Jump to content


Edward Willis

Recommended Posts

  • Committee






Charles Eaton (1895–1979 had long experience as a pilot; he left school at 14 to become a messenger with a town council in London.  His chance to fly came with WW1 after a stint in the army as a trench bomber, he joined the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and flew as a bomber and reconnaissance pilot in France.

When the engine in his DH9A failed in June 1918, he crashed into the forward line of German trenches and was captured.  Undeterred, he made three escape attempts, the third successful.

Between the wars Eaton continued his flying career with the Royal Air Force; flying the world's first international passenger service between London and Paris; with the RAF in India; and with the RAAF in Australia, which he joined on 14 August 1925.  The nickname ‘Moth’ was awarded after he piloted the first prototype metal De Havilland Gypsy Moth, Prudence, in the 1929 Sydney-Perth air race. [2]


Commanding Officer RAAF Station Darwin Group Captain Charles Eaton, October 1941 [3]



In February 1941 Pearl Harbour was still 10 months away but fears of a Japanese advance into south-east Asia were gathering strength.  Australia hurriedly set out to plan the defence of the islands to its north.  One of these islands was Timor.

On 27 February 1941 Group Captain Eaton and Wing Commander W.L. (Bill) Hely left Darwin under ‘most secret instructions from the Air Board’ to travel to the Netherlands East Indies.  They returned on 11 March. [4] This was a reconnaissance mission to Dutch Timor, Ambon, the Tanimbars, Buru Island and Babo, in western Dutch New Guinea, to gauge the current defence strengths and capabilities of those areas and to report on the possible use of facilities there by the RAAF. [5] 

They flew first to Koepang, the capital of Dutch West Timor where the local Dutch commandant, Lieutenant Colonel W.E.C. Detiger, met them when they landed and over the next few days assisted them as they travelled around the island.  Eaton was able to make great use of information he gathered on this visit in air operations over Timor later during the war.


Mina River bridge, Dutch Timor. Photograph by Eaton during his visit to Timor in 1941 [6]


Eaton took many photographs of possible targets for the RAAF.  One that most impressed him was the Mina [Mena] River bridge, which connected Koepang with the hinterland.  This bridge was of strategic importance but, as he observed, ‘was supported by very strong concrete pillars and was fairly narrow’ - a difficult target.


After returning from the Netherlands East Indies in March 1941, Eaton was posted to various RAAF commands, and in 1943 he returned to the Northern Territory to form and command 79 Wing, a composite wing operating against the Japanese in Timor and the eastern Netherlands East Indies.  Four squadrons, operating from four different airfields, made up the wing: 1 and 2 Squadrons, RAAF, flying Beauforts for bombing and reconnaissance; 31 Squadron, RAAF, with Beaufighter strike fighters; and a Dutch unit, 18 Netherlands East Indies Air Force (NEIAF) Squadron, flying B25 Mitchell bombers.  Not far away Louis Spence was commanding a squadron of Spitfires.  In 1947 Spence became one of Eaton's first military observers in Indonesia and was later killed in Korea in 1950. [7]



NEIAF No. 18 Squadron at Batchelor, May 1944. Second from right, Captain Dick Asjes.  Far right, Group Captain Eaton [8]


The relationship between NEIAF and RAAF officers was far from cordial at the time, with a perception existing that some top-ranking RAAF officers were anti-Dutch.  Eaton, however, stated that No. 18 Squadron was one of the best he ever commanded.  To the Dutch he became ‘Oom’ Charles (Uncle Charles) and was well respected by all the Dutch Officers, NCOs and men, including the Indonesian contingent. [9]


By 1944 Eaton's wing was bombing Timor on a daily basis.  Invariably accompanied by his pipe, ‘Moth’ often flew with the lead aircraft of a strike.  This meant enduring many uncomfortable hours standing in a cramped Beaufighter cockpit between the pilot and navigator.  One such raid brought him close to disaster.  In Eaton's own words:

In a Beaufighter, with S/Ldr Boyd, together with other Beaufighters, we set out to do some ground strafing at a camp near Dili, and I had rather an amazing and exciting experience.  After crossing the coast at Timor low down, looking for targets, we were in a valley, when an odd .5 bullet from the Japanese hit our starboard engine.  It went right through the front housing and out came the hot oil enveloping the engine with smoke. The propeller was immediately feathered, and we climbed out of the valley and headed for home some 400 miles [640 km) away.


Eaton with officers of No. 79 Wing planning a mission. Batchelor, August 1944 [10]


As a protection one of the other Beaufighters was ordered to accompany us and the other six to carry on with the job.  Over Timor, with one engine, was not very pleasant, but once the coast was reached, we seemed fairly safe.

Our predicament was wirelessed back to Darwin and a Catalina was sent out to pull us out of the drink if necessary.  About 50 miles (80 km) out from the coast of Timor the port engine started to give trouble and developed a tremendous vibration.  It seemed the only thing to do was to ditch and so down we went to ditch.  Boyd let the ditching hatch go and I opened my parachute to rest my head against to take the bump.  At that time, I lost my hat.  When only about 100 feet [30 m] above the sea, the port engine came good again, so we went towards the coast of Australia.  About halfway across, Boyd endeavoured to pump the petrol from the starboard (wing) to the port engine, but unfortunately the pipes were blocked, and the petrol could not get through.  There was nothing to do but to dump the petrol on the starboard side into the Timor Sea and go on until we ran out of petrol. With great skill in the use of his remaining engine, after what seemed a very long time, the north coast of Australia was sighted, and we got down OK at Snake Bay at the top of Melville Island.

‘A wing and a prayer’ was often sung to me after that show.

An even more calamitous event had occurred on this particular flight: during the excitement, ‘Moth’ had broken his beloved pipe!  Eaton instructed the Beaufighter's navigator, Fred Anderson, to signal RAAF Darwin for a new pipe and a car - in that order - to meet them if they got back.  Anderson later reflected that the Group Captain might have been less worried about his pipe if he knew that the rubber dinghy was shot through, and they only had five minutes' petrol left when they landed.



‘The Mena River Bridge’ by Charles Bush (1945, oil on canvas, overall: 45.2 x 60.4 cm, AWM ART26318)



On 19 February 1944, three years after the Japanese bombing of Darwin, Eaton had the chance to put his pre-war reconnaissance to work by launching an attack against the Mina [Mena] River bridge.  Three of the wing's squadrons took part in the raid.  Eaton, who had photographed the bridge before the war, flew with Wing Commander Mann in the leading Beaufighter, and later recalled:

On the day in question, we set out from Darwin with Beaufighters andB-25s.  I went in low with W/Cdr Mann to strafe the bridge with cannon and put out any defences.  As we passed through, the Mitchells bombed from 6,000 feet [1,850 m] and on top of the Mitchells again more Beaufighters as air cover.  The plan worked well.  We got three direct hits with 600 pounders on the bridge and returned without casualty.  A year afterwards the bridge was still under repair.



Hatoelia [Hatolia], Timor.  1944-11-17.  The shadow of a Beaufighter of no. 31 squadron RAAF can be seen on the ground as aircraft attack Japanese occupied buildings.  This attack was the first use by the RAAF of rocket projectiles in this theatre of war.


Eaton was keen for the Beaufighters to be equipped with rockets, and in November 1944 he was responsible for the first RAAF rocket strike in the South-West Pacific Area.  The target was a Japanese headquarters in East Timor, located in an old monastery in a deep valley near Hatolia. [11] Conventional bombing had proved impossible since aircraft could not line up to release their bombs without plunging into the sides of the valley.  Now six aircraft equipped with rockets executed a close and aggressive air strike against the hitherto invulnerable target.  The attack was pressed at such low altitude that the Beaufighter in which Eaton flew returned from the attack with a ‘chunk of rocket’ wedged in the wing.

Under Eaton's command the wing completed some 30,000 operational hours and sank 107 vessels of all descriptions, from 4,000 ton ships to seagoing barges.  Nearly 1,200 tons of bombs were dropped on military targets on Timor and in the surrounding areas.  After the war General T. Kaida, the Japanese garrison commander on Timor, commented that all Japanese military and naval movement came to a standstill as a direct result of these attacks.

Eaton may have done his work too well, as his units were running out of targets, but as a result of his efforts in Batchelor he received a Mention in Despatches (MID).  His participation in the Mina River bridge bombing was mentioned in the citation as an example ‘of his interest in the operational work of his units’.  The citation went on: ‘His outstanding keenness and devotion to duty have been an inspiration to all personnel and is deserving of the highest praise’.  Eaton was later honoured by the Dutch also; at the direction of Queen Wilhelmina on 10 August 1945 Eaton was made a Knight Commander in the Order of Orange Nassau with Swords. [12]


In December 1944 Eaton was appointed Air Officer Commanding Southern Area, but he was not finished with Timor.  After the war he joined the Department of External Affairs, and early in 1946 he arrived in Dili, the capital of Portuguese East Timor, as Australian Consul.  In an unhappy precedent to the destruction of 1999, the town had been almost completely destroyed by the combination of Japanese occupation and allied bombing.



Consul Eaton and son coming ashore after arriving at Dili on HMS Camperdown, 26 January 1946 [13]


The destruction caused by Allied bombing in the territory was widespread and the governor had his hands full in planning reconstruction.  Eaton felt it would be indiscreet to elaborate on his own not insubstantial contribution to the destruction but took the opportunity to visit the sites of some of No. 79 Wing’s more memorable bombing missions, especially the ones where he had been present. [14]

Eaton threw himself into the task of assisting the Portuguese authorities by organising supplies from Australia and acting as intermediary between Portuguese and Australian contractors.  He was responsible for setting up a regular RAAF Catalina mail and cargo service from Darwin and, drawing on his aviation experience, gave advice on the building of airstrips and other matters.



‘Mt Paicnau from Cape Lore’ by Charles Bush (1945, colour wash on paper, overall: 21.6 x 27.9 cm; AWM ART26156)


During his time as consul, he toured the rough terrain of East Timor by jeep and was also able to travel to West Timor and inspect the site of the Mina River bridge which he had reconnoitred in 1941 and bombed in 1944.

Eaton visited Hatolia in October and December 1946 but made no mention in his report of the events he had been involved in two years previously.  During his visit to the Lore district, however, Eaton made a point of inspecting the sites of former Japanese camps and defence works and the ‘Cape Lore’ radar station.  Eaton had been personally involved in the bombing of the radar station in December 1944:

During my last visit to the interior, I was particularly interested to see the Japanese defences of Lautem-Cape Lore areas.  I do not know if the full facts are known to our military authorities but at one time some 25,000 Japanese soldiers occupied these areas.  The Japanese camps and defence works along the road between Lautem and Fuiloro were considerable and the camouflage almost perfect.  The Cape Lore beachhead was the best defence work I have seen in Timor; the earth and wire works were extensive.

I also visited the Japanese Cape Lore radar station. This station is actually on the top of a mountain at the rear of Cape Lore.  I was very interested in this station as I personally took part in an attack on this work in December 1944.  The attack was an interesting one as it was the first time that diaphragm bomb-heads were used in Timor.  The Radar Station had been hit but the extent of the bomb damage was difficult to ascertain as after the attack the Japanese dismantled the remains.  Without doubt the main building was severely damaged by the diaphragm bombs. [15]



Dili, Portuguese Timor, 1946-01-20.  The bomb damaged cathedral. (Photographer Sgt K. B. Davis)


Another case where Eaton had been personally involved was in the bombing and destruction of the Dili Cathedral following the reception of intelligence that it was being used by the Japanese for munitions storage.  Indeed, Eaton, or men under his command, had been involved in much of the extensive destruction of housing and infrastructure throughout Timor during the war.  Eaton was very conscious of this and suggested to his wife and son that it would be indiscreet to mention the role that he had played in the destruction of so many public and private buildings. [16]

On one occasion he flew the Portuguese Governor, Captain Oscar Ruas, on an aerial inspection of Timor in a Portuguese Air Force Tiger Moth.  The Portuguese government asked that Eaton be allowed to receive and wear the decoration of Commander of the Portuguese Military Order of Christ:

… in recognition of his useful co-operation in securing all necessary facilities in connection with reconstruction and development in Timor.

The Australian Prime Minister, R.G. Menzies, refused to allow him to accept the award.


Australia's recent closer engagement with East Timor would not have surprised Charles Eaton, who in his diplomatic despatches stressed the strategic importance of Timor to Australia and reported militia-type infiltration from West Timor.  Much sooner than that, however, he was to play his own part in the history of peacekeeping.  In August 1947 he left Portuguese Timor to take up an appointment as Acting Consul-General in Batavia, capital of the Netherlands East Indies.  In that position, as a member of the United Nations Consular Commission charged with monitoring a ceasefire in the war between the Dutch colonial masters and the Indonesian Republicans, he was instrumental in bringing military observers - the first ever United Nations peacekeepers - to Indonesia. [17]


[1]     This post has been adapted and expanded from - Mitch Williamson ‘On a wing and a prayer: ‘Moth’ Eaton over Timor’ Wartime: official magazine of the Australian War Memorial no. 10, Autumn 2000: 31-35.

[2]     Charles Stuart Eaton. – The cross in the sky: the life and adventures of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton - soldier - pioneer aviator - pathfinder for global peacekeeping. – Melbourne: Echo Books, 2021.  See esp. Chapters 1-17: 1-182 for Eaton's pre-WW2 life and career.

[3]     Steven Farram. - Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton: pioneer aviator of the Northern Territory. – Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press, 2007: 26.

[4]     RAAF Unit History sheets (Form A50) RAAF Station Darwin Jun 40 - Jun 52 - NAA A9186 208.  https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=1359597&isAv=N

[5]     Farram, 2007: 27.

[6]     Farram, 2007: 44.

[7]     See Peter Londey ‘The first United Nations Peacekeepers’ Wartime: official magazine of the Australian War Memorial Issue 1, November 1997: 52-56.  Coincidentally, Squadron Leader Louis Spence was the brother of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Spence, OC, Sparrow Force in Portuguese Timor, May-December 1942.

[8]     Farram, 2007: 39.

[9]     Eaton, 2021: 234.

[10]   Farram, 2007: 46.

[11]   31 Squadron – Operations record book, Appendix 8 – Commanding Officer’s operational summary for the month of November 1944: 266 https://31squadronassociation.com.au/archives/31-squadron-operational-log/.

[12]   EATON CHARLES: Service Number - 24 - NAA: A9300, EATON Chttps://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=5370909&isAv=N

[13]   Farram, 2007: 15.  This photograph was probably taken by Sergeant Keith Davis of the Australian Military History Section Field team, which was still in Dili when Eaton arrived; see W.B. Horton, ‘Through the eyes of Australians: the Timor area in the early postwar period’, Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, No. 12, March 2009, p. 271.

[14]   Eaton, 2021: 260.

[15]   Eaton, 2021: 268.  See also RAAF Unit History sheets (Form A50) [Operations Record Book - Forms A50 and A51] Number 2 Squadron May 37 - May 46 - NAA: A9186, 5: 717-718.  See also Gordon R. Birkett ‘The Churchill Wing Offensive operations Chapter 3: The November 1944 raid’ ADF Serials Telegraph News: News for those interested in Australian Military Aircraft History and Serials 1 (5) Summer 2011: 9-11.  http://www.adf-serials.com.au/newsletter/ADF%20Serials%20Telegraph%20News%20-Summer%202011%20Vers%201.pdf.  ‘On board the lead B-25, captained by F/Lt Hodges, there was an additional observer, G/Capt Eaton of 79 Wing had decided to accompany the crew on this mission’ and John Bennett. - Highest traditions: the history of No. 2 Squadron, RAAF. - [Fairbairn, ACT]: Royal Australian Air Force, Air Power Studies Centre, 1995: 225.

[16]   Eaton, 2021: 261.

[17]   Peter Londey. - Other people's wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping. – Crow’s Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2004.  See esp. Ch. 2 Indonesia: 13-28 and Ch. 15 East Timor: 231-261.

Prepared  by Ed Willis

Revised 21 January 2022


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...