Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clowes, Cyril Albert (1892–1968)

by David Denholm

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

Cyril Albert Clowes (1892-1968), by John Lee

Cyril Albert Clowes (1892-1968), by John Lee

Australian War Memorial, 107752

Cyril Albert Clowes (1892-1968), army officer, was born on 11 March 1892 at Warwick, Queensland, eldest child of Albert Clowes, a dentist from England, and his New Zealand-born wife Beatrice Hall, née Odling. A captain in the Militia, Albert was appointed an area officer under the universal training scheme of 1909. Cyril was educated at Toowoomba Grammar School. In 1911 he and his brother Norman entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory. Twice decorated in World War I, Norman transferred to the British Army in 1931 and rose to major general. His stepbrother Kenneth served in World War II; another stepbrother Trevor attended Duntroon, fought in the Papuan campaign and was killed in action in 1942.

Graduating on 14 August 1914, Cyril was appointed lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force, posted to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade and commissioned in the Permanent Military Forces. He embarked for Egypt in October. At Gallipoli from 25 April 1915, he directed naval support-fire as a forward observation officer. Although wounded—and rendered partially deaf for the rest of his life—he quickly established a reputation for thoroughness and competence. In Egypt in January 1916 he was made staff captain, 2nd Divisional Artillery.

Next June, as divisional trench-mortar officer at Bois Grenier, France, Clowes assisted raiding-parties while under heavy shell-fire and was awarded the Military Cross. He was promoted major in January 1917. For successfully positioning nine brigades of artillery at Villers-Bretonneux in August 1918, he won the Distinguished Service Order; he was also awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle and twice mentioned in dispatches. He returned to Australia in April 1919 and his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 28 June.

Promoted captain and brevet major, P.M.F., in 1920-25 Clowes was an instructor at Duntroon. On 17 December 1925 at Jeir station, near Yass, New South Wales, he married with Catholic rites Eva Florence Magennis. He performed staff, training and command duties in Brisbane (1926-30), Sydney (1931-33) and Darwin (from 1933). Advanced to lieutenant colonel in January 1936, he sailed for England that year to undertake a gunnery staff course. Repatriated in 1938, he became chief instructor at the School of Artillery, Sydney, and in August 1939 took charge of the 6th Military District (Tasmania). He was promoted substantive colonel on 2 November. Seconded to the A.I.F. as temporary brigadier and appointed commander, Royal Australian Artillery, I Corps, on 4 April 1940, he arrived in the Middle East in December. His contemporaries thought that he or Brigadier (Sir) Sydney Rowell would become the first Duntroon graduate to lead Australia's army.

In northern Greece in 1941 Clowes demonstrated his capacity for command. On 14-16 April three fast-moving German battalions, opposed only by the New Zealand 21st Battalion, threatened the Anzac Corps' eastern flank. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey sent Clowes to the Pinios (Tempe) Gorge to retrieve the situation. Calm, taciturn—his nickname was 'Silent Cyril'—pipe-smoking, organized and organizing, and able to convey a point simply, Clowes told the 21st that it was to stay put until reinforcements arrived, 'even if it meant extinction'. He rallied the flank, allowing the main force time to withdraw.

One of a number of senior officers brought back to Australia to sharpen the leadership of the home forces, on 7 January 1942 Clowes was promoted temporary major general and given command of the 1st Division which was positioned to defend the Sydney-Newcastle region. On 21 July the Japanese landed in Papua at Gona and Buna. Although gazetted to command New Guinea Force, Clowes was ordered to Port Moresby as commander, 'C' (later Milne) Force. He flew to Milne Bay and on 22 August assumed command, four days before the arrival of an enemy invasion force.

Clowes fought the ensuing battle of Milne Bay with considerable advantages. Most of the fighting took place within the range of his field artillery. Aircraft from his two Royal Australian Air Force fighter squadrons intercepted and destroyed a secondary assault, and also shattered Japanese amphibious logistics. The civilian population assisted his soldiers. His Militia and A.I.F. infantry were well disciplined; their training, if not complete, was thorough; for the most part, they were capably, even superbly, led.

Nevertheless, it was Clowes who had to realize this potential. The situation was complex. By sea and by land, many options were open to the Japanese, and the fog of battle left the Australian commander uncertain of their intentions. Rain, low cloud and mist reduced observation, and mud slowed movement to a 'dead crawl'. Milne Force lacked a coherent signal network. Clowes was further hampered by poor maps, disagreement in the field, and continuous and gratuitous tactical interference by General Douglas MacArthur, who was in Brisbane.

By 7 September Clowes had won a prestigious battle which broke the spell of Japanese invincibility. His rewards were meagre. MacArthur disparaged him and dismissed the efforts of his six battalions. Blamey added his own criticisms. As a friend of Rowell, Clowes seems to have fallen under suspicion, especially after Blamey's bitter quarrel with Rowell in Port Moresby in late September. Rendered friendless in high places, Clowes obtained leave. After his return to duty, he suffered from malaria. On 7 December Milne Force was renamed the 11th Division, but by January 1943 Clowes's command had become a backwater. He commanded the Victorian Lines of Communication Area in 1943-45 and, following several short postings, had charge of Southern Command from 1946. On 1 June 1949 he transferred to the Retired List as honorary lieutenant general. For his service in World War II he had been awarded the Greek Military Cross, appointed C.B.E. (1943) and twice mentioned in dispatches.

In retirement he spent his time gardening and playing golf. He had been an outstanding sportsman. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their daughter, Clowes died on 19 May 1968 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was buried with full military honours and Anglican rites in Springvale cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • D. Horner, Crisis of Command (Canb, 1978)
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 May 1968
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

David Denholm, 'Clowes, Cyril Albert (1892–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clowes-cyril-albert-9768/text17261, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Cyril Albert Clowes (1892-1968), by John Lee

Cyril Albert Clowes (1892-1968), by John Lee

Australian War Memorial, 107752