Air Commodore Fiona Dowse AM explains what ANZAC Day and the RAAF mean to her

Air Commodore Fiona Dowse
Air Commodore Fiona Dowse AM, CSC, arrives at last year’s Remembrance Day service in Kings Park.


By Maxine Brown

THIS year marks the Royal Australian Air Force’s 100th birthday – a significant milestone that also adds serious lift to 2021 ANZAC Day commemorations. With the theme Flying Into A New Era:  100 Years of RAAF, we spoke with the Senior Military Officer in WA, Air Commodore Fiona Dowse AM, CSC, who is giving the address at this year’s Kings Park Dawn Service.

Q: Good morning Ma’am and thankyou for your time today.  Congratulations on the RAAF’s 100th birthday this year ….  what does this occasion mean first to the RAAF, and to you?

A: The Centenary provides an opportunity for Air Force to reflect on its important and enduring contribution to Australia’s national security and acknowledge the ongoing support of the Australian people.  The Centenary theme: Then. Now. Always. says it all.  To me, it means that we are doing something right! From 149 people with fragile aircraft in 1921, RAAF has grown into a potent, world-class Air Force that Australia can rely upon in both conflict and peace.  Its reputation was built on the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of those who came before us and will be maintained by those serving today and coming after us.

Q: There are a number of significant moments in history that really highlight the courage, resilience, mateship and professionalism of RAAF personnel over the past century. Is there one that really resonates with you?

A: That website is terrific in capturing the changes in the Air Force since 1921, but to me it is always about the people. There are numerous Air Force members who have shown courage, resilience, mateship and professionalism and have been formally recognised. People such as Air Commodore Sir Hughie Edwards, VC, KCMG, CB, DSO, OBE, DFC, who was born in Fremantle, would win a Victoria Cross in WWII and go on to be the Governor of Western Australia.  However, there are also many others who have served in the Air Force whose names are not well known to the public, but who were courageous and resilient in their service to their country, and who would live a life without fanfare.  People like Jim Sutherland, who Tony Stephens described in the Sydney Morning Herald.   Jim, he wrote, never spoke of his service or his experiences as a Prisoner of War, other than to mention the occasional event that he thought ironic: such as the Japanese officer in full military uniform presenting Sutherland, clothed in rags, with the ceremonial sword of surrender after the second atomic bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. In fact, Sutherland had flown with the RAAF in Malaysia in World War II, been taken prisoner, and worked on the Burma Railway, then in a coalmine, not far from Nagasaki.  He would come back to Australia and continue to serve in the RAAF.  The only way that his family found out the rest of the story about his war experiences was when he demonstrated his knowledge of the Japanese language when correcting his granddaughter’s Japanese homework. On the occasion of Jim Sutherland’s death, he was described as a family man, well read, compassionate, courageous and never cowed by authority.  That certainly resonates with me.

Q: During your own career, which RAAF personnel, historic or contemporary, have you drawn inspiration from and why?

A:   I had the great honour of being in London when the statue honouring those who had served with Bomber Command was unveiled by the Queen.  It was an extremely moving ceremony, with many Bomber Command veterans in attendance and I felt at the time an overwhelming respect for these men.  They faced incredible odds, in fact, a 3 per cent chance of dying on any one raid.  That might seem reasonable odds by itself, but they had to do this 30 times before they were posted out of an operational unit.  Over the entire war, 460 Squadron alone lost 1083 aircrew. For all of the crews, the odds of surviving a full tour were not only known and bad, but inexorable and largely beyond human control. Those in Bomber Command were not in the ‘glamorous’ squadrons, but every night they would perform their duty showing great courage and determination, only to come back to criticism after the war about the morality of the Bomber Command objectives. They had skill, courage and resilience.  We owe it to them to live up to their standards.

Q: It is certainly an exciting era for women within the RAAF, with more women in command, all-woman flight crews and female fighter pilots. What would you say to young women considering a RAAF career today?

A:  I would not hesitate to encourage young women to join the Air Force.  Unless they come from a military family, often people have a pre-conceived idea of what the Air Force is actually about.  Many movies depict service life very differently from what actually exists.  I would suggest that very few people think of the Australian Defence Force as being one of the most equal employers in the country.  Women in the Air Force enjoy equal pay, equal training and equal career opportunities with their male counterparts, as long they fulfil certain prerequisites, of which gender is not one. A career in the Air Force allows you to give back to the community while learning about yourself.  No matter the length of your service, you will gain valuable life skills while having financial security. You may just find you create friendships with people that will last the rest of your life. The Air Force is not necessarily the right decision for everyone, however, if nothing else, the variety of jobs means it should be considered when choosing a career. It is worthwhile stepping out of your comfort zone and giving it a try.

Q.: If you were able to choose any moment throughout the RAAF’s history to take an active role in, which would it be?

A:   As a woman I couldn’t go past the period I have served in because of the radical changes that have happened within the Australian Defence Force and Air Force.  Since I signed up, women have achieved equal pay, access to any employment field, including fighter pilot and are able to rise to the highest ranks.  I would have to give credit to women who served during this period for constantly pushing the boundaries, challenging the norm and having the tenacity to stick the course when the easier option was to withdraw.  However, the push to achieve these changes was based squarely on the work of the women who served before us, particularly in WWII and later who demonstrated just what a woman can do.   They built the aircraft, we just got it into the air.  Also, the past couple of decades have been both a busy time for the ADF but also an exciting time for the Air Force, as we have acquired some outstanding capabilities – not only aircraft but other systems and skilled personnel.  We are now operating in air, space and cyber domains, but also far more integrated with Navy and Army.

Q: What does ANZAC Day mean to you?

A: It is time to recognise those who have served, but most importantly those who paid the ultimate price and didn’t get to come back to Australia, to enjoy the life and freedoms they had so bravely fought and died for.  It is not time to glorify war or praise victors. It is a time to reflect on the courage and sacrifice of those who came before us. It is when I think about the bravery and sacrifice of ordinary Australians who fought to defend and protect the values we hold. People like my grandfather, who joined the 10th LH Regt in 1914, and of my father, who was in the RAF and left on the beach at Dunkirk in 1940.  They fought to protect and preserve our way of life, and we should reflect not just on ANZAC Day, but always, on their contribution to their country and peace.

Q: You will be giving an address at this year’s Dawn Service in Kings Park. Is there anything you would like to invite Australians to reflect on this year, whether at an official service, or a Driveway Dawn Service at home?

A:  Our military forefathers did what they did because they believed in service, commitment to others, courage, sacrifice and respect for their country. They faced danger and hardship, as have many Australians today, who have been caught up in COVID19 issues or the summer fires here in Australia. We owe it to those original ANZACs to continue what they started, to carry on the ANZAC spirit, which exists in all of us. We need to face challenges together and overcome them, to put others before ourselves, to be courageous, self-reliant and determined.

Q: Do you have a message for our Veteran community in the leadup to ANZAC Day (specially those who find the day challenging)?

A: I would say know you are always remembered – by someone.  It could be someone you meet the day you signed up, a person who you met on your first posting, or someone who you were with on your last deployment. It could be someone who recognises your service on ANZAC Day. It was once said to me that you never really leave the military – you are always part of the military family.  You talk the same language, you had similar training, you remember the same places, you will naturally tend to attract other military people.  As would happen in any family, if you need help, just ask -there are organisations everywhere waiting to help, including RSLWA’s ANZAC House Veteran Central. They understand the military, as they are of the military family, too.  Lastly, remember your service with pride – your service to your country made a difference, and it deserves to honoured and appreciated.

Thankyou for your service, Ma’am … and long live the RAAF!

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