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Savige, Sir Stanley George (1890–1954)

by Gavin Michael Keating

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

Stanley George Savige (1890-1954), by Alfred Cook, 1958

Stanley George Savige (1890-1954), by Alfred Cook, 1958

Australian War Memorial, ART27535

Sir Stanley George Savige (1890-1954), army officer and founder of Legacy, was born on 26 June 1890 at Morwell, Victoria, eldest of eight children of Samuel Savige, butcher, and his wife Ann Nora, née Walmsley, both Victorian born. Stan left Korumburra State School at the age of 12 to work as a blacksmith's striker. He subsequently held various casual jobs before being employed in a drapery. Showing an interest in soldiering and community work, he served as a senior cadet (1907-09) and scoutmaster (1910-15).

On 6 March 1915 Savige enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 24th Battalion, he landed at Gallipoli in September. A series of promotions culminated in his being commissioned at Lone Pine on 9 November. In the following month he commanded one of the battalion's rearguard parties during the evacuation. Sent to France in March 1916, he was intelligence officer (from May) at Brigadier General (Sir) John Gellibrand's 6th Brigade headquarters. After taking part in operations at Pozières and Mouquet Farm in July-August, he was promoted captain in September. In November he was wounded at Flers. Next month he was admitted to hospital, suffering from influenza. He returned to his battalion and in February 1917 became adjutant. For his 'consistent good work and devotion to duty' in the fighting at Warlencourt, Grevilliers and Bullecourt (February-May), he was awarded the Military Cross. Volunteering for special service, he was sent to Persia in March 1918 as part of Dunsterforce. He won the Distinguished Service Order for protecting refugees while under fire, and later recorded his experiences in Stalky's Forlorn Hope (Melbourne, 1920). Thrice mentioned in dispatches, he sailed for Melbourne where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 24 April 1919. At the Baptist Church, South Yarra, on 28 June that year he married Lilian Stockton.

Savige worked as sole agent for the Returned Soldiers' and Sailors' Woollen & Worsted Co-operative Manufacturing Co. Ltd, Geelong. Prompted by Gellibrand, and by his own concern for the families of his fallen comrades, he founded Legacy in September 1923. He served in a number of key positions as the society grew into a national body, and was to be the leading figure in its development over the ensuing thirty years. Meanwhile, he had joined the Militia in 1920, and was promoted major in 1924 and lieutenant colonel in 1926. He commanded the 37th Battalion (1924-28), the 24th Battalion (1928-35) and, as a colonel, the 10th Brigade from 1935 until the outbreak of World War II. In 1938 he was promoted temporary brigadier.

Seconded to the A.I.F. on 13 October 1939, Savige was appointed commander of the 17th Brigade, 6th Division, perhaps partly due to his friendship with Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey. Their association stretched back to their time in the cadets, and he had defended Blamey when the latter was forced to resign from the Victoria Police in 1936. The battle of Bardia, Libya, on 3-5 January 1941, saw the 6th Division's resounding first victory. It was also a chaotic, confused and costly one from the 17th Brigade's perspective. One of Savige's battalions was badly mauled trying to capture a strong Italian position, and his remaining two battalions rapidly became disorganized during the main attack. In the battle's aftermath, Savige was criticized for his role in these setbacks, particularly by George Vasey, (Sir) Horace Robertson and (Sir) Frank Berryman, all of them senior regular officers in the division. As his ability to cope with the fluid and technically demanding conditions of modern warfare came into question, Savige became increasingly suspicious of his regular army contemporaries and more defensive of his performance. His brigade played supporting roles in the assault on Tobruk on 21-22 January and the subsequent advance to Derna. In 1941 he was appointed C.B.E.

Although the 17th Brigade took only a small part in the disastrous Greek campaign in April, Savige's personal example and bravery helped to steady those around him during the constant withdrawals and air-attacks. He was awarded the Greek Military Cross (1942). Involved in the closing phases of the conflict in Syria, he commanded the brigade in the hard-fought battle of Damour on 5-9 July 1941 when its men drew on 'sheer grit, determination and courage'. Savige regarded it as 'my most successful operation throughout the war'. He was again mentioned in dispatches. In December he embarked for Australia. A number of senior officers thought that, at the age of 51, he should be retired, following three strenuous campaigns in six months.

Japan's entry into the war dramatically altered Savige's fortunes. On 7 January 1942 he was promoted major general and placed in command of the 3rd Division. The training of this unprepared Militia formation suited his strengths as a commander, and he was ably assisted by his brilliant chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel (Sir) John Wilton. Blamey probably chose Wilton to balance Savige's shortcomings. Their partnership proved successful when the division fought in the region between Wau and Salamaua, New Guinea, in April-August 1943. The harsh terrain and climate slowed the tempo of the campaign, and produced a war in which a general's contribution lay less in tactics than in 'personal inspiration' and in consideration for 'the welfare of the troops'. Believing that his presence was good for morale and important for tactical control, Savige made concerted efforts to visit the front line, something many higher commanders failed to do. His direction of the campaign was characterized by his encouragement of subordinate commanders, by his concern for his men, and by the way his divisional headquarters provided particularly effective artillery support.

Bitter fighting saw the capture of successive Japanese strongholds, among them Bobdubi Ridge, Komiatum and Mount Tambu. By late August, the month in which Savige's headquarters was relieved, his troops were poised to occupy Salamaua. His dealings with his immediate superior, Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring, were acrimonious and marred by misunderstanding. Although Herring was also a Militia officer, his vastly different social background and Savige's increasingly prickly manner combined with the normal confusion and frustration of war to produce tensions. While Savige was a difficult and sometimes trying officer, Herring was not without fault. Major General Berryman's report on the conduct of the campaign largely vindicated Savige. For his contribution to the victory at Salamaua, Savige was appointed C.B. (1943).

On 10 February 1944 Savige was promoted temporary lieutenant general and given command of I Corps (II Corps from April). This further promotion provoked comment, many believing that his friendship with Blamey had unduly influenced the decision. After leading New Guinea Force in May-October, he commanded II Corps on Bougainville, where the terrain and political imperative to minimize casualties required patience and understanding, but little military inspiration. In September 1945 he accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces at Torokina.

From October 1945 to May 1946 Savige served as co-ordinator of demobilization and dispersal. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 6 June. Resuming his business interests, he was a director (1946-51) of the Olympic Tyre & Rubber Co. Ltd and chairman (1950-51) of Moran & Cato Ltd. He was also chairman (1946-51) of the Central War Gratuity Board and a commissioner (from 1951) of the State Savings Bank of Victoria. A leader in Melbourne's Anzac Day marches, he was patron of a number of his former units' associations and honorary colonel of the 5th Battalion (Victorian Scottish Regiment). In 1950 he was elevated to K.B.E. Two months after the death of his wife, Sir Stanley died of coronary artery disease on 15 May 1954 in his home at Kew. Survived by his daughter, he was buried with Anglican rites and full military honours in Boroondara cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £66,007.

Savige's forte, at all levels of military command, was his personal leadership and knowledge of men. His ability to inspire and build rapport with his subordinates was helped by the genuine interest he showed in their welfare. His philanthropy was also seen in his community work, particularly with Legacy. As he progressed through the ranks to senior command positions, however, his lack of formal training and comprehension of modern warfare became an issue. Blamey's patronage of Savige was resented by other senior officers; their attempts to remove Savige from command increased his insecurity. John Hetherington justly concluded: 'Savige did not pretend to be a military genius, but only a commander who knew his way round the battlefield because he had learned his soldiering the hard way'. Alfred Cook's portrait of Savige is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Burke (ed), With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia (Syd, 1927)
  • W. B. Russell, There Goes a Man (Melb, 1959)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Controversial Soldier (Canb, 1973)
  • M. Lyons, Legacy (Melb, 1978)
  • D. M. Horner, General Vasey's War (Melb, 1992)
  • G. M. Keating, The Right Man for the Right Job: An Assessment of Lieutenant General S. G. Savige as a Senior Commander (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1995)
  • Savige papers (Australian War Memorial).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gavin Michael Keating, 'Savige, Sir Stanley George (1890–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/savige-sir-stanley-george-11617/text20745, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 August 2014.

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

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