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Roberts, Caleb Grafton (1898–1965)

by A. (Len) Puglisi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Caleb Grafton Roberts (1898-1965), civil engineer, public servant and army officer, was born on 31 January 1898 at Balmain, Sydney, only child of Thomas William Roberts, the English-born artist who founded the Heidelberg school, and his wife Elizabeth, née Williamson, who came from Melbourne. The family moved to London in 1903 and set up house at Putney. 'Ca' was educated at St Paul's School, London, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. A keen sportsman and a good scholar, he impressed his father as being a 'model all-rounder'. On 26 August 1916 he was commissioned in the Royal Engineers. He served in Palestine (1917), on the Western Front (1917-18) and in northern Russia (1919). Promoted lieutenant in February 1918, he won the Military Cross (1919) and played Rugby Union football for the British Army.

Back in England, Roberts resigned his commission, entered East London College, University of London (B.Sc.Eng Hons, 1922), and obtained a position as an assistant-engineer with the Ministry of Transport. On 30 September 1922 at the parish church, Kew, he married Norah Joan Watson. They lived near Billericay while he worked as a resident engineer on the reconstruction of the trunk road between London and Southend. With no prospects other than the promise of an interview with William Calder, chairman of the Country Roads Board of Victoria, he left with his family for Melbourne in August 1925. That year he began his employment with the C.R.B. as an assistant highway engineer.

Roberts was promoted to highway engineer in 1928. His responsibilities included the modernizing of road-making techniques and the introduction of cheaper construction methods. In 1937 he prepared the board's 'first 10-year plan for highway development'. An engineer officer (from 1931) with the Citizen Military Forces, he was gazetted acting major on 25 September 1939 and called up for full-time duty. In November he was transferred to the Australian Intelligence Corps. While serving at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, he was raised to temporary colonel and made director of military intelligence in February 1942.

On 1 July 1942 Roberts was appointed controller of the Allied Intelligence Bureau at Douglas MacArthur's General Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. The A.I.B. spread propaganda and conducted espionage, sabotage and guerrilla operations in enemy-held territory. By 1944 Roberts had charge of an organization comprising some 2000 men from Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States of America and countries occupied by the Japanese. It was a daunting job. He found it difficult to reconcile the aims and allegiances of the various national groups, and to deal with some highly individualistic and temperamental members of his staff. On 17 October that year he relinquished his appointment and was placed on the Regimental Supernumerary List.

Resuming work at the C.R.B., Roberts was promoted chief engineer on 30 October 1944. He was to hold office in a period when the number of motor vehicles on Australian roads increased enormously. The board sent him to the U.S.A. and Britain from June 1947 to January 1948 to study the latest methods of building and maintaining roads, as well as new measures to improve safety. His report constituted a landmark in the analysis of Australia's needs: it recommended fresh approaches to highway planning, to predicting traffic demand, to constructing and repairing roads, and to developing the skills of personnel involved in these activities.

With prescience, Roberts urged the establishment of a national organization to study roads. After he and (Sir) Louis Loder submitted a further report to the National Association of Australian State Road Authorities, the Australian Road Research Board was established in 1959. Roberts was also committed to advancing the engineering profession; to that end, he lectured at Swinburne Technical College and the University of Melbourne. Appointed deputy-chairman (1956) of the C.R.B., he became its chairman in July 1962. He retired on 30 June 1963, but was 'co-opted to serve in an advisory capacity' with the A.R.R.B. Survived by his wife and three sons, he died of coronary vascular disease on 23 November 1965 at Kew and was cremated.

Allison Ind, Roberts's deputy at the A.I.B., described him as 'a man of integrity, tremendous energy, and fearless loyalty'. Colleagues at the C.R.B. found him kind-hearted and appreciative, despite his stern manner and military bearing.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • Australian Road Research Board, 'The First 15 Years' (Melb, 1975)
  • W. K. Anderson, Roads for the People (Melb, 1994)
  • Victorian Roads Retirees Association, Reminiscences of Life in the Country Roads Board (Melb, 1995)
  • H. McQueen, Tom Roberts (Syd, 1996)
  • Roadlines, Mar 1966
  • private information.

Citation details

A. (Len) Puglisi, 'Roberts, Caleb Grafton (1898–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-caleb-grafton-11534/text20577, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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