Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Ellis (Bill) Newton (1919–1943)

by Alan Stephens

This article was published:

William Ellis Newton (1919-1943), by Harold Freedman, 1946

William Ellis Newton (1919-1943), by Harold Freedman, 1946

Australian War Memorial, ART26991

William Ellis (Bill) Newton (1919-1943), air force officer, was born on 8 June 1919 at St Kilda, Melbourne, son of Australian-born parents Charles Ellis Newton, dentist, and his second wife Minnie, née Miller. Bill was educated to Intermediate certificate level at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where his masters regarded him as having qualities of leadership. Six ft 3 ins (191 cm) tall and 16 stone (102 kg) in weight, he was a fine all-round sportsman who played cricket for the Victorian second XI. He worked in the silk-warehouse of Makower, McBeath & Co. Pty Ltd before enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 5 February 1940. Newton qualified as a pilot and was commissioned in June. After serving as a flying instructor, he was posted in May 1942 to No.22 Squadron which was based in Port Moresby and equipped with Boston light bombers.

In fifty-two operational sorties—90 per cent of them flown through anti-aircraft fire—Flight Lieutenant Newton displayed exceptional courage and a remarkable determination to inflict the utmost damage on the enemy. Disdaining evasive tactics, he always 'went straight at his objective' to achieve maximum accuracy with his weapons. On one occasion his aircraft's starboard engine failed over the target, but he completed the attack and then flew 160 nautical miles (296 km) to a safe airfield. His exploits earned him the nickname of 'The Firebug': 'Wherever he flew he left a big fire behind him'.

On 16 March 1943, while leading an attack on an enemy base near Salamaua, New Guinea, Newton dived through intense and accurate shell-fire. Although his aircraft was repeatedly hit, he held his course and bombed the target from low level, destroying numerous buildings and supply-dumps. The plane was severely damaged—its fuselage and wings torn, engines hit, fuel tanks pierced and one tyre punctured—but he managed to nurse the machine back home and land it safely.

Despite that harrowing experience, two days later Newton returned to the same locality for another strike. This time his target was a single building, which he attacked through a barrage of fire. At the instant his bombs scored a direct hit on the building, his aircraft burst into flames. With great skill, he brought the aeroplane down in the sea about 1000 yards (914 m) offshore. From the air his squadron colleagues saw two of the Boston's three crew members swim ashore.

Newton was one of the survivors captured by the Japanese. They beheaded him on 29 March 1943 at Salamaua. For his extraordinary fearlessness and leadership he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the only member of the R.A.A.F. to win the decoration in the Pacific theatre. Details of his murder, recorded in a captured Japanese diary, shocked Australians when newspapers reported the atrocity in October 1943. After the war, Newton's remains were recovered and buried in Lae war cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Waters, Valiant Youth (Syd, 1945)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • A. Stephens, High Fliers (Canb, 1996)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 30 Oct 1943
  • RAAF News, Mar 1996
  • Sunday Sun, 29 Mar 1953
  • Guardian, 29 Mar 1953.

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Newton, William Ellis (Bill) (1919–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 28 May 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

William Ellis Newton (1919-1943), by Harold Freedman, 1946

William Ellis Newton (1919-1943), by Harold Freedman, 1946

Australian War Memorial, ART26991

Life Summary [details]


8 June, 1919
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


29 March, 1943 (aged 23)
Salamaua, Papua New Guinea

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.