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Murdoch, Sir Alister Murray (1912–1984)

by D. S. Thomson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Alister Murray Murdoch (1912-1984), air force officer, was born on 9 December 1912 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, fourth child of Victorian-born parents Thomas Murdoch, civil engineer, and his wife Kathleen, née Tiernan. Alister was educated (1921-28) at Caulfield Grammar School where, in his final year, he was selected to undergo officer training at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, for subsequent appointment to the Royal Australian Air Force. At the RMC he established himself as a leading scholar and sportsman.

In 1930 Murdoch was posted to No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria. He received his wings in December 1931 and was commissioned as a pilot officer on 1 January 1932. A series of specialist courses, starting with an introduction to seaplanes, led to an unusual assignment when, in January 1936, as a member of an RAAF Antarctic flight detachment, Murdoch, flying a Gipsy Moth seaplane, searched Antarctica for the missing American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and his pilot.

Murdoch was promoted (1933) to flying officer and in 1935 completed a flying instructor’s course. He rose to flight lieutenant in 1936 and the following year undertook the long navigation course at the Royal Air Force base, Manston, England, after which he was attached to the RAF’s No.114 Squadron. On 28 December 1937 at the parish church, Paglesham, Essex, he married Florence Eilene Miller.

Returning to Australia in 1938, he was posted to the operations and intelligence branch, RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne. Promoted to squadron leader in 1939, he commanded No.1 Air Observers School, Cootamundra, New South Wales, from April 1940. He was made wing commander in September, and in August 1941 he took over the RAF’s No.221 Squadron based in Iceland. In May 1942 he was named staff officer with No.235 Wing in the Middle East but was posted in July to London, where he was attached to United Kingdom combined operations for the raid on Dieppe, France, in August 1942.

Back in Australia in October, Murdoch was engaged in instructional duties at the Joint Overseas Operational Training School, Port Stephens, New South Wales. Promoted to group captain in December, he became senior air staff officer, Eastern Area Headquarters, Sydney (1943-44) and at North Western Area Headquarters, Darwin (1944-45). In April 1945 he was appointed senior air staff officer, 1st Tactical Air Force, New Guinea, where he participated in Operation OBOE designed to retake the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and Borneo. He was almost entirely responsible for the air planning of the Labuan campaign in June and was a key organiser of the Balikpapan (Borneo) operation in July. An excellent strategist, he was mentioned in despatches in May and was appointed CBE in 1946.

In September 1945 Murdoch had returned to Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne, as director of postings and he became director of personnel services in October 1946. He attended a staff course at the Imperial Defence College, London, in October 1947 before rejoining Air Force Headquarters as director of air staff plans (1949-52). Promoted to air commodore and appointed commandant, RAAF College, Point Cook, in 1952, next year he became air officer commanding, Training Command Headquarters, Melbourne.

The RAAF’s anticipation of ‘new look’ equipment, especially in fighters and transports, was spurred initially by the findings of an investigating team led by Murdoch, which, in 1954, concluded that the Lockheed company’s developing F-104 Starfighter and its new C-130 Hercules transport were most suited to the RAAF’s needs. Ultimately, the Hercules, the Orion maritime aircraft and the De Havilland Vampire were acquired.

Seconded to the Department of Defence as deputy secretary (military) in January 1956, Murdoch became air vice marshal in 1957 and was appointed deputy-chief of the air staff in February 1958. He went to London the following year to head the Australian Joint Services Staff. Appointed CB in 1960, Murdoch returned to Australia in 1962 to lead Operational Command. Promoted to air marshal and made chief of the air staff in June 1965, he was knighted a year later.

Murdoch led the RAAF at the time of its biggest peacetime expansion, when it moved from subsonic to supersonic aircraft. He saw the Mirage fighter come into service and witnessed radical changes in approaches to maintenance and cleanliness which were essential for effective supersonic operations. In order to increase surveillance of the Indian and Pacific oceans, Murdoch transferred the Orion’s base from Townsville, Queensland, to Edinburgh, South Australia. He also oversaw the introduction of the F111, which was to become the RAAF’s principal strike craft. Interested in upgrading training facilities, he established a new school for radio mechanics at Laverton, Victoria, to bring the service into the electronic era.

A calm leader, Murdoch avoided involvement in political issues and did not scheme in any way. Having developed a good working relationship with the Americans, he achieved the unusual distinction of getting along with most people while making tough strategic and administrative decisions. He worked effectively with his ministers, the government providing the RAAF with sufficient resources to make it the highly efficient force that it was at the time of the Vietnam War. During his term as chief of the air staff, however, there was some criticism of the RAAF’s perceived failure to fully assist the army. Despite the fact that Iroquois helicopters had been acquired primarily to support the army, he refused the chief of the general staff’s request to send two of them to Vietnam to provide support because he doubted it would be a valuable experience. To be fair, the army did little to encourage what was supposed to be a co-operative function.

A keen golfer and racegoer, the pipe-smoking Murdoch retired from the RAAF on 31 December 1969. He joined a committee, headed by Justice Peter Coldham, to consider the pay scales of all three services and in 1981 he became chairman of Meggitt Ltd. Survived by his wife and their daughter, Murdoch died on 24 October 1984 at Mona Vale, Sydney, and was cremated. Described by Sir Frederick Scherger as ‘the last of the professionals’, Murdoch was a quiet, private man who wanted no parade or ceremony to mark his passing.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • A. Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force: A History (2006)
  • D. Horner, Strategic Command (2005)
  • Labora, Apr 1987, p 8
  • RAAF service record (Office of Air Force History, Canberra).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. S. Thomson, 'Murdoch, Sir Alister Murray (1912–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murdoch-sir-alister-murray-15054/text26252, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 December 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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