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Charles 'Moth' Eaton

RAAF, Darwin, Oct 1941. Gp Capt Eaton Charles, CO RAAF Station Darwin.

Unknown photographer, RAAF, Darwin, Oct 1941. Gp Capt Eaton Charles, CO RAAF Station Darwin. Image courtesy of the Charles Eaton Photographic Collection and Peter Dunn's Australia @ War.

Charles 'Moth' Eaton is one of the unsung heroes of Australian aviation history, due largely to his attachment to the military. He came to public prominence in 1929 in the search for the Kookaburra, one of several aircraft searching for the Southern Cross, piloted by Charles Kingsford Smith.

One story has it that he earned his nickname 'Moth' using the DeHavilland DH60 Moth as one of the main training aircraft (Farram 2007). Another story attributes it to Eaton flying the first metal DH Gipsy Moth in the 'Great Air Race' from Sydney to Perth in 1929.

Group Captain Charles 'Moth' Eaton, OBE (Mil), AFC, MID, Knight Commander in the Order of Orange Nassau with Swords, contributed to the development of Australian military aviation as a RAAF instructor, a squadron commander and airbase commanding officer, as well as receiving consular appointments in southeast Asia. He gained public attention in his searches for missing aircraft in the Northern Territory.

Military training and commissions

Born in London 21 December 1895, Charles Eaton served as a trench bomber in the British Army with the 47th London (TF) Division in France 1915 - 1917. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and flew bombing and reconnaissance missions in France in 1918. In June 1918, his aircraft crashed into the front line of the German trenches, and he was held as a prisoner until the end of the First World War.

Royal Air Force (1917 - 1923)

After the war, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) where his work included stints as a pilot on the first international regular air service from London to Paris with No. 2 (Com.) Squadron, and in the first aerial survey of the Himalayas in March and April 1920 with 28 Squadron RAF. In mid-1920 he joined the Indian Forestry Service, and in 1922 transferred to the Queensland Forestry Service.

Royal Australian Air Force (1925 - 1947)

In 1925, he was accepted for a commission as a flying instructor with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No. 1 Air Training School at Point Cook, Victoria. He spent the next seven years there as an instructor.

Air searches - Kookaburra and Golden Quest 2

Eaton entered Australian aviation legend when commanding the air searches for two lost aircraft, the Kookaburra and the Golden Quest 2, in Central Australia.

Wreckage of the Kookaburra.

Unknown photographer, Wreckage of the Kookaburra. Image courtesy of Warringah Radio Control Society Incorporated.

On 30 March 1929, Charles Kingsford Smith and three others in the Southern Cross made a forced landing in a storm north of Alice Springs. Kookaburra, one of several aircraft searching for the Southern Cross, went missing on a search mission on 10 April. After the RAAF was criticised for not searching for the Southern Cross, Eaton left Laverton airbase in Victoria on 12 April to search for the Kookaburra. The five DeHavilland DH9A biplanes he commanded were not suited for long-distance flight, and engine failure forced Eaton's airplane down at Tennant Creek. After Eaton had been picked up, the search continued first by car then two attempts on horseback. The search party finally arrived at the crash site on 29 April, to find that both men had survived the crash but had died in the meantime.

On 31 December 1930, Eaton was instructed to search in central Australia for the Golden Quest 2, which was overdue from a trip to Ayers Rock (Uluru). Eaton and Flying Officer Gerrand carried out eight search flights between 3 and 6 January 1931. After fuel tank repairs, two more DH Gypsy Moth airplanes joined the search, and they located all survivors of the crash after two more searches between Ilbilla and Hermannsburg. Food and water were dropped by parachute, and they were picked up by motor car.

No 21 Squadron, Laverton, May 1937. Search for Sir Herbert Gepp. Hawker Demons at Alice Springs. (l/r): Sqn Ldr Charles Eaton, LAC Hellwig, Cpl Clarke, Plt Off Wiley, Mrs Riley, Dr Riley.

Unknown photographer, No 21 Squadron, Laverton, May 1937. Search for Sir Herbert Gepp. Hawker Demons at Alice Springs. (l/r): Sqn Ldr Charles Eaton, LAC Hellwig, Cpl Clarke, Plt Off Wiley, Mrs Riley, Dr Riley. Image courtesy of the Charles Eaton Photographic Collection and Peter Dunn's Australia @ War.

Eaton also led searches for other missing aircraft in central Australia, such as the search for Sir Herbert Gepp near Lake Mackay in May 1937 and Dr. King, a flying doctor, near Victoria River Downs in May 1938.

Darwin airbase and the Second World War

With the threat of war and fears of Japan's role in hostilities in the late 1930s, the RAAF established a military airbase in the Northern Territory. A new airbase site at Darwin was gazetted in February 1938, and Eaton was appointed Commanding Officer of No. 12 Squadron in February 1939. While the airbase was being constructed, the squadron was based at the civilian airfield in Parap. In April 1941, with construction of the airbase completed, No. 12 Squadron and the newly formed No. 13 Squadron were established at the airbase, with Eaton appointed as Group Captain of RAAF Station Darwin. By this time, Advanced Operational Bases has been established in other parts of the Northern Territory, and regular patrols along the coastline had been organised.

No 12 Squadron, Darwin, Oct 1939. Temporary camp at the civil airfield at Parap. Photo looking roughly northwards.

Unknown photographer, No 12 Squadron, Darwin, Oct 1939. Temporary camp at the civil airfield at Parap. Photo looking roughly northwards. Image courtesy of the Charles Eaton Photographic Collection and Peter Dunn's Australia @ War.

Eaton flew a secret reconnaissance mission to Dutch East Indies territories in February and March 1941 to gauge the defence strengths and capabilities of those areas for use by the RAAF. The information he gathered was used in air operations over Timor later in the war.

While he placed heavy work demands on his men, he also looked after them by allowing beer to be served on the RAAF base - a first for the RAAF - and providing sports and recreational activities such as football to prevent the men getting bored. Monthly 'smoke concerts' also helped to generate a sense of mateship.

Other postings

In October 1941, Eaton relinquished command of RAAF Darwin and was posted to No. 2 Service Flying Training School in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. After six months, he then transferred to Ascot Vale to take charge of the Engineering School. Early in 1943 he was posted to Dutch New Guinea to establish an airbase at Merauke to prevent the area falling to the Japanese. Following this, he was sent to Port Pirie, South Australia, where he was involved in gunnery and bombing training.

War missions

After just three months, he was posted again, to establish No. 79 Wing Headquarters at Batchelor, south of Darwin. In the time that Eaton had left, the Japanese had bombed Darwin, and efforts were stepped up to mount defences. Eaton commanded five squadrons. In March 1944, he transferred No. 79 Wing headquarters to Potshot (now Learmonth), Western Australia, to defend the airfield from a suspected Japanese attack which never came. No. 79 Wing mounted a number of bombing missions to Japanese-occupied Dutch Timor, some of which Eaton insisted he fly.

As a result of his efforts in Batchelor, he received a Mention in Despatches (MID). He was also later honoured by the Dutch, being made a Knight Commander in the Order of Orange Nassau with Swords in August 1945. In December 1944, Eaton was posted to Melbourne as the Air Officer, Commanding of Southern Area, and remained there until he retired from the RAAF in December 1945.

Post-war appointments - Timor and Indonesia

Three of the first four Australian peacekeepers stand in front of an aircraft with Charles Eaton, the then Acting Australian Consul-General in Batavia (now Jakarta), Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia).

Netherlands Indies Government Information Service, Three of the first four Australian peacekeepers stand in front of an aircraft with Charles Eaton, the then Acting Australian Consul-General in Batavia (now Jakarta), Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), 1947, b&w photograph. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial: P03531.002.

Eaton's post-war appointments were as Australian Consul to Portuguese Timor 1946 - 1947, where his contribution to the reconstruction of the territory after the Second World War was officially recognised by the Portuguese government. in August 1947, he was appointed Australia's consul-general to the Netherlands East Indies, and Chairman of the United Nations Security Council's Consular Commission to Indonesia, which negotiated the withdrawal of the Dutch from Indonesia. Later, he was appointed Charge d'Affairs for Indonesia.

Retirement

Eaton returned to Australia in 1950. He retired in 1952 and, with his son Peter, farmed at Metung, eastern Victoria, as well as visiting his other son Charles in overseas postings in Indonesia and the Fiji Islands. When the property was sold, he settled in Melbourne and founded the Frankston Tourist Agency. Selling that business after a few years, he spent the last 18 years of his life gardening orchids. He died on 12 November 1979.

Moth Eaton is remembered especially in the Northern Territory and central Australia. Charles Eaton Drive leads to Darwin International Airport, and the location of the airport is soon to be named Eaton also.

Charles 'Moth' Eaton is permanently honoured by memorial displays in the Parliament House of the Northern Territory, the International Airport Darwin, the National Trust of Australia memorial at Tennant Creek Airport and the Charles 'Moth' Eaton Saloon Bar at the Goldfields Hotel, Tennant Creek, the site of his airplane crash in 1929. There is a Lake Eaton in central Australia and roads in Darwin named in his honour.

Useful links

History of aviation

Resources

Print references

Farram, Steven, Charles 'Moth' Eaton: Pioneer aviator of the Northern Territory, Charles Darwin University Press, Darwin, 2007.

Last updated: 11th January 2008

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