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Colin George Macalister Milson (1919–1975)

by Peter Burness

This article was published:

Colin George Macalister Milson (1919-1975), by Harold Freedman, 1946

Colin George Macalister Milson (1919-1975), by Harold Freedman, 1946

Australian War Memorial

Colin George Macalister Milson (1919-1975), air force officer and grazier, was born on 16 June 1919 at Longreach, Queensland, son of James Arthur Milson, station-manager, and his wife Valerie Aeneas, née Morgan-Reade, both Queensland born. A direct descendant of James Milson, Arthur managed Springvale, one of the family's cattle-stations near Winton. Colin attended Cranbrook School, Sydney, and All Souls Church of England Boys' School, Charters Towers, Queensland, which he represented in swimming, athletics, cricket (first XI) and Rugby League football (first XIII). He worked for six months on Springvale before becoming a jackeroo at Bundemar, near Trangie, New South Wales.

Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 19 August 1940 under the Empire Air Training Scheme, Milson proceeded to Rhodesia in November. He qualified as a pilot in April 1941, was commissioned in the following month, and arrived in Britain in October. After further training, he was posted (May 1942) to No.39 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based in the Middle East. The squadron flew Beauforts against German and Italian ships. In September 1942 and March 1943 Milson led attacks on enemy supply ships which were heavily protected by destroyers and aircraft. For these and other actions, in which he 'invariably displayed courage and determination', he won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In May 1943 Milson was sent to London. Next month he began work at the Air Ministry. Following a brief attachment to No.144 Squadron, R.A.F., he was posted in December to No.455 Squadron, R.A.A.F., which was stationed alternately at bases in Scotland and England. John Herington described its commanding officer, J. N. Davenport, and flight commanders, A. L. Wiggins and Milson, as 'three of the most pugnacious and inspiring tacticians thrown up in the evolvement of Coastal Command's anti-shipping campaign . . . each in other times and circumstances would have been an outstanding cavalry leader'. Providing the 'anti-flak element' of a strike wing, the crews of No.455 Squadron operated Beaufighters fitted with cannons and rockets. They engaged the most heavily armed ships so that torpedo-carrying aircraft could get a clear run at the targets.

Fair, lean, and clear-eyed, Milson led with determination and set an example. He was described as 'tough and charismatic'. Seemingly contemptuous of danger, he always drove home his attacks at low level and took every opportunity to inflict damage on enemy ships. On 15 June 1944 he was prominent in the largest assault Coastal Command sent against a German convoy, located off Ameland, the Netherlands, and was awarded a Bar to his D.F.C. In another sortie, on 29 August, his aircraft was severely hit and he had to fly 300 miles (482 km) back from Heligoland, Germany, on only one engine. He wrote to his father: 'It didn't worry me in the slightest as I was out on ''ops'' again the next day and also the following one'. Milson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

He enjoyed squadron life and operational service, and rejected the opportunity for less arduous work or a transfer to a training unit. In October 1944 he was appointed to command No.455 and promoted acting wing commander. Although Milson was increasingly office-bound, he continued to find opportunities to fly, even in winter when operations proved particularly hazardous. On 9 February 1945 he led a large formation against a naval force in Fördefjord, Norway. For his skill and courage, in what was described as a 'brilliantly executed operation', he won a Bar to his D.S.O. On 14 April his rockets damaged a U-boat in Jössingfjord.

Demobilized back home on 17 April 1946, Milson joined Thomas Borthwick & Sons (Australasia) Ltd as a cattle buyer. He advanced to higher positions in Brisbane and moved to Sydney in 1953 as State manager of the firm. In June 1955 he left the company and took over the management of his family's cattle-stations. Recognizing the potential of light aircraft in the cattle industry, he resumed flying for business purposes. He was elected to the Diamantina Shire Council and served a term as shire president.

On 9 October 1947 at All Saints Anglican Church, Brisbane, Milson had married Sheila Margaret Tonkin, a 32-year-old beautician. He was a gregarious but modest man who read widely on history and politics; Sheila and he enjoyed travel. In 1973 they moved to Darling Point, Sydney, where he remained involved in business. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 14 July 1975 at St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. His medals and his portrait by Harold Freedman are held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Johnson (ed), R.A.A.F. Over Europe (Lond, 1946)
  • J. Herington, Air Power Over Europe 1944-1945 (Canb, 1963)
  • I. Gordon, Strike and Strike Again (Canb, 1995)
  • RAAF biographical records AWM 65 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'Milson, Colin George Macalister (1919–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 March 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

Colin George Macalister Milson (1919-1975), by Harold Freedman, 1946

Colin George Macalister Milson (1919-1975), by Harold Freedman, 1946

Australian War Memorial

Life Summary [details]


16 June, 1919
Longreach, Queensland, Australia


14 July, 1975 (aged 56)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.