William (Bill) Newton

Full name:
William Ellis Newton, VC
Born:

St Kilda
SA
Died:

Salamaua
Papua New Guinea
Occupation:
Warehouse worker
Education:
St Kilda Park Central School, Melbourne Grammar School
Fate:

Executed as a prisoner of war

Highest rank:
Flight Lieutenant
Enlistment:
5 February 1940 Parafield, South Australia
Decorations/ commendations:
Victoria Cross (VC), British War Medal, 1939-1945 Star, Pacific Star, Australia Service Medal 1939-45
Service:
Royal Australian Air Force
Service Number:
250748, 748
Conflict:
World War II 1939-1945
Military event:
Unit:
No. 22 Squadron RAAF
Clean-shaven man dressed in 1940s aviator gear stepping on the wing of an aircraft with a string of ammunition draped around his neck

Flight Lieutenant William Ellis Newton, VC at Salamaua in about 1943. AWM 100644

William 'Bill' Newton was the only Australian air force officer to be awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) in the Pacific theatre. His nickname was 'The Firebug' because of the damage he inflicted on enemy targets. Newton flew 52 operations, usually encountering intense anti-aircraft fire. His VC recognised Newton's 'great valour and devotion to duty'. It was awarded posthumously after Newton was executed by Japanese soldiers.

Early life

Bill Newton was born in St Kilda, Melbourne. His father, Charles, was a dentist and his mother, Minnie, was Charles's second wife. Bill had 3 older half-siblings and a sister, Phyllis. He went to Melbourne Grammar but left school early when his father died suddenly.

Newton was a talented sportsman, representing his school in cricket, swimming, water polo and football. Newton's tall, strong build added to his sporting ability. He was 190 cm tall and weighed 101 kg, according to a newspaper article in 1953.

Newton loved planes from an early age. As a child in Melbourne, he made model airplanes from cardboard and flew them around his suburban backyard. Newton could also identify any plane that flew overhead. Little wonder, after World War II broke out, that he would enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), later becoming an officer.

War service

Newton volunteered for the Royal Melbourne Regiment in November 1938. The Royal Melbourne Regiment was a popular choice with former students of Newton's school. Some 30 former Melbourne Grammar students were already serving with the regiment's 6th Battalion when Newton applied. In his enlistment application, Newton listed as relevant experience his 6 months in Melbourne Grammar's Cadet Corps, along with his roles as a school prefect and football team captain.

Newton joined the RAAF on 5 February 1940. He was 20 years of age. Newton began his training as an air cadet at No. 1 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS). He passed his Flying Instructors training and qualified as a pilot in June. Newton received his commission in December 1940 and was made acting Flight Lieutenant in July 1941. This rank was confirmed in April 1942.

Newton was a flying instructor until May 1942. He was then posted to No. 22 Squadron RAAF in Port Moresby as a Boston light bomber pilot.

Newton gained a reputation for his cheerful nature and courage and determination under fire. He flew 52 operations, facing heavy anti-aircraft fire on most. Newton was given the nickname 'The Firebug' because his bombing of enemy targets was so accurate and destructive.

On 16 March 1943, Newton led an operation to bomb several Japanese targets, including fuel and ammunition dumps at Salamaua, New Guinea. His Boston bomber was hit by intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire and its fuel tanks, fuselage, wings and main tyre were badly damaged. The plane was later found to have 98 bullet holes. Despite this damage, Newton managed to fly his plane and crew 180 miles (290 km) to safety.

Newton returned to Salamaua 2 days later. He bombed his target, but his plane was hit by Japanese flak. The plane burst into flames, forcing Newton to land on the water.

The navigator Sergeant Basil Eastwood was killed in the forced landing. Newton and a wireless operator, Flight Sergeant John Lyon, a fellow Victorian, survived and swam almost 1 km to shore.

A Japanese naval company captured the 2 Australian pilots the next day. Newton and Lyon were sent to Lae for interrogation. Lyon was executed by bayonet at Lae on 20 March 1943. On 29 March, Newton was beheaded by the Japanese.

The VC was awarded posthumously to William Newton for his 'great courage and iron determination'. His citation read:

Flight Lieutenant Newton's many examples of conspicuous bravery have rarely been equalled and will serve as a shining inspiration to all who follow him.

[Third Supplement to the The London Gazette, 15 October 1943, p 4617]

Commemorating William Newton

Several memorials to William Newton can be found in his hometown of St Kilda. He is also commemorated at a rest area at Bywong, as part of the Remembrance Driveway between Sydney and Canberra.

The Australian War Memorial holds 5 of Newton's medals under the title 'Flight Lieutenant W E Newton, 22 Squadron, RAAF'.

Sources:

  • 1943 'The last letter of Bill Newton, VC', The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954), 24 October, p. 1. (Supplement To The Sunday Sun), viewed 14 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231601707
  • 1953 'A STORY THAT LIVES ON', The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 - 1954), 28 March, p. 2. , viewed 14 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article57765537
  • National Archives of Australia: RAAF Officers Personnel files, 1921-1948; A9300 RAAF Officers Personnel files, 1921-1948; NEWTON W E, NEWTON WILLIAM ELLIS : Service Number - 250748 : Date of Birth - 8 Jun 1919 : Place of Birth - ST KILDA VIC : Place of Enlistment - PARAFIELD SA : Next of Kin - NEWTON MINNIE, 1939 - 1948.
  • The last letter of Bill Newton, VC (1943, October 24). The Sun, p1 (Supplement To The Sunday Sun). http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231601707
  • Victoria Cross Online, undated. William Ellis "Bill" Newton VC. The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross & George Cross. Viewed 7 Jan 2021. http://www.vconline.org.uk/william-e-bill-newton-vc/4587751208
  • Wikipedia contributors. Bill Newton. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Jan. 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Newton

Last updated: 18 November 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), William Ellis Newton, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 5 February 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/biographies/william-ellis-newton
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