This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993
Henry Gordon Bennett (1887-1962), army officer and businessman, was born on 16 April 1887 at Balwyn, Melbourne, second child of George Jesse Bennett, a schoolmaster from Cape Town, and his native-born wife Harriet, née Bentley. Alfred Edward Bennett was Gordon's younger brother. Educated at Balwyn State School and Hawthorn College, Gordon was employed by the Australian Mutual Provident Society as an actuarial clerk. On 14 August 1908 he was commissioned in the Citizen Military Forces and posted to the 5th Infantry Regiment. He was promoted major in 1912.
Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 19 August 1914, Bennett embarked for Egypt in October as second-in-command of the 6th Battalion. In the Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 he was one of the leaders of the advance to Pine Ridge. Wounded that afternoon while directing fire at Turkish positions, he was evacuated to a hospital ship, but absented himself to return to the front. He gained a reputation for leadership and courage under fire—and for his seeming immunity to serious injury—particularly in the 2nd Brigade's assault against Krithia on 8 May. Next day he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and assumed command of the 6th Battalion. Overlooked for this advancement some months earlier, he had responded with bitterness, a facet of his character which was to become more pronounced. Bennett was appointed C.M.G. (1915) and twice mentioned in dispatches for his deeds at Gallipoli.
During operations in France, from April 1916 he alternated as battalion and acting brigade commander. On 18 November that year at the Scottish National Church, Chelsea, London, he married Bessie Agnes Buchanan whom he had met in Melbourne. Aged 29, he was promoted temporary brigadier and given the 3rd Brigade on 3 December. His reputation as an exceptional front-line commander grew as a result of his performances at Bullecourt, France (April to May 1917), the Menin Road (September) and Passchendaele (October), Belgium, and again in France at the Hindenburg line from September to November 1918. In contrast, his prickly temperament and tendency to act without orders from divisional headquarters provoked Major General (Sir) William Glasgow to observe: 'Bennett is a pest!' Charles Bean was to recall Bennett's jealousy, criticism of superiors and quarrels with other officers. For his service on the Western Front, Bennett was awarded the Montenegrin Order of Danilo (1917) and the Distinguished Service Order (1919); he was appointed C.B. in 1918 and six times mentioned in dispatches.
After returning briefly to Melbourne, where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 31 August 1919, he moved to Sydney. There he worked as a clothing manufacturer and a public accountant. In 1922 he was appointed chairman of the State Repatriation Board and in October 1928 became one of the three commissioners administering the City of Sydney. Bennett was prominent in the All for Australia League from 1931 and was a member of the Defence of Australia League. He presided over the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales (1931-33), the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia (1933-34) and other professional organizations.
Bennett retained his passion for the army. In 1921-26 he had commanded the 9th Infantry Brigade. He was promoted major general on 1 August 1930 while in command (1926-32) of the 2nd Division. Along with some other citizen-officers in Australia's essentially part-time army, he resented the influence of the handful of regular (Staff Corps) officers. His distaste of permanent-service officers, stemming from earlier experience, increased during two decades of peace. In late 1937 he published a series of newspaper articles on defence policy which criticized regular officers and which led to his being censured by the Military Board.
On the outbreak of World War II Bennett was junior only to Sir Brudenell White and Glasgow, and was in no doubt that, if an Australian expeditionary force were raised, he would be its commander. He was therefore furious when Major General Sir Thomas Blamey (an ex-regular officer with whom he had clashed) was appointed to head the 6th Division and later the A.I.F. The decision to pass over Bennett was not a matter of revenge on the part of politicians and senior Staff Corps officers, as he and his supporters alleged; his military qualities were generally acknowledged. Because of his temperament, he was considered unsuitable for a semi-diplomatic command, and one that involved subordination to British generals. Bennett was as scathing of British officers as he was of Australian regulars.
Worse was to come. On the formation of the A.I.F.'s 7th, 8th and 9th divisions, command in each instance went to others. Bennett languished in Eastern Command until August 1940 when White's sudden death occasioned the appointment of Major General (Sir) Vernon Sturdee as chief of the General Staff. Sturdee nominated Bennett to succeed him as commander of the 8th Division on 24 September. The humiliation of the first year of the war combined with his ambition to spur Bennett to make up lost ground, particularly against Blamey. In February 1941 Bennett flew to Malaya and established his headquarters. He was to be joined by only two of his brigades, the third being detached for service elsewhere. His relationships with his senior officers were unhappy and some of them attempted at one stage to have him recalled on medical grounds. Bennett's dislike of regular officers was unabated and was felt within his command, but his most antagonistic relationship was with Brigadier H. B. Taylor, a former C.M.F. officer. Bennett's dealings with British senior officers, especially with the general officer commanding, Malaya, Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, were similarly devoid of harmony.
Japanese troops landed in Malaya on 8 December and soon pushed British and Indian forces southward. Given command of Westforce on 9 January 1942, Bennett was made responsible for the defence of north-west Johore. He was confident that his Indian and Australian formations would halt the enemy advance, but his dispositions were fundamentally unsound: despite a successful Australian ambush at Gemas on 14 January, he fared no better than the British commanders whom he had derided. By the end of the month the defenders had withdrawn to Singapore. The Japanese assault on 8 February carried all before it. Again, Bennett's conduct of operations was questionable and Percival noted that his interest in the campaign seemed to wane towards the end. Surrender negotiations began on 15 February. That night Bennett handed over command of the 8th Division to Brigadier C. A. Callaghan and left Singapore by sampan. He arrived in Melbourne on 2 March.
The response in Australia to Bennett's escape was mixed. His action was applauded by those who thought that he had valuable lessons to impart on methods of fighting the Japanese. Others, including many senior officers, denounced him for deserting his troops who became prisoners of war. Although Bennett was promoted temporary lieutenant general on 7 April and made commander of III Corps in Perth, Blamey ensured that he would never again have command in the field. Bennett unavailingly petitioned politicians for help. Bitterly disappointed, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 9 May 1944. Immediately, he was again at loggerheads with military authorities over his account of the Malayan campaign, Why Singapore Fell (Sydney), which was largely an apologia. Although Blamey tried to prevent the book's publication, it came out later that year.
On the release of prisoners of war in 1945, a letter from Percival which accused Bennett of unlawfully vacating his command was passed to Blamey. A military investigation found that Bennett had relinquished his command without permission. The reaction of his defenders, many of whom had served with him in World War I or in the 8th Division, was vociferous and the government commissioned (Sir) George Ligertwood to inquire into the matter. The commissioner's findings failed to provide Bennett with the vindication he sought. While never questioning Bennett's personal courage, Ligertwood concluded that his action had been unjustified.
Bennett's stated reason for leaving Singapore was that he had learned how to defeat the Japanese (but had been let down by British and Indian troops) and he was obliged to communicate his knowledge to military authorities. Yet, he had proved no more proficient than other commanders in Malaya and his tactics were outdated. Just as important to him was his wish to lead the Australian army, a consuming aspiration which had been sharpened by not being given an early command. His prejudice against regular officers and his ambition clouded his professional judgement at the most important point in his career. When his most cherished goals were in tatters, he convinced himself that blame for his failure lay with others.
After the war Bennett became an orchardist at Glenorie, near Sydney, until 1955. He continued his interest in military matters and wrote articles on many topics, among them the virtues of a citizen army. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 1 August 1962 at Dural and was cremated with Anglican rites. His portrait by James Quinn is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
A. B. Lodge, 'Bennett, Henry Gordon (1887–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-henry-gordon-9489/text16697, accessed 20 May 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993