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Rowell, Sir Sydney Fairbairn (1894–1975)

by A. J. Hill

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

Sydney Fairbairn Rowell (1894-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Sydney Fairbairn Rowell (1894-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 013174

Sir Sydney Fairbairn Rowell (1894-1975), army officer, was born on 15 December 1894 at Lockleys, South Australia, fourth son of James Rowell, an English-born soldier and orchardist, and his Australian-born second wife Zella Jane, née Williams. Syd acted as 'unofficial batman' to his father, who was colonel commanding (1907-11) the South Australian Brigade. Educated at Adelaide High School, he was one of the first cadets to enter the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1911. He and his classmates were commissioned on 14 August 1914 and allotted to units of the Australian Imperial Force. Rowell succeeded in transferring to the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, commanded by his cousin F. M. Rowell.

Misfortune dogged Rowell's career in the A.I.F. After pneumonia prevented him from sailing with his regiment in November, he joined it in Egypt, but broke his leg in February 1915 when his horse fell during training. He did not reach Gallipoli until 12 May. Soon in a hospital in Malta, he managed to return to Gallipoli in August and to command a squadron. In September he was made adjutant. Suffering from typhoid fever, he was evacuated to Egypt in November and thence to Australia. While his Duntroon friends gained experience, promotion and decorations, he taught at an officers' training school at Duntroon until June 1917 before filling a staff post in Adelaide. At the Chalmers Church, North Terrace, on 20 August 1919 he married with Presbyterian forms Blanche May Murison, a nurse.

Rowell sailed for England in 1924 to attend the Staff College, Camberley. His two years there were a rewarding experience, and he was promoted major (January 1926). A five-year posting to Perth on his return was endured in the midst of the Depression and the strains imposed on the army by the suspension of compulsory training in 1929. Furthermore, he did not obtain two appointments for which he believed he was well qualified. He expressed his discontent to (Sir) Julius Bruche, the visiting chief of the General Staff, and was transferred to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, in 1932.

In the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence, Rowell worked with some of the ablest officers of the day—(Sir) John Lavarack, H. D. Wynter and (Sir) Vernon Sturdee. With Sturdee he formed 'the most profitable partnership' in his career. After a year at the headquarters of a Militia division, he was sent to England in 1935 on exchange as operations staff officer of the 44th Division, Territorial Army. He made a powerful impression on his superior, Major General J. R. Minshull-Ford, who considered him 'undoubtedly a Commander', and on the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Cyril Deverell, who recommended him for the Imperial Defence College. In January 1937 Lieutenant Colonel Rowell joined that college; there one of his friends was W. J. (Viscount) Slim.

Returning to Melbourne in 1938, Rowell briefly became director of military operations and intelligence until selected by Lieutenant General E. K. Squires, the newly appointed inspector general, as his staff officer. They visited almost every army station and establishment in Australia, and between them developed an 'elder and younger brother' relationship. That year Rowell was appointed O.B.E. After Squires was made acting C.G.S. in May 1939, Rowell had little inspectorial work until the outbreak of war with Germany. In October 1939 Sir Thomas Blamey appointed him chief of staff of the 6th Division, A.I.F. When the government decided to form a corps in February 1940, Blamey was given the command. He took Rowell with him as brigadier, general staff.

Blamey and Rowell prepared I Corps for operations in the Middle East, completing the force's structure and forming a sound relationship with the British army. Rowell soon found that Blamey's dual role as corps commander and commander of the A.I.F. presented problems. He wanted to train the corps headquarters for battle, but could not persuade Blamey to establish an A.I.F. administrative headquarters to free them both to concentrate on this task. For his staff work Rowell was appointed C.B.E. (1941).

The tragic campaign in Greece was an exhausting experience for all commanders and staffs, but for Rowell it was something more. The short fighting withdrawal of April 1941, carried out with minimal air support and against overwhelming German forces, convinced him that Blamey was 'quite incompetent as a field commander in modern war'. He recalled sharp differences at critical times and Blamey's poor judgement on certain occasions. Moreover, he had lost his respect for Blamey as a man since their arrival in Palestine. For his part, Blamey wrote: 'Rowell has very great ability; is quick in decision and sound in judgement. There can be no question of his personal courage, but he lacks the reserves of nervous energy over a period of long strain'. The last point may be accounted for by Rowell's having to cope with a commander whom he believed to be failing amid the ceaseless tactical emergencies of the withdrawal in Greece. Back in Palestine, Rowell wrote to Sturdee that he would never again serve in the field under Blamey. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Greek Military Cross.

On their return from Greece, Blamey moved immediately to Cairo as deputy to the commander-in-chief, General (Earl) Wavell, leaving Rowell to rebuild the corps headquarters in Palestine. When Rowell learned of the 7th Division's role in the projected invasion of Syria, a country held by the Vichy French, he tried to ensure that the operation should fall under the direction of the Australian corps rather than that of General (Baron) Wilson in Jerusalem. Blamey, however, was not interested. That Blamey later changed his mind, giving Lavarack the command, was surprising. A difficult but brief campaign ended with the surrender of the Vichy forces on 12 July 1941; Rowell had the satisfaction of having again produced 'a smooth-running operational headquarters'. Urgently wanted in Melbourne by the C.G.S., Sturdee, as his deputy, he left by air early in August.

In Australia, Rowell faced the situation in which war with Japan was approaching, but the means of defence were lacking. He was able to bring a degree of order into the General Staff, and to limit access to Sturdee's office so that the C.G.S. could concentrate on major issues. He also played a vigorous part in quelling the so-called 'revolt of the generals' in which some senior officers proposed the retirement of all commanders over the age of 50 and the appointment of (Sir) Horace Robertson as commander-in-chief.

Soon after Blamey reached Melbourne on 26 March 1942, he gave command of the new I Corps to Rowell, saying that he had earned it. Rowell became a temporary lieutenant general responsible for the defence of southern Queensland. The Japanese had already landed in New Guinea, but their major seaborne operation aimed at Port Moresby was turned back in the battle of the Coral Sea (5-8 May). Rowell and others were amazed when a Militia brigade was sent to reinforce Port Moresby on 15 May, leaving the battle-hardened 7th Division near Brisbane. In his memoirs Rowell called the decision a 'cardinal error'. He was dispatched north in July to command New Guinea Force; elements of 7th Division under A. S. Allen were to follow him.

Rowell took hold of a dangerous situation. The Japanese navy controlled the Solomon Sea and the enemy air force was aggressive. In Papua, Kokoda and its airfield were already lost, and Japanese ground forces were pushing south along the Kokoda Track against partly trained militiamen. Rowell was responsible for the defence of Port Moresby, for holding the Track and for recapturing Kokoda. In addition to the soldiers engaged in these operations, he also commanded the independent companies based on Wau and the force under C. A. Clowes which protected new airfields at Milne Bay. He could and did visit Clowes by aeroplane, but the brigades on the Track could only be reached on foot after a five-day slog, which he judged was impracticable. Learning that only about 10 per cent of the supplies and ammunition dropped by air was being recovered, he placed the 7th Division on the defensive until stocks for an offensive could be accumulated.

An unwanted burden came through interference by the American supreme commander of the South-West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, who was based in Brisbane, and who sent tactical instructions (some of them fatuous) to Clowes during the battle for Milne Bay. On 12 September 1942 Blamey arrived on a two-day visit, which passed off smoothly. In a national broadcast he expressed his confidence in the outcome in New Guinea and in Rowell. Yet, nine days later Blamey was back at Rowell's headquarters in an atmosphere of crisis. This second visit arose from MacArthur's advice to Prime Minister John Curtin that Blamey should be sent to New Guinea to 'energize the situation' and 'to save himself'. Blamey did not argue, but he did send a letter explaining his imminent arrival and hoping that Rowell would 'not think that it implies any lack of confidence in yourself'. To Rowell it did. Blamey was still the man whom he despised and considered incompetent as a field commander. He was not prepared to become his chief of staff when the tide of his battle on the Track was turning. In three 'brawls' Rowell displayed his 'personal animus' towards Blamey. On 28 September Blamey dismissed Rowell, who left that night for Brisbane.

Following interviews with MacArthur and Curtin, Rowell withdrew on leave to his home and garden. Blamey continued to pursue him, demanding that he be reduced to his substantive rank of colonel. Rowell made it clear that he would not accept this, and warned Frank Forde, the minister for the army, that the affair might become 'a first-class political row'. After Rowell wrote to (Sir) Robert Menzies about the wretched business, the matter was raised in the Advisory War Council and the War Cabinet. Curtin then told Blamey to find an appointment for Rowell as a major general. He was banished to Cairo as commander of A.I.F. Details and as Australian liaison officer at General Headquarters, Middle East.

In February 1943 Rowell began his exile, discovering that he was not expected, and that he had neither accommodation nor instructions. He found friends at G.H.Q., and in the home of R. G. (Baron) Casey who was British minister of state. Rowell had a high sounding title, but his post was a sinecure, leaving him free to be useful in his own way. He made himself a conduit for information about operations in the Middle East and the war in the Pacific, and sent weekly reports to Army Headquarters in Australia. He visited allied headquarters in Algiers, and worked briefly in Delhi. Cairo and his travels freed his mind from bitterness, and helped to put the painful past behind him. Thanks largely to Casey, he spent the last two years of the war as director of tactical investigation at the War Office, London. Again among friends, he enjoyed the stimulus of working on top-level committees. As preparations for the invasion of France dominated the military scene early in 1944, Rowell focused his work on battle problems that could be expected in the near future. He served in the War Office until the end of 1945 and was appointed C.B. (1946).

Seeking an appointment in the Australian army, Rowell wrote to Prime Minister J. B. Chifley. When Chifley later saw him in Canberra, his comment on the affair with Blamey was: 'I hate bloody injustice'. In March 1946 Sturdee became C.G.S. in the post-Blamey army, on condition that Rowell be made vice-chief and his rank restored. The two lieutenant generals set out to build a better army, based on a small regular force with a reorganized Militia as the reserve. Such a fundamental change required developments in the structure upon which the army rested—the production of officers, schools, accommodation and administrative services. It was Rowell who presented the case for the army in 1947 and it was accepted, but recruitment was to be on a voluntary basis without improvements in pay and conditions of service. So continual were the attacks on the army within and outside parliament—and from Blamey—that Rowell was moved to answer them in a public address in April 1949.

While Sturdee was abroad that year, miners went on strike on the New South Wales coalfields. The government ordered the army to cut coal and the railwaymen agreed to transport it. Rowell travelled to Sydney to handle the political problems so that soldiers under Lieutenant General (Sir) Frank Berryman could concentrate on coal-mining. Rowell was aware of the delicacy of the situation. His wise advice to the government against proposals to have the troops paid miners' award rates was accepted, as was that on the provision of beer for them.

In April 1950 Rowell succeeded Sturdee as C.G.S., a significant event in the army's history inasmuch as he was the first Duntroon graduate to hold the post. As the senior of the service chiefs, he was also chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Becoming C.G.S. during the Cold War, he was faced with the introduction of national service at a time when the new Australian Regular Army was in its infancy, short of everything and yet maintaining a force in the Korean War. The need to see the army at home and abroad, and to attend major conferences, imposed a heavy burden of travel. In 1953 he was appointed K.B.E. On 14 December 1954, the day before his retirement, he took the graduation parade at Duntroon, where he had begun as a cadet 43 years earlier. His wheel had come full circle.

Sir Sydney's first year of retirement in Melbourne was not without difficulty after the pressures of high office, but he turned to his garden, cricket, horse-racing, The Times crossword puzzle and reading. Directorships began to be offered—Elder, Smith & Co. Ltd in 1954 and the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1956 (chairman 1957-68). In 1958-68 he was chairman of the Australian Boy Scouts' Association and a member of the Rhodes Scholarships Selection Committee for Victoria. He was offered, but declined, the post of Australian consul-general in New York. In 1959 he led the delegation from the Australian Institute of International Affairs to a conference in New Zealand on Commonwealth relations. He was urged by historians and colleagues 'to put on paper some recollections of my army life'. The result was Full Circle (Melbourne, 1974). Written with 'modesty and a good deal of charm', the book showed 'dignity and restraint in dealing with his final crisis with Blamey'.

Rowell kept the same lean, trim figure all his life. He continued to be active, but the strain of his wife's illness sapped his strength. He died on 12 April 1975 at his South Yarra home, twelve days before Lady Rowell, and was cremated. Their daughter survived them. (Sir) Ivor Hele's portrait of Rowell is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey (Canb, 1973)
  • D. M. Horner (ed), The Commanders (Syd, 1984)
  • D. M. Horner, Blamey (Syd, 1998)
  • Rowell papers (Australian War Memorial).

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Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Rowell, Sir Sydney Fairbairn (1894–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rowell-sir-sydney-fairbairn-11575/text20661, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 December 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Sydney Fairbairn Rowell (1894-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Sydney Fairbairn Rowell (1894-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 013174