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Leggatt, Sir William Watt (Bill) (1894–1968)

by Geoff Browne

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

William Watt Leggatt (1894-1968), by Murray Griffin

William Watt Leggatt (1894-1968), by Murray Griffin

Australian War Memorial, ART26435

Sir William Watt (Bill) Leggatt (1894-1968), soldier, lawyer and politician, was born on 23 December 1894 on Malekula Island, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), eldest child of Thomas Watt Leggatt, a missionary from Scotland, and his Australian-born wife Margaret Muter, née Wilson. Thomas was to become moderator (1931) of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. Bill received his early education in the New Hebrides. In 1907 the family moved to Victoria where he entered Geelong College and Ormond College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1915; LL.B., 1920). He gained a scholarship to study for the ministry, but suspended his course and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 August 1915.

After serving in Egypt, Leggatt was sent to the Western Front in June 1916. In the following month he was commissioned and posted to the 60th Battalion. A further promotion to lieutenant came in May 1917. Employed as a signalling officer, he won the Military Cross for maintaining communications while under heavy shell-fire at Villers-Bretonneux, France, on 8 August 1918. He was transferred to the 59th Battalion on 25 September. Two days later he was wounded in the right arm. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 22 June 1919.

Leggatt re-entered university determined to pursue law rather than theology, a decision which placed him in financial difficulties. A loan from the Department of Repatriation enabled him to complete his studies, and he eventually repaid his scholarship money to the Presbyterian Church. Admitted as a solicitor on 1 March 1921, he practised successively at Kyabram, Rushworth and Murrayville. In 1926 he moved to Mornington which remained his home town. At Burwood, Melbourne, on 21 September that year he married Dorothy Meares Andrews, a 32-year-old schoolteacher; his father conducted the service. A university graduate (B.A., 1916; M.A., Dip.Ed., 1918), Dorothy had edited (1917) Melbourne University Magazine and advocated the establishment of a women's college. She became a prominent member of the Lyceum Club.

From 1934 Leggatt was active in the Citizen Military Forces. On 1 July 1940 he was appointed major in the A.I.F. He served in Rabaul, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, from March 1941 as second-in-command of the 2nd/22nd Battalion. Promoted lieutenant colonel, he took command of the 2nd/40th Battalion in November. One month later the unit sailed from Darwin to reinforce the Dutch and Portuguese garrisons on Timor. Leggatt also had under his command elements of the 2nd/2nd Australian Independent Company and a battery of coast artillery, the combined body being known as 'Sparrow Force'.

Leggatt set up his headquarters near Koepang, the Dutch administrative centre, and soon found that his formation was seriously deficient in weapons, ammunition and communications. He also had to make the best of an impossible strategic position: although he realized that the Japanese might invade in large numbers, he lacked air and naval support necessary to combat such an assault. Leggatt was forthright in describing the military weaknesses of Sparrow Force to his superiors.

Plans for reinforcements were belatedly put in train, and Brigadier W. C. D. Veale reached Timor on 12 February 1942 to assume command of an expanded Sparrow Force. The Japanese invaded on the 20th, preventing the dispatch from Australia of the bulk of the additional troops. Leggatt's men made a 'spirited' defence. They successfully counter-attacked and captured the village of Babau, before succumbing to sustained air and ground assaults from superior enemy forces. The 2nd/2nd commandos continued to wage guerrilla warfare in Portuguese Timor until December.

When Leggatt had surrendered on 23 February 1942 he was virtually without food or ammunition. Communications failures had hampered his ability to make informed decisions about the best disposition of his troops. Like his fellow senior officers, he was untrained in tactics appropriate to mobile defence. None the less, the achievement of the 2nd/40th had been 'remarkable' in that heavy casualties had been inflicted on the enemy at relatively little cost.

In captivity at Usapa-Besar, Leggatt displayed skilful leadership in protecting the interests of his men and ensuring that discipline was maintained. He also seized on the lax security at the camp to encourage foraging and intelligence-gathering expeditions. In July 1942 he and other officers were taken to Java before being sent to Changi camp, Singapore.

Renowned for paying little attention to'spit and polish' presentation, or to the traditional formalities of rank, Bill Leggatt discomfited his senior officer (Sir) Frederick Galleghan at Changi by wearing a 'broken peaked cap, old golf shoes and shorts with a hip pocket torn down and his bottle of chilli sauce in it'. Leggatt suffered many privations, but maintained a certain dignity and a sense of humour. He kept a nominal roll of all 2nd/40th Battalion prisoners who passed through Singapore. Released in September 1945, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1947) and mentioned in dispatches. In 1958, when he revisited Changi, he remarked: 'it wasn't all bad. I learned a lot there . . . you learn tolerance. You learn reliance—to maintain yourself on the resources of your own mind'.

From April to September 1946 Leggatt was based in Melbourne as officer-in-charge of war-crimes investigations. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers in October. Resuming his legal practice, he was admitted to the Bar on 1 November. In 1947 he won the seat of Mornington in the Victorian Legislative Assembly for the Liberal Party. He served in the Hollway ministry as chief secretary (7 December 1948 to 19 June 1950), and briefly held responsibility for works, lands and soldier settlement (19-27 June 1950). As chief secretary, Leggatt supported prison reform and the easing of liquor laws, but the government fell before legislation could be introduced. He was more conservative on the question of film censorship, declaring in 1950 that 'there is no place for anti-British films in Victorian theatres'.

In (Sir) Henry Bolte's government, Leggatt held the portfolios of education and immigration (8 June 1955-2 February 1956); for two days in June 1955 he was attorney-general and minister of labour and industry. Active in the Mornington community, he was a founder (1937) of the King George V Memorial Bush Nursing Hospital, and a member (1947-55) and president (1952-53) of the shire council.

Leggatt resigned from parliament in February 1956 to become Victorian agent-general in London. He did not treat the post as a sinecure and proved a vigorous promoter of his State. In 1957 he was knighted. Solidly built and of ruggedly distinguished appearance, he possessed an easy-going charm and was a fluent speaker. At the conclusion of his term in 1964, the Age commended him for his 'imagination and drive'. Retiring to Mornington, Sir William died on 27 November 1968 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg; he was accorded a state funeral and was cremated. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • 'Timor' in P. Dennis et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (Melb, 1995)
  • P. Henning, Doomed Battalion (Syd, 1995)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 28 Nov 1968, p 2333
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 July 1955, 5 Jan 1956, 10 July 1964, 28, 29 Nov 1968.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Leggatt, Sir William Watt (Bill) (1894–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leggatt-sir-william-watt-bill-10808/text19171, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 December 2018.

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

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