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Hewitt, Joseph Eric (1901–1985)

by Ray Funnell

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

Joseph Eric Hewitt (1901-1985), air force and naval officer, was born on 13 April 1901 at Tylden, Victoria, younger son of Joseph Henry Hewitt, Presbyterian clergyman, and his wife Rose Alice, née Harkness, both Victorian born. Eric spent his early life at Murchison. After the family moved to Melbourne in 1908, he attended Mentone High School and then Scotch College. In 1915 he entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory. Graduating in 1918, he was appointed midshipman on 1 January 1919 and sent to Britain to serve with the Royal Navy.

While on board the battleship HMS Ramillies, Hewitt witnessed the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, in June 1919 and took part in the salving of some of those ships. He then participated in postwar operations in the Mediterranean and Black seas. Back in England, he was promoted to sub-lieutenant in February 1921 and from April he served in the destroyer HMS Whitley. In September he moved to the RN College, Greenwich, and then to Portsmouth for a series of professional courses before returning to Australia in September 1922. He was made lieutenant in November.

After leave and service in HMAS Anzac, Hewitt was seconded to the Royal Australian Air Force in January 1923. That year he undertook pilot training at No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria. Over the next decade he moved between the RAAF, the RAN and the RN, most of his postings being associated with seaplane training and operations. On 10 November 1925 at Christ Church, Paddington, London, he married with Anglican rites Lorna Pretoria Bishop (d.1976). In April 1928 he transferred permanently to the RAAF. He was posted to No.101 (Fleet Cooperation) Flight, Point Cook, in October 1929 and elevated to commanding officer in February 1931 as a squadron leader.

Hewitt attended the RAF Staff College, Andover, England, in 1934, then served as assistant liaison officer in London and performed staff duties. In April 1936 he was appointed commanding officer of No.104 (Bomber) Squadron, RAF, at Abingdon, Berkshire, and later Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, flying Hawker Hind aircraft. The two-year posting indicated the esteem in which he was held by both the RAAF and the RAF, and in January 1938 he was promoted to wing commander. After his return to Australia, he was appointed in June to be senior air staff officer at RAAF Station, Richmond, New South Wales. For his work there he was appointed OBE (1940).

At the outbreak of World War II, Hewitt was the commanding officer of RAAF Station, Rathmines. In December 1939 he was appointed senior administrative staff officer, Southern Area headquarters, Melbourne, and made temporary group captain. He became director of personal services, Air Force Headquarters, in July 1940, deputy-chief of the Air Staff in October 1941 as an acting air commodore, director of plans and air operations at Australian-British-Dutch-American Command, Netherlands East Indies, in January 1942 and assistant-chief of the Air Staff in March.

A small, dark-haired, dapper man, Joe Hewitt, as he was known in the RAAF, had many supporters and many detractors. He was assertive, aggressive and often abrasive. However, he was also intelligent, quick-witted, determined and very hard working. In May 1942 he was appointed director of intelligence, Allied Air Forces Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. He became air officer commanding No.9 (Operational) Group in the New Guinea area in February 1943. This was the largest and most important operational command in the RAAF. Hewitt was an active and vigorous commander. He worked hard and expected those under his command to do likewise. In March No.9 Group played an important part in the battle of the Bismarck Sea, in which a large Japanese convoy was intercepted and its plans to land troops in New Guinea thwarted by the efforts of Allied aircraft.

Air and maritime operations in the South-West Pacific Area at this time were dominated by the large Japanese base at Rabaul, New Britain. The commanding officer of No.8 Squadron, Wing Commander G. D. Nicoll, developed a plan to attack shipping in Rabaul harbour using twelve Beaufort torpedo bombers. The plan, supported by Hewitt, was scheduled for 8 November but Nicoll lost confidence in it. After a late-night confrontation on the airfield between the two, an attack using only three aircraft was made with the loss of one aircraft and its crew and little damage to the Japanese ships.

Two days later Hewitt removed Nicoll from his post and sent him back to Australia. This action was countermanded by the chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal (Sir) George Jones, who in December removed Hewitt from his command and returned him to his previous position of director of intelligence. None of the significant players in this drama performed well, but Hewitt suffered most damage to his reputation and that was out of proportion to his mistakes. Subsequent events suggest that Jones came to a similar view for, in the citation to his appointment as CBE in 1951, Hewitt was commended for his work in the very post from which he had been relieved.

However, Hewitt’s most important work was yet to come. From 1945 to 1948, as the air member for personnel, he was responsible for the demobilisation of the wartime RAAF and the development of a postwar professional air force. With considerable skill and keen judgment, he oversaw the reduction of service personnel from more than 160,000 to fewer than 10,000. His restructuring of education and training resulted in an air force that was properly prepared for the new era. Under his leadership, the first steps were taken to establish the Apprentice Training Scheme, the RAAF College and the RAAF Staff College. Promoted to temporary air vice-marshal in January 1947 (substantive 1 October 1948), he became Australian defence representative in London (1949-51) and air member for supply and equipment (1951-56), and attended to both positions with characteristic determination and vigour.

Retiring from the RAAF on 13 April 1956, Hewitt was manager, education and training, with the International Harvester Co. of Australia Pty Ltd, for ten years. He refused to allow a diagnosis of cancer in 1973 to affect his activities. Throughout his life he had been meticulous in keeping a diary. From his records, he developed two volumes of autobiography, Adversity in Success (1980) and The Black One (1984). It was typical of the man that he founded his own publishing company to ensure that they were properly produced. Survived by his three daughters, he died on 1 November 1985 at Windsor, Melbourne, and was cremated with full air force honours.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (1957)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (1962)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • A. Stephens, Power Plus Attitude (1992)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • A. Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force (2001)
  • series A6769, item Hewitt J E, and series A12372, item O32 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Hewitt papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ray Funnell, 'Hewitt, Joseph Eric (1901–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hewitt-joseph-eric-12628/text22751, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 November 2018.

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

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