Formation and ‘The Father of the RAAF’ – 1921

Today we begin the countdown to the centenary of the Royal Australian Air Force on the 31st of this month with the first instalment of our RAAF timeline. The timeline will cover the major milestones and accomplishments of the RAAF, while also highlighting some of the people, squadrons and aircraft that have left lasting impressions throughout the 100 years of RAAF operation.

Formation and ‘The Father of the RAAF’ – 1921

On 31 March 1921, one hundred years ago this month, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was formed. Initially just the Australian Air Force, the ‘Royal’ prefix was approved by King George V in June. The Australian Air Force officially became the RAAF on 31 August 1921. Upon formation, the RAAF consisted of a very small contingent – personnel were outnumbered by aircraft 149 to 153.[i]

Sir Richard Williams KBE CB DSO became the RAAF’s first Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), serving in his role for 13 years. Williams had long advocated for the RAAF to become its own individual service, independent of the other armed forces. Born in Moonta Mines, South Australia on 3 August 1890, Williams enlisted in the militia in 1909 at the age of 19.[ii] By 1914, he was a Lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces, and enrolled in Australia’s first military flying course at Central Flying School located at Point Cook, Victoria. On 12 November 1914, he was the first student to graduate as a pilot after soloing in a Bristol Boxkite.[iii]


A Bristol Boxkite replica, housed at the RAAF Museum in Point Cook, England
Wikimedia Commons

Williams served in No. 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps during the First World War, operating around the Suez Canal and in Palestine.[iv] In April 1917, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for rescuing a pilot shot down behind enemy lines.[v] In late 1917, Williams was promoted to Major and given command of No. 1 Squadron, around the time the squadron replaced their Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 planes with Bristol fighters.[vi] He was twice Mentioned in Dispatches in January 1918[vii] and appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire a year later.[viii] By the end of the war, Williams had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and returned to Australia to become Director of Air Services at Army Headquarters in Melbourne.


Bristol F.2B D-8096 Fighter
Wikimedia Commons - GFDL

Appointed CAS in October 1922, Williams managed to keep the RAAF alive as an independent service despite several challenges with budget constraints and alleged Army and Navy ‘ploys’ to “curb [his] independence”.[ix] During the Second World War, Williams, although no longer CAS, was promoted to Air Marshal, the first man in the RAAF to achieve this rank.[x] He also set up RAAF Overseas Headquarters in England in October 1941, facilitating the many Australian airmen posted in the UK.[xi]

Sir Richard Williams’ died on 7 February 1980, aged 89. His legacy is so great that he is considered the ‘father’ of the RAAF.[xii] The very look of the RAAF, “a shade somewhere between royal and navy blue”, was implemented by Williams.[xiii] He remains the RAAF’s longest-serving CAS.


Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams KBE CB DSO
Public Domain

[i] Royal Australian Air Force, 2021 The Inter-war years 1921 to 1939, [online] Available at: <https://www.airforce.gov.au/History/interwar.aspx>.
[ii] Garrisson, A, 'Williams, Sir Richard (1890–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-sir-richard-9116/text16077, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 March 2021.
[iii] Stephens, A 2001, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Royal Australian Air Force, Oxford, London, p. 1.
[iv] Australian War Memorial 2021, Air Marshal Richard Williams, [online] Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P11053483>.
[v] No. 30234, The London Gazette.
[vi] Stephens, A 2001, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Royal Australian Air Force, Oxford, London, p. 16.
[vii] Garrisson, A, 'Williams, Sir Richard (1890–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-sir-richard-9116/text16077, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 March 2021.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Stephens, A 1995, Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946–1971, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, p. 20.
[x] Gillison, D 1962, Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Series Three (Air) Volume I – Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, p. 92.
[xi] Garrisson, A, 'Williams, Sir Richard (1890–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-sir-richard-9116/text16077, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 March 2021.
[xii] Stephens, A 2001, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Royal Australian Air Force, Oxford, London, p. 26
[xiii] Stephens, A 1995, Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946–1971, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, p. 453.