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Hartnell, Geoffrey Clark (Geoff) (1916–1981)

by Richard Kingsland

This article was published:

Geoffrey Clark (Geoff) Hartnell (1916-1981), air force officer, was born on 15 April 1916 at East Malvern, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents Frederick Bernard Hartnell, soft-goods manufacturer, and his wife Ada Gertrude, née Emery. Geoff was educated at Wesley College (1925-34). Solidly built, he captained the first XVIII, rowed in the first VIII and excelled in gymnastics. In 1935 he began to study chemistry and engineering at the University of Melbourne, but he left after the first term because of financial difficulties and found employment as a salesman for G. J. Coles & Co. Ltd.

On 20 January 1936 Hartnell joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a cadet. He completed flying training at Point Cook and was commissioned on 1 January 1937. Promoted to flying officer in July, he qualified as a specialist air navigator in 1938-39. He was posted to No.6 Squadron in January 1939 and promoted to flight lieutenant in September. Serving at station headquarters, Richmond, New South Wales, from January 1940 and at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne, from April, he was made acting squadron leader in July. On 7 June 1941 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married with Anglican rites Joyce Margaret Webster, a cookery demonstrator.

Promoted to temporary wing commander in April 1942, Hartnell commanded No.20 (Catalina) Squadron, based at Bowen then Cairns, Queensland, from September to January 1943, undertaking night-bombing and supply-dropping missions in New Guinea. He was then posted to the European theatre to command (from March) No.10 Squadron, RAAF, which, based at Mount Batten, Devon, carried out anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay. One of Hartnell’s many diverse qualities was a technical turn of mind; he contributed directly to improvements in the power plants and the armament of the squadron’s Sunderland aircraft. In December he was promoted to temporary group captain and appointed senior air staff officer at RAAF Overseas Headquarters, London. From December 1944 he commanded Royal Air Force Station, Driffield, Yorkshire, where two RAAF squadrons, No.462 and No.466, were based.

Back in Australia in March 1945, Hartnell was appointed commanding officer of No.1 Operational Training Unit, East Sale, Victoria. He became director of Allied air intelligence, RAAF Command, in July and commanding officer of RAAF Station, Pearce, Western Australia, in September. Director of intelligence at RAAF Headquarters from July 1946, he attended the RAF Staff College, Andover, England, in 1949. He commanded the Base Squadron, Point Cook, in 1950-51 and RAAF Station, Amberley, Queensland, in 1951-53. In 1952 he operated a special force of eight Lincoln bombers from a temporary base at Broome, Western Australia, in support of British nuclear tests at the Monte Bello Islands, for which he was appointed CBE in 1955.

Hartnell was director of air staff plans and policy, RAAF Headquarters, in 1953-56. Promoted to air commodore in January 1956, he was SASO at headquarters, Home Command, in 1956-58. After completing the 1959 course at the Imperial Defence College, London, he commanded RAAF Base, Butter-worth, Malaya, in 1960-62. He was director-general of plans and policy, Department of Air, Canberra, in 1962-63. In December 1963 he was made head of the Australian Joint Services Staff, London, as an acting air vice-marshal (substantive 3 February 1966). In March 1966 he became director of joint service plans, Department of Defence, Canberra. He was considered successful in every appointment, without ever being spectacular in a service that provided opportunities for extrovert behaviour. His manner in command displayed a concern for all members of the team, at times bordering on the avuncular. In staff appointments his application, patience and depth of perception made him a welcome addition to the various headquarters in which he served.

Following his retirement from the RAAF on medical grounds on 18 April 1968, Hartnell took up an appointment as the Canberra representative of Racal Electronics Pty Ltd. He had a deep sense of history. A trustee of the Australian War Memorial, he was the author of the air force entry in The Australian Encyclopaedia (1977). He wrote several important papers on aspects of defence philosophy, including problems of command. A kind and gentle man, he enjoyed woodwork, photography and gardening. He died of myocardial infarction on 16 May 1981 at Greenwich, Sydney, and was cremated with full air force honours; his wife and their two sons and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Air War Against Germany and Italy 1939-1943 (1954)
  • K. C. Baff (compiler), Maritime Is Number Ten (1983)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • Canberra Times, 8 June 1981, p 6
  • series A12372, item O343 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Richard Kingsland, 'Hartnell, Geoffrey Clark (Geoff) (1916–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 4 February 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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