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Eaton, Charles (1895–1979)

by Chris Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Charles Eaton (1895-1979), air force officer and diplomat, was born on 21 December 1895 at Lambeth, London, son of William Walpole Eaton, master butcher, and his wife Grace Maude, née Martin. Educated at Wandsworth, in August 1914 Charles enlisted in the London Regiment and fought in France before being commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps on 2 August 1917. He qualified as a pilot in October, helped to defend London against zeppelins and in early 1918 returned to France where he flew bombers. In April Eaton was promoted flying officer in the Royal Air Force. Shot down on 29 June near the Nieppe Forest, he became a prisoner of war at Holzminden, Germany. After his first escape he was recaptured, court-martialled and held in solitary confinement; his second escape was successful and he rejoined his unit. On 11 January 1919 he married Beatrice Rose Elizabeth Godfrey at St Thomas's parish church, Shepherds Bush, London.

Serving with No.1 Squadron, in 1919 Eaton flew politicians between London and Paris for the peace conference at Versailles. In December he moved to India where he was involved in aerial surveying. Leaving the R.A.F. on 23 July 1920, he joined the Indian forestry service. He came to Australia in 1923 and was employed as a forester in Queensland. On 14 August 1925 he was appointed flying officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and posted to No.1 Flying Training School at Point Cook, Victoria. Tall and lean, with an easy smile, Eaton was nicknamed 'Moth' partly because of his association with the R.A.A.F.'s primary trainer, the D.H.60 Moth. He was promoted flight lieutenant in February 1928.

In April 1929 Eaton led the R.A.A.F.'s search for a civilian plane, Kookaburra, missing in Central Australia. When the aircraft was found in the Tanami Desert, he headed a ground party which made an arduous journey to locate and bury the remains of the two-man crew. For this work he was awarded the Air Force Cross (1931). In August 1929 he was posted as director of manning at R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne. Next month he took leave to compete in the Sydney to Perth air race. Regarded as the air force's outstanding cross-country pilot, he had charge of two more missions to the Northern Territory (November 1930 and January 1931) which searched for downed aviators.

Returning to Point Cook in January 1931, Eaton transferred in December to No.1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton: he performed flying and administrative duties, and rose to squadron leader (1936). In May 1937 he took command of No.21 Squadron of the Citizen Air Force and immediately participated in another search in Central Australia. No.12 Squadron was formed at Laverton in February 1939, with Eaton as commanding officer. He was promoted wing commander next month and in July-August moved his unit to Darwin. On 1 September 1940 he was promoted temporary group captain.

As local air commander, he was a member of the Darwin defence co-ordination committee, along with his naval and army counterparts. His relations with the senior naval officer, Captain E. P. Thomas, were less than cordial, and Eaton also alienated unionists by placing his airmen on the docks to unload stores. As an apparent outcome, he was transferred in October 1941 to command No.2 Service Flying Training School at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Despite the circumstances of his departure from Darwin, he was appointed O.B.E. in 1942 for his 'marked success' there, and for his 'example', 'untiring energy', 'cheerful outlook and tact in handling men'.

Posted to Ascot Vale, Victoria, in April 1942, Eaton commanded No.1 Engineering School. One year later he was sent to Townsville, Queensland, to form No.72 Wing, a formation he took to Merauke, Netherlands New Guinea. His command was subordinate to area combined headquarters, Townsville, and he was to write that 'the problems of Merauki were not understood from there . . . difficulties arose, mountains were made out of molehills' and, after 'one or two fairly cryptic signals', he was posted in July as commanding officer of No.2 Bombing and Gunnery School, Port Pirie, South Australia.

In November 1943 Eaton accepted his 'finest appointment'. At Batchelor, Northern Territory, he commanded No.79 Wing, consisting of four squadrons—two of Beauforts, one of Beaufighters and one of Mitchells operated by the Dutch. His aircraft attacked targets in the Netherlands East Indies. In 1944 he was mentioned in dispatches and next year the Dutch awarded him the cross of a commander of the Order of Oranje-Nassau.

Having spent eleven months as air officer commanding, Southern Area, Melbourne, Eaton retired from the R.A.A.F. in December 1945. Next month he was appointed Australian consul at Dili, Portuguese Timor; he commenced duty in April 1946 and moved to Batavia (Jakarta) in August 1947. He was consul-general and Australian representative on the United Nations Security Council's consular commission during much of the period when the Dutch attempted to reimpose colonial rule on Indonesia. Eaton clashed with Dutch administrators who subsequently complained of his 'impropriety', but the allegation was firmly rejected in Canberra. Following the transfer of sovereignty to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia in December 1949, he became first secretary and chargé d'affaires.

Back in Australia, Eaton worked (1950-51) in the Department of External Affairs, Canberra; he then farmed at Metung, Victoria; he later shifted to Frankston and set up as a company promoter. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 12 November 1979 at Frankston and was cremated. His daughter Aileen, who had served (1944-57) as a nurse in the R.A.A.F., predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Coote, Hell's Airport (Syd, 1934)
  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (Canb, 1957)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • M. George, Australia and the Indonesian Revolution (Melb, 1980)
  • D. Smith and P. Davis, Kookaburra (Syd, 1980)
  • W. H. Brook, Demon to Vampire (Melb, 1986)
  • A. Powell, The Shadow's Edge (Melb, 1988)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (Syd, 1991)
  • Age (Melbourne), 14, 15 Nov 1979
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1931, 26 Jan 1946
  • personal papers (privately held).

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Eaton, Charles (1895–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/eaton-charles-10091/text17807, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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