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Frank Headlam (1914–1976)

by Brian Eaton

This article was published:

Frank Headlam, n.d.

Frank Headlam, n.d.

Frank Headlam (1914-1976), air force officer, was born on 15 July 1914 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Malcolm Headlam, farmer, and his wife Hilda Mary, née Burrill, both Tasmanian born. Educated at Clemes College, Hobart, Frank gained his Leaving certificate in 1932. He overcame family objections to a career in the Royal Australian Air Force, enlisted as an air cadet at Point Cook, Victoria, on 16 January 1934, completed flying training and was commissioned in January 1935.

After further courses, in 1936 Headlam was posted as an instructor to No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, where in March 1937 he was promoted flight lieutenant. In 1938 he began the first 'long specialist course' in navigation conducted by the R.A.A.F. and passed with distinction. Transferring to Laverton in 1939, he was a flight commander with No.1 and No.2 squadrons and subsequently station navigation officer. Next year he was sent to R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne, and made squadron leader. On 15 June 1940 he married Katherine Beatrice Bridge at St Paul's Anglican Church, Frankston; they were to have a daughter and son before being divorced.

Headlam returned to Laverton in April 1941 to take command of No.2 Squadron; three months later he was promoted wing commander. In December the squadron's Lockheed Hudson aircraft were deployed to Penfui, near Koepang, Timor, to help in countering Japan's Pacific offensive. Air Commodore Joseph Hewitt, assistant chief of the Air Staff, visited Penfui in January 1942 and noted that the unit was operating under considerable difficulties: 'My own feeling . . . was that we were expecting too much of Headlam and his squadron'. In February Headlam was ordered to withdraw to Darwin.

Following a brief stint at headquarters, North-Western Area, he commanded (1942-44) navigation and air observer schools in Victoria and South Australia, was promoted group captain in December 1943 and completed a course at the R.A.A.F. Staff School, Mount Martha, Victoria. Headlam went back to Darwin in January 1945 as senior administrative staff officer and from January 1946 was officer commanding, North-Western Area. In 1946-47 he was based in England where he attended the Royal Air Force Staff College, Andover. Returning to Australia, he took the post of director of training at R.A.A.F. Headquarters in November 1947.

In December 1950 Headlam was given command of No.90 Wing in Malaya. For several months in 1951 he was commander of the R.A.F. station at Tengah, Singapore, the principal base for operations against communist insurgents. By February 1952 he was senior air staff officer at headquarters, Home Command, Penrith, New South Wales. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1953 and in January 1955 was promoted substantive air commodore. In November he left for London to attend the 1956 course at the Imperial Defence College. Back in Australia, he filled a succession of senior positions, including acting air member for personnel on the Air Board (March to October 1957 and August 1959 to May 1960), air commodore plans (October 1957 to January 1959) and acting deputy chief of the Air Staff (May to June 1960). He had been elevated to C.B.E. in 1958.

Appointed air officer commanding, Operational Command, in January 1961, Headlam was promoted air vice marshal on 29 May. He was sent to Malaya in July 1962 to take command of No.224 Group, R.A.F. 'In December that year the Brunei revolt flared up'; it was quickly subdued—'in large measure due to the effective use of the air forces' under Headlam's command. 'Shortly after, the Indonesians started the operations in Borneo that [formed] part of their confrontation policy.' Headlam was 'responsible for the tactical and air defence operations' which—with other measures on land and at sea—contained 'the Indonesian incursions, and protected the independence of Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei'. An effective commander and an inspiring leader, he was appointed C.B. in 1965.

After his return, Headlam was deputy chief of the Air Staff in 1965-66 and R.A.A.F. support commander in 1966-67. In January 1968 he went to London as head of the Australian Joint Services Staff. Back home, he retired in August 1971 and lived in Melbourne. On 20 January 1964 at the registrar general's office, Sydney, he had married a widow Vernon Rima Howorth Spence, née Swain, a social worker. Following a long illness, he died of complications arising from cancer on 23 December 1976 in Melbourne and was cremated. His wife and the children of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • J. E. Hewitt, Adversity in Success (Melb, 1980)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (Syd, 1991)
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Dec 1947, 27 Dec 1976
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 3 Dec 1964, 23 June 1965, 17 Aug 1966
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Dec 1976.

Citation details

Brian Eaton, 'Headlam, Frank (1914–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 27 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frank Headlam, n.d.

Frank Headlam, n.d.