Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Milford, Edward James (1894–1972)

by S. N. Gower

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

Edward James Milford (1894-1972), by unknown photographer, 1944

Edward James Milford (1894-1972), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 070980

Edward James Milford (1894-1972), army officer, was born on 10 December 1894 at Prahran, Melbourne, third son of English-born parents James Emery Milford, a pharmacist who had emigrated to Australia in 1885, and his wife Mary Sophia, née Gibbon. Edward was educated (1908-12) at Wesley College. Its headmaster L. A. Adamson encouraged senior boys to apply for admission to the newly established Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory. Milford entered Duntroon in 1913, one of the college's third intake. A fellow Wesleyan, George Vasey, joined with him and became a lifelong friend. Their class was to produce some of Australia's outstanding wartime commanders: six of them became generals.

Graduating sixth out of thirty-six in 1915, Milford was reported as being 'excellent at mathematics' and 'fair at riding', with 'good personal characteristics'. He was commissioned lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, in November and sailed for the Middle East with the 4th Field Artillery Brigade. In March 1916 he was sent to the Western Front where he served in a number of regimental and staff postings before being promoted major in September 1917. That month he was wounded in action and evacuated to hospital in London. Returning to duty with the 4th F.A.B., he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches for his work as a battery commander and brigade major in operations in France and Flanders.

World War I established Milford's reputation as a regimental officer. He chose to stay in England to take a specialist course in ordnance, at Woolwich. On 13 November 1919 at Holy Trinity Church, East Finchley, Middlesex, he married with Anglican rites his childhood sweetheart Wynnie Ray Gray. Following ordnance and equipment-related appointments in Australia and Britain, he attended the British Army Staff College, Camberley, in 1930-31. He was at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, in 1936-40 as assistant-director, then director, of artillery. In April 1940 he was promoted temporary brigadier and posted as commander, Royal Australian Artillery, to the 7th Division.

After four weeks (November-December) in the Middle East, Milford flew back to Australia. On 1 January 1941 he was promoted temporary major general and appointed master-general of the ordnance. The country was gearing up for a protracted struggle, and the M.G.O. post was important in directing the acquisition of equipment for a very much expanded army. Milford's background fitted him well for the task. Vasey acknowledged as much in a letter to his wife, but ungraciously added a comment that 'Teddy' should not flatter himself with his early preferment.

With Japan's entry into the war and northern Australia threatened with invasion, by mid-1942 Milford found himself at Townsville, Queensland, commanding the 5th Division. In January 1943 the division moved to Milne Bay, Papua, where Milford performed excellent work, organizing the defences and reducing the incidence of malaria. He and his men saw action in New Guinea in August-September; they cleared the enemy from the Salamaua area with the aim of developing the township as a major base. Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring used the word 'magnificent' to describe the division's work in difficult terrain and under trying conditions. Salamaua was found to be unsuitable for a base. Under Milford's supervision, the Lae area was developed instead.

By November 1943 Milford was major general, general staff, at headquarters, New Guinea Force. For his performance in this post, and for his earlier period in command, he was appointed C.B.E. (1945); the citation praised him as an officer of all-round ability and as a far-sighted planner. He was again mentioned in dispatches. In 1944 Vasey fell ill while in command of the 7th Division. In July that year General Sir Thomas Blamey appointed Milford to take his place. Vasey's removal was considered premature in some quarters, but Blamey reportedly said that Milford deserved his chance to command an A.I.F. division. Milford did not enter into the controversy. Back in Australia, he spoke briefly but generously at a 7th Division memorial service for Vasey following his untimely death in March 1945.

In May Milford moved to Morotai to conduct final planning for the landing at Balikpapan, Borneo. Begun on 1 July, the successful operation was 'the largest amphibious attack carried out by Australian troops'. The Japanese were well-trained and equipped, and fought 'with their usual fortitude'. But they were overwhelmed by superior firepower. As an artilleryman, Milford determined that the operation would be a lesson in this regard. He was appointed C.B. (1947) for his services at Balikpapan.

At noon on 8 September 1945 Milford accepted the surrender of all Japanese troops in Borneo, Netherlands East Indies, from Vice Admiral Michiaki Kamada on the quarterdeck of H.M.A.S. Burdekin. This ceremony marked the high point of his military career. He stayed on as commander of the 7th Division and of Morotai Force until March 1946 when he became deputy-chief of the General Staff, Melbourne. In May he was appointed adjutant-general (and second member of the Military Board). Wrongly diagnosed as having prostate cancer, he was placed on the Retired List on 23 April 1948.

Milford made a major contribution in senior staff and command appointments. The first Duntroon officer to achieve the rank of general, he might have been expected to advance further. He was unfortunate that his illness occurred at a critical time. Only 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, strict, strong-willed and opinionated, he was a widely read, decent and upright man. Blamey said that Milford was the equal of Vasey, yet it seems that he did not possess Vasey's charisma as a leader, nor, despite his achievements, is he similarly remembered. None the less, he was the sort of person whom Australia was fortunate to have on hand to accept the responsibilities of senior command during the dark years of World War II. Milford died on 10 June 1972 at Macleod and was cremated. He was survived by his son John who had graduated from Duntroon in 1944; John's son Michael also graduated from Duntroon in 1983.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Controversial Soldier (Canb, 1973)
  • D. M. Horner, General Vasey's War (Melb, 1992)
  • P. Dennis et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (Melb, 1995)
  • private information.

Citation details

S. N. Gower, 'Milford, Edward James (1894–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/milford-edward-james-11121/text19803, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 2 August 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Edward James Milford (1894-1972), by unknown photographer, 1944

Edward James Milford (1894-1972), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 070980