Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nimmo, Robert Harold (1893–1966)

by Neil James and Peter Londey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Robert Harold Nimmo (1893-1966), by unknown photographer, 1945

Robert Harold Nimmo (1893-1966), by unknown photographer, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 097387

Robert Harold Nimmo (1893-1966), soldier and peacekeeper, was born on 22 November 1893 at Oak Park station, near Einasleigh, far north Queensland, fifth of nine children of James Russel Nimmo (d.1905), a Scottish-born grazier, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Ann Eleanor, née Lethbridge. Harold—as he was known within his family—was educated in 1904-11 at The Southport School, where he won academic and sporting honours. On 7 March 1912 he entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in the second intake. Here he acquired the nickname 'Putt'. In November 1914 his class graduated fourteen months early for service in World War I. He was later retrospectively awarded the sword of honour as top student.

Joining the 5th Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force, in Egypt in February 1915, Lieutenant Nimmo landed on Gallipoli as a troop commander on 20 May. He saw extensive fighting (the official history later noted his courage and leadership on 28 June). Appointed regimental adjutant, he was evacuated to Britain with enteric fever in late August. He returned to Egypt in May 1916 and served throughout the Palestine campaign in a variety of staff and squadron command appointments with the 5th Light Horse, the 1st and 2nd Light Horse brigades, and the British 160th Infantry Brigade. Rising to major in July 1917, he was mentioned in dispatches and returned to Australia in February 1919.

Nimmo resumed service in the Permanent Military Forces and from 1920 instructed at Duntroon. On 25 June 1921 at St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst, Sydney, he married Joan Margaret 'Peggy' Cunningham, from the grazing family that owned Lanyon station, F.C.T.; they had one son and one daughter. From 1925 Nimmo held staff appointments in Melbourne. He represented Australia in hockey in 1927, 1930 and 1932, and played hockey, Rugby, cricket, tennis and polo for Victoria. A lieutenant colonel at Headquarters, 1st Cavalry Division, Sydney, on the outbreak of World War II, Nimmo, like most other senior cavalry officers, was kept in Australia to help develop a modern armoured capability.

In March 1940 Peggy died in a fall near Rosa Gully, north of Dover Heights. The army transferred a devastated Nimmo to Brisbane. On 10 February 1942 at the Church of All Saints, Woollahra, Sydney, he married 26-year-old Mary Dundas Page, from Queensland. They had two children. His son James, from his first marriage, was killed while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force in 1944.

Nimmo was promoted colonel in September 1941 and brigadier in January 1942. In 1942 and 1943 he commanded the 4th Cavalry Brigade, 1st Armoured Brigade and 1st Motor Brigade. In 1943-45 he was brigadier, general staff, successively of 3rd Australian Corps, 2nd Australian Army and Northern Territory Force, before commanding 4th Australian Base Area in New Guinea and serving at Headquarters, 1st Australian Army, at Lae.

At the war's end Nimmo assumed command of the 34th Infantry Brigade on Morotai, the first formation of the incipient Australian Regular Army, as it waited to take part in the occupation of Japan. In January 1946 he impressed many, including the soldiers themselves, with his calm handling of the 'Morotai incident' when troops came close to mutiny over delays and public criticism. The next month he led the brigade to Japan. Three months later he returned to Australia and was promoted major general as general officer commanding Northern Command in Brisbane. Appointed C.B.E. in 1950, he retired from the army in November.

Late that year, following Sir Owen Dixon's ultimately unsuccessful efforts at mediating a settlement in Kashmir, the United Nations had sought an Australian to serve as chief military observer of the U.N. Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan. With his broad experience and calm and resolute personality, Nimmo was chosen. He arrived in Kashmir in November 1950, and was joined three months later by his wife. Their children also spent time in Kashmir. The observer group's role was to monitor the ceasefire line between Indian and Pakistani forces, much of it in rugged mountains. Nimmo acquired a reputation as a hard-working and efficient administrator. He was an ideal military observer, 'a model of firmness, tact, and silence', as one onlooker wrote. He regularly visited local commanders along the line. He also earned the parties' respect with his sporting prowess, playing polo into his sixties.

With dark hair and a trim moustache, Nimmo was remembered by one who served under him in 1945-46 as a handsome officer of compact stature, unflappable and popular. In 1954, at the United Nations' suggestion, Nimmo was promoted honorary lieutenant general. He led U.N.M.O.G.I.P. until his death, the longest ever command of a United Nations operation. Following the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, he also raised and initially commanded the U.N. India-Pakistan Observation Mission outside Kashmir. Nimmo died in his sleep, of a heart attack, on 4 January 1966 at Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and was buried in the Anzac section of Mount Gravatt cemetery, Brisbane, with full military and U.N. honours; senior representatives of both India and Pakistan attended his funeral. His wife and their son and daughter, and the daughter of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of ANZAC, vol 2 (Canb, 1944)
  • T. A. G. Hungerford, A Knockabout With A Slouch Hat (Perth, 1985)
  • Old Southportians Review, Jan 1964, June 1966
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Mar 1940, p 11, 5 Jan 1966, p 3, 14 Jan 1966, p 14
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 5 Jan 1966, p 1
  • Canberra Times, 5 Jan 1966, p 1
  • A1868, items 681/27/2 and 854/10/18/3, A5009, item A7/3/2/3, and A5954, item 2277/4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Nimmo letters (Royal Military College Duntroon Archives, Canberra)
  • private information.

Citation details

Neil James and Peter Londey, 'Nimmo, Robert Harold (1893–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nimmo-robert-harold-13130/text23761, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Robert Harold Nimmo (1893-1966), by unknown photographer, 1945

Robert Harold Nimmo (1893-1966), by unknown photographer, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 097387