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Crombie, Charles Arbuthnot (1914–1945)

by Alan Stephens

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

Charles Crombie, c1943

Charles Crombie, c1943

Australian War Memorial, SUK11692

Charles Arbuthnot Crombie (1914-1945), air force officer, was born on 16 March 1914 in Brisbane, son of David William Alexander Crombie, a Queensland-born grazier, and his Indian-born wife Phoebe Janet, née Arbuthnot. Charles's grandfathers were James Crombie and Sir Charles Arbuthnot, a general in the British Army; John Cameron was Charles's great-uncle. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), Charles worked as a jackeroo, initially at Mountside, the family property near Warwick, Queensland. He loved life on the land. From 1934 to 1938 he served in the Militia, attaining sergeant's rank in the 11th Light Horse Regiment.

Hearing that young men 'who have done a bit of machine-gun work and can ride a horse' were considered good pilot material, Crombie took civil flying instruction to enhance his prospects; he enlisted on 24 May 1940 in the Citizen Air Force of the Royal Australian Air Force and was selected for aircrew. Dark complexioned, with blue eyes and brown hair, he had an ideal physique for the cramped cockpits of fighter aircraft: he was 5 ft 6½ ins (169 cm) tall and weighed 9 st. 3 lb. (59 kg). On 20 September 1940 in his school's chapel he married Betty Deane-Butcher before embarking within two weeks for training in Canada. Commissioned on 17 January 1941, he arrived in Britain next month. In May he joined the Royal Air Force's No.25 Squadron as a Beaufighter pilot. Transferring to No.89 Squadron in the Middle East in October, he operated from bases in Egypt and Malta; by the end of the year he had destroyed six enemy aircraft and probably another two. His next posting was to No.176 Squadron, stationed in India.

On the evening of 19 January 1943 Crombie intercepted a formation of four Japanese bombers near Calcutta. Enemy fire set his Beaufighter's starboard motor ablaze, but he persisted with the attack and shot down one plane. When flames from the burning motor swept back, he ordered his navigator to parachute to safety and pressed on alone. Crombie destroyed a second bomber and damaged a third, then his fuel tank exploded and he was forced to bale out with his clothing alight. His typically modest and laconic account of the combat in a letter to his wife made no mention of his success, merely relating that he had been shot down and had 'landed in the most God awful swamp'. For his courage and determination in this 'magnificent lone-hand action', he won the Distinguished Service Order; a Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded in May, recognized the leadership and fighting spirit which he had displayed in earlier engagements. At the end of his operational tour he had been credited with the destruction of twelve enemy aircraft and probably an additional four.

Repatriated on 27 September 1943, Crombie was promoted temporary flight lieutenant in October and acting squadron leader in November. He was posted in December to No.5 Operational Training Unit, based at Tocumwal, New South Wales. During a test flight on 26 August 1945 he was killed when his Beaufighter crashed at Williamtown. Crombie's popularity had been such that the entire unit stood down for his funeral; he was buried with Anglican rites in Sandgate war cemetery; his wife and 1-year-old son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (Canb, 1957)
  • G. Odgers, The RAAF (Syd, 1989)
  • L. McAulay, Against All Odds (Syd, 1989)
  • B. Crombie, The Man I Knew: The Story of Charles Arbuthnot Crombie (manuscript, 1987, privately held)
  • Australian War Memorial records.

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Crombie, Charles Arbuthnot (1914–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crombie-charles-arbuthnot-9866/text17457, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 August 2014.

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

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