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Blamey, Sir Thomas Albert (1884–1951)

by David Horner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir Thomas Albert Blamey (1884-1951), army officer and commissioner of police, was born on 24 January 1884 at Lake Albert, near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, seventh child of Richard Henwood Blamey, butcher, and his native-born wife Margaret Louisa, née Murray. Born in Cornwall, England, Richard had come to Australia in 1862 at the age of 16. Having worked as a cattleman in Queensland, he moved to the Wagga Wagga district where he took up a small property, and also found jobs as a contract drover and as an overseer of shearing-sheds.

Educated at Wagga Wagga Superior Public School, Thomas was employed from 1899 as a local pupil-teacher and participated enthusiastically in the school cadets. In July 1903 he became an assistant-teacher at Fremantle Boys' School, Western Australia. There he continued to develop his leadership skills, particularly in the cadets. He attended Claremont Methodist Church, organized church activities and preached occasional sermons. By early 1906 he had been offered the post of probationary minister at Carnarvon, but, before accepting, saw an advertisement inviting applications for commissions in the Commonwealth Cadet Forces. In an Australia-wide military examination Blamey was placed third; he was appointed lieutenant on the Administrative and Instructional Staff in November, and posted to Melbourne.

Throughout the next five years he applied himself to his work with the cadets and endeavoured to improve his military knowledge. On 8 September 1909 he married 34-year-old Minnie Caroline Millard with Anglican rites in her parents' home, Hylands, at Toorak. They were to have two sons: Charles, known as 'Dolf' (b. 1910), died in an aeroplane crash in 1932 while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force; Thomas (b. 1914) became a solicitor and served in the Australian Imperial Force in World War II. In 1910 their father had transferred to the Australian Military Forces and was promoted captain.

Following a competitive examination, in 1912 Blamey began the course at the Staff College, Quetta, India, indicating his resolve to make a success of his career. Initially unaccompanied by his family, he lived in the mess for a year. Late in 1913 he graduated with a B pass. In his report the commandant claimed that Blamey 'came here uneducated (in a military sense) but all his work during his first year was characterised by a very genuine determination to overcome this defect. By the end of the first year he had succeeded beyond all expectation'. The commandant also noted: 'If he is not gifted with a large amount of tact he is not, in any way, conspicuously devoid of that very necessary quality'. When Blamey was sent to England in May 1914 for further experience, his family sailed home to Melbourne.

On the outbreak of World War I Major Blamey served briefly at the War Office in London before joining the 1st Australian Division in Egypt as general staff officer, 3rd grade (intelligence). He landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, with Major General (Sir) William Bridges and Colonel (Sir) Brudenell White, and next month led a small patrol behind enemy lines in a daring effort to locate Turkish guns. In July Blamey was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and went back to Egypt to help form the 2nd Division; he returned to Gallipoli in September and was appointed the division's assistant-adjutant and quartermaster general.

In the early months of 1916 the A.I.F. began moving to France. By July, when the 1st Division was in action on the Somme, Blamey had succeeded White as chief of staff. After short periods in command of a battalion and a brigade (in which he saw no action), Blamey continued as G.S.O.1, 1st Division, until June 1918. He was then promoted temporary brigadier and made chief of staff of the Australian Corps under Lieutenant General Sir John Monash.

Working in close partnership with his commander, Blamey helped to plan the successful battle at Hamel in July, the offensive beginning on 8 August and the subsequent breaking of the Hindenburg line. Blamey was not the driving force behind the corps' achievements—with a commander of Monash's calibre that was not possible. Nor was he was a mere clerk, responding to Monash's directions. With strong views on the conduct of operations, he was not afraid to express his opinions to Monash and—on his commander's behalf—kept a firm grip on activities throughout the corps. Blamey bore wide responsibility and gained a deep understanding of all facets of contemporary warfare. The demanding Monash thought that Blamey 'possessed a mind cultured far above the average, widely informed, alert and prehensile. He had an infinite capacity for taking pains'. General William Birdwood, the commander of the A.I.F., described him as 'an exceedingly able little man, though by no means a pleasing personality'. Blamey was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1917) and the French Croix de Guerre (1919); he was appointed C.M.G. (1918) and C.B. (1919), and was mentioned in dispatches seven times.

Returning to Melbourne in October 1919, he was posted as director of military operations at Army Headquarters. Next year he became deputy chief of the General Staff. In 1922 he was sent to the high commissioner's office in London as colonel, General Staff, and Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff. By March 1925 he was back in Australia as second chief of the General Staff. His military career seemed assured, but his rapid rise had engendered considerable jealousy. The Australian army was still largely a citizen force and there were young militia brigadiers who, unlike Blamey, had commanded troops in battle. Furthermore, his fellow regular officers, such as Sir Harry Chauvel, James Legge, Victor Sellheim, (Sir) Julius Bruche, Walter Coxen, Cecil Foott, Charles Brand and Thomas Dodds, were senior to him, and some of them made it clear to the minister for defence that they would 'resent most strongly being passed over' if Blamey were to be promoted.

In 1925 (Sir) Stanley Argyle, the Victorian chief secretary, offered Blamey the post of chief commissioner of police, at an annual salary of £1500. He decided to leave the regular army. Transferring to the Militia on 1 September, he took office that day. Lingering dissension over the 1923 strike by officers of the Police Force of Victoria and community tension during the Depression were to make his tenure difficult. His administration began, however, with controversy of a more personal nature. On 21 October police raided a brothel and found a man with Blamey's police badge. Blamey privately maintained that he had lent his key ring, including the badge, to a friend, but refused to name him. Publicly, he claimed that the badge had been stolen.

The Labor government of Premier Ned Hogan, which took office in 1929, saw Blamey as a member of the conservative establishment. It has been recently suggested that, while chief commissioner, Blamey was head of the 'White Army', a right-wing, secret army prepared to defend the state if there were an attempt at a communist or Catholic takeover. Although the evidence of Blamey's leadership is circumstantial, by training and instinct he was an autocrat; he considered himself to be the supreme commander of the police force and acted accordingly. The force's official historian observed that 'Blamey's style of dealing with public protest was confrontationalist, readily violent, and generally ruthless'. While he did much to improve the standard of the police, he broke their union. On the recommendation of Argyle's United Australia Party government, he was knighted in 1935, but on 9 July 1936 (Sir) Albert Dunstan's Country Party administration forced him to resign for issuing an untrue statement in an attempt to protect the reputation of one of his senior police officers.

Blamey's life was at its nadir. His wife had died in 1935. In 1937 he relinquished command of the 3rd (Militia) Division, which he had held for six years as a major general, and went on the Unattached List, his career apparently over. Nevertheless, he retained the support of such men as (Sir) Robert Menzies, Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey and (Sir) Frederick Shedden. From early 1938 Blamey supplemented his income by making radio broadcasts on international affairs. At Shedden's suggestion, that year Blamey was appointed chairman of the Commonwealth government's Manpower Committee and controller-general of recruiting. Shedden later explained: 'The aim was twofold. His military experience and organizing ability would be most valuable to the Committee, and he would be brought back into the Defence Organization as the most probable Army Commander in the event of war'. On 5 April 1939 Blamey married a 35-year-old artist Olga Ora Farnsworth at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak.

War was declared in September and on 13 October Blamey was promoted lieutenant general and appointed to command the 6th Division, the first raised for the new A.I.F. In early 1940 the government decided to raise another division. Blamey received the resulting corps command, as well as a charter spelling out his responsibilities as commander of the A.I.F. His advancements reflected his quickness of mind and force of personality more than a scarcity of other suitable officers. In Gavin Long's view, he 'had a mind which comprehended the largest military and politico-military problems with singular clarity, and by experience and temperament was well-equipped to cope with the special difficulties which face the commander of a national contingent which is part of a coalition army in a foreign theatre of war'.

Yet, Blamey was out of touch with recent developments in military technology and his immediate background had prepared him for high command rather than for commanding a corps or division on the battlefield. His strengths and weaknesses were revealed in the Middle East. As commander of the A.I.F. (gazetted December 1940), he fought long and hard to maintain its integrity against the designs of the British commanders-in-chief, General (Earl) Wavell and General Sir Claude Auchinleck. Blamey's performance was uneven. His most obvious error was his failure to inform the Australian government early enough that he had strong doubts about the wisdom of the Greek campaign. Learning this lesson well, he never again failed to let the government know his views. He commanded the Australian Corps (briefly renamed the Anzac Corps, as it included the New Zealand division) in April 1941 during its skilful withdrawal down the Greek peninsula and its evacuation from beaches previously reconnoitred by him in expectation of such an eventuality.

His chief of staff Brigadier (Sir) Sydney Rowell has claimed that at the height of the withdrawal Blamey was 'physically and mentally broken'. The allegation has had some corroboration, but has been fervently denied by a number of senior officers, and Blamey's aide-de-camp recalled that in Greece he never saw him 'fearful or abnormally troubled'. Whatever the truth regarding his performance in the field—and Wavell was favourably impressed—Blamey angered his senior staff when he chose his son to fill the one remaining seat on the aircraft carrying him out of Greece.

On 23 April 1941 Blamey was appointed deputy commander-in-chief, British Forces in the Middle East. He was reluctant to give up the corps command and continued to make his presence felt. In June he intervened in the Syrian campaign to alter the strategy of General (Baron) Wilson whom he believed was exercising insufficient control. Seeking to reassemble the A.I.F. as one formation, Blamey successfully demanded that the tiring 9th Division be relieved at Tobruk in August-October. On 24 September he was promoted general.

He never had the classical physique of a commander in the field. Sporting a grey-white moustache, he was rotund and only 5 ft 6½ ins (169 cm) tall, but both Wavell and Auchinleck had quickly learned not to underestimate his determination or energy. Next year Wavell described Blamey as: 'Probably the best soldier we had in the Middle East. Not an easy man to deal with but a very satisfactory man to deal with'. Auchinleck was less complimentary; he found Blamey likeable, but held that 'he wasn't a general I should have chosen to command an operation'.

Although Blamey enhanced his reputation in the Middle East, he failed to win the unanimous support of a small and influential group of senior A.I.F. officers. There were many tensions in the force's upper echelons where ambitious, and sometimes disaffected, regular and militia officers vied for commands. Perhaps Blamey could never have kept them all contented. It was not his style to curry favour with subordinates, but he seems occasionally to have provoked antipathy towards himself rather than to have tried to dissipate it. His relations with soldiers were also strained. Rarely able to inspire their complete loyalty and trust, he enjoyed life to the full in a manner which they understood but did not expect to find in their commanders.

By the end of 1941 (Sir) Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, was close to asking the Australian government to recall Blamey, mainly because of his stand on Tobruk. The start of hostilities in the Far East rendered the request unnecessary and in March 1942 Blamey arrived in Melbourne to take up his new appointment as commander-in-chief of the Australian Military Forces. The task he faced was immense and complicated, overshadowing that presented to any previous Australian military leader. In early 1942 the country seemed in danger of attack by the more powerful Japanese, and Blamey had to prepare for his country's defence with the forces then available. Although the Australian army appeared numerically large, it was predominantly composed of partly-trained militiamen. He was to be responsible for training, administering and expanding the army to some twelve divisions and their associated support establishments.

The American General Douglas MacArthur had been appointed supreme commander of the South-West Pacific Area with authority over all Australian, American and Dutch forces in the region. Blamey became commander of the Allied Land Forces and was responsible to MacArthur for both the land defence of Australia and the offensive operations planned by MacArthur. When John Curtin established the Prime Minister's War Conference—consisting usually of himself and MacArthur—as the senior body for the high direction of the war, MacArthur became the government's principal strategic adviser. Shedden acted as secretary and liaised between the prime minister and supreme commander. Blamey resented his exclusion from strategic policy making. In response to his threat to resign, he was told that he would retain his direct access to the prime minister on matters of broad military policy.

Blamey's role as Allied Land Forces commander was to cause him the most problems. MacArthur intended to carry out the function himself and to conduct operations by means of task forces under his immediate control. After the Japanese landed on the north coast of Papua in July 1942, additional Australian troops were rushed north and placed under the command of Lieutenant General Rowell. The Japanese were defeated at Milne Bay in September, but there was disquiet at MacArthur's headquarters (which had moved to Brisbane) about the concurrent Australian withdrawal along the Kokoda Track. Faced with a possible defeat, MacArthur persuaded Curtin to send Blamey to Port Moresby to take personal command—in effect to become the task force commander.

Rowell saw Blamey's arrival on 23 September as a reflection on his ability. He had lost respect for Blamey in Greece, and had neither the forbearance nor goodwill to make the arrangement work. For his part, Blamey was fighting for his professional life. MacArthur had the ear of the prime minister and there were Australian senior officers who either coveted Blamey's position or felt that he had damaged their careers by the favouritism he had shown to others. Blamey could not afford to show weakness and on 28 September relieved Rowell of his command. There was probably no alternative, but Blamey's decision polarized feeling among senior Australian officers. About this time MacArthur privately considered Blamey to be a 'sensual, slothful and doubtful character but a tough commander likely to shine like a power-light in an emergency. The best of the local bunch'.

Next month Blamey removed Major General Arthur Allen who had been commanding the 7th Division on its counter-offensive along the Kokoda Track. Blamey thought that he was not in a sufficiently strong position to resist the constant demands for a faster advance from MacArthur who was still in Brisbane. In November Blamey addressed troops of the 21st Brigade—who had been hammered by superior Japanese forces on the Kokoda Track—and seemed to accuse them of having run like rabbits. Whether his words were misunderstood or not, the soldiers were indignant.

The Australians and later the Americans drove the Japanese back to a beach-head on the north coast of Papua where they were vanquished by late January 1943. While the victory was costly, both in battle casualties and in sickness, Blamey partially re-established his standing with MacArthur. American reversals had even given him an opportunity to tell MacArthur that he preferred Australian troops to Americans, for at least he knew that the Australians would fight. MacArthur, nevertheless, had already decided to use the task force arrangement to ensure that Americans would never again serve under Australian command. Retaining Blamey as formal Allied Land Forces commander, in February he established a separate task force for United States formations, the deployment of which was to be beyond Blamey's control. In Long's words, the new organization was achieved 'by stealth and by the employment of subterfuges that were undignified, and at times absurd'.

There is no evidence that Blamey was worried by MacArthur's machinations at this stage. Rather, he was more concerned with preparing for the coming offensives of 1943. For much of the year either Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring or Lieutenant General Sir Iven Mackay commanded New Guinea Force, but Blamey bore the final responsibility for planning and execution, and MacArthur insisted that Blamey was the task force commander. Major operations included the advance towards Salamaua (May to August), the seizing of Lae in September, the subsequent advance up the Markham and Ramu valleys, the landing at Finschhafen (September) and the fighting at Sattelberg in November. An impressive orchestration of land, sea and air forces which brought quick victories for relatively slight losses, the 1943 campaigns were a justification of Blamey's training policies and an indication of the high level of expertise that had been developed in the Australian army.

By early 1944 the strategic situation had changed markedly and it was clear that henceforward the Americans would provide the bulk of land forces in the South-West Pacific theatre. Blamey realized that MacArthur planned to give the Australian army a minor role for at least the next year. In April he accompanied Curtin on his visits to the United States and Britain. In London Blamey was attracted by a British proposal for a joint British and Australian force to advance north from Darwin into the Netherlands East Indies. The proposal was vigorously opposed by MacArthur and did not come to pass. Curtin and Shedden supported MacArthur, and Blamey found himself increasingly at odds with the Australian government.

At the outset Blamey had established a good working relationship with Curtin and later claimed that he had 'no need to worry about rear armour'. He continued to hold Curtin in high regard, but in late 1944 clashed with the prime minister and Shedden over manpower issues. Discontent over Blamey's administration of the army was a further source of friction. In a large citizen army, thrown together by a democracy in a war for survival, inequities, inefficiency and tensions were inevitable. Despite his prodigious capacity for work, Blamey had taken too many tasks upon himself. Yet, he refused to relinquish his administrative duties, his operational responsibilities, or his nominal command of Allied Land Forces. In his view, he needed to retain his authority to safeguard Australia's interests against the Americans, and he believed that he was the only Australian commander who could do so effectively.

In early 1945 Blamey was criticized in Federal parliament for maintaining too many generals, for side-tracking potential rivals, for conducting unnecessary operations in New Guinea and on Bougainville, and for providing insufficient administrative support to the forces therein engaged. Many of these claims were without foundation. For example, the Bougainville campaign was approved by the government and administrative support was provided. Moreover, problems over the size of the army related to its future use, and Blamey found himself making decisions without any clear strategic directive from the politicians. For all that, he was open to charges of favouritism over some of his appointments.

The issues concerning the operations of I Australian Corps in Borneo underlined Blamey's difficulties. MacArthur planned that I Corps would report directly to his headquarters, thus by-passing Blamey. When Blamey objected, he was permitted to place a senior liaison officer at MacArthur's headquarters in Manila. Troops of the 9th Australian Division captured Tarakan in May-June 1945, and Labuan and Brunei in June. MacArthur's directive that the 7th Division seize Balikpapan in July had been questioned by Blamey who persuaded the acting prime minister Ben Chifley to suggest that the idea be abandoned. MacArthur replied that the plan had to proceed because it had been ordered by the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. He did not add that the joint chiefs had given their approval only after he had told them that not to do so would 'produce grave repercussions with the Australian government and people'. Curtin remained loyal to MacArthur and agreed to the operation in which 229 Australians died and 634 were wounded. Japan did not surrender one minute earlier as a result of the action.

Blamey's disputes with the government and MacArthur should not overshadow the importance of his contribution to Australia in World War II. While he had little opportunity to display his ability as a field commander in the Pacific, he quickly grasped the nature of the war: the need to use sea and air resources, the debilitating effects of climate and terrain, the necessity for thorough training and fitness, and for frequent reliefs for commanders and soldiers, the importance of logistics and the value of accurate intelligence. He did not immerse himself in detail, preferring to leave it to his first-rate chief of staff Lieutenant General (Sir) Frank Berryman, but he had a clear and at times astonishing grasp of detail. Apart from his miscalculation over the use of Bren-gun carriers at Buna, Papua, in December 1942, Blamey did not waste Australian lives. And he always protected Australian interests. Brigadier (Sir) Kenneth Wills, controller of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, commented: 'Few people realize how much of the credit of the successful Australian operations, both in the Middle East and in New Guinea, was due to the Chief's personal control and planning'.

In 1942 Blamey had made it clear that he would resign as commander-in-chief at the war's end. Having attended the surrender ceremony in Tokyo in September 1945 as the Australian representative, he offered to resign that month. For a time the government chose to retain him, informing him in early November that the complexity of the problems confronting the army made it desirable for him to remain in office. In mid-November the minister for the army suddenly advised Blamey that he was to be relieved on 1 December. This peremptory dismissal of the government's top military adviser—without accompanying recognition or reward—showed the depth of feeling against him in some quarters of the Labor Party. He had been appointed K.C.B. (1941) and G.B.E. (1943), and was awarded the Greek Military Cross (1941), the United States' Distinguished Service Cross (1943) and the Netherlands' Grand Cross of the Order of Oranje-Nassau (1946).

Blamey's critics have assigned personal motives to his actions. To them, he was a self-seeking, devious manipulator who struggled ruthlessly to retain his powerful position and to bolster his ego. In contrast, his supporters have called him Australia's greatest general. To them, he was a wise and forceful administrator who fought relentlessly to maintain Australian independence in military matters and who had a genuine concern for the welfare of his troops. A credible evaluation of Blamey's character lies somewhere between these two views, probably closer to the second. In retrospect it is hard to think of another Australian general with the prestige, force of personality and understanding of politics who could have filled his role.

He had serious flaws in his character, but, as Curtin said, 'when Blamey was appointed the Government was seeking a military leader not a Sunday School teacher'. Unwilling to admit his own faults and unremitting in the pursuit of personal enemies, Blamey was blunt and, on occasions, tactless. Perhaps the stories of his womanizing and drinking grew with the telling, but he never seemed to understand that a public figure cannot expect to keep his private life to himself. Possibly his greatest failing was that he did not appreciate the importance of public relations. Conversely, there was a sensitive side to Blamey's nature which few saw and he had interests beyond military and public affairs, such as his involvement in the early discussions to found the Australian National University.

Retiring to Melbourne, he devoted himself to business affairs, to writing and to promoting the welfare of ex-service personnel. In the late 1940s he became involved in 'The Association': similar to the earlier 'White Army', it was established to counter a possible communist coup. After Menzies came to power, on 8 June 1950 Blamey was promoted field marshal. A few days later he fell gravely ill. On 16 September, in hospital, he received his field marshal's baton from the governor-general. Survived by his wife and by his son Thomas, Blamey died of hypertensive cerebral haemorrhage on 27 May 1951 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was cremated. Crowds estimated at 250,000 lined the streets of Melbourne at his state funeral. His estate was sworn for probate at £27,899.

A portrait of Blamey by (Sir) Ivor Hele is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Portraits by (Sir) William Dargie are in the rooms of the Commercial Travellers' Association of Victoria, and the Naval and Military Club, Melbourne. A statue by Raymond Ewers stands in Kings Domain, Melbourne, adjacent to the Shrine of Remembrance. The main Department of Defence buildings in Canberra are grouped around Sir Thomas Blamey Square where a bas-relief likeness of him was unveiled in 1984.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • P. Hasluck, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Controversial Soldier (Canb, 1973)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • D. M. Horner, Crisis of Command (Canb, 1978)
  • N. D. Carlyon, I Remember Blamey (Melb, 1980)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (Canb, 1982)
  • R. Haldane, The People's Force (Melb, 1986)
  • M. Cathcart, Defending the National Tuckshop (Melb, 1988)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Field-Marshal Sir Thomas Albert (typescript, copy in ADB file)
  • D. H. Dwyer, Interlude with Blamey (typescript, 1970, copy held by author)
  • Blamey papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • Dept of Defence files (Australian War Memorial)
  • Shedden papers (National Archives of Australia).

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Citation details

David Horner, 'Blamey, Sir Thomas Albert (1884–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blamey-sir-thomas-albert-9523/text16767, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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