I was busy organizing presentation of medals and trophies at the 2005 Australian Rowing Championships. It was the last day of a long regatta and as I glanced back towards the grandstand I saw a slight and older gentleman in the unmistakable colours of the Sydney University Blues blazer. The blazer dated from 1936 and fitting into it, one could imagine as well as he did in 1936, was Ian Esplin, University oarsman and Blue, Rhodes Scholar, World War II RAF veteran and later Air Vice Marshall in the R.A.F.
At the age of 91 Ian is still young, still driving himself around and still playing golf and I resolved to catch up with one of our oldest living rowing Blues (possibly our oldest) in the near future.
When I recently met Ian for lunch I was able to get some glimpse into his remarkable life. Ian was born in Sydney in 1914 to a loving family and on arrival was the youngest of four boys.
Education was at Shore School not far from the family home at Wollstonecraft. Ian remembers getting involved at the very young age of 10 with SUBC where he started coxing the crew in which one of his elder brothers, an architecture student rowed. Being already involved with rowing it seemed only natural that Ian would try this sport at school and he did so with some success. The 1932 Shore Eight won the Head of the River (in those days on the Parramatta River in front of 100,000 spectators) with Ian as stroke by a narrow six feet. The following year Ian repeated his leaving Certificate and obtained a good enough mark to be offered a bursary to Sydney University.
At the same time as starting his Economics degree as a night student Ian worked full time at Anthony Hordern?s and began rowing with SUBC from the club?s small boatshed at Glebe Point. In 1933 he stroked the Economics Eight and 1934 saw SUBC make the trip to Murray Bridge for Intervarsity. Ian reports that at the time Sydney University had an eight of particularly poor quality which encompassed that feature of many old wooden boats that it could twist in more than one direction at a time and thus be down on the strokeside near the stern and the bowside at the other end. At Murray Bridge the crew finished 2nd to arch rivals Melbourne. In 1935 Intervarsity was held on the Yarra and on this occasion Sydney reversed the 1934 result and took out the Oxford and Cambridge Cup. Ian was awarded a University Blue.
1936 saw Ian hard at work and taking a crash course in Latin, a subject from which he had ?retired? in Year 9. The reason for his new found interest in the classics was that his mentor, the great Len Robson, his headmaster from Shore School had suggested that Ian might apply for a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and Latin was a requirement at that time for entry . After passing his exam and a grilling from the Rhodes Committee Ian was advised that he was successful and was awarded the 1937 Rhodes Scholarship from NSW.
A turning point was reached and Ian was headed for Oxford, England and experiences that were to shape his adult life.
At Oxford Ian turned his attentions primarily to study. Positions in the Oxford Blue Boat in those days were not readily available to ?colonials? ? an important selection criteria was to have attended Eton. In 1939 with war seemingly inevitable Ian joined the R.A.F Volunteer Reserve pilot section. His logic was that if he returned to Australia and joined the Air Force he would just be posted back to Britain ? so why not stay and save the trip.
Starting out in December 1939 Ian became an Aircraftsman 2nd class on 10 shillings and 8 pence per week after canteen deductions. After enduring some months of ?boot camp? style operations in freezing conditions Ian was promoted to LAC ( leading Aircraft man) and became a ?pilot under training? being posted in May 1940 to Acklington and after a stint of ground defence duty to Cambridge at the No 22 E.F.T.S ( Elementary Flying Training School). Starting in Tiger Moths Ian was later (August 1940) posted to South Cerney in Gloucestershire where they were to start flying the Airspeed Oxford. To quote from Ian?s book on his life this plane ?was a bitch to fly and a bastard to land?. At the end of this course Ian was awarded his much-coveted wings, given a commission and applied for posting to fighters. However his flying course had been geared towards twin-engine planes and he was assigned to No 2 Central Flying School in Cranwell as a flying instructor.
Around August 1941 Ian decided he had had enough of pilot instruction and on a day off took himself to London to department P2 at the Air Ministry. This department controlled postings and as Ian tells it he came across a Squadron leader who was sympathetic to his complaint that ? I?ve done twelve months as a flying instructor , I?m fed up, want to see some action and I?ve heard you are looking for night fighter pilots?. After an on he spot night vision test Ian soon received his orders to report to No 51 Operational Training Unit near Bletchly and soon after was on his way to becoming a night fighter pilot.
Initial combat posting was to Two Nine Squadron in Maidstone Kent ? the squadron was equipped with Beaufighters. Ian tells of staying on ?night readiness? which consisted of lying around fully clothed including flying boots and very dark goggles so as not to disturb their ?night vision? ? a major drawback of this attire was that you could not read or play cards ! Ian?s squadron had the task of intercepting German night bombers (especially the Junkers JU88) and in the course of his tour of duty Ian had to shoot down a number of the enemy planes.
In March 1943 Ian was posted from night fighters to Drem in Scotland where he was involved in secret experiments testing new equipment which would enable Allied night fighters to get an immediate fix on enemy aircraft as soon as they turned on their radar. Another area in which they experimented was the use of packages of tin foil to confuse enemy radar.
During his posting at Drem Ian met his future wife who was in the WAAF and posted to a nearby training centre. Soon after their relationship developed Ian was posted again to Headquarters, South East Asia Command at that time located in Delhi. Ian prepared to depart but for some reason his orders were postponed for ten days ? enough time for he and Patricia (Dizzy) Barlow to make the start of a lifelong commitment to each other. In May 1944 Ian was posted back to Britain to observe Operation Overlord (the Allied invasion of Europe) on the basis that this might provide worthwhile lessons for similar assaults in SE Asia. This was the opportunity for him and Pat to marry which they did at the Holy Trinity Church in Knightsbridge followed by a ?wartime? 36-hour honeymoon in Marlow.
When the war ended in 1945 Ian and Dizzy made their way to Australia and Ian took up a position with Qantas as International Relations Officer dealing with IATA, governments and other international airline bodies. Ian moved on to become company secretary at Qantas but by 1946 was not enjoying the work. Ian first child, Brian arrived in December 1946 and in early 1947 he accepted the offer of a permanent commission in the R.A. F and returned to England starting out in peacetime with the rank of Wing Commander. By 1949 Ian and Dizzy?s second child, Joanne had arrived and Ian was being steadily promoted. Through the fifties and the Cold War Ian served in a number of postings including the R.A.F. Staff College, commanding the No148 Wing of the first jet engine all-weather fighters in Germany, the Air War College and as Commanding Officer of the R.A.F base at Wartling in Sussex.
In early 1960 Ian was promoted to Air Commodore and returned to the Air Ministry as Director of Operational Requirements. In this job Ian was responsible for all future fixed-wing aircraft, engines, weapons systems, helicopters and research. On New Year?s Day 1964 Ian received a telegram advising he had been promoted to Air Vice-Marshal and had been made a C.B in the New Year Honours List. Soon after Ian and his family were posted to the USA, Washington DC where Ian became ?Commander, Royal Air Force Staff and Air Attache at the British Embassyz?. At the end of this posting Ian was offered a more senior position back in London but decided that this would end the chances of ever moving back to Australia. In 1965 Ian retired from the R.A.F and returned to settle back in Sydney.
Ian?s son Brian must have inherited his enthusiasm for the air, he became a pilot and rose to the senior ranks of Check Captain with Qantas. Ian and Dizzy lived at more permanent addresses in Sydney after so many moves and postings in his air career over nearly thirty years. Initially at Castle Cove and then a few years at Palm beach before ?retiring? to Mosman in more recent times.
After a marriage lasting just short of 60 years Dizzy passed away in 2003. In the short time I spent with Ian it was very clear how much he had loved Dizzy and what a wonderful partnership they had shared. The lasting impression I took was despite a full and successful career in the R.A.F. in both war and peace, despite a full life as a young scholar, sportsman and elite academic performance, it was that Ian valued his marriage and family above all else. Ian Esplin is a man who has lived long, achieved much and who we consider fortunate to be able count as an alumnus of the Sydney University Boat Club.