Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Edwards, Sir Hughie Idwal (1914–1982)

by Arthur Hoyle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards (1914-1982), air force officer, businessman and governor, was born on 1 August 1914 at Fremantle, Western Australia, third of five surviving children of Welsh-born parents Hugh Edwards, farrier, and his wife Jane Ann, née Watkins. Called Idwal by his family, he was to be known as Eddie in the Royal Air Force and Hughie to his Australian aircrews. He attended White Gum Valley State School and Fremantle Boys’ School, which he had to leave, reluctantly, after gaining his Junior certificate because the family finances could no longer support him.

After working in a shipping agent’s office, a racing stable and a factory, Edwards enlisted in the Permanent Military Forces in March 1934 and served with the 6th Heavy Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, which manned the defences of Fremantle. Six ft 1½ ins (187 cm) tall and about 12 stone (76 kg) in weight, he played Australian Rules football for South Fremantle and cricket for the Fremantle garrison team. His stay in the army was brief as, much to his surprise, he was accepted as a cadet in the Royal Australian Air Force on 15 July 1935 and sent to No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria. He was not a natural pilot but on graduation was rated as `above average’.

The Royal Air Force was seeking recently graduated officers such as Edwards; he and six others arrived in England and were granted short-service commissions on 21 August 1936. Edwards loved the club-like atmosphere of the pre-war RAF. He soon became proficient on the new Blenheim bombers and was promoted to flying officer in May 1938, but in August he flew into a cumulo-nimbus cloud and his aircraft iced up and went into an uncontrollable spin. After baling out his crew, he managed to escape at low altitude but his parachute caught on the radio aerial and he `rode’ the aircraft to the ground. He was critically injured and spent much of the following two years recovering, afraid that he would be unable to take part in World War II, which had broken out in September 1939.

By sheer determination and constant pressure on the medical authorities, in April 1940 Edwards finally gained permission to resume flying. Promoted to flight lieutenant, he sustained only minor injuries when he crashed in October after becoming lost in a nationwide blackout. In February 1941 he joined No.139 Squadron, again flying Blenheims. The squadron was engaged in the dangerous task of attacking German convoys off the coast of Europe as well as bombing nearby targets on land. Edwards had another accident but survived unscathed. With the heavy loss of crews, life expectancy being only a few weeks, promotion came quickly to the survivors and in April he was made acting squadron leader.

In May Edwards became the commander of No.105 Squadron as an acting wing commander. Demoralised by the mortality rate and poor results, the squadron rallied to his determination to make it the best in the group. Edwards was almost worshipped by his crews. He was severe but fair and outstandingly courageous, while admitting that he was as frightened as his men. On 15 June he led a formation of aircraft against enemy merchant shipping off the Dutch coast. He attacked one ship from mast height, severely damaging it, and for his `great leadership, skill and gallantry’ was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 4 July 1941 a group of twelve Blenheims led by Edwards made a daylight attack on the German city of Bremen. His bombers had to fly under high-tension wires, through a balloon barrage and into intense anti-aircraft fire. The surviving aircraft were riddled with holes. Four of the attacking force were shot down and Edwards’ own Blenheim returned with a wounded gunner, a smashed radio rack and a large part of the port wing shot away. For this gallant action Edwards was awarded the Victoria Cross. Later that month he took his squadron to the besieged island of Malta to attack Italian convoys on their way to Libya. To his chagrin he was not allowed to fly; after two months only three of his crews survived out of the eighteen that had arrived.

Following a propaganda tour of the United States of America in October-December, Edwards married Cherry Kyrle (`Pat’) Beresford, née Kemp, the widow of a friend, on 21 January 1942 at St Mary’s Church of England, Bryanston Square, London. A few days later he took command of No.22 Operational Training Unit. In August he was posted to the command of No.105 Squadron, flying his favourite aircraft, the Mosquito. The squadron took part in many successful attacks, including the destruction of the Philips factory at Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in December and the submarine-engine plant in Copenhagen in January 1943. In most of these attacks Edwards played the leading role. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the Eindhoven raid.

In February Edwards was promoted to acting group captain and placed in command of the large RAF station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, which became the base from which No.460 Squadron, RAAF, operated until the end of the war. Edwards found his first substantial command—of a large number of Australian ground and air crews—a challenging task. He soon started operations on Lancaster bombers, almost certainly doing more trips than he was allowed. Losses were heavy in the battle of the Ruhr and the battle of Berlin, but morale never faltered, due in large part to his example. He was very popular with his crews, provided they did not have to fly with him: he was a poor pilot with more enthusiasm and courage than ability.

Edwards was sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as group captain, bomber operations, in December 1944 and as senior air staff officer at Lord Louis Mountbatten’s headquarters, South-East Asia Command, in January 1945. He was engaged first in supporting the 14th Army in Burma and then, after being posted to Malaya and to Batavia (Jakarta), in the rescue of prisoners of war and Dutch civilians from the troubled Netherlands East Indies. Having been mentioned in despatches, he was appointed OBE (1947).

Returning to England in May 1947, Edwards attended the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, Berkshire. He spent the following years flying jet aircraft and instructing. In 1956 he was posted to command the large RAF station at Habbaniyah, Iraq, which was besieged during a military coup in 1958. He acquitted himself well in a tense situation and withdrew the force without casualties. In October that year he was made commandant of the Central Fighter Establishment, West Raynham, Norfolk, as an acting air commodore (substantive 1 July 1959). He was appointed CB in 1959 and an aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II next year. In 1961 he attended the Imperial Defence College, London. Director of organisation (establishments) at the Air Ministry from January 1962, he retired from the RAF on 30 September 1963.

Edwards took up a post in Sydney as resident director of a large mining firm, Australian Selection (Pty) Ltd. His wife died in 1966. At the registrar-general’s office on 11 September 1972 he married Dorothy Carew Berrick, née Nott, a divorcee. On 7 January 1974 he was sworn in as governor of Western Australia. He was appointed a knight of grace of the Order of St John in May and KCMG in August. Impeded by chronic ill health, Sir Hughie resigned on 2 April 1975 and returned to Sydney. Survived by his wife, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died suddenly of subdural haematoma after a fall on 5 August 1982 at Darling Point and was cremated. The most highly decorated Australian of World War II, he had been respected by all with whom he came in contact and revered by those with whom he served. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds his medals, his portrait (1944) by Stella Bowen and a painting (1982) by Ray Honisett of the episode in which he won his VC. A bronze statue of him by Andrew Kay was erected in Kings Square, Fremantle, in 2002.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Firkins, Strike and Return (1964)
  • C. Bowyer, For Valour (1978)
  • P. Firkins, The Golden Eagles (1980)
  • A. Hoyle, Sir Hughie Edwards VC KCMG CB DSO OBE DFC (2000)
  • A. Staunton, Victoria Cross (2005)
  • Hughie Edwards papers (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Arthur Hoyle, 'Edwards, Sir Hughie Idwal (1914–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edwards-sir-hughie-idwal-12455/text22401, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014