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John Margrave Lerew (1912–1996)

by John Moremon

This article was published online in 2023

John Lerew DFC, c.1945

John Lerew DFC, c.1945

Australian War Memorial, 044730

John Margrave Lerew (1912–1996), air force officer and international aviation administrator, was born on 20 August 1912 at Hamilton, Victoria, elder child of Melbourne-born parents William Margrave Lerew, veterinary surgeon, and his wife Georgina Margaret Jane, née Keys, musical accompanist. Educated at Middle Park Central School and Scotch College, Melbourne (1926–30), John joined the cadet corps and took up motor racing, placing third as co-driver of a C-class (under-1500cc) car in the 1930 Australian grand prix at Phillip Island. He became an all-round sportsman, excelling at skating, swimming, boxing, football, and athletics.

In 1931 Lerew commenced a degree in civil engineering at the University of Melbourne (BCE, 1940). Following compulsory military training, he joined the Citizen Air Force in December 1932, trained in de Havilland Moth aircraft, and graduated as a pilot officer the following April. Serving part time in No. 1 Squadron, he was a keen aviator but exhibited ‘average’ service knowledge and powers of command (NAA A14487). After completing his degree, he received a permanent commission in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as a flying officer in January 1936. The next year in February he was promoted to flight lieutenant and appointed assistant director of works and buildings at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne, travelling across Australia and the territories of Papua and New Guinea assessing facilities and identifying sites for airfields.

Lerew was promoted to temporary squadron leader in June 1940 and posted to No. 1 Aircraft Park, Geelong, where he flight-tested aircraft, on one occasion delivering a ‘spectacular’ public aerobatics display in a Fairey Battle bomber. In September he moved to No. 2 Aircraft Depot, Richmond, New South Wales. Despite having little squadron experience, in May 1941 he took command of No. 24 Squadron at Townsville, Queensland, operating Hudson bombers and Wirraway general purpose aircraft. He was promoted to temporary wing commander in October. With Japan’s entry into World War II in December 1941, he led the squadron to Rabaul, New Britain, where his bomber crews unsuccessfully attacked a floatplane anchorage. Lerew brushed off criticisms of the mission, including from the chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, signalling: ‘The Empire expects much, repeat much, of a few’ (Gillison 1962, 270).

On 20 January 1942, six of Lerew’s eight Wirraways were destroyed during an air raid. Instructed to assist the army’s Lark Force to hold Rabaul, Lerew famously sent his superiors a rendition in Latin of the Roman gladiators’ salutation, ‘We who are about to die, salute you!’ The next day he was ordered to leave his squadron under the command of army forces and return alone to Port Moresby, Papua, but Lerew would not abandon his men. Instead, he organised for his last bomber to evacuate wounded and then led the remainder of his squadron to a rendezvous point for evacuation by flying boats. Commanding a composite squadron from Port Moresby, he was shot down on 11 February while attacking Japanese shipping off Gasmata, New Britain. His Hudson bomber crew was lost and Lerew reached safety only after evading enemy troops in the jungle for eight days. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘courage, determination and devotion to duty’ (NAA A9300) during the defence of Rabaul.

After staff roles, Lerew commanded No. 7 Squadron from August 1942, conducting patrols and convoy escorts off Australia’s east coast. In December he was appointed to command No. 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton, assembling and flight-testing aircraft as part of No. 4 (Maintenance) Group. The group’s commanding officer described him as ‘an outstanding Officer in his enthusiasm for active service flying’ who possessed ‘an infectious enthusiasm’ (NAA A9300), but noted that his command style was divisive, that he lacked enthusiasm for administration, and that he exhibited intolerance towards higher authority. In December 1943 he was promoted to temporary group captain and sent to RAAF Overseas Headquarters, London, to study flying safety. Returning to Australia in February 1945, he was appointed director of flying safety in April.

In London Lerew had met Australian-born Laurie Winifred Hill Manley, née Steele, a former air hostess and employee of the British Ministry of Aircraft Production, who was estranged from her husband. Following her divorce, they married on 1 November 1945 at Wesley Church, Melbourne. In November 1946 Lerew resigned from the RAAF to join the (Provisional) International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal, Canada, becoming a technical officer in the aerodromes, air routes, and ground aids branch. He was branch chief from 1951 and travelled widely, assessing aviation systems and attending planning conferences. In 1963 he met Dutch-born Oude (Josephine) Reimerink, an employee of Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM). According to Lerew’s biographer, Lex McAulay, the couple married on 20 August 1966 at Taxco, Mexico, but for unknown reasons they married again on 27 May 1975 at North Hero, Vermont, United States of America.

Lerew had become chief of ICAO’s flight branch in 1969, overseeing regulatory activities relating to airline operations, airworthiness, aviation medicine, licensing and training, and accident investigation. Admired as a knowledgeable, unassuming, hard-working, warm, and friendly colleague, he retired in June 1972, and thereafter travelled extensively with his wife. In 1988 they settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he died on 24 February 1996, survived by his wife and the two daughters of his first marriage.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Eight Days of Jungle Ordeal.’ 5 December 1942, Weekend Magazine 5
  • Gillison, Douglas. Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962
  • Lerew, John. Interview by Fred Morton, 1 June 1982. Sound recording. National Library of Australia
  • McAulay, Lex. We Who Are About to Die: The Story of John Lerew—A Hero of Rabaul, 1942. Maryborough, Qld: Banner Books, 2007
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, LEREW J M
  • National Archives of Australia. A14487, 11/AB/1835
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Pacific Hero Who Signalled in Latin.’ 6 March 1996, 5
  • Vetaffairs (Canberra). ‘Obituaries.’ April 1996, 8

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Moremon, 'Lerew, John Margrave (1912–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 16 June 2024.

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