Esplin, Ian George, CB, DSO, DFC

Air Vice Marshal Ian Esplin (86713) flew Beaufighters in 29 Squadron RAF during Word War II.

Ian was born on the 26th February 1914 in Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales and passed away on the 15th April 2008.

The following is an edited version of an article on Ian titled, “Lunch with Ian Esplin – Sydney University Boat Club Alumnus 1933-36.” 

Education was at Shore School, not far from the family home at Wollstonecraft. 1936 saw Ian hard at work and taking a crash course in Latin. The reason for his new found interest in the classics was that his mentor, the headmaster from Shore School, had suggested that he might apply for a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and Latin was a requirement at that time for entry. After passing his exam and a grilling from the Rhodes Committee, Ian was advised that he was successful and was awarded the 1937 Rhodes Scholarship from NSW.

A turning point was reached and Ian was headed for Oxford, England and experiences that were to shape his adult life.

At Oxford, Ian turned his attentions primarily to study. Positions in the Oxford Blue Boat in those days were not readily available to “colonials” as an important selection criteria was to have attended Eton. In 1939, with war seemingly inevitable, Ian joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve pilot section. His logic was that if he returned to Australia and joined the Air Force, he would just be posted back to Britain, so why not stay and save the trip.

In December 1939, just after the War broke out, Ian joined the RAF and became an Aircraftsman 2nd class on 10 shillings and 8 pence per week after canteen deductions. After enduring some months of “boot camp” style operations in freezing conditions, he was promoted to LAC ( leading Aircraftman) and became a “Pilot under Training,” being posted in May 1940 to Acklington, and then, after a stint of ground defence duty, to Cambridge at the No.22 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School). Starting in Tiger Moths, Ian was later (August 1940) posted to South Cerney in Gloucestershire where they were to start flying the Airspeed Oxford. To quote from Ian’s book on his life, this plane “was a bitch to fly and a bastard to land”. At the end of this course, Ian was awarded his much-coveted wings, given a commission and applied for a posting to fighters. However, his flying course had been geared towards twin-engine planes and he was assigned to No.2 Central Flying School in Cranwell as a flying instructor.

Around August 1941, Ian decided he had had enough of pilot instruction and on a day off, he took himself to London to department P2 at the Air Ministry. This department controlled postings, and as Ian tells it he came across a Squadron Leader who was sympathetic to his complaint that “I’ve done twelve months as a flying instructor, I’m fed up, want to see some action and I’ve heard you are looking for night fighter pilots”. After an on the spot night vision test, Ian soon received his orders to report to No.51 Operational Training Unit near Bletchly and soon after was on his way to becoming a night fighter pilot.

Initial combat posting was to 29 Squadron in Maidstone Kent, a night fighter squadron equipped with Beaufighters. (See photo of Ian with a Beaufighter). Ian tells of staying on “night readiness” which consisted of lying around fully clothed including flying boots and very dark goggles so as not to disturb their “night vision.” A major drawback of this attire was that you could not read or play cards! Ian’s Squadron had the task of intercepting German night bombers , especially the Junkers JU88, and in the course of his tour of duty Ian shot down a number of the enemy planes. In March 1943, Ian was posted from night fighters to Drem in Scotland where he was involved in secret experiments testing new equipment, which would enable Allied night fighters to get an immediate fix on enemy aircraft as soon as they turned on their radar. Another area in which they experimented was the use of packages of tin foil to confuse enemy radar.  

During his posting at Drem, Ian met his future wife who was in the WAAF and posted to a nearby training centre. Soon after their relationship developed, Ian was posted again to Headquarters, South East Asia Command, which at that time was located in Delhi. Ian prepared to depart, but for some reason his orders were postponed for ten days – enough time for he and Patricia “Dizzy” Barlow to make the start of a lifelong commitment to each other. In May 1944, Ian was posted back to Britain to observe Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe, on the basis that this might provide worthwhile lessons for similar assaults in SE Asia. This was the opportunity for him and Pat to marry, which they did at the Holy Trinity Church in Knightsbridge, followed by a “wartime” 36-hour honeymoon in Marlow, England.

When the war ended in 1945, Ian, now an Acting Group Captain, and Dizzy made their way to Australia and Ian took up a position with Qantas as International Relations Officer dealing with IATA, governments and other international airline bodies. He moved on to become company secretary at Qantas, but by 1946 he was not enjoying the work. Ian’s first child, Brian arrived in December 1946, and in early 1947 he accepted the offer of a permanent commission in the RAF and returned to England, starting out in peacetime with the rank of Wing Commander. By 1949, Ian and Dizzy’s second child, Joanne, had arrived and Ian was being steadily promoted. Through the fifties and the Cold War, Ian served in a number of postings including the RAF Staff College, commanding the No.148 Wing of the first jet engine all-weather fighters in Germany, the Air War College and as Commanding Officer of the RAF base at Wartling in Sussex.

In early 1960, Ian was promoted to Air Commodore and returned to the Air Ministry as Director of Operational Requirements. In this job, Ian was responsible for all future fixed-wing aircraft, engines, weapons systems, helicopters and research. On New Year’s Day 1964, Ian received a telegram advising he had been promoted to Air Vice-Marshal and had been made a CB in the New Year Honours List. Soon after, Ian and his family were posted to the USA, Washington DC, where Ian became “Commander, Royal Air Force Staff and Air Attache at the British Embassyz”. At the end of this posting, Ian was offered a more senior position back in London, but decided that this would end the chances of ever moving back to Australia. In 1965, Ian retired from the RAF and returned to settle back in Sydney.

The Spitfire Assocaition