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Sir Richard Williams (1890–1980)

by A. D. Garrisson

This article was published:

Richard Williams (1890-1980), by H. Septimus Power, 1924

Richard Williams (1890-1980), by H. Septimus Power, 1924

Australian War Memorial, ART08008

Sir Richard Williams (1890-1980), air force officer and aviation administrator, was born on 3 August 1890 at Moonta Mines, South Australia, eldest child of Richard Williams, miner, and his wife Emily, née Hodge. Educated to junior secondary level at Moonta Public School, Richard was employed as a telegraph messenger, then as a bank clerk. Aged 19, he enlisted in the South Australian Infantry Regiment, Australian Military Forces, and was commissioned in 1911. To achieve his objective of a commission in the permanent forces, he went in September 1912 as a sergeant to a special school of instruction at Albury, New South Wales. Three months later he was promoted lieutenant, Administrative and Instructional Staff. On 17 August 1914 he attended the first war-flying course held at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Victoria. Instruction lasted three months; on its completion, he and the three other graduates rejoined their units. Williams performed administrative duties until July 1915 when he returned to Point Cook for two months advanced aviation training. Expecting to depart for India at short notice, on 21 August he married 38-year-old Constance Esther Griffiths (d.1948) with Methodist forms at the Collins Street Congregational Church, Melbourne. They were to remain childless.

Late in 1915 the decision was made to raise a complete Australian unit for service with the Royal Flying Corps. Appointed captain in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 January 1916, Williams was posted as a flight commander to No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. The squadron's members arrived in Egypt in April. Initially dispersed among R.F.C. units, they began operations as a separate entity in December, supporting the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in the advance towards Palestine. Early in 1917 Williams exhibited conspicuous gallantry, when, under anti-aircraft fire, he attacked and scattered Turkish troops; on another occasion he rescued a pilot shot down behind enemy lines. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Given command of No.1 Squadron in May, 'Dicky' supported his officers in a vigorous mess life, though he was abstemious in his own habits. His dealings with his subordinates were formal, correct and fair, and earned him respect. Twice mentioned in dispatches in January 1918, he was promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel on 28 June and seconded to command the 40th (Army) Wing, Palestine Brigade, R.F.C. Comprising his own and three British squadrons, the wing had been formed five months earlier.

After a brief period as temporary brigade commander, Williams was appointed O.B.E. in January 1919. His war service was to be further recognized with his appointment (1920) to the Order of the Nahda by the King of the Hejaz. From March to October 1919 he was staff officer, aviation, at A.I.F. Headquarters, London. His duties entailed liaising with British authorities on the organization and equipment required for a proposed Australian air force. Returning home, he was made brevet lieutenant-colonel, A.M.F., on 5 January 1920 and sat on a board of navy and army officers tasked with developing a policy for the new force: he was the army's aviation specialist; the navy was represented by Major Stanley Goble. Because the army continued the project, Williams had free rein and a strong influence on its outcome. In November an Air Board, similar to the existing Naval and Military boards, was established; Williams was senior member and Goble next in authority; both had the rank of wing commander.

At the Air Board's first meeting, Williams tabled proposals for the establishment of the (Royal) Australian Air Force and had the satisfaction of seeing his new service come into being on 31 March 1921. His position as first air member was circumscribed. To compensate for his comparative youthfulness and assumed lack of administrative experience, and in an attempt to achieve a 'compromise between exclusive control of Australian air power by either the army or the navy', an Air Council had been formed in 1920 to oversee the board. Positioned administratively between the board and the minister for defence, the council ensured that the air force was kept to an auxiliary role. Tension between the services, financial stringency, an emphasis on the navy in Imperial defence planning and the perception of a low risk of war all hindered Williams's efforts to formulate air power doctrine and to create a separate identity for the R.A.A.F., as well as contributing to his personal conflict with Goble. His title was changed to chief of the Air Staff in 1922. Next year he attended the British Army Staff College, Camberley, and spent six months at the Royal Air Force Staff College, Andover, graduating from both.

Promoted group captain on 1 July 1925, Williams was immediately embroiled in controversy over the navy's plan, which Goble had sanctioned in his absence, to establish a fleet air arm. Considering that the proposal would have weakened the air force, he manoeuvred skilfully and succeeded in having it shelved. Between September and December 1926, with a co-pilot and mechanic, he flew a seaplane on a round trip from Point Cook, along the Australian east coast to Papua, New Guinea, New Britain and the Solomon Islands. The object of the flight was to study the area from a defence point of view and to gain experience in operating away from base. For accomplishing the feat without serious incident or delay, he was appointed C.B.E. in 1927. Having acted in the rank since April, he was promoted air commodore on 1 July. Three weeks later he took off on a flight around Australia; after covering an additional leg from Adelaide to Tennant Creek, he again returned safely. During the Depression, amid urgings by senior navy and army officers, in 1929 and 1932 successive governments considered the abolition of the air force as a separate service. Having weathered the crises, in 1933 Williams attended the Imperial Defence College, London.

On 1 January 1935 he was promoted air vice marshal, finally gaining equivalent rank with the other service chiefs. In May he was appointed C.B. That year the minister for defence (Sir) Archdale Parkhill contemplated manning three new squadrons (approved as part of general rearmament) with members of the Citizen Air Force. Williams resisted stoutly and won the day. He and Parkhill worked together more harmoniously to foster the development of the Australian aircraft industry: the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1936.

Meanwhile, the entry into service of new aircraft and technology stretched the resources of existing personnel. This problem, together with an increase in flying hours, resulted in a higher number of accidents. Responding to pressure in parliament and from the press, the government invited Marshal of the R.A.F. Sir Edward Ellington to report on the organization and efficiency of the Australian air force. Williams clashed with Ellington whose report of July 1938 was released to the newspapers before senior R.A.A.F. officers had seen it. Although he found that organization and development had been sound, Ellington criticized the administration of operational training. The Air Board challenged his conclusions and cast doubt on his figures which showed that the R.A.A.F. accident rate in relation to flying hours had been higher than that of the R.A.F. Armed with information from Goble that the chief of the Air Staff had been responsible for operational training, the Lyons government announced that Williams would be sent abroad for two years duty with the R.A.F. to broaden his experience. He learned of the decision in the press.

After a short attachment to the Air Ministry, early in 1939 he became air officer in charge of administration at Coastal Command headquarters, R.A.F. War with Germany began on 3 September and in February 1940 Williams came back to Australia to be air member for organization and equipment. James Fairbairn, minister for air, had wanted him to be chief of the Air Staff, but Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies decided that a senior R.A.F. officer—Air Marshal Sir Charles Burnett—should command the R.A.A.F. On taking up their appointments in March, Burnett was promoted air chief marshal and Williams temporary air marshal. To Williams's chagrin, the government acquiesced in Burnett's policy of using the Australian air force as a reservoir for the R.A.F., thereby denying it the corporate identity enjoyed by the A.I.F. In October 1941 Williams arrived in London to set up and command R.A.A.F. Overseas Headquarters, an administrative centre for the increasing number of personnel serving in Europe and the Middle East. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on 7 December, he was swiftly recalled. His expectation that he would succeed Burnett was not realized and from 1942 he served for the remainder of the war as R.A.A.F. representative, Washington, D.C.

Williams had been given 'the principal hand in establishing Australia's Air Force' and had justly earned the title of 'father' of the R.A.A.F. Yet his 'seventeen years of resisting attacks by the army and the navy, of coping with inert, economy-minded governments, and generally handling the unspectactular job of building an air force in peacetime' had been taxing. He had fought strenuously for his service and had not been above the use of subterfuge to advance its interests. His acrimonious relationship with Goble and the occasional, unavoidable friction with politicians, senior public servants and fellow uniformed officers had left their legacies. Although noted for his courtesy, ready smile and sparkling eyes, Williams was 'not a too-forgiving man'. It would have befitted the end of his career had he led the air force in World War II, but Prime Minister John Curtin had refused to consider him. Williams later claimed in his autobiography, These are Facts (Canberra, 1977), that the secretary for defence (Sir) Frederick Shedden had informed Curtin of his rift with Goble to discredit him.

Ceasing duty in June 1946 to become director-general of civil aviation, Williams retired from the R.A.A.F. on 14 September. In this new role he supervised the expansion of domestic and international commercial aviation during the post-war years. His department created the network of airfields, communications and related support services required by the industry, while maintaining an enviable safety record. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1954. On his retirement next year, he joined the board of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd. Federal president (from 1940) of the Air Force Association, he used that institution to stimulate public debate on the future of air power in Australia's defence. He was a member of the Naval and Military, and Athenaeum clubs, Melbourne.

On 7 February 1950 at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Williams had married 49-year-old Lois Victoria Cross. Predeceased by her, he died on 7 February 1980 in St George's Hospital, Kew, and was cremated. Some seven hundred mourners had attended his air force funeral and seventeen aircraft flew past. Septimus Power's portrait (1924) of Williams is in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps (Syd, 1923)
  • L. W. Sutherland, Aces and Kings (Syd, 1935)
  • J. Herington, Air War Against Germany and Italy 1939-1943 (Canb, 1954)
  • D. N. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • L. J. Wackett, Aircraft Pioneers (Syd, 1972)
  • J. M. McCarthy, Australia and Imperial Defence 1918-39 (Brisb, 1976)
  • J. E. Hewitt, Adversity in Success (Melb, 1980), and The Black One (Melb, 1984)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (Canb, 1982)
  • D. M. Horner, (ed), The Commanders (Syd, 1984)
  • H. Rayner, Scherger (Canb, 1984)
  • J. M. McCarthy, A Last Call of Empire (Canb, 1988)
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), Mar 1980
  • Canberra Times, 8 Feb 1980.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. D. Garrisson, 'Williams, Sir Richard (1890–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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