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Charles William Pearce (1910–1980)

by Ian MacFarling

This article was published:

Charles William Pearce (1910-1980), by unknown photographer

Charles William Pearce (1910-1980), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, SUK15136

Charles William Pearce (1910-1980), air force officer, was born on 1 February 1910 at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, son of William Snelling Pearce, an Australian-born police constable, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Crowley, who came from Ireland. After attending Christian Brothers' High School, Fremantle, Charles worked as a draughtsman while studying civil engineering at the Perth Technical School and later at the University of Western Australia. On 15 January 1930 he joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an air cadet. He completed training at Point Cook, Victoria, and was commissioned on 5 February 1931. Piloting seaplanes, he spent periods in 1934-38 attached to ships of the Royal Australian Navy. In 1939 he qualified as a navigator. British domination of most aspects of Australian defence strengthened his Anglophilia.

In July 1939 Pearce was a member of an elite R.A.A.F. team sent to Britain to bring back nine Sunderland flying-boats which Australia had purchased. When World War II broke out, the Australian government agreed to leave the aircraft and crews in Britain. Pearce and his comrades formed the nucleus of No.10 Squadron, R.A.A.F., and operated the Sunderlands from Wales and southern England. With limited navigational aids and often in bad weather, they hunted German submarines, reconnoitred enemy dispositions in Europe, and provided transport for dignitaries. Appointed temporary commanding officer in February 1940, Pearce won the Distinguished Flying Cross five months later—the first awarded to a member of the R.A.A.F. in World War II—for his leadership and gallantry in the air, especially during an attack on a U-boat in June. His men respected him for his skill as a pilot, and for his courtesy, compassion and kindness.

At Trinity Presbyterian Church, Compton Gifford, Plymouth, on 3 August 1940 Pearce married Vera Madeleine Waldron Axford, née Modley, a 30-year-old divorcee and an officer in the Women's Royal Naval Service. Reverting to flight commander later that month, he was promoted temporary wing commander in January 1941. He returned to Australia in March and in May was appointed commander of No.11 Squadron, R.A.A.F. It was based in Port Moresby and equipped with American Catalina flying-boats. In August he took command of the R.A.A.F. Station, Port Moresby (as acting group captain from January 1942). Holding his unprepared forces together, he introduced air-raid procedures which proved so effective that, despite fifty Japanese attacks, only one person was killed on the ground during his term of command. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1942.

Leaving Papua in June, Pearce held command and staff posts in Australia, New Guinea and Borneo. He was mentioned in dispatches for his work as senior air staff officer, No.10 (Operational) Group, New Guinea (November 1943-July 1944). After the war, he served at home, except for a term (1949-52) as Australian air attaché, Washington. In April 1957 he was promoted acting air commodore (substantive 1 July 1958) and appointed to command the R.A.A.F. Station, Richmond, New South Wales. In 1965 he retired from the air force. He became a director of several firms, including Palgrave Corporation Ltd. Suffering from cancer and cerebrovascular disease, he died on 10 September 1980 in his home at Palm Beach and was cremated. His wife and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (Canb, 1957)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • J. E. Hewitt, Adversity in Success (Melb, 1980)
  • K. C. Baff, Maritime is Number Ten (Adel, 1983)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian MacFarling, 'Pearce, Charles William (1910–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 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

Charles William Pearce (1910-1980), by unknown photographer

Charles William Pearce (1910-1980), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, SUK15136

Life Summary [details]


1 February, 1910
Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, Australia


10 September, 1980 (aged 70)
Palm Beach, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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