Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robertson, Sir Horace Clement Hugh (1894–1960)

by Jeffrey Grey

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

Horace Clement Hugh Robertson (1894-1960), by unknown photographer, 1945

Horace Clement Hugh Robertson (1894-1960), by unknown photographer, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 093976

Sir Horace Clement Hugh Robertson (1894-1960), army officer, was born on 29 October 1894 at Warrnambool, Victoria, sixth child of Melbourne-born parents John Robertson, schoolteacher, and his wife Annie, née Gray. Family members called him 'Red Robbie' because of the colour of his hair and to differentiate him from his brother John ('Black Robbie'). Educated at Outtrim State School (1905-10) and briefly at Geelong College, he entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1912, having barely qualified, academically, for admission.

Due to the outbreak of World War I, Robertson's class graduated early. On 2 November 1914 he was commissioned lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces and in the Australian Imperial Force. Although he was a minor, on 7 November that year at Collingwood, Melbourne, he married with Presbyterian forms Jessie Bonnar, a 38-year-old nurse; he gave his age as 24 and she gave hers as 31. A second marriage ceremony was performed on 19 October 1916 at the Kasr-el-Nil Chapel, Cairo. They concealed their difference in age from friends and family.

Posted as machine-gun officer to the 10th Light Horse Regiment, Robertson fought in the Dardanelles campaign from May 1915 until the evacuation from Gallipoli. He took a leading role in the fight at Hill 60 in late August when he commanded the depleted remnants of the regiment in a vicious night-attack which resulted in heavy casualties. Reaching Egypt, he was promoted major in May 1916 and given command of a squadron. At the battle of Magdhaba, Palestine, in December, he led the whole regiment in a mounted charge against entrenched Turkish positions and won the Distinguished Service Order (1917). Posted to the headquarters of the Yeomanry Mounted Division, a British formation, in June 1917, he served on the A.I.F. staff in Cairo from September 1918. For helping to supervise the repatriation of light-horse units he was appointed (1920) to the Order of the Nile. He was twice mentioned in dispatches.

Robertson returned to Australia in August 1919 and to a typical series of staff and regimental administrative postings. Attending the Staff College, Camberley, England, in 1923-24, he received an 'A' pass and impressed his superiors as being 'an officer of strong character and high ability'. His capacities as a trainer of troops were often commented upon during his career, and he honed them while he was chief instructor at the Small Arms School, Randwick, Sydney, in 1926-30. From December 1934 he was director of military art at Duntroon, in charge of educating and training the army's future regular officers. In June 1936 he was promoted brevet lieutenant colonel and in March 1939 he became commander of the newly created 7th Military District which encompassed the Northern Territory. He took preliminary steps to place northern Australia on a better defensive footing in the event of war with Japan before volunteering for service with the A.I.F. in April 1940.

That month Robertson was given command of the 19th Brigade. He was the first regular officer to receive a command at this level in World War II. He trained the 19th to his own exacting standards for the rest of the year and led it with style and vigour in the Libyan campaign (January-February 1941). For his contribution to the Australian capture of Tobruk he was to be appointed C.B.E. (1941). Ill health and time in hospital meant that he missed the disaster in Greece, and, on recovering in March, he was posted to command the A.I.F. Reinforcement Depot near Gaza, Palestine. He reformed it from top to bottom. The outbreak of war in the Pacific led to his return in December to Australia, where he became the willing object of some ineffectual plotting to have him made commander-in-chief (the so-called 'revolt of the generals').

Placed in command of the 1st Armoured Division in April 1942, Major-General Robertson oversaw the creation of Australia's first fully-mechanized formation. Originally intended to serve in the Mediterranean, the division never left Australia, but was transferred to Western Australia in February 1943 and disbanded in September. In April 1944 Robertson took over the administration of III Corps. The dwindling threat of a Japanese invasion led to the disbanding of units and formations in Western Australia and to the reallocation of personnel. By the end of the year Robertson's command had been reduced to almost nothing. Another period of illness in mid-1944 further reduced his chances of front-line service, and it was only in April 1945 that he returned to action, in command of the 5th Division in New Britain. He was transferred to the 6th Division in late July and accepted the surrender of the Japanese 18th Army near Wewak, New Guinea, in September. Again, he was twice mentioned in dispatches.

Appointed temporary lieutenant general in December, Robertson supervised the repatriation of Australians serving in New Guinea and came home in February 1946. He briefly headed Southern Command before being appointed in May to relieve Lieutenant General (Sir) John Northcott in command of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. As one of the most senior foreign officers in that country, he had direct access to the supreme commander, General Douglas MacArthur. His relations with some senior British officers were less cordial. With the re-establishment of civil government in Japan, B.C.O.F. had relatively little to do, and this caused problems for the morale of the force. In April 1950 the Australian government gave notice that it would remove its remaining troops, by then reduced to a single understrength battalion and a Royal Australian Air Force fighter squadron.

Before this could be accomplished the Korean War broke out in June, and the administrative structures of B.C.O.F. had to be hurriedly revived to cope with the influx of troops which various Commonwealth countries had contributed to the United Nations Command. Robertson's administrative ability and his good personal relations with the Americans allowed much to be achieved in a short time. His insistence that the Australian battalion would not be sent to Korea until it had been brought up to strength and given additional training underscored his well-known concern for the welfare of those he commanded. He made frequent trips to Korea to visit Commonwealth troops in his additional capacity as commander-in-chief, British Commonwealth Forces, Korea, an administrative and non-operational role. In 1950 he was appointed K.B.E. He was also to be appointed to the American Legion of Merit and the Korean Order of Military Merit Taiguk in 1952.

In mid-November 1951 Sir Horace finally, and reluctantly, returned to Australia to become director-general of recruiting. He led a campaign to make up the manpower deficiencies which the army had suffered as a result of reductions in the defence vote after 1945. Fresh from Korea and with experience gained in two world wars, he had little time for talk about 'pushbutton warfare', noting that 'it is still the man on the ground that matters'. In January 1953 he was made head of Southern Command, Melbourne. He retired from the army on 30 October 1954.

Jessie died in August 1956 and Robbie seemed to mellow slightly in his final years. While maintaining his links with the army as honorary colonel (from 1954) of the Royal Australian Regiment, he began to write his memoirs, which he described as 'the million pound libel'. He died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on 28 April 1960 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £108,985: he was always canny with money. Robertson was a flamboyant and controversial figure in the army. Few of his contemporaries were neutral in their view of him. He was widely admired and heartily detested, but even those who did not like him conceded his great ability as a trainer of troops and as an administrator. His command in Libya suggests that he possessed considerable ability as a field commander as well.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Grey, Australian Brass (Melb, 1992), and for bibliography
  • Robertson papers (privately held).

Citation details

Jeffrey Grey, 'Robertson, Sir Horace Clement Hugh (1894–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-sir-horace-clement-hugh-11542/text20595, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Horace Clement Hugh Robertson (1894-1960), by unknown photographer, 1945

Horace Clement Hugh Robertson (1894-1960), by unknown photographer, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 093976