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THE RAAF'S FRIEND IN HIGH PLACES…
[National Library of Australia an23367047]
My wife Janet is the grand-daughter of George Pearce, who was Minister for Defence in 1921. His signature appears on the Government gazette bringing the RAAF into existence in 1921.
Although I knew Sir George for only the last three years of his life, we had many long political discussions, and particularly about the RAAF in World War Two.
Those interested in the early history of the RAAF, and in Federation, will already know that George Pearce was a very great Australian. His parents were early pioneers in South Australia. His father was a blacksmith and George was one of 10 children in a very poor family. His formal education finished at 12 years of age, when he went to work as a farm labourer.
At age 21, he had saved enough money to sail to Western Australia. Hoping to find gold, he walked beside his horse and dray (laden with camping gear, pick and shovel) from Perth to Coolgardie in 1893. Unsuccessful on the gold-fields, he returned to Perth and was fortunate to obtain an apprenticeship to a carpenter, working a 57-hour week at 2 shillings and sixpence per week, plus keep, for four years. He studied at night to improve his education.
He was one of the founders of the Labour Council of W.A. and was elected a Labour Senator for W.A. in the first Federal Government in 1901. He then served in Parliament for 37 years, and for 25 years was a Cabinet Minister.
Sir George was interested in aviation in its earliest years in Australia. We have a photo of him holding rather grimly to the sides of an open cockpit in a two-seater biplane. He was the first politician in Australia to use air-travel to cover his vast electorate.
He became Minister for Defence and founded the Royal Australian Navy in 1910, when he ordered the destroyers ‘Parramatta’ and ‘Yarra’ from England. Before WW1, Senator Pearce set up the Flying School at Point Cook in Victoria, and from this came the group of trained officers who formed the Australian Flying Corps. Australia was therefore the only Dominion outside England to have the nucleus of an Air Force when war broke out in 1914.
The formation of the RAAF, on 31st March 1921, is well documented. (The word `Royal' was not added until August of that year.) In 1925, No.3 Squadron RAAF was formed at Point Cook as a Citizen Air Force Squadron. No.3 moved a few days later to Richmond - the first Air Force Base outside Victoria. In his book, `These Are The Facts', Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, who was appointed by Sir George, wrote, “Had it not been for Senator George Pearce's determination, the financial depression which followed World War I might well have resulted in the Air Force not being established at all."
What is not so well-known is what occurred during the time of the Scullin government in 1929. As a cost-saving measure, a Council of Defence Meeting of six senior Naval and Military officers recommended to Mr. Scullin that aviation should be under the control of, and should be an auxiliary of, the Army and the Navy.
Air Marshal Williams was desperately fighting for the survival of the RAAF as a separate entity until 1932, when under the Lyons Government, Sir George Pearce again became Minister for Defence and immediately ensured that the RAAF would retain its identity, with its own Air Board.
Lord Bruce wrote of Sir George - "The late Lord Balfour [former British PM] once said to me that he regarded George Pearce as the greatest natural statesman that he had ever met. With that opinion I am in complete agreement. I regard him as the wisest and most courageous Counsellor of them all."
Sir George held many portfolios during his long career, including External Affairs and Home Territories at the same time as his Defence portfolio. In particular, his Defence work moulded the young RAAF.
George Pearce was appointed a Privy Councillor in 1921 and knighted in 1927. He retired from the Senate in 1938 and died in 1952, aged 82. Of all his contributions, Sir George was most proud of Defence and the RAAF. His selection of Wing Commander Williams as our original leader of the RAAF and the brilliant record of the RAAF, in so many theatres of war, were subjects that he never tired of discussing.
In 1964, Sir Robert Menzies said, “In my opinion, speaking about Cabinet, I have never sat with an abler man than George Pearce. He was a man of extraordinary experience and he had great wisdom. I look back on my good fortune to have sat with him in a Cabinet for three years as one of the highlights. Someday, justice will be done to George Pearce.”
In one conversation with Sir George, I particularly remember giving him a rather graphic description of the Battle of El Alamein. When I had finished, he said, "You are a very fortunate young man."
I said, "Do you mean fortunate to have survived, Sir?"
He answered, "No, not at all. - I mean you are very fortunate to have been a member of a Service with the great tradition of the RAAF!"
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