sopwith Camel fighters to France in December, and Cobby shot down his first enemy aircraft on 3 February 1918. Frederick Cutlack considered that 'Cobby was one of the most daring spirits in the Australian air service', and describes in detail his many encounters with enemy aircraft. Cobby shot down 29 aircraft and 13 balloons between February and September 1918, and was the leading A.F.C. ace. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in June, two Bars to the D.F.C. in July, the Distinguished Service Order in August, and was mentioned in dispatches. He was then posted to England as an instructor. Captain Cobby returned to Australia in 1919 and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 24 July. He married Hilda Maude Urban on 24 April 1920 at Caulfield, Victoria.

Cobby joined the Australian Air Force on 31 March 1921 with the rank of flying officer, and was promoted wing commander on 1 May 1933. He left the R.A.A.F. on 6 May 1935, and became a member of the Civil Aviation Board and its controller of operations in March 1936. He had contributed a chapter on the psychology of flying to Australian Airmen, by E. J. Richards (Melbourne, no date), and an article to Popular Flying (London) in February 1935. His autobiography, High Adventure (Melbourne, 1942), was based on his World War I experiences.

Wing Commander Cobby rejoined the R.A.A.F. in 1939 on the outbreak of World War II, and was promoted to group captain and air commodore. He was director of recruiting (1940), air officer commanding headquarters North-Eastern Area (1942), commandant, R.A.A.F. Staff School, in 1943, A.O.C. No.10 Operational Group (1944) and of the 1st Tactical Air Force in 1944-45. He was awarded the George Medal in March 1944; although injured, he rescued two officers when a Catalina crashed at Townsville, Queensland, on 7 December 1943. He was also appointed C.B.E. for the direction of air operations in New Guinea in 1942-43.

A crisis arose in April 1945 when eight senior officers, who considered the high losses sustained by 1st T.A.F. operations to be militarily unjustifiable, tendered their resignations to Cobby at Morotai Island. He was relieved of his command on 10 May. An inquiry under (Sir) John Barry, K.C., found that, inter alia, widespread discontent existed and that 'the A.O.C., 1st T.A.F., failed to maintain proper control over his command'. On 28 May 1948 Cobby was presented with the United States of America Medal of Freedom with bronze palm, for meritorious wartime service.

In 1946 Cobby returned to the Department of Civil Aviation, was appointed regional director, New South Wales, in 1947-54 and next year became director of flying operations. He died suddenly of hypertensive cerebro-vascular disease on 11 November 1955 in the Heidelberg Repatriation General Hospital, survived by his wife, son and daughter. He was accorded full military honours at St Mary's Church of England, Caulfield, and was cremated. His estate was declared for probate at £4858. Portraits by William McInnes are held at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and by his son.

General Sir Thomas Blamey regarded Cobby as 'one of the most loved and most gallant of our airmen …'. Cobby also possessed a delightful sense of humour, and historian Arthur Bazley recalled that 'he was always an imp of mischief'. Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams paid tribute to him as 'a man whose personal story is threaded through the entire history of Australian service and civil aviation'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1923)
  • O'M. Creagh and E. M. Humphris (eds), The V.C. and D.S.O., vol 3 (Lond, 1924)
  • L. A. Strange, Recollections of an Airman (Lond, 1933)
  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan, 1943-1945 (Canb, 1957)
  • D. N. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • K. Isaacs, Military Aircraft of Australia, 1909-1918 (Canb, 1971)
  • A. W. Bazley, ‘Celebrities of the A.I.F., Captain A. H. Cobby’, Reveille (Sydney), Nov 1937
  • Sydney Morning Herald, and Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Nov 1955
  • J. V. Barry, Commission of Inquiry into Affairs Relating to the R.A.A.F. (1945, National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Keith Isaacs, 'Cobby, Arthur Henry (1894–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cobby-arthur-henry-5700/text9635, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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