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Brian Alexander Eaton (1916–1992)

by P. J. Scully

This article was published:

Brian Alexander Eaton (1916–1992), air force officer, was born on 15 December 1916 at Launceston, Tasmania, eldest child of Sydney Alexander Eaton, importers’ agent, and his wife Hilda, née Mason. The family moved to Camberwell, Victoria. Brian was educated at Carey Baptist Grammar School, Kew, and Matriculation College, Melbourne. Although of small stature, he played cricket and football, and captained the school tennis team and the Eastern Suburbs Tennis Club. For four years he was a scout leader. He had intended to study medicine but after his father’s death in a car accident that left the family struggling financially, he joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Appointed to a cadetship at Point Cook on 20 January 1936, he graduated as a pilot and was commissioned on 1 January 1937. His initial training aircraft included the World War I types, the Avro Cadet and Wapiti, before he moved on to the Demon and Bulldog.

Eaton’s early years in the RAAF involved flying and flying instructional duties. On 1 September 1939 he was promoted to flight lieutenant and a year later to squadron leader. Posted to Darwin as a fighter controller in March 1942, he was present during a number of Japanese attacks on the city.

In January 1943 Eaton joined No. 3 Squadron, RAAF, in the Middle East and assumed command in April. His record of service in operations over North Africa, Malta, Sicily, Italy, and Yugoslavia from 1943 to 1945 was to be exceptional. In his first weeks in action he was forced down three times in North Africa, on one occasion landing in the middle of a tank battle and being rescued by New Zealand soldiers. Near Termoli, Italy, in October he led an attack that disrupted a strong enemy ground force. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his leadership, courage, and tenacity. Promoted to wing commander in December, he was posted to No. 1 Mobile Operations Room Unit, Italy, in February 1944. Two months later he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO)  in recognition of his effectiveness in inflicting damage on the enemy during many sorties and excellence as a leader and commander.

Elevated to acting group captain aged twenty-eight, Eaton took command of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF)  No. 239 Wing in August 1944. He led a strike in December against the Bjelovar barracks, Yugoslavia, for which he received a Bar to his DSO. His other decorations were the American Silver Star and Yugoslavia’s Cross of Valour. Hostilities in Europe ceased in May 1945. At the conclusion of over two years of operational service without a break, in very trying conditions, he was exhausted and, also suffering from diphtheria, he underwent a lengthy convalescence in hospital in England. His brother, Roger, had been killed in action in 1943 while serving with the RAAF.

From September 1945 Eaton was in Britain attached to the RAF, during which time he completed the RAF staff course and other training. He also flew the Meteor, becoming one of the first Australians to pilot a jet aircraft. Between 1947 and 1949 he served in Japan in command of the RAAF’s No. 81 fighter wing; as officer-in-charge, British Command Air Headquarters; and as  RAAF component commander, British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Following a staff posting in Melbourne, he commanded (1951–54) the RAAF’s No. 78 Fighter Wing, Malta.

On 10 May 1952 at the Presbyterian Church, Toorak, Melbourne, Eaton had married Josephine Rumbles. He was director of operations, Melbourne (1955–57); commander, RAAF Base, Williamtown, New South Wales (1957–59); and director overseeing joint staff plans, Canberra (1959–60). After completing the 1961 Imperial Defence College course in London, he held important staff and command appointments: director-general of  operational requirements, Canberra (1962–66); deputy chief of the Air Staff (1966–67); air officer commanding, No. 224 Group, Far East Air Force (FEAF), Singapore (1967–68); and chief of staff, headquarters, FEAF (1968–69). Having been promoted to air commodore on 1 January 1963, he rose to air vice marshal on 1 January 1968. He was air member for personnel, Canberra (1969–72; and air officer commanding, Operational Command, Penrith, New South Wales (1973). Appointed CBE (1959) and CB (1969), he was universally liked and respected as a commander.  Eaton was interested in everything and always keen to try new things. Retiring from the RAAF on 14 December 1973, he became an executive with Rolls-Royce Australia Ltd. In 1985 he suffered a stroke. Survived by his wife, son, and two daughters, he died on 17 October 1992 in Woden Valley Hospital, Canberra, and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery. A former chief of the air staff who knew him well commented, ‘He was universally liked and respected as a commander’ (Newham 2012). In 1996 his widow funded the Air Vice-Marshal B. A. Eaton ‘Airman of the Year’ award to recognise ‘Significant contribution to both the Service and the community’ by airmen and airwomen ranked corporal or below.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘The Boss Packs It In.’ 12 January 1974, 25
  • National Archives of Australia. A12372, R/344/P. A471, 27813
  • Newham, Air Marshal J. W. Personal communication
  • Stephens, Alan. Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946-1971. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995
  • Stephens, Alan. The Royal Australian Air Force: A History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2006.                                          

Additional Resources

Citation details

P. J. Scully, 'Eaton, Brian Alexander (1916–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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