Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 34
David Horner, Blamey: the Commander-in-Chief, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998, xviii + 686 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, hard cover, rrp A$49.95.
Reviewed by: CARL BRIDGE, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King's College, London
Australians of my generation - whose parents fought in the Second World War - grew up with a number of oft-repeated stories that were hardly complimentary to our nation's wartime commander-in-chief. "That bastard Blamey", as he was almost invariably called, was the man who accused some of our men of "running like rabbits" at Kokoda, though he himself was safe in Melbourne at the time. He was the bloke who escaped by plane from Greece taking his son with him and leaving many other people's sons behind to die or be captured. He was the police commissioner in 1930s Melbourne whose badge was found in a brothel. He was the general who dismissed his field commander in New Guinea in 1942 to save his own skin, and who in 1944-45 committed our forces to an "unnecessary war" in Bougainville and Borneo. In short, we heard that Blamey was selfish, corrupt and cowardly, and that we won the war despite Blamey rather than because of him.
Assessments by Blamey's peers were more mixed. His American superior, Douglas MacArthur, thought him a "sensual, slothful and doubtful moral character but a tough commander likely to shine like a power-light in an emergency. The best of the local bunch." Another American senior officer saw only a "drunken old fool". Churchill described Blamey as a "more ardent politician than soldier". An Australian general, George Vasey, called him "the Lord", a "tiresome fellow - swollen-headed and pig-headed beyond words". No wonder Curtin had to come to Blamey's defence, saying he had appointed "a military leader not a Sunday School teacher".
Those who have written in Blamey's favour, his aide-de-camp (Norman Carlyon) and one of the few journalists who liked him (John Hetherington), have failed to overturn his appallingly negative public image. To make matters even harder for any biographer, Blamey was notoriously secretive. Unlike the confessional Monash (whose papers were a goldmine for his biographer, Geoffrey Serle), Blamey left a scant record, which revealed little of his private self. Perhaps he had a lot to hide?
David Horner is one of Australia's most respected military historians. His dozen or so books, mostly on the Second World War, have been in effect training runs for his attempt on Blamey, the Everest ascent of Australian military biography. That training has paid off: twenty years in the making, Horner's Blamey is magisterial. Carlyon's and Hetherington's books were merely sympathetic character sketches; Horner's offers a full assessment of Blamey as a commander. It subjects Blamey's career to the most rigorous of analyses, based on the widest possible archival trawl and on interviews and correspondence with most of the key witnesses. Resting his argument firmly on von Moltke the Elder's dictum that "the military commander is the fate of the nation", and readily acknowledging Blamey's faults, Horner makes the case for Blamey as Australia's greatest soldier. He also presents us with a much more detailed and convincing portrait of the man than available anywhere.
Born in 1884, Blamey was the seventh of the ten children of a struggling small-farmer-cum-butcher-cum-drover from the Wagga district. His ancestors were Cornish and Scottish. Horner maps young Tom's quick clamber up the ladder from pupil teacher in New South Wales (88 p.a.) to teacher in Fremantle, Western Australia (130 p.a.), to officer instructor in the Commonwealth Military Forces (250 p.a.), overcoming along the way a brief yearning for the Methodist ministry. In 1910 he married a Melbourne stockbroker's daughter nine years his senior. In 1912, Blamey was the first Australian officer to attend the prestigious British Army staff college in Quetta, India. His commandant there found him an average student, "not gifted with a large amount of tact", but one who "knows what he wants and means to get it". Blamey was clearly a man after, in his own words, "any job that savours of advance".
Appointed to a staff post in London in 1914, he sailed close by the Dardanelles, to which he returned a few months later as a staff officer in the Gallipoli campaign. Drafting orders became his forte and as a precocious 34-year-old brigadier on Monash's staff he helped plan the great ANZAC victories of 1918. The rise was dramatic. Monash, shrewd as ever, summed up Blamey's character: "He possessed a mind cultured far above the average, widely informed, alert and prehensile. He had an infinite capacity for taking pains." Monash also found him to be not unlike himself: "a 'work and burst man'" who would "slave for long hours, then drive off for a night in Amiens". (In matters of the flesh, Quetta had converted Blamey from puritan to cavalier.) Blamey, too, was an ambitious outsider. The official historian Bean sensed "a bad man to cross" who had "few close friends".
After the war and work as the military attaché in London - "a sort of commercial traveller in military affairs" - Blamey became in 1925 Victoria's chief of police (1500 p.a.). A month later, his badge was found in a brothel, though it was ascertained that Blamey himself was elsewhere at the time. The reports relating to this grubby affair have long been destroyed and Horner can only say that we will never know whether he was covering for a mate or framed by enemies in the force. Blamey introduced necessary reforms and was knighted in 1935. These were tough times for him. His elder son, a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, died in a crash in 1932; his invalid wife died in 1935; and a year later - when Blamey was caught lying to a royal commission in a vain attempt to protect the reputations of two women inadvertently involved in a police operation - the new Labor government forced his resignation.
Sidelined at age 52, he was reduced to occupying his time with citizen-soldiering and occasional journalism. The coming war and Menzies' rise to power rescued him. Recognising in Blamey the "power of command" (though the journalist and later war correspondent Chester Wilmot thought his "reputation of being a crook" would impair it), Menzies appointed Blamey first to organise mobilisation and then to command the 6th Division and the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF). In 1939 Blamey married a Melbourne fashion artist twenty years his junior.
Blamey went to war with a charter which guaranteed the integrity and autonomy of the national force, and his most demanding task in the Middle East proved to be keeping the 2nd AIF together, constantly resisting the attempted depredations of the British high command. He stood up to Wavell and Auchinleck over Tobruk and to 'Jumbo' Wilson over Syria, becoming as a result, in his own words, "the most hated man in the Middle East". Only in Greece did he command in the field. There, in a campaign ill-fated from the start, he showed commendable foresight in surveying evacuation beaches on the way in, but fell out with his chief of staff, Rowell (who said he was "incompetent", "completely broken" and issuing "garbled orders"), Bridgeford (who thought him "a coward" for diving ignominiously into slit trenches) and Vasey (who wrote that he "lost a terrible amount of caste" by evacuating his surviving son, an artillery major, in a plane reserved for generals). Further, Blamey ducked and weaved in the planning stages of the campaign, allowing Menzies to believe that he approved of British intentions while leaving room for denial should the need arise.
To appease Australia for the Greek disaster, the British made Blamey deputy commander-in-chief in the Middle East and he became a full general. Though really "a fifth wheel on the coach", his advice was valued by Wavell, who told Casey he was "probably the best soldier in the Middle East" and by Auchinleck, who thought him "a tough old boy with plenty of commonsense". Horner's well-founded judgment is that through "determination, toughness and sheer bloody mindedness" Blamey used the Middle Eastern stage to establish the 2nd AIF as a competent national force. His finest moment was arranging the relief of the 9th Division in Tobruk; his worst, the political, military and personal wobbling during the Greek campaign. Had Blamey not taken on himself responsibility for doing two jobs - field command and overall AIF command - his grip in Greece might have been surer and his reputation less blighted, but as Horner says the military outcome would not have been any different.
Back in Australia for consultations on the eve of Pearl Harbor, Blamey chastised his complacent fellow countrymen in a newspaper interview: the "apathy... sickens me". But Japan's southward thrust soon vindicated him and he was given a "blank cheque" by the panicking Curtin government to do all possible to defend Australia. Thus he became the most powerful Australian soldier ever, commanding at the front and administering at the rear.
By April 1942 'Magic' intelligence decrypts showed that Japan did not intend to invade Australia. Consequently, as commander of Allied land forces Blamey decided, with the Supreme Commander (US General MacArthur), that it was expedient to hold back the 7th Division in Port Moresby and instead to commit raw militia battalions to the fighting on the Kokoda Track. He clearly miscalculated the public mood. A frightened cabinet, backed by a MacArthur who was now looking for a scapegoat, sent Blamey to assume personal control. As Jack Beasley (Minister for Supply and Development) put it: "Moresby is going to fall. Send Blamey up there and let him fall with it." Fighting for his professional life, Blamey found not one scapegoat but three, sacking in succession Rowell, Potts and Allen, and also removing Chester Wilmot for good measure. "Like all crafty gangsters", Rowell remarked, "he got in his blow first". At this time, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, commander of the 39th Battalion, the "ragged, bloody heroes" of Kokoda, visited Blamey and recalled: "He didn't know who I was. I had been his commander of the Australian forces opposing the Japs. He didn't know. He didn't care." Soon afterwards, Blamey accused the 2/16th Battalion to their faces of "running away" like "rabbits". None of this made military sense - these were "the men who saved Australia despite your [Blamey's] mistakes", their padre said. But, as Horner demonstrates, it made political sense: Blamey's ruthless tactics satisfied MacArthur's, the politicians' and the public's need for explanations, and by so doing, Blamey engineered his own survival.
After the Kokoda and Buna-Gona battles, MacArthur bypassed Blamey as his deputy by appointing special US task forces directly under himself. This left Blamey to command Australian troops, with US air and naval support, in the arduous but well-executed and successful fighting in the Huon Peninsula and later campaigns in New Guinea. From early in 1944, however, Blamey manoeuvred for the command of a projected British Commonwealth combined force of twelve divisions that was to assist the Americans in the conquest of Japan. But Curtin and MacArthur vetoed the idea. Instead, he waged aggressive "mopping up" operations in Bougainville and the assault on Borneo, the so-called "unnecessary war". Horner shows the operations to have been government-approved and aimed at strengthening Australia's hand in the peace negotiations rather than, as some say, ordered mainly for Blamey's self-aggrandisement.
With Allied victory guaranteed, Blamey ended his war in frustration, embroiled in internecine fighting with the Defence Department bureaucracy and increasingly out of favour with the government. The generals he had perceived as rivals and marginalised (Bennett, Lavarack and Robertson) intrigued against him and his troops sometimes openly taunted him, booing and crying out "Get back to your brothels, Blamey!" Blamey's chief protector Curtin died, and the new Prime Minister, Chifley (once described by Blamey as a "slow-thinking churl" who "hates nothing so much as a soldier") backed Blamey's political enemies, Army ministers Forde and Fraser. For a time it was uncertain whether Blamey would see out the war in office. He just managed it.
Horner is fairly candid about Blamey's imperfections - his political vindictiveness and favouritism; his grasping materialism and overweening ambition; his tawdry sex life; his propensity to thumb his nose at public opinion; and his harsh, authoritarian politics. He points out, for example, how Blamey once faked claims to collect overseas allowances and notes Kenneth Slessor's disgust at finding the commander of the AIF "jazzing fatuously with a blowsy Egyptian girl" in a Cairo night club. But Horner seems unwilling to examine fully the more unsavoury aspects of Blamey's character. Was Blamey paid a dual salary for his dual command and administrative roles? We suspect so, but are not told. Horner also draws a veil over the contents of Shedden's lengthy report into Blamey's flagrant sexual and alcoholic indiscretions while travelling with Curtin's official party to Washington and London in mid-1944. Nor does Horner fully run to ground Wilmot's allegations that Blamey was "on the take" over a number of military contracts. One commentator has written perceptively that it was not Blamey's private life itself that was so worrying, but rather that it was so manifestly not private. Horner does not attempt to explain what it was about Blamey's character than made him flaunt his boozing, womanising and cronyism. Horner follows Blamey in choosing to pigeon-hole all of this as only a public relations problem, unfortunate, but ultimately irrelevant to the main issue. For Horner, it is enough to conclude that Blamey may not have been loved, or even admired, but he was respected and feared.
Be all this as it may, Horner certainly takes the measure of the military man. He says Blamey was one of the very few national commanders to serve from the beginning of the war to the end. Guarding "the fate of the nation", he saw Australia through its greatest military crisis when Japan threatened to invade in 1942. Further, Blamey presided over the expansion of Australia's forces to nearly a million men and women. He successfully managed the relationships with our British and American allies. Arguably, his ruthless treatment of subordinates paid off both in his own and in the national interest. He may have faltered in Greece and on Kokoda, but the machine he fashioned contributed significantly to the Allied victory. According to Horner, others were better field commanders, but no other among the Australians had his all-round skills as politician, administrator and logistician. Blamey climbed to administrative and political heights never essayed by Monash. He certainly did more for Australia than his men ever knew or ever told us, their children. Just before Blamey's death in 1951 Menzies recognised his achievement by making him a field marshal. Blamey is still the only Australian ever to have reached that rank.
Horner's is a compelling case for Blamey's irrefutable achievements, and we are greatly in his debt. But one senses remaining dark corners in Blamey's character and career that would reward further probing. Moreover, one still suspects that Blamey too often devoted too much of his considerable energies to outwitting imagined rivals at the expense of focussing on victory in the war. To what extent did he win his field marshal's baton by dint of merely having survived for so long at the top? When someone puts an equally compelling case for the prosecution we shall be even closer to resolving the Blamey enigma.