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Melville Cecil Langslow (1889–1972)

by Richard Kingsland

This article was published:

Melville Cecil Langslow (1889-1972), by John T. Harrison, 1945

Melville Cecil Langslow (1889-1972), by John T. Harrison, 1945

Australian War Memorial, P02172.002

Melville Cecil Langslow (1889-1972), public servant, was born on 20 June 1889 at Maldon, Victoria, sixth child of Richard Charles Langslow, butcher, and his wife Marion, née McArthur, both Victorian born. Nothing is known of Melville's education. Joining the Commonwealth Public Service in December 1908, he worked as a clerk in the Treasury. On 11 August 1914 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; he served in Cairo (1915-16) and London with the Australian Army Pay Corps. Rising through the ranks, he was commissioned in 1917 and promoted major in 1920.

Before hostilities ceased, it was planned that the Commonwealth government would pay for 940 aircraft and associated equipment, stores and services provided by Britain to the Australian Flying Corps. Langslow was given the task of handling Australia's involvement in the financial arrangements, but his assignment ended when the British offered to settle the debt by taking back the remaining equipment. Appointed M.B.E. (1919), Langslow returned to Melbourne in 1922. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 5 September and he joined the finance branch of the Department of Defence. At St Andrew's Anglican Church, Brighton, on 14 September 1933 he married Clyde Helene Hooper Merry; they were to remain childless.

From 1936 Langslow was finance member of both the Civil Aviation Board and the Air Board. His 'insistence on the limitation of expenditure' contributed to a delay in testing new navigational beacons for commercial aircraft. Had the devices been operational in 1938, they might have given vital guidance to the DC-2 airliner, Kyeema. While flying through low cloud on 25 October, Kyeema overshot Essendon airport, Melbourne, and crashed into Mount Dandenong. Fourteen passengers and four crew were killed in the worst air disaster in Australian aviation history to that date. In its report on the incident, the air accident investigation committee blamed the controller-general of civil aviation, Captain Edgar Johnston, and Langslow for bungling the installation of the beacons. A later government inquiry found that all members of the Civil Aviation Board were responsible. The initial casting of blame on Langslow left him lastingly embittered.

Major Langslow—as he encouraged some and directed others to call him—was appointed secretary of the Department of Air on its formation in November 1939; he was to remain in the post until he retired from the public service in 1951. While his principal role was to ensure the most economical expenditure of public funds, uniformed members of the Air Board were more interested in obtaining the best available equipment and logistic support. Animosities were therefore likely to arise, irrespective of the individuals concerned, but Langslow's uncompromising nature ensured his unpopularity with senior R.A.A.F. officers. His long memory, his tough stance on the financial aspects of every Air Board decision and the fact that he was better briefed on administrative details than the uniformed members often frustrated the plans of senior air force officers. They usually responded with mild to strong dislike of him, or, occasionally, with reluctant deference.

Continuing to serve at Air Force Headquarters as other members of the board came and went, Langslow built up a detailed understanding of the workings of government and a deep academic knowledge of aviation. Successive ministers for air sought his opinion on financial affairs and service matters. During World War II Arthur Drakeford consulted him on factionalism within the R.A.A.F. which the government was too indecisive to handle. Langslow was also well placed to monitor dealings between R.A.A.F. officers and the minister. In 1949 he and the chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal (Sir) George Jones, amicably devised principles to determine which positions in the Department of Air should be held by public servants and which by members of the R.A.A.F.

Although Langslow was regarded as an éminence grise, he generally exercised power for the good of the air force. Survived by his wife, he died on 31 March 1972 in East Melbourne and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • R. Williams, These are Facts (Canb, 1977)
  • J. E. Hewitt, Adversity in Success (Melb, 1980)
  • H. Rayner, Scherger (Canb, 1984)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (Syd, 1991)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (Canb, 1995)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Apr 1972
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Richard Kingsland, 'Langslow, Melville Cecil (1889–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Melville Cecil Langslow (1889-1972), by John T. Harrison, 1945

Melville Cecil Langslow (1889-1972), by John T. Harrison, 1945

Australian War Memorial, P02172.002