Page 1: Biography
Cochrane, Ralph Alexander
Military aviator, air force leader
This biography, written by Paul Harrison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Ralph Alexander Cochrane was born at Springfield, Fife, Scotland, on 24 February 1895, the son of Gertrude Julia Georgina Boyle and her husband, Thomas Horatio Arthur Ernest Cochrane, the first Baron Cochrane of Cults. Educated at Osborne and Dartmouth, he entered the Royal Navy in 1912, transferring to the airship branch in 1915. He was awarded the Air Force Cross in January 1919 and accepted a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in August. In 1929 he took up an appointment at the RAF Staff College, Andover. He married Hilda Frances Holme Wiggin on 22 December 1930 in Chelsea, London. They were to have two sons and a daughter.
In 1935 Ralph Cochrane was appointed to the headquarters of Inland Area and Training Command. That year, in New Zealand, the Labour government decided that the air force, which was part of the New Zealand Permanent Forces, should become a separate arm, and Tom Wilkes, director of air services, was approached to prepare a scheme. He recommended that an expert from the United Kingdom be asked to draw up a plan; Cochrane was selected for the task, which was estimated to take three to four months.
He arrived by sea at Wellington on 4 November 1936, and by early December he had submitted to government a report, 'Air aspect of the defence problems of New Zealand'. This took the view that the security of New Zealand, the United Kingdom and their shipping routes required air defence. To this end, Cochrane recommended that the air force operate as a separate service controlled by an air board under the minister of defence. It would comprise two permanent squadrons of 12 medium bombers capable of locating and attacking enemy raiders before they reached New Zealand; a reserve of personnel to support these squadrons; an army co-operation squadron in time of war; and a territorial air force. Cochrane deliberately downplayed the status of the last mentioned, concerned that the government might decide on this least expensive option. The report was accepted and Cochrane was asked to remain in New Zealand for up to two years to implement his plan. He was promoted to the rank of group captain and appointed chief of air staff of the independent Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), which came into being on 1 April 1937.
Cochrane set about forming his air staff, and surveying the country and the Pacific islands for airfield sites. Two sites in New Zealand, Whenuapai and Ōhakea, were chosen as the bases for the new medium bomber squadrons. The enthusiasm that he engendered among the New Zealand service staff, who had suffered years of neglect by previous governments, was infectious. A tireless leader, he became known as a human dynamo. Once, when an engineer involved in the development of the two bases fell ill, Cochrane went to his bedside to discuss technicalities. He travelled around the country lecturing on the importance of air power and New Zealand's lack of preparedness.
By the end of his first year as chief of air staff, Cochrane was able to report that approved manning levels had increased from 21 officers and 164 airmen to 37 officers and 302 airmen. Construction had commenced at Ōhakea and was to begin at Whenuapai; all flying training had been relocated to Wigram; 30 Wellington bombers had been ordered; a territorial squadron had been formed at Wellington in October and approval had been given for one each at Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin; and 12 Baffin aircraft had arrived for the Wellington squadron.
When Cochrane handed over command to Group Captain H. W. L. Saunders on 8 March 1939, the young RNZAF was rapidly expanding. Some new training aircraft for the flying school had been delivered, and second-hand aircraft for the territorial squadrons were in the process of being sent. Orders had been placed for ammunition, bombs, and technical stores, and the establishment of a second flying training base at Woodbourne had been approved. When war was declared in September, the RNZAF was moving towards a state of readiness.
For his vital role in New Zealand Ralph Cochrane was made a CBE in 1943. On his return to Britain he continued his RAF career, serving in various command appointments. He was made a KCB in 1948 and advanced to a GBE in 1950. When he retired in November 1952 he was vice chief of air staff. He died at Burford, Oxfordshire, on 17 December 1977, survived by his wife, Hilda.