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Cotton, Thomas Richard Worgan (1907–1970)

by David Lee

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

Thomas Richard Worgan Cotton (1907-1970), by unknown photographer

Thomas Richard Worgan Cotton (1907-1970), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 117715

Thomas Richard Worgan Cotton (1907-1970), soldier and intelligence officer, was born on 14 November 1907 at Dover, Kent, England, son of Captain Frederick William Cotton, Royal Army Medical Corps, and his wife Muriel May, née Pictor. Tom began an officer-training course with the Dorsetshire Regiment before migrating with his parents to Western Australia. In the 1930s he worked as a jackeroo. With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 7 November 1939 and was posted to the 2nd/11th Battalion.

Rising rapidly through the ranks, in May 1940 he was commissioned lieutenant. By June he was in England where he transferred to the 72nd Battalion (which was redesignated the 2nd/33rd Battalion in October and allotted to the 7th Division's 25th Brigade). Engaged against Vichy-French forces in Syria, on 8 June 1941 Cotton led his company in an attack against Fort Khiam. His men silenced a machine-gun in one of the fort's bastions, enabling a party to scale the wall and open a breach from the inside. Under cover of mortar fire, Cotton put more men through the hole. That night the French abandoned the fort. The Australians took the high ground and occupied the nearby village. Cotton was awarded the Military Cross.

After the Japanese entered the war in December, the 7th Division was recalled to Australia. Reluctant at leaving his British comrades in the Middle East, Cotton arrived home in March 1942. He was promoted major and, as second-in-command of the battalion, embarked for Port Moresby in September. In the arduous advance across the Owen Stanley Range and on to Gona, Cotton co-ordinated the provision of rations and ammunition to his unit, and the removal of casualties from the front line. At each location of an air-drop, he prepared a clearing, set up a rear headquarters, and supervised the collection and distribution of supplies. He was mentioned in dispatches for his efforts in the Papuan campaign.

From January 1943 he recuperated with his battalion in Queensland and trained for forthcoming battles against the Japanese. He took command of the 2nd/33rd in May and next month was confirmed in the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the battalion reached Port Moresby in July, plans were made to air-lift it on 7 September into enemy territory around Nadzab in the Markham Valley, New Guinea. At 4.20 that morning an American Liberator aircraft, loaded with bombs and petrol, crashed into five trucks containing men of the 2nd/33rd. Cotton witnessed the carnage: 59 of his soldiers died and 92 were injured. Despite the disaster, Cotton reorganized the unit, landed with his troops near Nadzab and on 14-15 September successfully attacked a Japanese position at Edwards's plantation. In extremes of weather the battalion fought until December over difficult country in the Ramu Valley and the Finisterre Range. Cotton led his men well, remained cool under fire and personally made reconnaissances. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

In February 1944 Cotton returned with his soldiers to Queensland. Moving to Morotai, in June 1945 they embarked in a flotilla of landing craft for the invasion of Balikpapan, Borneo, and began operations on 2 July. The Australians had plentiful air and naval support, and outnumbered the Japanese. On 6 July enemy shells hit the battalion's command post and Cotton was wounded. From December 1945 to May 1946 he held administrative command of the 25th Brigade, then became a general staff officer, 2nd grade, at Southern Command headquarters, Melbourne. He married a 40-year-old Englishwoman Pamela Levett-Scrivener on 23 August 1946 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney; they were to remain childless.

Cotton transferred to the Reserve of Officers in April 1947 and was active in the Citizen Military Forces. Fond of the quick riposte and the odd classical quotation, he was a 'tough, dour' and 'decisive' leader who was inspiring in action, meticulous in his planning and ruthless in dealing with inefficiency. He joined the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, for which he worked in Perth in the 1950s and as Victorian director until he retired in the late 1960s. Survived by his wife, he died of chronic bronchitis and emphysema on 26 September 1970 at South Yarra, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • W. Crooks, The Footsoldiers (Syd, 1971)
  • J. Robertson, Australia at War 1939-1945 (Melb, 1981)
  • L. McAuley, Blood and Iron, the Battle for Kokoda 1942 (Syd, 1991)
  • Australian War Memorial records.

Citation details

David Lee, 'Cotton, Thomas Richard Worgan (1907–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cotton-thomas-richard-worgan-9836/text17397, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 October 2017.

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

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