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Henry Neilson Wrigley (1892–1987)

by Alan Stephens

This article was published:

Henry Wrigley, by Ted Cranstone, n.d.

Henry Wrigley, by Ted Cranstone, n.d.

Australian War Memorial, 000885

Henry Neilson Wrigley (1892-1987), air force officer, was born on 21 April 1892 at Collingwood, Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Henry Wrigley, carpenter, and his wife Beatrice Helen, née Cockfield. Educated to matriculation level at Melbourne Continuation (High) School — where he later presided (1921) over the Old Boys’ Association — Wrigley became a schoolteacher and served in the infantry with the Citizen Military Forces before graduating from the Central Flying School, Point Cook, in 1916. Henry was of medium build, 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.

Appointed on 5 October 1916 as a second lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps, Australian Imperial Force, Wrigley embarked for Britain with No.3 Squadron. After operational training in England, in September 1917 he deployed with the squadron to the Western Front, where he flew RE8s on reconnaissance and army-liaison missions. A respected pilot and leader, he became a flight commander and temporary squadron commander. The citation for his Distinguished Flying Cross (1919) acknowledged his ‘exceptional devotion to duty’, and made special mention of a bombing attack against enemy lines near Ors, France, on 29 October 1918, in which he flew at very low level in the face of intense enemy machine-gun and rifle fire. He destroyed with direct hits two houses sheltering enemy troops.

Captain Wrigley wrote a history of No.3 Squadron’s war experience, The Battle Below, which was described as ‘a text book on Army cooperation flying’ when it was published in 1935. He had remained in uniform after World War I. In November-December 1919 he achieved one of Australian aviation’s greatest feats. Supported by Sergeant A. W. ‘Spud’ Murphy, Wrigley made the first aerial crossing of the Australian continent, piloting an obsolescent BE2e trainer from Melbourne to Darwin to survey the route which was to be used by aircraft in the historic England to Australia air race. Much of the route was unexplored; most of it was unfamiliar to airmen; and communications were extremely limited. (Sir) Hudson Fysh later wrote that he ‘never had any hopes of seeing [Wrigley]’ in Darwin. Wrigley’s report of the survey was compiled in his impeccable copperplate handwriting, accompanied by beautifully drawn maps. He was awarded the Air Force Cross (1920) for his achievement; a postage stamp commemorating it was to be issued on the fiftieth anniversary in 1969.

When the Royal Australian Air Force was formed on 31 March 1921, Wrigley became one of the service’s original twenty-one officers, commissioned as a flight lieutenant. On 5 July 1922 at the Anglican Church of St John the Evangelist, East Malvern, Melbourne, he married Rita Marjorie Rosalind Rees (d.1970), a clerk. He filled a number of influential positions in RAAF Headquarters during the early years, most notably as training officer in 1923-25, and then as director of organisation and staff duties in 1925-27, 1930 and 1931-36. In 1928 he became one of the first RAAF officers to complete the Royal Air Force Staff College course at Andover, England. He was promoted to group captain in 1936 and, as officer commanding the RAAF Station at Laverton, Victoria, he played an important part in the air force’s urgent effort to modernise itself before the looming war started.

At the beginning of World War II Wrigley was promoted to air commodore and appointed air officer commanding, Southern Area, overseeing the RAAF’s by-now vast expansion plan. Wrigley’s well-organised, inquiring mind and his genuine interest in people were ideally suited to his main responsibilities of recruitment and training. Those same qualities were also evident in his next appointment in November 1940 as air member for personnel. The RAAF was to grow rapidly from some 3500 employees at the beginning of the war to about 170 000 at its peak strength in 1944. A noteworthy feature of Wrigley’s tenure as AMP was the establishment of the Air Training Corps, an organisation with which he maintained a close relationship for the rest of his life. He was promoted to acting air vice marshal on 1 April 1941 and appointed CBE that year.

In February 1943 Wrigley became air officer commanding, RAAF Overseas Headquarters, London. For more than three years ‘Wrig’ was an immensely popular leader of the thousands of RAAF airmen who served in Europe and North Africa. Off-duty aircrew visiting London for a night out became familiar with the sight of their AOC, jacket off, serving drinks behind the bar at the headquarters. Wrigley stayed in London for a year after the war ended in Europe, negotiating the release of Australian prisoners-of-war. He was deeply disappointed when he was retired against his wishes in June 1946, a casualty of a ‘purge’ of the RAAF’s original officer cadre.

Living in Melbourne, Wrigley became executive officer of the Victorian Overseas Foundation, providing international experience for promising apprentices. On 5 January 1972 at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Deepdene, he married Zenda Lucille Fijalski, née Edwards. Active in returned servicemen’s associations, at the age of 91 he led the 1983 Anzac Day march in Melbourne, walking the full distance unaided. He died on 14 September 1987 at Fairfield and was cremated. His wife survived him as did the daughter and son of his first marriage.

Notwithstanding his exceptional service as an operational pilot and wartime leader, it was as an air power thinker that Wrigley had made his greatest contribution to the RAAF. Described by friends as an ‘inveterate note-taker’, throughout his air force career he kept a set of extraordinarily comprehensive and fastidious journals. His widow bequeathed to the RAAF over twenty large volumes of notes, essays, personal diaries, maps and photographs, covering both world wars and the period between. The most important essays were edited and published in 1990 under the title The Decisive Factor: Air Power Doctrine by Air Vice-Marshal H. N. Wrigley. In combination, those essays amount to a de facto form of (previously unknown) air power doctrine for the RAAF in the period 1917-46.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • A. Stephens, Power Plus Attitude: Ideas, Strategy and Doctrine in the Royal Australian Air Force, 1921-1991 (1992)
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Sep 1987, p 2
  • A12372, item R/6/H, and B2455, item WRIGLEY H N (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Wrigley, Henry Neilson (1892–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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