Richard, or Dick as he was known to his friends, was born on the 27th July 1920 in Launceston, Tasmania. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the RAAF on the 19th July 1938 in Potts Point in Sydney.
An interesting insight into some of Dick’s life in the RAAF can be gleaned from the following story:
In 2000, two old flying mates touched base in Bendigo, literally reliving old dreams and past glories. Wing Commander Dick Cresswell, 80 at the time, drove down from Canberra to catch up with one of his old flying mates, Ian “Joe” Lyons, 85.
The pair had trained as pilots together, survived various battlefields, and came through a range of bizarre wartime events that spanned World War 11 and the Korean War. Dick enlisted on the 19th July 1938, and started the 77 Squadron at RAAF station Pearce in Perth in March 1942. Ian, meanwhile, was with 76 Squadron RAAF in Queensland. Both Squadrons flew Curtis P-40 Kittyhawks.
It was lucky that Joe was there, because during the wart, he nearly didn’t live to tell the tale. In 1941, he was shot down in the Western Desert. He survived the fall and was picked up by a truck full of Scots guards who were in the area at the time. As an honour, they offered him the front seat, but he rejected it and sat on the tailgate instead. The decision saved his life. Shortly afterwards, the truck was blown up, and only two men survived. Ian came home to Australia to recoup, but was totally deaf for the following ten months. Ian then went to Mildura to train pilots, where he came under the watchful eye of Commander Cresswell.
In Darwin, Dick became the first Australian to shoot down a Japanese plane over Australian soil. He recalled the incident, saying the enemy planes were coming in at night, and he was the only one trained to fly at night. He was coming back from patrol when, “suddenly right in front of me were Betty Bombers.” The rest, as they say, was history. However, Wing Commander Cresswell said he was simply in the right place at the right time.
The pair also recalled a horrific incident at Pohang in South Korea, while they were both with 77 Squadron during the Korean War. Ian shared a tent with several other men, and the standard of equipment was particularly bad. Eventually, some electrical wires near the canvas came together and the tent was incinerated. Ian survived because he was Operations Officer and had to gather information for the day’s flights and he was out of the tent at the time. The other men all perished. Following the incident, Dick said, “As a result, I read the riot act back in Australia.” And, “we weren’t prepared for the war.” As a consequence, the troops were then given American equipment.
The following is a biography on Dick and was written by Andrew Stackpool:
Canberra’s skies resounded to the roar of Hornet engines on the 19th December 2006 as an Air Force “great” was laid to rest. Former Wing Commander Richard “Dick” Cresswell was saluted with a “missing man” formation by four 77 Squadron F/A-18s over his funeral service at Duntroon. Wing Commander Cresswell had commanded the squadron three times, twice in WW11 and once during the Korean War. He died, aged 86, after suffering a major heart attack on the 13th December.
In his eulogy, Air Commander Australia, Air Vice Marshall John Quaife, described Cresswell as “a legend” and said, “I always felt humble in his presence and today is no exception.”
Continuing on, he said, “The modern experience of command remains a challenging experience and all too frequently we are reminded that aviation is a dangerous game, but the contribution of Dick Cresswell, the circumstances of his service, and the results that this extraordinary man was able to achieve, leaves those of us in the modern Air Force in awe and in his debt.
He was renowned for his outstanding flying skills, courage and “hard-nosed” leadership during some of the RAAF’s most desperate hours. He enlisted in the RAAF as a cadet in 1938 and graduated as a pilot. Due to his skills and airmanship, he quickly qualified as an instructor and with the outbreak of war and the developing Japanese threat to the north, in 1942 he was promoted Squadron Leader and selected to raise and command 77 Suadron.
It wasn’t long before 77 Squadron was in action, and on the night of November 23, Squadron Leader Cresswell was on patrol when he sighted three Japanese ‘Betty Bombers.’ He attacked and hit all three, shooting down one. It was his first kill and the first successful night kill over Australia.
In April 1943, the squadron was caught up in the savage ground, sea and air combat at Milne Bay and, in the ensuing melees, claimed up to nine enemy bombers and two fighters. Some of these fell to Cresswell, although he was to be shot down on one occasion as well.
He led 77 Squadron through some of the most heavy fighting against Japanese positions in New Guinea, Papua and then in Borneo. He also flew with No.1 Fighter Wing and then No.81 Wing. Later, during the Korean War, he flew 110 missions in Mustangs, 14 in Meteors and 10 in Sabres with the US Air Force.
He received the Commonwealth and American Distinguished Flying Crosses and American Air Medal for his outstandingairmanship and leadership, and the President of the Republic of South Korea awarded the Squadron a Presidential Citation.
From his experiencesin two wars, Dick Cresswell was concerned that Australia’s fighter pilots should receive combat flying training second to none. As a result No.2 (F) Operational Training Unit, the predecessor to 2 0CU, was reformed in March 1952. Wing Commander Cresswell subsequently assumed command of the Unit. It was in this posting that his impact on the modern air force can be felt to this day. Dick was of the opinion that the system for training fighter pilots had collapsed with the massive demobilisation of the Air Force at the close of World War 11. In Dick’s words, the Korean police action caught the air force with its pants down.
In 1954, Dick developed and introduced the Fighter Combat Instructors (FCI) course, which over the subsequent 50 years has grown to a 23-week course developing the high level skills necessary for the air defence and operations of modern fighters. He was an instrumental player in the recovery of air-to-air training and of capturing the doctrine for squadron employment. The FCI course remains a vital part of our Force preparation to this day and I believe that, more than any other factor, this course, a Dick Cresswell legacy, is the reason why Australian fighter pilots were capable of performingwith such distinction in our recent combat operations over Iraq.”
Dick was discharged from the RAAF in April 1957, but continued his flying career in a variety of positions. Highly respected by the aviation community, he retained an active interest in his Service and was a frequent visitor to Air Force establishments. He was also a vigorous member of the 77 Squadron Association, and strongly supported the Australian War Memorial.
The Spitfire Association is well aware that there is much more to be said about Dick. The President of the 77 Squadron Association, Jim Treadwell said, “Dick Cresswell was the first Australian to shoot down an enemy aircraft in night combat over Australia, the first RAAF Commander to lead jet aircraft into battle and the first Australian to go faster than the speed of sound…He holds a special place in the RAAF historical record…I am happy to report that his memory will live on, hopefully in perpetuity, as the four-flag signature design that adorned his Kittyhawk in 1942 now has a permanent place on a selected 77 Squadron aircraft.”
In addition, as far as we (The Spitfire Association) are aware he was the only Australian with claims in WWII and Korea. For the record, these were:
77 Squadron RAAF:
22/23 November 1942: One Betty destroyed (Kittyhawk Mk.Ia A29-113/U)
14 April 1943: One Betty destroyed (Kittyhawk Mk.III, A29-166/AM-U)
4th Fighter Interceptor Wing USAAF:
26 September 1952: One MiG damaged (Sabre FU-210)
Over the years, Dick flew an awful lot of aircraft including Kittyhawks, Mustangs and Spitfires. He was discharged on the 30th April 1957.
Andrew Stackpool, Ian Lyons and Those Other Eagles by Christopher Shores.
Bruce Read and Steve McGregor
The Spitfire Association