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RAAF Centenary Speech, Sydney

Friday 26 March, 2021.

By Air Vice Marshal Joe IERVASI, AM CSC.

The Air Force Association staged a spectacular outdoor commemoration at the Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park, to mark the RAAF Centenary.  Centrepiece of the service was the placement of a heritage RAAF Memorial Book (with magnificent hand-calligraphy, listing all 3,600 NSW RAAF personnel killed in WW2) into a library within the Memorial. 

The gold-embossed leather cover of the Memorial Book.

A spectacular flypast followed, with four PC-21 trainers from Williamtown and six retired ADF aircraft from HARS Albion Park. 

Below is the impressive speech by Air Commander Australia, AVM Joe IERVASI, AM, CSC.
[There is also an excellent photo set at Defence Images.]

AVM Iervasi

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, over which we fly, under the stars to which we aspire; and recognise their elders past, present and future.  I also acknowledge First Australians who have served this Nation in times of peace and war.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the Royal Australian Air Force
I am honoured today to provide the address for the Royal Australian Air Force, to which I have dedicated much of my life, as have many here before me today.  It brings me a sense of pride to commemorate all we have achieved as a Service, from humble beginnings in 1914 at Point Cook, through to today.  As we celebrate our success, it is important to take stock of where we have come from; in the experiences that have shaped our identity and contributed to making us the force we are today.

After the first flight of the Wright Brothers in 1903, aviation development and concepts quickly arose through Europe and the United States.  As with most new technological developments, it was readily established that there would be a clear military advantage to operate from the air.  As tensions in Europe heightened through the early 1900s, the United Kingdom and its Dominions sought to rapidly develop military aviation.  The origins of the RAAF took their first tentative steps in 1914 through the Australian Flying Corps, culminating in the formation and deployment of Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 Squadrons into the Middle East and Europe.

3AFC Bristol Fighter, piloted by Capt. Lawrence WACKETT - later a leading figure in the Australian Aircraft Manufacturing Industry.

Although the Australian Flying Corps was disbanded after the end of WW1, Australia was committed to retaining a military air service.  On 29 April 1919, Major General J.G. LEGGE had produced his "Outline Policy for the Military Air Force of Australia."  In this he confirmed ideas that had been put forward before WW1 with the following statement; "The Military Air Force of Australia should mainly be composed from Citizen Forces, with a proportion of Permanent Troops.  The latter to provide for the instruction of the force and the maintenance of the equipment."  Thus it was, from the very outset of the new service, Reservist or “Citizen Airmen” would play a major part in the subsequent formation of the Australian Air Force.  A temporary unit, the Australian Air Corps, was established as a consequence of this policy, but subsequently disbanded and replaced by the Australian Air Force on 31st March 1921.  The prefix Royal was granted soon after and promulgated on 13 August 1921.

Britain had gifted 128 surplus aircraft to Australia to establish an Air Force, and some of these aircraft - along with training machines already at Point Cook - were operated by the Australian Air Corps during 1920-21.  The Australian Air Force immediately took possession of existing aircraft and equipment at Point Cook, Victoria, but not all the Australian Air Corps personnel were transferred across.  At its formation the new Service had 21 officers and 128 other ranks, and even six months later this strength had barely doubled.  The 153 aircraft which initially came into the Australian Air Force’s possession were mainly war surplus machines received under an ‘Imperial Gift’ arrangement.  Most stayed in storage, and for several years only 50 to 60 aircraft were actually in use.   Economies imposed in 1922 forced the Royal Australian Air Force to cut back on development plans, so that even after five years in existence it had less than 700 personnel.

Financial restrictions held back the formation of the Reserve elements for some time, even after approval was granted in November 1921.  By sheer hard work and determination, the reserve elements of the Permanent squadrons came into being and in April 1936 several autonomous Citizen Air Force Units were raised in the major cities of the East Coast and in Perth.

The Royal Australian Air Force was the 2nd independent air force in the world, established three years after the Royal Air Force in Britain.  But establishment of an independent air force was not without controversy, being against the express wishes of Australia's Generals and Admirals, who arguably lacked the vision to foresee the dominant role air power would soon come to play in the defence of Australia.  The Royal Australian Air Force as an independent service has more to do with the tireless efforts of one individual – Air Marshal Sir Richard WILLIAMS ('the father of the RAAF') than anyone else.

Richard WILLIAMS, pictured as a young and very successful AFC Major in the Middle East in 1918.

As Chief of the Air Staff (at the heady rank of Wing Commander!), Williams needed all of his considerable political skills to keep his fledgling service from being dismembered by the Army and Navy.
- Sharp, even waspish, in his manner, Williams worked shrewdly to preserve and promote his service.  He established a personal correspondence with the British Empire's greatest and most influential airman, Marshal of the RAF Sir Hugh TRENCHARD; developed a brilliant plan to defend Australia against the emerging threat of Japan by employing air power in the sea and air approaches, which constitute the nation's natural defensive barrier; and fought tirelessly in the political battle against the Air Force's enemies.

Despite his somewhat puritanical, stiff-necked manner and legendary pedantic attention to detail - the latter characteristic which made his frequent inspection of Royal Australian Air Force units a severe trial for those on the receiving end - Williams' devotion to his service and his manifest intellect made him an admired leader.

By the early 1930s, all threats to the Royal Australian Air Force's independent existence had been averted.  Shortly afterwards the government approved a dramatic expansion of the RAAF, a decision which not only recognised the likelihood of war in the near future but also amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that Williams had been right.   That may have been cold comfort to Williams, who in February 1939 was removed from office, ostensibly because of the allegedly high accident rate.  A more likely reason for the dismissal was that, after almost 20 years of political in-fighting on behalf of his service, ‘Dicky’ Williams had simply made too many enemies

The projected demands of the Second World War necessitated the rapid expansion of the RAAF.  The Empire Air Training Scheme was established in May 1940 to train the anticipated 28,000 Australian aircrew needed over Europe.  Soon after, in February 1941, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force was formed to raise a force of wireless and teleprinter operators to fill RAAF ground staff vacancies.  Total enlistments during the war reached 189,700 personnel, including 27,874 WAAAFs – an incredible achievement.

Throughout the Second World War, RAAF units distinguished themselves in every theatre of conflict.

A 3SQN Kittyhawk from 1942, named "Snifter".

The stories of courage and action by the likes of characters such as Nicky BARR and Bobby GIBBES of No.3 SQN in North Africa, and the feats of Coastal Command, including No.10 SQN Sunderlands hunting U-boats, were well known by all in the early days of the war.  But closer to home in early 1942, the Japanese invasion of the Pacific and South East Asia resulted in the rapid formation of the “70 series” squadrons in New Guinea.  The first dog-fights, overhead Port Moresby and Darwin, were soon taking place.

Until recently, the dedication and sacrifice of the men of Bomber Command went relatively unknown.  Australia committed just 2% of personnel to the Bomber Force but sustained 28% of the casualties.  No.460 SQN was one of the hardest hit.  Throughout the course of the war No.460 SQN suffered casualty numbers five times its established strength.

A group portrait from 1943 showing the aircrew and groundcrew strength of 460 Squadron RAAF.

Along with our Navy and Army brothers and sisters, we shared the struggles and heartbreaks, but also celebrated the victories of that complex and enduring chapter in our history.

Following the Second World War, mass demobilisation and financial focus on reconstruction and growth saw the disbandment of the WAAAF and the reduction of the RAAF to a low point of 8,025 personnel in 1948, well below the 15,000 required to maintain a basic operational capability.  But as often has been the case, it was not long before the RAAF was again committed to Operations closer to home.  We were involved in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, and Vietnam.  The Air Force evolved, as the pace of technology and aircraft development drove it to be on the leading edge

Each generation of aircraft flew higher, faster and were more advanced that the last. 
We accepted our first jet aircraft in the Meteor Fighter in 1951 and in December last year [2020] we reached initial operating capability of the F-35A in service at Williamtown.

3SQN at Butterworth, Malaysia in 1962.

In the 1980s we focused on what we needed to achieve - Defence of Australia.  Our focus was on operations, aircraft and tactics to fight a conflict with a known enemy attempting to invade the homeland.  We were caught off guard by the events of 1991 Gulf War and relearnt the need for an Expeditionary Force.

Later, in 1998, Australian air power contributed to the ongoing monitoring of southern Iraqi airspace under Operation Southern Watch.  Here we contributed two of No.33 SQNs B707 Tanker aircraft and conducted our first operational air-to-air refuelling mission.  It was a limited effect and a limited commitment in an Air Force restructured for peacetime operations.  The tension and turmoil which arose in East Timor in September 1999 gave us pause to reflect upon our force structure, balance and priority. 

The subsequent shock of Sept. 11, 2001, sharpened that focus.  In 2003, the Australian government committed an air element to the Iraq War and deployed No.75 SQN F/A-18A Hornets first to Diego Garcia and on to Kuwait to partake in Operation Falconer with the coalition – our first offensive action since the Vietnam War.  It was a sharp reminder of the resources, logistics support and other demands that Air Forces require when operating away from their garrison base.

More recently, the Air Task Group, raised in September 2014 as part of the Australian contribution to the coalition to degrade and defeat DAESH, clearly marked our progress in the years since the B707 Tanker deployment in 1998.  Not only did we prepare, raise and project a force consisting of a command and control aircraft – the E7A Wedgetail, strike capability – Super and then Classic Hornets, and air mobility and tanker support – the KC30, but we did it entirely under our own steam.  The integrated procurement of platforms designed to work together in a joint battlespace permitted such a rapid and successful outcome, executed superbly by an incredible group of women and men of the RAAF who through sheer determination ensured that our commitment was credible and sustainable.

RAAF KC-30 tanker trailed by two 3SQN F/A-18A Hornets.

But we have also demonstrated that there is no challenge too big, or small, which we cannot meet.  We have consistently and rapidly deployed help and support to regional neighbours through times of disaster and heartache, from the devastating tsunamis across Indonesia in 2004 and Japan in 2011, cyclones through Fiji, Vanuatu and again Fiji over the years 2014-2020, earthquakes in Nepal and New Zealand and closer to home droughts, bushfires, floods and now a pandemic.  Our people – your people – continue to inspire through their selfless service and acts of true compassion.  I am in awe of all they have achieved, but more so, the potential of what they can continue to achieve. 

Every day, they continue to demonstrate the strength we have in the diversity of our people, and the truly ground-breaking and inspirational insights and vision they have for our Second Century Air Force.  It is my hope that soon we’ll hear the stories of Squadron Leader Kate YAXLEY and her work in cyberspace and artificial intelligence; or Wing Commander Maria JOVANOVICH - Test Pilot and innovator; or Air Vice-Marshal Cath ROBERTS for her contribution in establishing our place in Space, just as we know the stories and legends of Bobby Gibbes and Nicky Barr.  We have an incredibly talented and dedicated Service of women and men who span all walks of life and who truly represent the best of what we all aspire to be as Australian, and exemplify our motto:

“Per Ardua ad Astra”. 

As I reflect upon my 36 years in the RAAF, we now have the Air Force that I wanted to join:
- Technologically advanced; culturally aligned; courageous; respectful; excellent; agile; dedicated; innovative and working as a team. 

- I wish I was starting again!

Here’s to the Royal Australian Air Force. 
- Happy 100th Birthday!

Hand-illuminated calligraphy of the Memorial Book.

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