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Griffith, Sturt de Burgh (1905–1979)

by E. D. Daw

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

Sturt de Burgh Griffith (1905-1979), engineer, patent attorney, air force officer and journalist, was born on 15 August 1905 at Manly, Sydney, son of Arthur Hill Griffith, a patent attorney and member of the Legislative Assembly who had emigrated from Ireland, and his native-born wife Mildred Carrington, née Smith. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), Sturt studied electrical and mechanical engineering at the University of Sydney (B.E., 1928) and gained six months practical experience at the Pyrmont works of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd. He entered his father's firm of patent attorneys, Griffith & Hassel, was admitted to practise in 1930 and became a partner.

After serving in the senior cadets and the Militia, Griffith had joined the Citizen Air Force in December 1925 and obtained a 'distinguished pass' in his pilot training at Point Cook, Victoria. He was commissioned in April 1926 and attached to No.3 Squadron at Richmond, New South Wales. Sent to Canberra to take part in the ceremonies to mark the opening of Parliament House in May 1927, he survived two perilous landings with minor injuries. During a flight over Sydney in August 1928, he was forced to ditch his aircraft in the harbour when the engine failed. He transferred to the C.A.F. Reserve in 1934 as a flight lieutenant. On 23 April 1937 he married Winnifred Morris Marshall at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney; they were to remain childless.

In September 1939 Griffith was mobilized for full-time service in the Royal Australian Air Force. He led No.22 Squadron at Richmond in 1940-41 before being sent to Canberra where he commanded the Royal Australian Air Force Station and the School of Army Co-operation. 'Slightly under average height and of sturdy build', at this time he was described as 'a man of firmly-held convictions, swift and decisive in the expression of them'. He was promoted temporary wing commander in October 1941 and awarded the Air Force Cross in January 1942.

Later that month Griffith was posted as commander of the R.A.A.F. Station, Darwin. He took office less than three weeks before the first Japanese air-raid on the town. At 9.37 a.m. on 19 February the R.A.A.F. operations room received a message that a large formation of aircraft had crossed Bathurst Island and was heading towards Darwin. Believing that the planes could have been American, Griffith did not order the alarm until 9.58 a.m. Within seconds, enemy bombers arrived from the south-east. With their fighter escort, they destroyed naval, military, air force and civilian targets, and departed at 10.40 a.m. A second raid from 11.55 a.m. to 12.20 p.m. concentrated on the R.A.A.F. Station and aerodrome, inflicting serious damage.

Observed to have been 'rattled' by the onslaught, Griffith gave an imprecise, oral order that his staff was to assemble 'half a mile [0.8 km] down the road and half a mile into the bush'. The instruction was distorted as it passed from person to person and men disappeared in various directions: 278 of them were still missing on 23 February. On the afternoon of the 19th, Hudson bombers had been prevented from taking off because Griffith was unable to arrange a ground-to-air wireless link.

In the reports (March and April) of his commission of inquiry into the events of that day, (Sir) Charles Lowe was unable to determine who was to blame for the delay in raising the alarm, but he found that Griffith 'must take some responsibility'. In addition, he held Griffith to be partly at fault for the R.A.A.F.'s general unpreparedness for attacks from the air. Reserving his strongest criticism for Griffith's conduct after the second raid, he described his performance as incompetent and lacking in leadership. Air Vice Marshal W. D. Bostock reviewed Lowe's findings for the Department of Air. He stated that air-raid warnings were the function of Area Combined headquarters and concluded that it should share the blame for the delay. Moreover, he noted that most of the responsibility for shortcomings in equipment, facilities and personnel in Darwin had to be borne by the department, by the air officer commanding, North-Western Area, and by his chief of staff.

Griffith's difficulties had been accentuated by a cumbersome command structure which superimposed both Area Combined and R.A.A.F. North-Western Area headquarters on his station headquarters, thereby constraining his authority. His decision to assemble his men away from the base, though badly executed, had been reasonable, given the circumstances. None the less, he never held another operational command.

From April 1942 Griffith commanded No.7 Squadron at Bairnsdale, Victoria. In June he was posted to No.5 Maintenance Group, Sydney, where he filled senior administrative and technical staff positions, and was promoted temporary group captain in December 1943. That month he took command of No.1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton, Victoria. Transferring back to the reserve in October 1945, he resumed his work as a patent and trademark attorney and as a consultant engineer. He was a councillor (1932-51) and president (1947-48) of the Institute of Patent Attorneys of Australia.

In 1950 reports of Griffith's road tests on motor-vehicles began appearing in the press and he was soon appointed motoring correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. Junior staff brought vehicles to his home at Leura in the Blue Mountains and sat 'in terror beside him as he hurled the cars around his set course', gathering data which was entered into stylized reports. At the Herald his copy was treated as 'sacred'. A colleague described his work as 'very technical, very accurate, totally objective', and of such standing that his report could mean the difference between the success or failure of a new model. Compilations of his articles, Sturt Griffith's Road Tests, appeared annually for some years from 1959. He continued to be employed by the Herald until December 1976. Survived by his wife, he died on 14 December 1979 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Lockwood, Australia's Pearl Harbour (Melb, 1966)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • A. Powell, The Shadow's Edge (Melb, 1988)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 10 Jan 1942
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Dec 1979
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

E. D. Daw, 'Griffith, Sturt de Burgh (1905–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/griffith-sturt-de-burgh-10369/text18367, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 November 2018.

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

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