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Susans, Ronald Thomas (Ron) (1917–1992)

by Chris Clark

This article was published online in 2019

Ron Susans, by Laurence Le Guay, 1943

Ron Susans, by Laurence Le Guay, 1943

Australian War Memorial, MEA0482

Ronald Thomas Susans (1917–1992), air force officer, was born on 25 February 1917 at Manly, New South Wales, third child of Clarence Joseph Susans, a Melbourne-born stonemason, and his Irish-born wife Florence Bridget, née O’Donnell, who died in 1927. Ron found employment as a junior salesman of business machines and systems for Stott & Underwood Ltd before becoming a sales representative for Beau Monde Hosiery in 1937. Standing six feet one inch (185 cm) tall, he was a keen sportsman, participating in football, cricket, tennis, golf, rowing, and surfing. 

Having served in the Citizen Military Forces from 1938, Susans applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) when World War II broke out in September 1939. He enlisted on 5 February 1940 and commenced flying training at Point Cook, Victoria. Commissioned in June, he undertook an instructor’s course and by December was training new pilots at Point Cook, and at bases in Western Australia and New South Wales. In April 1942 he was promoted to temporary flight lieutenant.  On 1 August that year he married Phillipa Ruth Harvey, a sales assistant, at the Methodist Church, Balgowlah, New South Wales.

After specialised training in fighter aircraft, Susans embarked in Melbourne on 4 November for the Middle East. Joining No. 3 Squadron, he flew P-40 Kittyhawks over North Africa, Malta, Sicily, and mainland Italy—from April 1943 as a flight commander in the unit—often leading the squadron in bombing and low-level attacks on communications and shipping. He was officially credited with shooting down two enemy aircraft and damaging others, for which he was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (1944).

Relieved from operational flying on medical grounds, Susans was invalided to Australia in December 1943. On 13 July 1944 he returned to operations in the South-West Pacific Area as a flight commander in No. 79 Squadron, a Spitfire fighter unit based on Los Negros Island, in the Admiralty group, and later in Borneo. He was appointed commanding officer on 1 January 1945, with temporary rank of squadron leader. In March the squadron moved to Morotai, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), where he was posted on 4 May to No. 80 (Fighter) Wing, first as wing leader and from 28 June as temporary commander. A month later he was appointed staff officer at headquarters of No. 11 Group on Morotai.

Returning to Australia in August 1945, Susans was placed in command of the RAAF base at Parafield, South Australia. In the following year he undertook training on the P-51 Mustang fighter, before joining the air component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. After commanding the RAAF’s Mustang-equipped No. 77 Squadron from April 1947, he was posted to staff duties at British Commonwealth Air Headquarters, Iwakuni, in September 1948. On 14 February 1949 he took command of No. 25 (City of Perth) Squadron, a Citizen Air Force fighter unit based at RAAF Station, Pearce, Western Australia.

In June Susans began the RAAF Staff College course at Point Cook, and in February 1950 he moved to a post at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne. During 1951 he attended a day-fighter leaders’ course at West Rayhnam, Britain, which left him impressed by the potential of the Gloster Meteor, the jet fighter with which the RAAF’s No. 77 Squadron had been recently re-equipped in Korea. By December he was appointed to command the squadron with acting rank of wing commander. The unit’s pilots were deeply demoralised, having been relegated to air defence of the capital, Seoul, after their Meteors were found to be lacking in aerial combat against the MiG-15 jet fighters used by Russian and Chinese opponents. Arranging for the squadron to be given an additional role of ground attack, Susans led the first Meteor rocket mission on 8 January 1952. A month later, he flew a risky mission to test fire a new rocket containing napalm. By the end of February, No. 77 Squadron was flying over one thousand sorties a month and its relevance to the United Nations mission in Korea had been restored. Susans relinquished command in May, logging 110 operational sorties—nearly all were rocket and strafing attacks over North Korea. On leaving the unit he received an immediate award of the Distinguished Service Order, and was later awarded the United States Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.

Returning to Australia in June, Susans was sent to London to lecture at the annual Royal Air Force fighter convention on the Meteor’s performance in combat; he was promoted substantively to wing commander on 1 July. Periods of staff duties at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne, followed. By early 1953 his primary duty was as RAAF representative on the Joint Planning Staff, in which capacity he frequently travelled overseas to attend defence conferences and discussions. In January 1955 he took up duty as staff officer to the head of the Australian Joint Services Staff, Washington, DC, serving (January–June 1957) as assistant air attaché.

Posted to RAAF Base Edinburgh, South Australia, Susans was senior air staff officer at the headquarters. Several times he was placed in temporary command of the base, and on 19 April 1960 he was appointed acting group captain (substantive 1 January 1962). With barely ten days’ notice, he arrived in Paris on 31 December 1960 at the head of an eight-man team sent to establish a project office for managing the acquisition of the Dassault Mirage IIIO jet fighter. Susans was appointed air attaché (1961–63).

In February 1964, he was posted as officer commanding the RAAF base at Williamtown, New South Wales, and also commandant of the Air Support Unit. Promoted to air commodore on 5 May 1966, in July he took up duty as director-general of operational requirements in the Department of Air. His new post provided him with a significant voice in determining the shape and capability of the future RAAF, and entailed frequent travel. During May 1967 he visited Thailand for the South-East Asia Treaty Organization’s exercise, Aurora (for which he was appointed deputy air commander), with a follow-on visit to Singapore. In October he embarked on a world tour for talks with aircraft designers in France, Italy, and the United States of America from which Australia was acquiring the controversial F-111 fighter bomber.

Having taken command of the RAAF base at Butterworth, Malaysia, in May 1969, Susans became chief of staff at the headquarters of Far East Air Force in August 1970. On 1 November, as director of the planning team for new joint air defence arrangements covering Malaysia and Singapore, he was promoted to acting rank of air vice-marshal (substantive, 28 October 1971). The headquarters of the Integrated Air Defence System became operational on 11 February 1971, with Susans as its inaugural commander. He was appointed CBE on 1 January the following year.

At the end of 1974 Susans returned to Australia and retired on 26 February 1975. He had logged over five thousand flying hours, on eighty different types of military aircraft. Although RAAF contemporaries sometimes derided him as a ‘glory seeker,’ and a ‘showman and salesman’ overly concerned with his personal image, his commanders consistently rated him during his career as a good leader, an outstanding performer, above average and very efficient (NAA A12372). He and his wife formed a remarkably tight team, she providing the charm and he the humour. For recreation, he fished, skied, and played golf. He died on 2 December 1992 at home at Taree, New South Wales, and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did their two sons, the younger of whom, Martin, had followed him into the RAAF.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • National Archives of Australia. A12372, R/4391/H, Susans, Ronald Thomas
  • National Archives of Australia. A12372, R/4391/P, Susans, Ronald Thomas
  • O’Neill, Robert. Australia in the Korean War 1950–53. Vol. 2, Combat Operations. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1985
  • Stephens, Alan. Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946–1971. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995
  • Susans, Ronald Thomas. ‘Down, But Not Out.’ In With the Australians in Korea, edited by Norman Bartlett, 251–54. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1954
  • Susans, Ronald Thomas. ‘The French Connection.’ In The RAAF Mirage Story, compiled by M. R. Susans, 1–18. Point Cook, Vic.: RAAF Museum, 1990

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Susans, Ronald Thomas (Ron) (1917–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/susans-ronald-thomas-ron-28426/text36046, published online 2019, accessed online 19 October 2019.

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