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Sir Valston Eldridge (Val) Hancock (1907–1998)

by Alan Stephens

This article was published online in 2024

Sir Valston Eldridge Hancock (1907–1998), air force officer, was born on 31 May 1907 in Perth, Western Australia, elder child and only son of Western Australian–born Richard John Hancock, grazier, and his South Australian–born wife Olive Blanche Victoria, née Prior. Imbued by his mother with a lifelong work ethic and sense of fair play, Val was educated to Junior certificate level at the Convent of Mercy, Toodyay, and completed his Leaving certificate at High (later Hale) School, Perth (1923–24), where he enjoyed mathematics and music, and was an outstanding athlete. A fine-looking young man, Hancock was tall, with grey eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion.

Finding his ambition to study civil engineering thwarted by limited employment opportunities in Western Australia, Hancock followed an uncle’s advice by in 1925 entering the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory, with the ultimate intention of specialising in military engineering. He excelled in team sports and athletics, and graduated in 1928 as senior cadet with the sword of honour. As there were no places available in the Royal Australian Engineers, he transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in February 1929, despite readily admitting to no prior interest in aviation. At Duntroon Hancock had courted Joan Elizabeth Graham Butler, daughter of the college doctor; they married on 26 March 1932 at St John the Baptist Anglican Church, Canberra.

Hancock completed his flying training at Laverton, Victoria, in 1930. He became an enthusiastic pilot who flew at every opportunity, his first posting being to No. 3 Squadron at Richmond, New South Wales, where he was assigned to flying and photographic duties. Yet his competence in planning and administration saw him posted to RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne, as staff officer works and buildings, and deputy director of operations and intelligence (1931–35). He was promoted to flight lieutenant in July 1934, and became staff officer to the chief of the air staff (1935–36), and director of works and buildings (1936). Although disappointed not to be assigned to flying duties, he came to appreciate the value of having learnt ‘how every element of the RAAF worked’ (Hancock 1990, 55). During 1937 he attended the Royal Air Force (RAF) Staff College, Andover, England, followed by operational training and service with the RAF.

After returning to Australia, from September 1938 Hancock again served at RAAF Headquarters as director of works and buildings, and was promoted to squadron leader in March 1939. The outbreak of World War II in September drew him into managing the building program required to meet the needs of the Empire Air Training Scheme. He was promoted to wing commander in June 1940 and to group captain in April 1941, and served in a further series of important planning and training jobs, starting with command of No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at Evans Head, northern New South Wales (1940–42). Appointed OBE in January 1942, he subsequently served brief terms as deputy director of operations and director of plans at RAAF Headquarters, and as assistant director of plans at Allied Air Forces Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. He was again RAAF director of plans (1942–43), and then became staff officer administration at the headquarters of Western Area, Perth (1943–44), and director of postings at RAAF Headquarters (1944).

Persistent efforts to secure an operational tour finally succeeded in January 1945 when Hancock was posted to New Guinea. He insisted on serving as a pilot of Beaufort medium bombers with No. 100 Squadron to gain operational flying experience before taking command of No. 71 Wing in March 1945. Leading his wing with characteristic vigour, notably during the Aitape-Wewak campaign, he participated in 116 operational sorties that sometimes involved as many as sixty aircraft. In February 1946 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war Hancock made a significant contribution to the reconstruction of the RAAF. He was director of personnel services (1945–46), director of air staff policy (1946–47), and, following promotion to air commodore in March 1947, became the first commandant of the RAAF College at Point Cook, Victoria, in September. Developing the college and its curriculum from scratch, he found ‘the next two years of my life … some of the most satisfying I have ever experienced’ (Hancock 1990, 134). He attended the Imperial Defence College in London in 1950.

Promoted to air vice marshal in June 1951, Hancock served successively as deputy chief of the air staff (1951–53), air member for personnel (1953–55), and in London as head of the Australian Joint Services Staff (1955–57). He was appointed CBE in January 1953. In June 1957 he became air officer commanding (AOC) of the RAF’s No. 224 Group, the operational element of the Far East Air Force in Malaya and Singapore during the communist insurgency, a prestigious assignment that rotated between the RAF and the RAAF.

Often described by his peers as a very proper man, Hancock’s professionalism and innate courtesy made him a popular and effective leader. He believed that as a senior commander he had to visit his units, fly their aircraft, and understand what was happening on the spot. Although a teetotaller, he was an indefatigable participant in mess functions and games. When AOC No. 224 Group, it was not uncommon for him to follow a day’s work in the office in Kuala Lumpur by flying himself in a twin-engine Pembroke transport aircraft to Singapore to attend a function. His aide recalled that he sometimes flew through violent tropical thunderstorms ‘without batting an eyelid,’ often returning at a very late hour, when he would thank his staff and add that he would see them in the office at 8.00 a.m. In December 1958 he was appointed CB for his leadership of No. 224 Group.

On his return to Australia, in August 1959 Hancock became AOC Operational Command based at Lapstone, New South Wales. In May 1961 he was promoted to air marshal and appointed chief of the air staff at a time when the RAAF was embarking on its greatest peacetime re-equipment program and was starting to become deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Like many of his colleagues, he had been appalled by the RAAF’s poor state at the start of World War II. An advocate of deterrence as the basis of Australian defence strategy, he had a strong conviction that only the most advanced technology and aircraft would be effective. He was determined that, for the first time in its history, the RAAF would have the weapons systems and support infrastructure necessary for a ‘virtually unrestricted all-weather air defence and striking capability’ (Hancock interview 1990). In June 1962 he was appointed KBE. During the Confrontation between Indonesia and the emerging nation of Malaysia that began in January 1963 he approved broad rules of engagement for RAAF Sabre fighter pilots based in Malaysia that allowed them to destroy Indonesian aircraft if they violated Malaysian or Singaporean territorial airspace, and advised the Australian government to authorise pre-emptive strikes against Indonesian air bases.

Hancock played a central role in the highly politicised and unusual process which saw the F-111 selected as the RAAF’s new strategic bomber. He led the team that in June–August 1963 travelled overseas to examine candidate aircraft, following which he recommended the North American RA-5C Vigilante as the ‘quickest and most effective means of providing [Australia] with a strike/reconnaissance force’ (Stephens 1995, 371). The F-111 then existed only on paper, but he was sufficiently impressed by its potential to include a caveat that, should the F-111 become available in time, it would be ‘the ideal aircraft for the RAAF.’ With a Federal election looming, the Menzies government ordered the still speculative F-111 in October 1963. Hancock also lobbied for precision-guided air-to-surface weapons to go with the F-111, envisaging ‘rapier-like strikes against high-value targets’ (Hancock interview 1990). To press his case, he arranged a screening for members of parliament of film of a United States Air Force bomber firing precision missiles. After a controversial beginning, the supersonic, terrain-hugging, ‘swing-wing’ F-111 was delivered to the RAAF in 1973, and became arguably the most potent weapons system in the South-East Asia region for approximately forty years.

Following his retirement from the RAAF in May 1965, Hancock moved to a grazing property near Tamworth he had acquired in partnership with his younger son. In 1967 he was Australia’s commissioner-general for Expo 67 in Montreal, following which he returned to live in Western Australia. Settling in Perth, he co-founded the Australia Defence Association, was a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and military correspondent for the Sunday Independent. He played tennis, skied and fished, read literature, and flew his cousin, the colourful mining magnate Lang Hancock, on trips to iron ore holdings in the Pilbara. His autobiography, Challenge (1990), was dedicated to Joan ‘who has treated my mistress, flying, with benign tolerance.’ Hancock died in Perth on 29 September 1998, survived by his wife and their three children, John, Richard, and Rosemary, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. A portrait by Paul Fitzgerald was acquired for the officers’ mess at Point Cook.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Clark, Chris. ‘Sir Valston Eldridge (Val) Hancock (1907–1998).’ Canberra Times, 21 November 1998
  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris. The Third Brother: The Royal Australian Air Force 1921–39. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991
  • Dennis, Peter, and Jeffrey Grey. Emergency and Confrontation: Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1996
  • Dennis, Peter, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris, and Robyn Prior. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995
  • Hancock, Valston. Correspondence with author, 3 April 1990, 11 April 1990, 28 June 1990
  • Hancock, Valston. Challenge. Northbridge, WA: Access Press, 1990
  • Hancock, Valston. Interview by the author, 1990
  • Hancock, Valston. Interviewed by Jack Darcey for the Battye Library collection, 1991. National Library of Australia
  • Stephens, Alan. Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946–1971. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Hancock, Sir Valston Eldridge (Val) (1907–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hancock-sir-valston-eldridge-val-18959/text40259, published online 2024, accessed online 14 April 2024.

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