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Thomas White (Australian politician)

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The Honourable
Sir Thomas White
Thomas Walter White 1930.jpg
Thomas White, Melbourne, c. 1930
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Balaclava
In office
3 August 1929 – 21 June 1951
Preceded by William Watt
Succeeded by Percy Joske
Personal details
Born (1888-04-26)26 April 1888
North Melbourne, Victoria
Died 13 October 1957(1957-10-13) (aged 69)
South Yarra, Victoria
Nationality Australian
Political party Nationalist (1929–31)
United Australia (1931–45)
Liberal (1945–51)
Spouse(s) Vera Deakin
Occupation Soldier; company director
Military service
Allegiance Australia
Service/branch Australian Flying Corps (1914–20)
Royal Australian Air Force (1940–44)
Years of service 1911–44
Rank Group Captain
Unit Mesopotamian Half Flight (1915)
Commands 6th Battalion (1926–31)

First World War

Second World War

Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Flying Cross
Mentioned in Despatches (2)

Sir Thomas Walter White, KBE, DFC (26 April 1888 – 13 October 1957) was an Australian politician and First World War pilot. He was one of the first airmen trained for the Australian Flying Corps in 1914, and among the first to see action when he deployed to the Middle East with the Mesopotamian Half Flight in 1915. He was captured in November that year but escaped in July 1918. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and twice mentioned in despatches, White began his parliamentary career in 1929 when he was elected Member for Balaclava in Victoria. He served as Minister for Trade and Customs in Joseph Lyons' United Australia Party government from 1932 to 1938, but resigned when he was excluded from Lyons' inner cabinet. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during the Second World War and saw service in Australia and the United Kingdom. Returning to parliament as a member of the newly formed Liberal Party in 1945, he served as Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation in Robert Menzies' government from 1949 to 1951. His term coincided with the commitment of RAAF squadrons to the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency. Australia's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 1951 to 1956, White was knighted in 1952 and died in October 1957.

Early life and First World War[edit]

Thomas Walter White was born on 26 April 1888 at Hotham, North Melbourne, the son of Charles James White, a brass-finisher from England, and Emily Jane Jenkins of Victoria. Educated at Moreland State School, White was commissioned in the 5th Australian Regiment, Citizen Military Forces (CMF), in 1911.[1] In August 1914, two weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, he became one of the first four students to commence training at Point Cook as a pilot in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC).[1][2] He was later described by a biographer as "pugnacious and impatient for success, with a disdain for authority and a suspicion of elites".[3] White recalled flying in the school's Bristol Boxkite thus: "The senses took the place of the instruments. One's eyes and ears did duty as engine counters; the rush of the air in the face told whether the climb or glide was at the right angle."[4] He graduated with his four fellow students, who included future Chief of the Air Staff (Sir) Richard Williams, in November.[5]

Four men in khaki military uniforms, two wearing pith helmets (one of whom has his arm in a sling), seated in front of a boy
Captain White (second left) with Captain Henry Petre (far left) and Lieutenant George Merz (far right) of the Mesopotamian Half Flight at Basra, July 1915

In April 1915, White was appointed a captain in the Australian Imperial Force and adjutant of the Mesopotamian Half Flight, the first AFC unit to see active service.[1][6] Based initially in Basra and operating primitive Maurice Farman biplanes, the Half Flight assisted the Indian Army during the Mesopotamian campaign, conducting reconnaissance and sabotage missions.[7] White successfully carried out several operations that involved landing behind enemy lines.[1] On a mission in October 1915, he was forced to land owing to engine trouble and, rather than risk attempting repairs, taxied the aircraft some twenty-four kilometres (fifteen miles) past enemy encampments while his observer kept watch with his rifle at the ready; the "Keystone Cops adventure", as historian Alan Stephens described it, culminated in the engine finally powering up and allowing White to take off and fly to the safety of the Australian base.[8] White himself touted the feat as "a taxi-ing record".[9]

On 13 November 1915, White was captured while attempting to cut telegraph wires near Baghdad.[1] He was mentioned in despatches in July 1916.[10] Imprisoned in Turkey, he escaped from a train in Constantinople in July 1918, and managed to stow away on a cargo ship to Odessa, Ukraine, before travelling to London.[1] His experience of the Soviets in Odessa helped inform his subsequent anti-communism.[1] White was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in June 1919.[11] In December, he was again mentioned in despatches, for "valuable services whilst in captivity".[12] Still in London, he met Vera Deakin, daughter of former Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, and promptly became engaged to her. White was discharged from the AIF in January 1920, and married Vera on 22 March at St John's Church of England in Toorak, despite the opposition of some of the Deakin family. That year he also became managing director of his father's hardware company, C.J. White & Sons Pty Ltd. From 1926 to 1931, he commanded the 6th Battalion, CMF, as a lieutenant colonel.[1] In 1928 he published an account of his wartime exploits as Guests of the Unspeakable.[1][13]

Parliamentary career and Second World War[edit]

White ran unsuccessfully as a Nationalist for the House of Representatives seat of Maribyrnong in the 1925 elections. In 1927, he failed to win the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Prahran. Denied pre-selection as a Nationalist for the Senate the following year, he won the seat of Balaclava at a by-election held on 3 August 1929.[1] He succeeded retiring member William Watt.[14] The United Australia Party (UAP) came to power in the 1931 elections and in March 1933 he was appointed Minister for Trade and Customs in the first Lyons Ministry, replacing Henry Gullett, who had stood down due to ill-health.[1][15] White had given up the directorship of C.J. White & Sons the previous year. His portfolio was responsible for reducing tariffs and attempting to increase trade with Britain as opposed to the United States and Japan, and also with book and film censorship; for the latter he established an advisory board, chaired by Robert Garran, to make recommendations to him. In 1934, White became Australian chairman of the Royal Life Saving Society, serving until 1951; he was also an active supporter of such organisations as Legacy and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.[1]

Informal head-and-shoulders portrait of Thomas Walter White in and unidentified man in background, both wearing air force uniforms with peaked caps
Wing Commander White (right) serving with the RAAF in Great Britain, March 1942

In July 1938, White represented Australia at an inter-governmental conference on Jewish refugees held at Évian, France, to discuss the growing numbers of Jewish emigrants seeking to leave Germany and occupied territories.[1] He expressed remorse after listening to stories from refugees during the conference, but ultimately hedged his offer of support, saying that, "As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration".[1][16] Australia would go on to accept 15,000 refugees over three years.[17] White's reaction to the Australian government's support for the Munich Agreement was to diarise: "I think we should hang our heads that we did not stand up to the bully of Europe ... It may yet mean peace but at what price?"[18] He called for stronger preparations at home in case of war, including the introduction of conscription.[1][19] On 8 November 1938, he resigned his portfolio, having discovered that Joseph Lyons had established an inner cabinet from which he was excluded.[1] Lyons' response in parliament to White's resignation publicly highlighted the divisions in the UAP.[20] White stood for the UAP's leadership after Lyon's death the following year but was eliminated early in the balloting, and Robert Menzies eventually became leader.[1]

With the outbreak of the Second World War, White became a flight lieutenant (temporary squadron leader) in the part-time Citizen Air Force. He took leave from parliament in April 1940 and was appointed the inaugural commanding officer of No. 1 Initial Training School at Somers, Victoria.[1][21] The following year he travelled to England, where he administered Australian airmen at Bournemouth, served as Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Liaison Officer with RAF Training Command, and commanded RAF Station Brighton.[1][22] According to the Parliamentary Library of Australia, White also "surreptitiously flew on several sorties as a second-pilot".[23] He paid tribute to the men of the Empire Air Training Scheme with the narrative poem Sky Saga in 1943.[1] Returning to Melbourne later that year, White served at RAAF Staff School until his discharge as an honorary group captain in October 1944.[1][24] The same month, he attended the conference that resulted in the establishment of the Liberal Party; the new party was officially launched in August 1945.[25]

Following the election of the Menzies Liberal government in the 1949 elections, White was appointed Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation, despite his personal animosity for Menzies, which partly stemmed from the latter's failure to serve in the First World War.[1][26] In January 1950, White and the Minister for Supply and Development, Richard Casey, announced that the English Electric Canberra had been selected to replace the RAAF's Avro Lincoln bombers, and that the new jet would be manufactured by the Government Aircraft Factory in Victoria.[27] White's term as Minister for Air saw the deployment of RAAF squadrons to the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency in mid-1950, and the establishment of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force, the successor organisation to the wartime Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force, that November.[28][29] The following year he gave his approval for the manufacture of a licensed version of the North American F-86 Sabre jet fighter for the RAAF, and played a major part in the controversial decision to replace the long-serving Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal (Sir) George Jones, with an RAF officer, Air Vice Marshal (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Donald Hardman.[30][31] White also sought to strengthen the Citizen Air Force, and personally ordered the establishment of No. 24 (City of Adelaide) Squadron at Mallala, South Australia.[32]

Later life[edit]

On 21 June 1951, White resigned from parliament to become Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, a position he held until 1956.[1] He was succeeded as the member for Balaclava by Liberal Percy Joske.[33] White was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in January 1952.[34] As High Commissioner he advocated continued British migration to Australia, and participated in the renewal of the assisted passage scheme between the two countries in 1954.[35][36] He suffered from emphysema and on 13 October 1957 died of a heart attack at his home in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra.[1] Survived by his wife and four daughters, he was accorded a state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, and interred at Point Lonsdale cemetery.[1][37] His daughters donated his papers to the National Library of Australia in 1997 and 1998.[38]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y Rickard, John (2002). "White, Sir Thomas Walter (1888–1957)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  2. ^ Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 3–4
  3. ^ Molkentin, Fire in the Sky, p. 7
  4. ^ Molkentin, Fire in the Sky, p. 8
  5. ^ Molkentin, Fire in the Sky, p. 10
  6. ^ Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, pp. 1–3
  7. ^ Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 5–6
  8. ^ Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, p. 7
  9. ^ Molkentin, Fire in the Sky, p. 19
  10. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29665. pp. 6959–6960. 13 July 1916. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  11. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31378. pp. 7031–7032. 3 June 1919. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  12. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31691. pp. 15613–15614. 16 December 1919. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  13. ^ White, Thomas Walter (1928). Guests of the Unspeakable: The Odyssey of an Australian Airman – Being a Record of Captivity and Escape in Turkey. London: John Hamilton. ISBN 1-86315-000-5. 
  14. ^ "Federal Parliament". The Examiner. Launceston: National Library of Australia. 15 August 1929. p. 7. Retrieved 20 January 2016. 
  15. ^ Hill, A.J. (1983). "Gullett, Sir Henry Somer (1878–1940)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  16. ^ "The Fateful Year". Yad Vashem. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  17. ^ Sykes, Cross Roads to Israel, pp. 198–199
  18. ^ Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life – Volume I, p. 237
  19. ^ Henderson, Joseph Lyons, p. 412
  20. ^ Henderson, Joseph Lyons, p. 419
  21. ^ Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, p. 97
  22. ^ Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, p. 35
  23. ^ Parliamentary Library (26 March 2007). Commonwealth Members of Parliament who have served in war (PDF) (Report). pp. 9–10. Retrieved 31 January 2016. 
  24. ^ "White, Thomas Walter". World War 2 Nominal Roll. Retrieved 18 January 2016. 
  25. ^ Ian Hancock. "The Origins of the Modern Liberal Party". Harold White Fellowships. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 20 January 2016. 
  26. ^ Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life – Volume II, pp. 129–130
  27. ^ "Speedy plane". The Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 13 January 1950. p. 1. Retrieved 20 January 2016. 
  28. ^ "1950 a fine year for RAAF". The Queensland Times. Ipswich: National Library of Australia. 8 January 1951. p. 3. Retrieved 22 January 2016. 
  29. ^ Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 205, 209, 244
  30. ^ Stephens, Going Solo, pp. 73, 347
  31. ^ Helson, The Private Air Marshal, pp. 348–352
  32. ^ Stephens, Going Solo, p. 326
  33. ^ "20th Parliament to meet for last session on April 6". The Examiner. Launceston: National Library of Australia. 24 March 1954. p. 19. Retrieved 20 January 2016. 
  34. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 39422. p. 38. 1 January 1952. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  35. ^ "Immigration pact with UK renewed". The Advocate. Burnie, Tasmania: National Library of Australia. 2 April 1954. p. 2. Retrieved 24 January 2016. 
  36. ^ "Migrants needed". The Mercury. Hobart: National Library of Australia. 16 August 1954. p. 10. Retrieved 24 January 2016. 
  37. ^ "Memorial service to Sir Thomas White". The Canberra Times. Canberra: National Library of Australia. 17 October 1957. p. 3. Retrieved 20 January 2016. 
  38. ^ "Papers of Sir Thomas White (1888–1957)". Canberra: National Library of Australia. Retrieved 8 February 2016. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Brenchley, Fred; Brenchley, Elizabeth (2004). White's Flight: An Australian Pilot's Epic Escape From Turkish Prison Camp to Russia's Revolution. Brisbane: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-74031-100-7. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Gullett
Minister for Trade and Customs
Succeeded by
John Perkins
Preceded by
Arthur Drakeford
Minister for Air
Succeeded by
Philip McBride
Minister for Civil Aviation
Succeeded by
Hubert Lawrence Anthony
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
William Watt
Member for Balaclava
Succeeded by
Percy Joske
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Last held by: Jack Beasley
Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Sir Eric Harrison