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James Anthony (Jim) Rowland (1922–1999)

by Kristen Alexander

This article was published online in 2023

Sir James Anthony Rowland

Sir James Anthony Rowland

Sir James Anthony Rowland (1922–1999), air force officer, test pilot, and governor, was born on 1 November 1922 near Armidale, New South Wales, second of three children of New South Wales-born Louis Claude Rowland, grazier and naval reserve officer, and his Queensland-born wife Elsie Jean, née Wright. Known as Jim from an early age, he was home schooled before enrolling in the New South Wales Correspondence School, Blackfriars. When the pioneering aviator Bert Hinkler stopped off at Armidale en route to Queensland on a 1928 tour, this sparked in Rowland the beginning of a lifelong love of aviation. In 1935 he attended Lochiel Junior Grammar School at Killara, Sydney. He was awarded a scholarship to Cranbrook School, Bellevue Hill, as a boarder (1936–39), and became a school and house prefect during his final term.

Rowland matriculated at the University of Sydney in 1940 to study aeronautical engineering, and took flying lessons with the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales. The outbreak of World War II reinforced his urge to fly. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 26 May 1942, training under the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) at Bradfield Park and Temora, then in Canada before being commissioned on 23 June 1943. Though he had dreamed of flying fighter aircraft, by 1944 the Royal Air Force (RAF) needed bomber crew, so he pragmatically embraced the opportunity to pilot multi-engine aircraft.

After further training in Britain, Rowland was promoted to flying officer on 23 June 1944, and on 26 July was posted to the elite Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit, Huntingdonshire, which had been formed to mark targets with flares for accompanying bomber squadrons. In August he joined No. 635 Squadron RAF, where his commanding officers soon recognised him as an exceptional pilot and captain. On occasion, his Lancaster crew was assigned as the primary visual marker on bombing raids, and he acted as deputy master bomber five times.

Amid high loss rates on operations to heavily defended centres over Germany, Rowland was committed to completing his operations by working consensually with his crew, preferring to ‘to lead them rather than push them’ (Rowland and Yule 2018, 180). When he was taking off on his thirty-first sortie on 24 December 1944, one of the Lancaster’s port engines failed, but he persisted with the operation. Flying through intense anti-aircraft fire while leaving the target area, the aircraft sustained damage but made it safely home, leading to Rowland receiving an immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 6 January 1945, during his thirty-fourth operation and just after dropping his bomb load over Hanau, near Frankfurt am Main, Rowland’s Lancaster collided with another Allied aircraft. One of his plane’s wings and the rear half of the fuselage were torn off, but he successfully parachuted out. He evaded search parties for some hours but was captured the next day, and confined to prisoner-of-war camps at Nuremberg, and then at Moosburg until liberation on 29 April 1945. Having never discovered precisely how his crew perished, he was left with an ‘aching unease’ (Rowland and Yule 2018, 232) and a lifetime of nightmares. He was promoted to flight lieutenant on 23 July, his appointment was terminated in Australia in November, and he resumed his studies at the University of Sydney in March 1946 in aeronautical science (BE, 1948).

Rowland rejoined the RAAF on 3 March 1947 as a temporary flight lieutenant, and was immediately granted leave without pay to complete his degree. On 14 April 1948 he was posted to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) at Laverton, Victoria, where he fulfilled his ambition to test and develop aircraft. In September he was granted a permanent commission in the Technical Branch. He soon obtained a first-class pass from the Empire Test Pilots’ School in Farnborough, England. On his return to ARDU, he averaged 250 flying hours annually, evaluating a diverse range of aircraft including the Gloster Meteor jet fighter. He was promoted to squadron leader on 1 July 1953, and was awarded the Air Force Cross in January 1955.

Although taller than average, with light brown hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion, Rowland regarded himself as ‘an ugly … young man without much to commend him’ (NAA A705). Others considered him charming, gregarious, and intelligent; he was popular with his male and female friends alike. He married Faye Doughton of Balwyn, Victoria, on 20 April 1955 at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak. Faye’s charm, poise, and ability to take the unforeseen in her stride were the perfect complement to an up-and-coming RAAF officer. Later, a former chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Ray Funnell, observed that she was ‘a great asset’ for her husband’s career (Rowland and Yule 2018, 303).

In 1956 Rowland graduated from the RAAF staff college, Point Cook, among a cohort later dubbed the ‘super course’ because of the number of graduates who would attain air rank. He was posted to No. 482 (Maintenance) Squadron at Amberley, Queensland, as chief technical officer in January 1957, before returning to ARDU in January 1958 as a newly promoted wing commander, serving as chief technical officer and test-flying the F-86 Sabre fighter and Canberra bomber. His aeronautical design talents were applied to devising a life-saving modification to the Sabre to enable the pilot to eject safely.

The air force recognised Rowland’s analytical skills and unique perspective as both test pilot and designer by appointing him in January 1961 as senior technical staff officer to an RAAF team sent to Paris to evaluate the French Mirage IIIO jet fighter for Australian service. He was lauded for this work, and in the process helped to establish the RAAF’s international reputation for research and development excellence.

High-level postings followed Rowland’s return to Australia in mid-1964, including command of No. 3 Aircraft Depot, Amberley, Queensland, with promotion to acting group captain in December 1966 (substantive January 1968). An approachable leadership style helped him to work productively with colleagues of all ranks. Having been promoted to air commodore in January 1971, he attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London, and in March 1972 was appointed director-general, aircraft engineering, at the Department of Air.

Rowland’s technical and leadership abilities, combined with a strong character and social adeptness, saw him promoted to air vice-marshal on 30 November 1972. He became the first EATS graduate to be appointed to the Air Board, on which he served as air member for technical services during a period of extensive reform of the defence bureaucracy. His responsibilities included selecting replacements for ageing aircraft, notably by bringing the F-111 fighter bomber into operational service.  Traditionally, only officers progressing through the General Duties Branch pilot stream could reach the highest echelons within the air force, and so he assumed that, being an engineer, he had reached the zenith of his career.

Nevertheless, the government discerned in Rowland the qualities required to lead the air force into a period of robust change, and on 21 March 1975 he became the first EATS graduate to be appointed as chief of the Air Staff, taking up a three-year appointment with the rank of air marshal. He responded effectively to a new conceptualisation of Australia’s defence strategy, adjusting from the previous emphasis on ‘forward defence’—working with allies to confront potential threats to Australia at a distance—to a focus on defending the air-sea gap between South-East Asia and mainland Australia. In February 1976 the Air Board was abolished, and as commander of the RAAF with increased powers, the naturally consultative Rowland adopted a more decisive style as he managed new bureaucratic structures, aircraft procurement challenges, and relations with his international counterparts, particularly in South-East Asia. In June 1977 he was appointed KBE and his tenure as chief of the Air Staff was extended for an extra year. He retired on 20 March 1979.

With the New South Wales premier, Neville Wran, keen to avoid the tensions between the Queen’s representative and executive government that had embroiled the Federal government in 1975, Rowland, as ‘a safe pair of hands’ (Williams, 577), was sworn in as the thirty-third governor of New South Wales on 20 January 1981. While he knew little about politics or vice-regal practice, Rowland had always believed that ‘if you were asked to do a job like that, you really had a duty to try to do it, assuming that you felt you could do it reasonably well’ (Rowland and Yule, 448). As each State governor automatically become deputy prior in the Order of St John, Rowland was appointed a knight of grace (KStJ); Faye was admitted as a commander (CStJ). He was appointed AC in January 1987, and his original four-year term was twice extended before he stepped down on 19 January 1989. He was remembered as a governor with a ‘common touch’ (McGuiness 1999, 16)—friends soon nicknamed him the ‘gumboot Governor’ (Rowland and Yule 2018, 464)—and as a ‘good and conscientious public servant …’ (Williams 2009, 576).

The former airman was not ready to retire. In 1990 Rowland was elected chancellor of the University of Sydney to see out the term of the deceased incumbent, Sir Herman Black. Despite his commitment to the role, he felt underutilised, and stood down at the end of his term in May 1991. His health diminished throughout the 1990s but he remained active, holding executive positions in organisations including the Police Board of New South Wales (1989–92), the Australian Forces Overseas Fund, the New South Wales Air Transport Council (1989–99), and the Aerospace Foundation of Australia Ltd. One of his great joys as Aerospace chairman was attending its biennial air show during which he vicariously relived his flying days. Board work and voluntary commitments, carpentry, and regular overseas travel kept him busy and engaged. He was not an avid golfer but enjoyed a round with friends; he loved surfing, swimming, reading, and much more. His fascination with aviation never waned. In late 1998, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, he began writing his memoir. Pathfinder, ‘Kriegie’ and Gumboot Governor, later edited and completed by historian Peter Yule, was published in 2018.

Rowland died at Greenwich, New South Wales, on 27 May 1999, and was cremated. Faye and their daughter Ann survived him. Both Government House and the University of Sydney commissioned portraits by Sir William Dargie. Some of his air force memorabilia were placed in the RAAF Museum, Point Cook, and Government House, Sydney, collections.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM65 4500
  • Brown, Malcolm. ‘Pomp and Tears as Sir James Says Goodbye.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1989, 1
  • McGinness, Mark. ‘Governor with Common Touch.’ Australian, 2 June 1999, 16
  • National Archives of Australia. A12372, R/22056/P
  • National Archives of Australia. A12372, R/22056/H
  • National Archives of Australia. A705, 166/36/436
  • Rowland, Air Marshal Sir James. Interview by Ken Llewelyn, 3 February 1993. Transcript. Australian War Memorial
  • Rowland, James, with Peter Yule. Pathfinder, ‘Kriegie’ and Gumboot Governor. Canberra: Department of Defence, History and Heritage Branch, Air Force, 2018
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 11151, Sir James Anthony Rowland papers
  • Williams, Evan. ‘Sir James Anthony Rowland (20 January 1981–19 January 1989).’ In The Governors of New South Wales: 1788–2010, edited by David Clune and Ken Turner, 569-77. Leichhardt, NSW: The Federation Press, 2009
  • Yule, Peter, and Nicole Townsend. ‘Sir James Rowland and the Changing Strategic Use of Air Power in Australia, 1942–1979.’ In Australian Perspectives on Global Air and Space Power: Past, Present, Future, edited by Nicole Townsend, Kus Pandey, and Jarrod Pendlebury, 34–45. Abingdon, Oxon
  • New York, NY: Routledge, 2023

Citation details

Kristen Alexander, 'Rowland, James Anthony (Jim) (1922–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 24 May 2024.

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