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Archibald Bertram (Tich) McFarlane (1916–2001)

by John Farquharson

During World War II as an RAAF squadron commander in the Pacific, ‘Tich’ McFarlane was known as a ‘straight shooter’ and a ‘tough commander’, who led from the front. And he carried those attributes into his post-war career in the Commonwealth Public Service, where he built a reputation as ‘a doer’ who ‘made a difference’ in whatever appointment he held.

‘Tich’ McFarlane, known in his later public service days as ‘Mac’, who died in a Canberra nursing home on 19 August aged 85, after a battle with motor-neurone disease, was probably best known as a long-serving Secretary of the Department of Air from 1956 to 1968.

He burst into prominence in this role when his department became involved in the controversy surround the VIP aircraft affair of 1967. The issue arose when the Government came under attack for alleged misuse of VIP aircraft by ministers and favoured members of the Government and Opposition. Prime Minister Holt and his Minister for Air, Peter Howson, told the House of Representatives the flight details being sought could not be provided because passenger manifests were not retained. In the Senate, where the Government was in a minority, the DLP (Democratic Labor Party) and the ALP were combining in a resolution to have McFarlane, as Secretary of the Department of Air, brought before the bar of the Senate to reveal what he knew.  

However, John Gorton, as Government Leader in the Senate, brought the VIP episode to a sensational end by taking the unusual course of phoning McFarlane and asking ‘were there passenger manifests?’ McFarlane told him there were; they were preserved for 12 months in accordance with RAAF regulations. Gorton tabled them in the Senate without explanation for their sudden appearance. Despite angry Opposition charges that Holt and Howson had misled the Parliament, it got the Government out of an awkward plight and saved McFarlane from being brought before the Senate.

Perhaps Gorton had his dealings with McFarlane in mind when, as Prime Minister, he had to fill a Public Service Board vacancy. Disregarding the recommendations made in support of three names submitted to him, he chose the then 51-year-old, short, slightly built, dapper and incisive McFarlane. There, according to Sir Lenox Hewitt, McFarlane made ‘a very substantial contribution and brought a new set of ideals and standards into the working of the Public Service Board, particularly in its relations with government departments’.

Though McFarlane did not enter the Public Service proper until he was 32, he had been connected with the RAAF and air administration for almost 20 years before heading up the Air Department. Thus, on becoming a Public Service Board commissioner, he brought a wealth of experience and a profound understanding of departmental management problems. At the Air Department, he revamped procedures by insisting on proper planning, budgeting and estimating and not approving anything that didn’t fit into plans governing the development of the air force. When Sir Fredrick Scherger was Chief of Air Staff, he worked out with him plans looking 10 years ahead, on the premise that the lead time on a modern aircraft was seven years and another three years were required to bring everything together. The idea was to ensure that development went ahead so that the air force would be ready the meet whatever strategic situation might arise. McFarlane once told an interviewer that the 10-year plans worked well and were ‘amazingly accurate’. His work at Air, which also saw him involved, along with Sir Lenox Hewitt (then Treasury) and Alan Salisbury (Defence), in negations with the US over the purchase of the F111 bombers, was recognised when he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1963.

He also left his mark on the newly formed Petroleum and Minerals Authority, to which he was appointed executive member in 1973 after five years at the Public Service Board. Though at the Authority for only two years before ill health forced his retirement, he was able to firmly established its independence as a statutory body, setting terms and conditions of staff without interference from the Public Service Board.

His style throughout his career was to seek a positive solution to problems. Abhorring negativism and procrastination, his approach was to get on and get something done. Perhaps this stemmed from his upbringing in the Melbourne suburb of Yarraville, where his father was a cinema proprietor. Born there on 4 June 1916, his education started at one of the local State schools, before he went to Scotch College and on to Melbourne University to do a law degree after initialling tinkering with the idea of aeronautical engineering.

His first venture into military service began there when he spent a year as a private with the University Rifles. But aviation had intrigued him since early childhood. In May 1937 he joined the Citizen Air Force’s No 21 Squadron as an air cadet, being commissioned as a pilot officer in December that year. When war broke out in September 1939, he was called up for full-time service and had to obtain special leave from the RAAF in 1940 to do the last two subjects to complete his law degree. He remained with the RAAF until June 1948. 

He became one of the early war heroes when he fought in Lockheed-Hudson reconnaissance bombers to hold the Japanese advance in 1942. Acclaim first came to him for his stirring exploits as commanding officer, with the rank of acting wing commander, of the RAAF’s airstrip/base at Namlea on the island of Buru in the Ceram Sea. As the airfield came under increasingly heavy Japanese bombing attacks, he managed to secure, in a touch-and-go operation, the evacuation to Darwin of his main force in three overloaded, wobbly Hudsons. With eight volunteers he remained behind to complete the demolition of the base, before leading his men on a 250km trek across wild hilly country and an 8000ft mountain range to Tifoe on the island’s south coast. There, in defiance of superstition, they were picked up by flying boat under the noses of the Japanese on Friday, February 13, 1942 – just a day later than the pre-arranged date – and flown to Darwin.

Two months later, McFarlane took command of the famous No 2 Squadron. Under his leadership the unit was quickly reorganised to a high standard of fighting efficiency and taken into action with conspicuous success. He was awarded the DFC for leading his squadron on many successful missions against enemy shipping and airstrips at Ambon, Koepang, Dili and against other enemy occupied positions in what is now East Timor. But more than that, it was under his command that the squadron won the rare distinction of being awarded a US presidential unit citation for ‘courage in combat in hazardous situations’ … and ‘outstanding performance of duty’. According to the squadron’s history, this award reflected McFarlane’s inspiration during the dark days of 1942 and his ability ‘to lead from the front’.

Before joining the Department of Civil Aviation in mid-1948, he held various senior RAAF appointments, including a tour as liaison officer at RAAF HQ, London, and after the war as assistant commandant of the RAAF College, Point Cooke, Victoria. He reached the rank of Group Captain. At Civil Aviation be became director of air transport and external relations. He was responsible for the negotiation of international air transport agreements allowing Qantas to operate through foreign countries, subsidies to airlines, mail carriage, economic and legal problems. When he left in 1956 to become permanent head of the Department of Air, he had become one of the assistant directors-general of Civil Aviation.

In retirement, reflecting on his work in the Public Service, he told an interviewer that his work had been ‘coloured by having been born and bred in a workingman’s suburb like Yarraville’. He added, ‘I don’t believe that I ever lost touch with the bowels of the systems in which I operated and the people down below who operated those systems’. He felt that close contact with the ‘working parts’ was critical to the efficient operation of any organisation. An example of his philosophy in action came when he was told that as a departmental secretary, he could have an air-conditioner. His immediate response was, ‘What about the boys down in the bowels of the system?’ ‘Oh’, he was told, ‘they’re not entitled to it’. He then declared that there would be no air-conditioners in his department until everybody could have them, adding that, ‘if the boys can’t have them, I won’t either’.

McFarlane always had a liking for fast cars. He owned a turbo-charged Laser, but his great love was Jaguars and there is still one in the family. His other interests were horses and dogs. With two daughters as riders, he was for many years closely associated with the Canberra Lakes Pony Club and Canberra Riding Club. Later, he bred and showed Irish Setters.

Throughout his career, he set high standards for himself and expected similar standards and high performance from others. But, as a former colleague observed, those who worked with him liked and respected him. ‘Tich’ McFarlane was one of the old school of public servants. He believed firmly in an independent Public Service, contending that a departmental head had to be ‘utterly fearless in telling his minister what he thinks is the answer to the department’s problems, whether they be of a political or other nature’.

His wife, Beryl, whom he married in 1943, predeceased him in July 1989. Two daughters, Deirdre and Gillian, and five grandchildren survive him.

Original publication

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'McFarlane, Archibald Bertram (Tich) (1916–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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