Gorton, Sir John

Sir John was born on the 9th September 1911 in Melborne, Victoria. He was initially educated at the Sydney Church of England grammar School and then finished school as a boarder at Geelong Grammar, remembering these two years as the most productive and happiest of his school years. He was a prefect, and represented the school in rowing, football and athletics. He was then admitted to Brasenose College, Oxford, in October 1932. He later claimed that he had “majored in rowing”, but he left Oxford in 1935 with a good upper second degree and a strong grounding in history, politics and economics. While in England, he undertook flying lessons and was awarded a British pilot’s licence in 1932.

(Web Master: Various references state that Sir John was born in New Zealand. The confusion started when he was told by his father some time before 1932 that his birthplace was Wellington, New Zealand, when it actual fact it was Melbourne. Sir John therefore gave his place of birth as Wellington when applying for a pilot’s licence in the United Kingdom, when he enrolled at Brasenose College, Oxford, and when he enlisted in the RAAF.)

After his studies at Oxford were finished, Sir John returned to Australia and took over his father’s orchard near Karang in Victoia. On the 31st May 1940, he applied to enlist in the RAAF, but at the age of 29, he was considered too old for pilot training. He re-applied in September after the rule was relaxed and was then accepted and commissioned into the RAAF on the 8th November 1940. He trained as a fighter pilot at the Initial Training School in Sommers in Victoria and then at Wagga Wagga NSW, before being sent by ship to the UK. Sir John completed his training at RAF Heston and RAF Honily with 61 Operational Training Unit learning to fly Supermarine Spitfires. He was disappointed when his first operational posting was to 135 RAF, a Hawker Hurricane unit, as he considered the type greatly inferior to Spitfires.  

The photo of some of the poilots in 77 Squadron was taken in 1943. Sir John, as a Flying Officer, is in the back row, fourth from the left.

During late 1941, Sir John and other members of his Squadron became part of the cadre of a Hurricane Wing being formed for service in the Middle East. They were sent by sea, with 50 Hurricanes in crates, travelling around Africa to reduce the risk of attack. In December, when the ship was at Durban, South Africa, it was diverted to Singapore after Janan entered the War. As it approached its destination in mid-January, Japanese forces were advancingdown the Malay Peninsular. The ship was attacked on at least one occasion by Japanese aircraft, but arrived on 13 January 1942, four weeks before the Japanese army occupied the island. As the Hurricanes were assembled, the pilots were formed into a composite operational squadron, 232 squadron RAF.

In late January 1942, the squadron became operational. During one of his first sorties, Sir John was involved in a brief dogfight over the South China Sea, after which he suffered engine failure and was forced to land on Bintan Island, 40 km south east of Singapore. As he landed, one of the Hurricane’s wheels hit an embankment and flipped over. Gorton was not properly strapped in and his face hit the gun sight and windscreen, mutilating his nose and breaking both cheekbones. He also suffered severe lacerations to both arms. He made his way out of the wreck and was rescued by members of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, who provided some medical treatment. Sir John later claimed that his face was so badly cut and bruised, that a member of the RAF sent to collect him assumed he was near death, collected his personal effects and returned to Singapore without him. By chance, one week later, Sgt Matt O’Mara of 453 Squadron RAAF also crash landed on Bintan, and arranged for both of them to be collected. 

They arrived back in Singapore, on the 11th February, three days after the island had been invaded. As the Allied air force units on Singapore had been destroyed or evacuated by this stage, Gorton was put on the Derrymore, an ammunition ship bound for Batavia (Jakarta). On the 13th February, as it neared its destination, the ship was torpedoed by Japanese submarine and the Derrymore was abandoned. Gorton then spent almost a day on a crowded liferaft, in shark-infested waters, with little drinking water, until the raft was spotted by HMAS Ballarat, which picked up the passengers and took them to Batavia.

Photo: Gorton arrowed among survivors of the Derrymore being taken on board HMAS Ballarat in February 1942.

After arriving in Australia and when he was recovered, he was posted to Darwin, Northern Territory on the 12th August 1942 with 77 Squadron RAAF (Kittyhawks), during this time he was involved in his second air accident. While flying P-40E A29-60 on the 7th September 1942, he was forced to land on a beach on Melville Island, north of Darwin, due to an incorrectly set fuel cock. John was picked up a few days later after spending time in the bush, and the aircraft had its bent prop repaired and was flown out by another pilot soon after that.

On the 21st February 1943, the Squadron was relocated to Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, to assist with the “mopping-up” operations as US forces pushed the Japanese from the islands they had occupied for a year.

John’s third and final air incident came on the 18th March 1943. His A29-192 Kittyhawk’s engine failed on take off, causing the aircraft to flip at the end of the strip. Miraculously, John was unhurt.

The following month, John was sent back to Australia with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. His final posting was as a Flying Instructor with No.2 Operational Training Unit at Mildurs, Victoria. During late 1944, he went to Heidelberg Hospital, for surgery, which could not fully repair his facial injuries. A conventionally handsome man, he had become an instantly recognisable one – an invaluable quality for a future politician. He was then discharged from the RAAF on 5 December 1944.

After the war, John returned to the orchard, which Bettina Gorton had been running while raising their three young children. in 1949, he was elected to the Senate for the Liberal Party. He served in various positions under Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, became an energetic and capable minister in various portfolios, and began to be considered leadership material once he moderated his early extremely right-wing views.

Fate then stepped in. The current Prime Minister, Harold Holt, disappeared while swimming on the 17th December 1967 and was declared presumed drowned two days later. His presumed successor was Liberal deputy leader William McMahon, however the Country Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister John Mcwan announced that the Country Party would not continue to serve in the coalition if McMahon were to be the new Liberal leader. The Governor-General swore McEwen in as Prime Minister, on an interim basis pending the Liberal Party electing its new leader. 

In the subsequent leadership struggle, John Gorton was elected party leader on the 9th January 1968, and appointed Prime Minister the next day, replacing McEwen. He was the only Senator in Australia’s history to be Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to have ever served in the Senate. He remained a Senator until, in accordance with the Westminster tradition that the Prime Minister is a member of the lower house of parliament, he resigned on the 1st February 1968 in order to contest the House of Representatives by-election for Holt’s old seat. The by-election in this comfortably safe Liberal seat was held on 24 February and John achieved a massive 68% of the formal vote. 

In the television film, “Australians at War”, Prime Minister John Gorton very aptly and clearly described his feelings when flying the Spitfire: “Flying a Spitfire was like having an extension of all your senses, faculties and intentions, and being able to do whatever you wanted to. It was a marvellous feeling.”

With thanks to Wikipedia  
Squadron Leader Murray Skinner, Phil Listemann and Lysle Roberts
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association