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Lavarack, Sir John Dudley (1885–1957)

by David Horner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Dudley Lavarack (1885-1957), by William Dargie, 1942

John Dudley Lavarack (1885-1957), by William Dargie, 1942

Australian War Memorial, ART22029

Sir John Dudley Lavarack (1885-1957), army officer and governor, was born on 19 December 1885 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, third child of English-born parents Cecil Wallace Lavarack, a draughtsman who became a major in the Queensland Defence Force, and his wife Jessie Helen, née Mackenzie. Educated at Brisbane Grammar School, John was a prominent member of the cadets. He gained high marks in the examination for a commission in the Permanent Military Forces and on 7 August 1905 was appointed lieutenant, Royal Australian Artillery. His junior regimental postings took him to Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, Thursday Island and Queenscliff, Victoria.

On 10 October 1912 at St George's Anglican Church, Queenscliff, Captain Lavarack married Sybil Nevett Ochiltree. He attended the Staff College, Camberley, England, from early 1913 until the outbreak of World War I. After working at the War Office, London, he was promoted brigade major of the 22nd (British) Divisional Artillery in February 1915. The division was sent to France in September; in November it was redeployed to Salonica (Thessaloniki), Greece. By May 1916 Major Lavarack was staff officer, royal artillery, at the XVI Corps' headquarters.

Lavarack had been appointed to the Australian Imperial Force in February 1915. Although he made many requests, he was not permitted to leave Macedonia and link up with his countrymen until July 1916 when he joined the 2nd Division for the operations at Pozières, France. He commanded two field batteries and was brigade major of the 5th Divisional Artillery during the subsequent fighting on the Somme and the advance to the Hindenburg line. One of the few Australian officers with staff-college training, he was transferred in May 1917 to the headquarters of the 1st Division where he worked under Colonel (Sir) Thomas Blamey: it was probably in this period that an antipathy developed between the two officers that continued for the remainder of their careers.

By December Lavarack was a lieutenant colonel and general staff officer, 1st grade, of the 4th Division, commanded by Major General E. G. Sinclair-Maclagan. Lavarack took part in battles at Dernancourt (April 1918), Villers-Bretonneux (April), Hamel (July) and Amiens (August). Maclagan and he had taken the major hand in planning the operation at Hamel which set the pattern for later Australian successes. For his war service Lavarack was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1918) and the French Croix de Guerre (1919); he was also appointed C.M.G. (1919) and thrice mentioned in dispatches.

Returning to Australia in September 1919, Lavarack was posted to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, as director of military art. In 1924 he served as a staff officer on the headquarters of the 2nd (Militia) Division, Sydney. In March 1925 he was made director of military training at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. Promoted brevet colonel in 1926, at the end of the following year he went to London to attend the Imperial Defence College. He was the first Australian army officer to complete the course; a fellow student was (Sir) Frederick Shedden.

Back home, in early 1929 Lavarack was given the post of director of military operations and intelligence at Army Headquarters. He found himself in keen debate with Shedden who was secretary of the defence committee. Shedden and the Naval Staff claimed that Australia's defence should rest on the Royal Navy. Lavarack, as adviser to the chief of the General Staff, argued that Japan would attack in the Far East when Britain was preoccupied in Europe. Therefore, he contended, the Australian army had to be prepared to deal with a possible invasion. He published his views in the Army Quarterly (1933).

In January 1933 Lavarack became commandant of the R.M.C. On 21 April 1935 he was promoted temporary major general (substantive in June) and took over as C.G.S., superseding a number of more senior officers. Intelligent, with a quick and incisive mind, Lavarack was impressive in appearance. He was 5 ft 11½ ins (182 cm) tall, with a dark complexion and blue eyes. Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell, who had worked under Lavarack, recalled that he 'had a fine brain; he wrote brilliantly and spoke convincingly'. While he 'did not possess the most equable of temperaments and could be a difficult master . . . at other times he was a delightful character with a wide range of interests'.

As C.G.S., Lavarack renewed his arguments with the navy and Shedden, and also challenged successive ministers for defence—Sir Archdale Parkhill, H. V. C. Thorby and G. A. Street—over the government's reliance on the Royal Navy and its insistence that army funds be spent on coastal defences rather than the field force. Lavarack found himself increasingly at odds with the government. The release (apparently by senior army officers) of information to the press that was critical of government policy led ministers to mistrust the army. Lavarack's appointment as C.B. (1937) was delayed because politicians were dissatisfied with him.

In 1938 the government appointed a British officer, Lieutenant General E. K. Squires, as inspector general of the Australian Military Forces. John Hetherington claimed that 'some Ministers had begun to suspect soon after [Lavarack] became C.G.S. that his reports were framed to tell them less what they should know than what he believed they would like to know'. Yet, as Brett Lodge has argued persuasively, it 'would be more accurate to say that Lavarack was telling the government too much of what it did not want to hear: that its defence policy was bankrupt'. He had pressed his case strongly, but he might have achieved more with a different approach.

Lavarack worked closely with Squires to prepare the army for war before departing in May for a tour of Britain. He returned in September, after hostilities had begun. Squires was appointed C.G.S. and Blamey was selected to command the new 6th Division, A.I.F. Still out of favour with the government, Lavarack was promoted lieutenant general and given Southern Command. To add to his difficulties, Blamey saw him as a potential rival, and was able to use Lavarack's temperament as a justification for denying him a series of important appointments. 'Joe' Lavarack, as he was known, certainly had an unpredictable and 'wicked temper which rose like a flash and often subsided quickly'. He was passionately fond of sport, such as golf and tennis, but, when he lost, there was often an extraordinary display of bad humour. For all that, he could be charming and personable. Essentially a shy man, he was sensitive to any perceived slight to his rank or position.

When the government decided in March 1940 to raise the 7th Division and Blamey was given the newly formed I Corps, he refused to have Lavarack as commander of the 6th Division because of his 'defects of character'. Against Blamey's wishes, the government chose Lavarack to command the 7th and he reverted to major general to accept the appointment. He arrived in the Middle East in November. At the end of March 1941 Axis forces under General Erwin Rommel attacked in Libya. The 18th Brigade of the 7th Division was rushed to Tobruk to support the 9th Australian Division under Major General (Sir) Leslie Morshead.

Faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation, General Sir Archibald (Earl) Wavell, the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, ordered Lavarack to Tobruk in early April as head of Cyrenaica Command. He organized the defence of the fortress, deploying Morshead's division on the perimeter. On 13 and 14 April the garrison repelled a strong assault by Rommel's forces. Wavell directed Lavarack to take over Western Desert Force, but Blamey advised that Lavarack was unsuitable for high command. On 14 April Lavarack returned to his division in Egypt.

The remaining two brigades of the 7th Division played a major role in the allied invasion of the French mandated territory of Syria in June 1941. Lavarack exercised effective leadership over his formation which advanced in two columns, one on the coast and the other inland near Merdjayoun. Seizing an opportunity, he changed the axis of the advance, thrusting towards Jezzine and catching the Vichy French commander unawares. The French counter-attacked and Lavarack had to reconstitute a force at Merdjayoun.

In the midst of these battles Lavarack was promoted (18 June) lieutenant general to command I Corps, Blamey having become deputy commander-in-chief in the Middle East. The corps took responsibility for conducting almost the whole of the Syrian campaign. Reorganizing his force, which included British, Indian and Free French troops as well as the 7th Division, Lavarack supervised the capture of Damascus and Damour. An armistice came into effect on 12 July. For his commands at Tobruk and in Syria, in which Wavell said that he had shown 'abilities of a high order', Lavarack was appointed K.B.E. (1942) and mentioned in dispatches.

Following the outbreak of war with Japan, plans were made for I Corps to sail to the Far East. By late January 1942 Lavarack and his senior staff were in Java, ahead of the troops. Lavarack cabled the Australian government, endeavouring to prevent the first of his units from being retained in Java. He was unsuccessful in this effort, but the remainder of his men were diverted to Australia. His support of a British proposal to deploy the corps in Burma annoyed the Australian government. He left Java by aeroplane and arrived in Melbourne on 26 February. In March he was acting commander-in-chief of the Australian Military Forces before Blamey assumed the appointment on his return from the Middle East. Next month Lavarack took command of the First Army with responsibility for the defence of Queensland and New South Wales. His two years in the post were a time of frustration. Blamey overlooked him when an army commander was required in New Guinea.

In February 1944 Lavarack flew to Washington to become head of the Australian Military Mission. He was military adviser to the Australian delegation at the United Nations Conference on International Organization held at San Francisco in April-June 1945. As the war progressed he became increasingly disappointed by his lack of active command, and was anxious to preserve his military reputation. Some politicians accused Blamey of shelving him. Lavarack claimed that he had always been loyal to Blamey and, contrary to Blamey's assertions, had never coveted his position. Lavarack returned to Australia in August 1946 and retired on 18 September.

That month it was announced that he had been appointed governor of Queensland. He was sworn in on 1 October 1946, the first Australian-born to hold the post. In 1951 his term was extended for another five years and there was to be a further extension of one year from 1 October 1956. He was appointed K.C.V.O. in 1954 and K.C.M.G. in 1955. Because of ill health he was relieved of his duties on 25 January 1957. Sir John died on 4 December 1957 in his home at Buderim, Queensland. He was accorded a state funeral and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at £38,024. His wife, who had been president of the A.I.F. Women's Association during World War II, survived him, as did his three sons, all of whom served in that war.

According to the Brisbane Courier-Mail, Lavarack had discharged his duties as governor 'with a quiet and modest dignity' and had 'impressed all who met him with his soldierly sense of duty, his friendly accessibility in social intercourse, and his desire to be of service to people in all parts of the State'. He had, moreover, made a substantial contribution to the Australian army. Despite a fiery temperament, he was an educated and articulate officer, and, as a commander, 'showed himself to be a determined and competent leader'. The Lavarack Barracks at Townsville are named after him. His portraits by George Bell (1919) and (Sir) Ivor Hele (1941) are held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Controversial Soldier (Canb, 1973)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • D. M. Horner (ed), The Commanders (Syd, 1984)
  • B. Lodge, Lavarack (Syd, 1997)
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 46, no 2, May 1975, p 365
  • Journal of the Royal United Services Institute of Australia, 5, no 1, Apr 1982, p 49
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 5 Dec 1957
  • Lavarack papers (Australian Defence Force Academy Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Horner, 'Lavarack, Sir John Dudley (1885–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lavarack-sir-john-dudley-10790/text19137, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 11 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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