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Raymond James Brownell (1894–1974)

by Leigh Edmonds

This article was published:

Raymond James Brownell (1894-1974), by unknown photographer, c1945

Raymond James Brownell (1894-1974), by unknown photographer, c1945

Australian War Memorial, P00046.055

Raymond James Brownell (1894-1974), air force officer, was born on 17 May 1894 at New Town, Hobart, son of William Percival Brownell, draper, and his wife Julie Ann James, née Scott. Raymond was educated at Leslie House School, Hobart, and Scotch College, Melbourne, where he proved an accomplished sportsman. He was apprenticed with a firm of public accountants and auditors in Hobart. In 1912 he joined the Australian Field Artillery, Australian Military Forces. With his father's grudging consent, on 12 September 1914 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; his height of 5 ft 4½ ins (164 cm) almost led to his rejection.

Posted to the 9th Battery of the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade, Brownell sailed for Egypt in November. He witnessed the landings at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915; instead of disembarking with his unit, he was sent to Alexandria where the army made use of his accountancy experience. In July he rejoined his battery, and was among the last troops to be withdrawn from Gallipoli on the night of 19-20 December. Promoted provisional sergeant in February 1916, he arrived in France next month. On 21-22 July at Pozières he maintained communications between the firing-line and the battery while under intense shell-fire; he was awarded the Military Medal.

Deciding that flying would be an improvement on life in the trenches, Brownell was selected for the Royal Flying Corps. He repaired to England for training and, while there, played Australian Rules football. Commissioned on 17 March 1917, he was posted to No.45 Squadron. He began operational flying on the Western Front in September. The squadron was transferred to Italy in December, and in February 1918 Brownell was promoted temporary captain and made flight commander. During a three-month period he brought down six enemy aeroplanes. For his deeds he was awarded the Military Cross.

In April 1918 he left No.45 Squadron and embarked for Hobart on compassionate leave to visit his mother who was seriously ill. During the return journey to Britain in September, he almost died of pneumonic influenza. He accepted a commission in the Royal Air Force, but, when his mother's health again deteriorated, he resigned and was home in Tasmania by September 1919. Having worked as a sub-accountant for a firm of merchants in Melbourne and as a clerk with the Hobart City Council, on 13 September 1921 he was appointed flying officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and posted to Point Cook, Victoria. On 26 August 1925 he married Rhyllis Jean Birchall at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Hobart. In 1926-28 Brownell had charge of No.1 Squadron and in 1928-34 was director of personnel services at R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne. He went to England in 1934 for exchange service with the R.A.F. and was promoted wing commander on 1 April 1936.

Early in 1938 Brownell took command of the R.A.A.F. base at Pearce, Western Australia; he enjoyed the autonomy and the opportunities for flying which his new post offered. Additional units were placed under his supervision and he was promoted temporary group captain in December 1939. Ordered to Singapore in August 1940, he established R.A.A.F. headquarters, Sembawang, toured the Malay peninsula, and played tennis and cricket. A year later he was recalled to Australia, promoted acting air commodore and made air officer commanding, No.1 Training Group, Melbourne. In charge of some thirty establishments in southern Australia, he piloted his tours of inspection whenever possible. On 1 January 1943 he returned to Pearce as A.O.C., Western Area: his responsibilities included training and directing long-range bombing operations. He was appointed C.B.E. in January 1945. Next July he proceeded to Morotai Island, Netherlands East Indies, to become A.O.C., No.11 Group, and was present at the Japanese surrenders in Manila and Tokyo, and on Morotai.

Already nominated for early retirement, on 24 March 1947 Brownell was placed on the retired list on medical grounds. He secured a partnership in the stockbroking firm of S. G. Brearley & Co., Perth. From 1951 to 1967 he was chairman of the associated sporting committee of the National Fitness Council of Western Australia. Despite his almost apologetic manner, 'Brownie' was firm and used his authority when necessary. He possessed marked powers of observation, quick reactions, judgement and determination; his zest for life, concern for others and warm smile endeared him to many. Survived by his wife and two daughters, Brownell died on 12 April 1974 at Subiaco; following an air force funeral, he was cremated. His autobiography, From Khaki to Blue, was published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (Canb, 1957)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • R. J. Brownell, From Khaki to Blue, C. Coulthard-Clark ed (Canb, 1978)
  • West Australian, 8 Sept 1936, 17 Jan 1938, 6 Feb 1939, 1 Jan, 2 July 1945, 10 Apr 1946, 15 Apr 1974
  • Australian War Memorial records.

Citation details

Leigh Edmonds, 'Brownell, Raymond James (1894–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Raymond James Brownell (1894-1974), by unknown photographer, c1945

Raymond James Brownell (1894-1974), by unknown photographer, c1945

Australian War Memorial, P00046.055

Life Summary [details]


17 May, 1894
New Town, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


12 April, 1974 (aged 79)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.