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Embry, Sir Basil Edward (1902–1977)

by Lenore Layman

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

Sir Basil Edward Embry (1902-1977), air chief marshal and farmer, was born on 28 February 1902 at Longford, Gloucestershire, England, youngest of three children of Rev. James Embry, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Florence Ada, née Troughton. Educated at Bromsgrove School, from the age of 10 Basil longed to fly aeroplanes. On 29 March 1921 he was commissioned in the Royal Air Force. In 1922-27 he served in Iraq where he pioneered an airmail route across the desert, developed new techniques of 'air control' to keep the peace on the Kurdish border, worked with the air-ambulance service and won the Air Force Cross (1926). He married Australian-born Margaret Mildred Norfolk Hope Elliot on 1 August 1928 in Paris; they were to have five children. He was based in India in 1934-39 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1938) for operations on the North-West Frontier.

Back home, in 1939-40 Embry commanded No.107 Bomber Squadron and became famous for his leadership, courage and exploits, including two daring escapes from the Germans after being shot down over France. He was awarded two Bars to his D.S.O. Having commanded a night-fighter wing in the Battle of Britain and served a stint in the Middle East, he performed staff duties in England. In 1943 Embry was promoted acting air vice marshal and given command of No.2 Bomber Group. Flying with his squadrons at every opportunity, he won a third Bar to his D.S.O., was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and was mentioned in dispatches. He was appointed C.B. and K.B.E. in 1945, and received a number of foreign honours.

Following World War II, Sir Basil was assistant chief of Air Staff (training) at the Air Ministry, then (from 1949) commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, in which post he was promoted air marshal. In 1953 he was appointed K.C.B., promoted air chief marshal and sent to France as commander-in-chief, Allied Air Forces Central Europe. On his retirement on 26 February 1956, he was appointed G.C.B. His Mission Completed (London, 1957) recounted his triumphs in the air, and expressed his postwar disillusionment with the higher management of the R.A.F. and of the forces assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In March 1956, accompanied by his wife Hope, Embry left England 'in search of a new life'. The search ended in Western Australia. He bought a largely undeveloped farming property of 1400 acres (567 ha) at Chowerup in the south-west. The land had to be cleared before mixed farming could begin. He also acquired land at Cape Riche, east of Albany, and moved to this block in the late 1960s. The family established themselves as sheep-farmers.

Embry became active in the politics of agriculture through the Farmers' Union of Western Australia. After only a few months involvement in that organization, he was elected general president in 1971 and held office for two years. He assisted in restructuring the union and making it more professional. Embry focussed on perennial concerns of the farming sector: the burden of protective tariffs, the need for long-term rural finance, the level of farmers' returns, and, especially, the state of overseas trade. In the context of rural recession with depressed prices for wheat, wool and livestock, the need for new outlets was pressing. Convinced that farmers needed to market their own products in order to receive a greater share of their value, in 1972 he led a delegation through South East Asia and instigated the establishment of Rural Traders Co-operative (W.A.) Ltd. With Embry as first chairman (1972-75), and the involvement of the Pastoralists' and Graziers' Association of Western Australia, the co-operative sought overseas markets for rural products, in the first instance sheep, mutton and lamb. Although initial plans (to establish a co-operative-owned abattoir in Western Australia and then, in a joint venture, to build cool-rooms in the Middle East) were not realized, the company developed into an effective marketing enterprise.

Small and spare, wiry and strong, 'with extremely piercing blue eyes under fierce eyebrows', Embry had 'a puckish face' which could express 'a wide variety of emotions from demoniac rage to delight, laughter, and goodwill, often within a few seconds'. He was a forceful man of great energy and powers of persuasion, who believed in 'leading from the front'. The span of his activities in Britain and Australia made him a widely respected adviser in the public and private sectors. He worked at a punishing pace—staying high-tuned he called it—until illness intervened in 1975. Survived by his wife, daughter and three of his four sons, he died on 7 December 1977 at Boyup Brook and was buried with Catholic rites in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1971-80
  • Harvey-Murray Times, 22 Feb 1957
  • West Australian, 22 Apr 1971, 14 Feb 1973
  • Air Chief Marshal Sir Basil Embry (manuscript, R2824, Herald-Sun Library, Melbourne, biography service)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lenore Layman, 'Embry, Sir Basil Edward (1902–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/embry-sir-basil-edward-10120/text17863, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 3 September 2014.

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

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