World War II
In April 1940, the RAAF confirmed both Rawlinson's appointment as a pilot officer and promotion to temporary flying officer as of 22 November 1939. Three months later, he posted out to the Middle East with No. 3 Squadron, which was to support the 6th Division in the Western Desert Campaign against Italian forces. Sailing via Bombay, the squadron arrived in Suez, Egypt, on 23 August 1940. The next month it was equipped with a flight of Westland Lysander high-wing monoplane reconnaissance aircraft and two flights of Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, augmented by four Gloster Gauntlet biplanes to be used for dive bombing; Rawlinson initially trained on the Gauntlet.
Flying Officers Rawlinson (left) and Boyd (right) with Flight Lieutenant Pelly and a Gladiator biplane, after No. 3 Squadron's first combat on 19 November 1940
Rawlinson took part in No. 3 Squadron's first aerial combat on 19 November 1940. Flying a Gladiator, he was one of three pilots escorting Flight Lieutenant Blake Pelly on a reconnaissance mission when they were engaged by eighteen Italian Fiat CR.42 biplanes near Rabia in western Egypt. The Australians claimed six CR.42s destroyed for the loss of one Gladiator. Rawlinson has been variously credited with one CR.42 destroyed, one probably destroyed, or one damaged. According to biographer Lex McAulay, Rawlinson believed he destroyed a CR.42 in a head-on attack but did not see it crash, so his claim was downgraded to "damaged". He flew Gauntlets on dive-bombing missions in December; the type was withdrawn from service mid-month.
On 22 December 1940, as the Allies advanced along the Libyan coast to Bardia, Rawlinson's rank of flying officer was made substantive; it would be the highest permanent rank he received during the war. Four days later, he was among a formation of eight Gladiators that attacked ten Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers and their escort of twenty-four CR.42s; the Australians claimed two CR.42s destroyed, and five damaged including one probably destroyed, which was credited to Rawlinson. On 22 January 1941, Rawlinson and Flying Officer Wilfred Arthur were despatched in Gladiators to attack an Italian schooner reported off Tobruk; they machine-gunned the vessel, setting it on fire. Three days later, Rawlinson claimed two Fiat G.50 fighters damaged after five of the Italian monoplanes attacked a formation of five Gladiators patrolling near Mechili. He was notified of his promotion to temporary flight lieutenant, effective from New Year's Day, on 27 January.
No. 3 Squadron began re-arming with Hawker Hurricane fighters on 29 January 1941, and Rawlinson started his conversion on 3 February. A week later, the squadron moved to RAF Station Benina to take over the air defence of Benghazi, which had been occupied by the 6th Division. German aircraft began appearing at this time, as the Afrika Korps and a Luftwaffe contingent under General Erwin Rommel arrived in North Africa to reinforce the Italians; the Germans launched their offensive in March, and Benina was evacuated on 3 April. The same day, Rawlinson was credited with shooting down three German Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers, and damaging another, during a single sortie in his Hurricane.
Flight Lieutenant Rawlinson with his damaged Tomahawk fighter Sweet FA
on 22 August 1941
As the Allies retreated, No. 3 Squadron transferred to Lydda in Palestine, and began re-equipping with P-40 Tomahawks on 14 May. Rawlinson was appointed a flight commander the same month. He became an ace during the Syrian campaign against the Vichy French in June–July 1941. On 28 June, he was leading a patrol of nine Tomahawks near Palmyra that came upon six French Martin 167 bombers, and shot down all six; Rawlinson was credited with three victories, raising his total to six. The squadron remained in Syria following the armistice with the French on 14 July. Rawlinson was allocated a new Tomahawk, nicknamed Sweet FA, which he shared with another No. 3 Squadron ace, Peter Turnbull. On 22 August, Rawlinson was practising aerobatics in Sweet FA when the right tailplane detached, damaging the tailfin in the process; he could only control the aircraft by flying at 150 miles per hour (240 km/h) but was able to bring it in for a landing, without flaps, at the higher-than-normal speed.
No. 3 Squadron transferred to Sidi Haneish in Egypt on 3 September 1941, to resume operations in the Western Desert. On 10 October, Rawlinson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for leading his flight with "determination and daring, pressing home attacks at close range"; the citation noted his six confirmed aerial victories in 121 sorties. He was posted as an instructor to
No. 71 Operational Training Unit in the Sudan on 19 October, ostensibly for a rest from operations, but was soon recalled to take over leadership of No. 3 Squadron from Peter Jeffrey, who had been promoted to wing commander. Rawlinson was promoted acting squadron leader on 9 November, and assumed command the next day.
On 22 November 1941, during Operation Crusader, Rawlinson led No. 3 Squadron on a bomber escort mission near Bir el Gubi in the morning, and a fighter sweep south-east of El Adem in the afternoon. German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters shot down three Tomahawks for the loss of two of their own in the first action, Rawlinson claiming a 109 damaged. In the second action, a drawn-out battle for air superiority, the squadron lost six Tomahawks against two 109s destroyed, one of which was claimed by Rawlinson along with one probable and one damaged. He had also taken a shot at a distant 109 and, believing he had missed it, did not claim. After the war it was established that Rawlinson's bullets had damaged the 109 and wounded its pilot, Ernst Düllberg, who made a forced landing back at base. Rawlinson was credited with his final victory on 30 November, when he downed an Italian Macchi C.200 in an engagement that saw No. 3 Squadron's tally of claims rise to 106 aircraft destroyed.
Rawlinson handed over command of No. 3 Squadron on 12 December 1941. After a brief posting to RAF Headquarters Middle East, Rawlinson took command of the RAF Air Firing and Fighting School on 26 December. The same day, he was awarded a bar to his DFC, for having "fostered great keenness and a fine fighting spirit amongst pilots of his squadron". He reverted to the rank of flight lieutenant on 12 February 1942, as he no longer held a squadron leader's position, and returned to Australia. Rawlinson is generally credited with a total of eight victories in the Middle East, plus two probables and eight damaged (not counting Düllberg), though the RAAF Historical Section gives him a score of ten victories.
South West Pacific
Rawlinson (centre) with Keith Truscott
(far left) and Peter Jeffrey (left) at No. 2 OTU, Mildura, in June 1942
Arriving in Melbourne on 28 March 1942, Rawlinson was re-raised to temporary squadron leader on 1 April and took charge of the newly formed No. 2 Operational Training Unit (No. 2 OTU) on 13 April. Peter Jeffrey assumed command two weeks later, Rawlinson becoming chief flying instructor. Other instructors at the school included desert aces Clive Caldwell and Wilf Arthur. Rawlinson and Jeffrey had been dissatisfied with the flying standards of replacement pilots in the Middle East, and all the veterans were eager to get trainees "operational" before they posted to frontline units. Initially based at Port Pirie, South Australia, No. 2 OTU relocated to Mildura, Victoria, on 14 May and shortly afterwards began receiving P-40 Kittyhawks. In June 1942, Rawlinson, Arthur and a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) pilot conducted comparative trials pitting the new CAC Boomerang against a Kittyhawk and a Bell Airacobra, reporting favourably on the Boomerang's handling characteristics.
On 21 September 1942, Rawlinson was posted to RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne, as an assistant at the office of the Chief of the Air Staff. There he was asked to lead the only RAAF Supermarine Spitfire squadron to be formed in Australia, No. 79 Squadron. Rawlinson married Thora Doreen Buckland, a Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force officer, on 3 April 1943.
No. 79 Squadron was formed on 26 April 1943 at Laverton, Victoria. It received its first Spitfire VCs on 3 May, and a fortnight later began moving to Goodenough Island, off New Guinea's east coast. Along with two Kittyhawk units, Nos. 76 and 77 Squadrons, No. 79 Squadron came under control of No. 73 Wing, which was part of No. 9 Operational Group, the RAAF's main mobile formation in the South West Pacific. The Spitfires were to provide top cover for the Kittyhawks in the New Guinea campaign against Japanese forces. Rawlinson picked the squadron code letters UP, and his own aircraft's identifier U, to spell UP-U ("up you") on his Spitfire's fuselage. After a quiet spell at Goodenough, in August the squadron moved to Kiriwina, the closest Allied airfield to the major Japanese base at Rabaul. This promised enemy raids but none occurred during the first weeks of the squadron's deployment, and the pilots saw no combat while patrolling in support of USAAF attacks on Rabaul; Rawlinson commented that it was "a disappointment to us. What a letdown." The Japanese began attacking Kiriwina in early October, and No. 79 Squadron claimed its first victory on 31 October, when one of the Spitfires shot down a Kawasaki Ki-61 "Tony" fighter north of the airfield.
Rawlinson's No. 79 Squadron Spitfire, codenamed UP-U, at Goodenough Island, New Guinea, in July 1943
Having been promoted to temporary wing commander on 1 August 1943, Rawlinson handed over command of No. 79 Squadron on 7 November and was appointed wing leader of No. 73 Wing, headquartered at Kiriwina. The wing leader was responsible for tactical command of the formation in the air. Minimal offensive air activity by the Japanese meant that No. 79 Squadron's Spitfires saw relatively little action; the wing's Kittyhawks, with their ground-attack capability, were heavily engaged. On 15 December, the day of the Allied landings at Arawe, No. 76 Squadron Kittyhawks patrolled above the beaches while the Spitfires remained at Kiriwina in case of strikes by Japanese raiders, though none came.
Rawlinson returned to Australia to undertake the War Staff Course at the RAAF Staff School in Mount Martha, Victoria, from 4 January to 24 March 1944. His health had suffered as a result of his service in the Pacific and he was judged unfit for operational flying. His next posting was as commanding officer of the RAAF's Paratroop Training Unit, based at Richmond, from 1 April 1944 to 23 April 1945; the school was responsible for training Australian Army personnel, including the 1st Parachute Battalion and Z Special Forces. Rawlinson's assessing officer at Richmond considered him "particularly keen and adaptable", having performed well despite the challenges of his "unique appointment".
After a brief posting as Director of Air Staff Policy at RAAF Headquarters, Rawlinson succeeded Wilf Arthur as commander of No. 78 (Fighter) Wing at Tarakan on 25 May 1945. The wing came under the control of the First Tactical Air Force, which had taken over No. 9 Group's mobile role and was supporting Australian forces during the Borneo campaign. No. 78 Wing's complement included Nos. 75, 78 and 80 Squadrons, operating Kittyhawks, and several ancillary units. In June and July, the wing took part in the assaults on Labuan and Balikpapan, undertaking convoy escort in the former and, joined by Spitfires of No. 452 Squadron, ground-attack missions in support of the 7th Division in the latter.