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Caldwell, Clive Robertson (1910–1994)

Clive Caldwell, 1943

Clive Caldwell, 1943

Australian War Memorial, 015294

Group Captain Clive Caldwell, Australia's leading fighter pilot of World War II, who led Spitfire squadrons against the Luftwaffe and in the defence of Darwin, was the kind of tactical commander air marshals dream of. Caldwell, who died in hospital in Sydney last Friday aged 84, showed enormous aggression in combat, a desire to engage the enemy wherever they might be found. On one occasion in North Africa he was wounded in the face, arms and legs and his aircraft was damaged. Yet he returned to attack a Messerschmitt fighter. 

Air Marshall Lord Tedder said of Caldwell after his service in the Middle East in 1942 that he was "a fine commander, an excellent leader and a first-class shot''. It was an accurate judgment. Caldwell was credited with 28 and a half confirmed flying victories. He won the DSO, a DFC and Bar and the Polish Cross of Valor. Probably because of his emphasis on gunnery, which he constantly practised, and his shooting ability, he was also given the tag, "killer''. It was a nickname he deplored but one he was unable to shake off, even long after his RAAF career had ended. 

Born in Sydney and educated at Trinity Grammar School, Caldwell started his working life with the Bank of NSW (now Westpac). 

Ironically, he had some difficulty in getting into the RAAF in the first place. When World War II began, Caldwell was in his 30th year and was, therefore, considered too old for flying training. But there was no way he was prepared to miss out on becoming a fighter pilot. 

So, on his application to enlist, he reduced his age by three years and was accepted. 

It was the beginning of a brilliant wartime career that eventually comprised an astonishing 496 combat sorties. But success did not come immediately. It took about 30 missions before Caldwell scored his first victory, but after that his triumphs occurred with increasing frequency. While flying in England, and with 112 and 250 Squadrons in the Middle East, he shot down at least 20 enemy aircraft. His eight additional kills took place in the Pacific theatre of the war. 

Caldwell was described by a contemporary observer as a "fast-talking, quick-acting man with an exuberant confidence''. But in battle his chief characteristic was his unyielding determination. This is clearly revealed in his combat report of an action over the Western Desert when a large German formation was engaged: "At 300 yards I opened fire with all my guns at the leader of one of the rear sections ... and hit No 2 and 3, one of which burst into flames ... the other going down smoking. After losing 1000 feet I then attacked the leader ... from below and behind, opening fire with all guns at very close range. The enemy aircraft turned over and dived steeply with the ... starboard wing in flames ... I was able to pull up under ... the one at the rear, holding the burst until very close ... ''

After the outbreak of war against Japan, Caldwell, who had proved himself the most deadly of the Australian pilots in the Middle East, was sent to command a fighter wing at Darwin. On 2 May 1943 he led Spitfires to meet a large force of Japanese bombers, escorted by fighters, over the Australian coast. Battle was joined at 26,000 feet and Caldwell destroyed two enemy aircraft. He boosted his total by six in subsequent air battles. 

Caldwell was not just a superlative fighter pilot: he was, at times, a fierce critic of RAAF aircraft and battle tactics. On one occasion he wrote a devastating criticism of the Boomerang, an Australian-built interceptor fighter. This aircraft, he reported, would probably operate in fashion contrary to its name: it was unlikely to return if it ever met an enemy. Caldwell was also involved in what came to be called the "Morotai Mutiny'' in which he was among those opposed to air operations from Morotai to Tarakan. He argued that the RAAF could lose an entire fighter wing in such a plan with little to be gained. 

In the years after the war Caldwell established an import-export business in Sydney. He suffered ill health in his last two years. He didn't pursue flying as a hobby. As his friends said, he wasn't particularly keen on the activity: he was just extraordinarily good at it.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 11 August 1994, p 16

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Citation details

'Caldwell, Clive Robertson (1910–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/caldwell-clive-robertson-27649/text35455, accessed 20 June 2019.

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