Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McCauley, Sir John Patrick Joseph (1899–1989)

by Chris Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir John Patrick Joseph McCauley (1899-1989), air force officer, was born on 18 March 1899 at Newtown, Sydney, son of New South Wales-born parents John Alfred McCauley, clerk, and his wife Sophie Catherine, née Coombe. Educated to Intermediate certificate standard at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, McCauley entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in February 1916. Graduating as a lieutenant on 10 December 1919, he went to England next year to undertake training with the British Army. On returning to Australia in 1921, he served in the staff corps as adjutant of a Militia battalion at West Maitland, New South Wales, and with a coastal artillery brigade but on 29 January 1924 he was seconded to the Royal Australian Air Force. McCauley completed pilot training at Point Cook, Victoria, before undergoing a flying instructors’ course in 1925. He then transferred permanently to the RAAF. Short, with black hair and brown eyes, due to his swarthy complexion he earned the nickname ‘Black Jack’.

On 12 November 1925 McCauley married Murielle Mary Burke at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Newcastle. He embarked for England in December to attend various army, navy and air force courses. Having been promoted to flight lieutenant in February 1928, he returned to Australia in December and the following January became deputy-director of training (armaments) at Air Force Headquarters. During 1929 he commenced a part-time commerce degree at the University of Melbourne (B.Com., 1936). In 1932 he attended the Royal Air Force Staff College at Andover, England, then moved to the Central Flying School, Wittering, to undertake the demanding RAF flying instructors’ course; his final report rated him as ‘easily one of the best instructors on a large course’. Promoted to squadron leader in July 1934, he remained in London on attachment to the war training section of the Air Ministry for several more months.

McCauley returned to Australia in December and in April 1935 joined the Air Staff with special responsibility for service training. Twelve months later he became director of training, during a period of unprecedented expansion of the service. Promoted to wing commander in January 1938, next month he became air staff officer at Laverton, Victoria, and in 1939 he moved to Point Cook as officer-in-charge of cadet training and chief flying instructor. In July he returned to headquarters, Melbourne, where, a week before World War II began, he became liaison officer to the secretary of the Department of Defence. In recognition of his administrative and training skills, he was appointed in April 1940 to raise and command No.1 Engineering School at Ascot Vale, Melbourne. He was promoted to group captain in June and returned to Point Cook in October to command No.1 Service Flying Training School.

In June 1941 McCauley was finally given an operational command. He took over the RAAF contingent of four squadrons equipped with obsolete Buffalo fighters and Hudson bombers that formed part of the British air garrison of Singapore Island. On taking up his appointment he also became commander of the RAF station at Sembawang, which was later converted to a RAAF station. McCauley, together with the commanders of his Hudson units, No.1 and No.8 squadrons, prepared a reconnaissance plan to guard against any Japanese sea moves into the Gulf of Siam and the South China Sea. This plan, approved by British air headquarters in the Far East in October, was activated in his absence during the deteriorating situation that preceded the Japanese invasion of Malaya on 8 December. McCauley had departed in late November on a liaison visit to the Middle East to study and discuss tactics. He did not get back to Singapore until mid-December, by which time the Allies had already been forced to abandon their air bases in northern Malaya.

While the Allied air defence was outclassed, outnumbered and encumbered with a hopeless command and control system, McCauley displayed calm and professional leadership as he set about rallying his remaining crews to mount defensive and offensive air operations to the extent possible. His crews regarded him as a ‘very efficient, level headed and sincere officer’. When the time arrived to withdraw remaining air units from Singapore, he was flown out on 29 January 1942 to Sumatra, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). He took command of six squadrons (only one of which was RAAF) totalling some ninety aircraft at ‘P2’ airfield—one of two bases that had been secretly constructed near Palembang at the eastern end of the island. There he intervened to prevent unilateral British action to disperse the Australian No.21 Squadron, pointing out that it was for the Air Board in Melbourne to decide the unit’s fate; the disbandment order was rescinded on 4 February and the squadron returned to Australia. On 13 February RAAF aircraft under his command gave the first warning that a Japanese invasion force was approaching Sumatra. With two RAF squadrons of Hurricane fighters at his disposal, he was able to order some effective attacks before the Japanese assaulted the Palembang area.

By 15 February ‘P2’ had become untenable and McCauley left for Batavia (Jakarta), Java, with the last of his men. When he arrived at Semplak on 21 February, he had already decided to return to Australia with his headquarters staff. He reached Fremantle, Western Australia, on 5 March and, although exhausted, was ‘determined not to rest until he had analysed and learned from those dramatic events’.

Barely three weeks after his return, McCauley was posted to Darwin as senior air staff officer at Headquarters, North-Western Area. He gave experienced guidance to the newly arrived 49th Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force, which was providing the chief defence against frequent Japanese air attacks on Australian territory. In May he was appointed assistant-chief of the Air Staff, stepping up to deputy-chief a month later with acting rank of air commodore. He filled this post for sixteen months and was appointed CBE in 1943. In response to a RAF request for his services in the European theatre, he left Australia in October 1944 and next month joined the headquarters of Second Tactical Air Force in France as air commodore operations. Controlling more than seventy squadrons (British, Canadian, Dutch, French, Norwegian and Polish), he continued to assist in planning the final air assaults on Germany until May 1945. He left England in July to join Air Command South-East Asia for a month of attachments to various groups in order to gain experience, and reached Perth on 16 August.

After filling the post of director of organization from September 1945, McCauley resumed as deputy-chief of the Air Staff in January 1946. In June 1947 he was appointed acting air vice-marshal and chief of staff for the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. At various times over the next twenty-one months he acted as air officer commanding British Commonwealth Air Forces of Occupation and commander-in-chief BCOF. On his return to Australia in March 1949 he was made air officer commanding Eastern Area and substantively promoted to air vice-marshal. He negotiated the 1950 deployment of RAAF Lincoln bombers to Tengah, Singapore, for operations against communist guerrillas in Malaya. He was appointed CB in June 1951. In December he visited Korea, where he became convinced that the RAAF needed to pursue interoperability with Australia’s American allies.

On 18 January 1954 McCauley was promoted to air marshal and became chief of the Air Staff—the first of a succession of Duntroon-trained officers who led the RAAF until 1970. Appointed KBE in January 1955, next month he accompanied the minister for foreign affairs, R. G. (Baron) Casey, to the first council meeting of the South-East Asian Treaty Organization in Bangkok, Thailand. Although not considered an especially dynamic chief, he was ‘admired for his thorough decency and sensible, informed—albeit sometimes stubborn—approach to decision making’. Under his guidance the RAAF moved to standardise almost totally with American aircraft and equipment; he also initiated efforts to develop Darwin as Australia’s main air base for mounting operations in the event of war—a move which prefigured a major policy shift towards northern bases during the 1970s and 1980s.

Retiring on 18 March 1957, Sir John pursued a range of business and charitable interests. He was resident director (1959-61; chairman, 1962) of Chevron Sydney Ltd; chairman (1958) of the country division of the Cancer Campaign in Victoria; country chairman (1961) of the National Heart Campaign; civic appeal chairman (1963 and 1965) of the New South Wales Freedom from Hunger Campaign; president (1966-75) of the Good Neighbour Council of New South Wales; and a member (1964-75) of the Immigration Advisory Council. As federal president (1964-73) of the Australian Flying Corps and Royal Australian Air Force Association, he visited RAAF units on active service in Vietnam in October 1966. Predeceased by his wife but survived by his son and two daughters, Sir John died on 3 February 1989 at Sydney and was buried in Northern Suburbs lawn cemetery. A portrait painted in 1956 by (Sir) Ivor Hele is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

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Select Bibliography

  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (1962)
  • J. E. Hewitt, Adversity in Success (1980)
  • E. R. Hall, Glory in Chaos (1989)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • M. Pratt, interview with J. McCauley (ts, 1973, National Library of Australia)
  • personal files, RAAF and RAAF Assn (Office of Air Force History, Canberra).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'McCauley, Sir John Patrick Joseph (1899–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccauley-sir-john-patrick-joseph-15056/text26254, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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