Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Scherger, Sir Frederick Rudolph (1904–1984)

by Alan Stephens

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

Frederick Scherger, n.d.

Frederick Scherger, n.d.

Australian War Memorial, 044726

Sir Frederick Rudolph William Scherger (1904-1984), air force officer, airline commissioner and company chairman, was born on 18 May 1904 at Cathcart, near Ararat, Victoria, youngest of three children of Victorian-born parents Frederick Scherger, farmer, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Chamberlain. His paternal grandparents had migrated to Australia from Germany about 1850.

Frederick enjoyed the freedom and open space of farm life, spending his leisure time shooting, swimming, fishing and rabbiting with cousins. He decided as a youth that he wanted a career in aviation. His sharp intellect was immediately evident when he started his formal education at the one-room Norval State School, where he topped his class each year. After completing the junior certificate at Ararat High School, in 1921 he entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal (Australian) Capital Territory. At 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, he was slightly built with a fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. His Germanic background and name had made him the victim of discrimination at school during World War I, something that continued throughout his time at Duntroon. Although he won the King’s medal for academic work, he was the only member of his intake not given honorific rank within the corps of staff cadets.

Scherger’s passion for aviation prompted him to apply for secondment to the Royal Australian Air Force as soon as he graduated as a lieutenant in 1924. Appointed to the rank of pilot officer, in January 1925 he commenced training at No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria, and graduated as a pilot later in the year. He was promoted to flying officer in January 1926 and transferred permanently to the air force in 1928. On 1 June 1929 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Ararat, he married Thelma Lilian Harricks.

Intelligent, confident and popular, ‘Scherg’ became perhaps the RAAF’s outstanding pilot between the wars. He was frequently chosen to give solo air displays and was highly regarded as a test pilot and flying instructor. One of his more notable students was R. G. (Baron) Casey, who in 1937 was given flying training at the government’s direction. Also in that year, Scherger was chief test pilot for flight trials conducted by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Melbourne on an imported North American Aviation NA-33, which the corporation used as the prototype for the Australian-built Wirraway trainer. His professional development was broadened by his attendance during the 1930s at three Royal Air Force training institutions in England: the Staff College, the School of Air Navigation and the Central Flying School. He was awarded the AFC in 1940 for his exceptional service as a pilot and flying instructor.

At the start of World War II Scherger was a wing commander employed as director of training at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne. Promoted to temporary group captain in September 1940, he was posted in October 1941 to Darwin, where he was acting air officer commanding North-Western Area when Japanese aircraft made their first devastating bombing raid, on 19 February 1942. The episode was an utter disaster for the Australian armed forces, which were hopelessly ill-prepared for war. Command systems broke down, servicemen deserted their posts and there was widespread looting. Along with other senior RAAF commanders in Darwin, Scherger was stood down by the RAF officer then heading the RAAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, while an official inquiry was conducted.

The commission of inquiry headed by Justice (Sir) Charles Lowe criticised the RAAF generally for its poor state of readiness and specifically for failing to alert the local air defences of the approach of possibly hostile aircraft, notwithstanding ample warning. Even though Scherger had only been in Darwin for four months, he might have expected to be accorded some of the blame for the RAAF’s unsatisfactory performance. Instead, he emerged very well from the inquiry, which noted that he had acted with ‘great courage and energy’ and was ‘deserving of the highest praise’ for his leadership in retrieving the situation after the attack.

Following several senior staff and training posts in Air Force Headquarters and at No.2 Training Group, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Scherger was promoted to air commodore in January 1944 and was sent to command the RAAF’s premier operational force in the South-West Pacific Area, No.10 Operational Group (later renamed First Tactical Air Force). The group’s performance had been the subject of some concern prior to his arrival, but under his strong and popular leadership it flourished. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was respected by the Allies’ senior airman in the South-West Pacific Area, General George C. Kenney, who later described him as someone who ‘instinctively knew what to do in almost any situation’. In August 1944 Scherger was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the citation acknowledging his ‘outstanding courage and leadership’ during the landings and subsequent operations at Aitape, New Guinea, and Noemfoor Island, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). During those actions he became one of the few Australians to command American air forces. It is noteworthy that when he was badly injured in a motor vehicle accident in August 1944 and was repatriated, No.10 Operational Group’s performance and standing with the Americans quickly deteriorated.

Scherger emerged from the war as one of the RAAF’s most experienced and successful senior operational commanders. His selection to attend the Imperial Defence College in London in 1946 indicated that he was destined for the RAAF’s highest levels. He served as deputy-chief of the air staff (1947-51) and as head of the Australian Joint Services Staff, Washington (1951-52). Promotion to air vice marshal in May 1950 had been followed in July by appointment to CBE.

His experience in the South-West Pacific Area during the war had led Scherger to conclude that Britain, and by association the RAF, were fading forces in the Asia-Pacific region and that Australia’s future security would be best served by building the closest possible defence alliance with the United States of America. His tour in Washington confirmed that belief and gave him an opportunity to strengthen the USA networks he had established in the war. For the next fifteen years he was to be one of the key figures behind the fundamental shift in Australian defence policy away from Britain and towards the USA.

It was ironic therefore that, partly in an attempt to preserve the defence relationship between Australia and Britain, in 1952 the RAF requested that Scherger be appointed air officer commanding RAF Malaya. At the time the struggle against communist terrorists in the Malayan Emergency was at its peak, and as air officer commanding he would be assuming one of the RAF’s most senior operational posts, directing British, Australian and New Zealand air forces. He thus added the distinction of commanding British Commonwealth forces to his already exceptional list of achievements.

The Emergency may have been relatively low-key in military terms, but with its underlying pressures of post-colonial struggle and communist insurgency it was highly politicised; consequently, operations demanded a considerable degree of sensitivity and originality. Scherger succeeded on both counts; in particular, he established a productive relationship with the British high commissioner and director of operations, the redoubtable General Sir Gerald Templer.

One of the more successful initiatives introduced during Scherger’s tenure was the use of ‘sky shouting’ aircraft, from which loudspeaker messages were broadcast over suspected enemy camps, encouraging insurgents to surrender. He was also a strong proponent of using helicopters to enhance the manoeuvrability and sustainability of land forces. Both techniques were to become standard practices during the war in Vietnam. In 1954 he was appointed CB by the British government for his leadership in the Far East.

Following his return to Australia in 1955, Scherger became the air member for personnel. Against the background of the widely held belief that missiles would increasingly replace manned aircraft over the coming decades, he instigated a review of the syllabus at the RAAF College, Point Cook, which eventually saw cadets undertaking a demanding science degree, majoring in applied physics. Scherger was in effect preparing the RAAF’s future leaders to command an air force based on missiles and nuclear weapons. This scenario never eventuated, but the initiative was typical of his energy and vision. Regarded by his superiors and peers as ‘easily the best material on offer’, he was promoted to air marshal and became chief of the Air Staff in March 1957, following the retirement of Air Marshal Sir John McCauley. In June 1958 he was appointed KBE.

Scherger assumed command of the RAAF when the service was on the threshold of a major expansion and the first generation of post-World War II equipment was due for replacement. He took full advantage of this opportunity to place his personal stamp on Australian defence, exploiting his invaluable bureaucratic skill of being able to ‘cut through the system without the system reacting against him’. Among his numerous notable achievements as chief, those with the most enduring impact were his commitment to the construction of strategic airfields in northern Australia (a project started by his predecessor); the re-equipping of the RAAF with American and other non-British aircraft; and the strengthening of the links between Australia’s armed forces and those of the USA.

The need for a series of so-called ‘strategic’ air bases across Australia’s northern coast had been recognised since World War II. Started by McCauley in 1955, the project was continued vigorously under Scherger’s leadership. Over the course of the next three decades high-quality airfields were progressively constructed at Darwin and Katherine, Northern Territory; Learmonth and Derby, Western Australia, and Weipa, Queensland. When the Weipa base was completed in 1998 it was named after Scherger.

Concurrent with this clear shift in strategic outlook away from Europe (and the mother country) towards South-East Asia, the RAAF’s acquisition of aircraft such as the French Mirage, the Canadian Caribou, and the American Hercules, Orion and Iroquois continued to refocus Australian defence policy. Scherger was less successful with his persistent efforts to re-equip the air force with long-range bombers and nuclear weapons. With the cautious approval of Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, he lobbied both the British and American air forces, and at one stage was optimistic that the RAF might provide a squadron of V-Bombers armed with tactical nuclear bombs. Menzies, however, was probably never entirely convinced of the need, and when the British and American governments both ultimately proved reluctant to allow unrestricted access to their nuclear weapons, Scherger’s enthusiastic ambition was thwarted.

Popular with politicians, especially Menzies, in 1961 Scherger was the first RAAF officer to become chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He had two extensions in the post, which he held until May 1966, on each occasion receiving the unanimous support of cabinet. In 1965 he was named air chief marshal, the first RAAF officer to reach that level. When added to his tenure as chief of the Air Staff, Scherger’s appointment as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee gave him nine continuous years at the highest levels of Australia’s military establishment. It was a rare opportunity to influence national security policy, which he seized with characteristic confidence and shrewdness. Two episodes from his time as chairman are especially revealing: negotiations to replace the RAAF’s ageing Canberra bombers and Australia’s entry into the Vietnam War.

Australia came under considerable pressure from the British government in the early 1960s to buy the supersonic TSR-2 bomber, then under development. Scherger was sceptical of official assurances regarding costs and delivery dates; during a visit to London in 1963 he spoke to a range of unofficial sources, a process that confirmed his suspicions. He also visited the chief of Britain’s defence forces, Earl Mountbatten, and came away convinced that Mountbatten opposed the aircraft because of the drain it would make on the total defence budget. Scherger somewhat controversially threw his support behind the experimental American F-111 bomber. The subsequent cancellation of the TSR-2 by the British government and the eventual success of the F-111 in RAAF service vindicated his judgment.

Scherger’s self-confidence was evident yet again when he led an Australian delegation to military staff talks at Honolulu in March-April 1965 to discuss, among other things, the rapidly worsening crisis in Vietnam. Notwithstanding explicit cautionary advice from senior officers in the Department of External Affairs, and contrary to the Menzies government’s private concerns (of which Scherger was aware) about any possible Australian commitment to the war, Scherger approached the talks as though a favourable decision had already been made. His attitude and comments implied that the despatch of Australian forces was not a matter of if, but rather of when. There is no doubt that he exceeded his authority to an extent that might be described as reckless. Yet shortly afterwards his assessment of the political situation was justified when Menzies announced that Australia would be sending an army battalion to fight in South Vietnam.

When Scherger retired from the RAAF on 18 May 1966 he was the most senior officer in his service’s history and, after Sir Richard Williams, probably its most notable. One of the outstanding personalities in the history of the RAAF, the gregarious Scherger has variously been described by colleagues as ‘forceful, to the extent of being overpowering’; a ‘great extrovert who would tell jokes and take over any conversation’; ‘jolly, pleasant and cunning’; ‘very popular’; and ‘a self-publicist’. By the time he reached senior ranks many observers believed he ‘had the politicians taped’.

In July 1966 Scherger became chairman of the Australian National Airlines Commission, which operated Trans-Australia Airlines. For the next nine years he steered the company through a series of challenges, including fleet and route rationalisation, industrial disputes and, because of the government’s two-airlines policy, often bitter competition with Ansett-ANA, headed by Sir Reginald Ansett. He also served as chairman of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, and as a board member of other industrial and financial companies. He retired from the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1974 and from the Australian National Airlines Commission the following year. His wife died in a car accident in May 1974. On 3 March 1975 at St Aidan’s Presbyterian Church, North Balwyn, Melbourne, he married Joyce Sidney Lydia Robertson, a widow. His exceptional energy would not allow him to retire easily and he became chairman of an engineering firm. He was also active in numerous ex-service groups and youth movements. More free time allowed him to indulge his passion for golf.

Survived by his wife and the daughter of his first marriage, Sir Frederick died on 16 January 1984 at Kew, Melbourne, and, following a Uniting Church service with full military honours that included a flypast, was cremated. His portrait by Geoffrey Mainwaring is held by the Australian War Memorial; a mountain in Antarctica was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (1968)
  • T. Hall, Darwin 1942 (1980)
  • H. Rayner, Scherger (1984)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • P. Edwards, Crises and Commitments (1992)
  • D. M. Horner, The Commanders (1992)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • A12372, item 038 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Scherger, Sir Frederick Rudolph (1904–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scherger-sir-frederick-rudolph-15055/text26253, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 September 2017.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017