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Shedden, Sir Frederick Geoffrey (1893–1971)

by David Horner

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

Sir Frederick Geoffrey Shedden (1893-1971), public servant, was born on 8 August 1893 at Kyneton, Victoria, youngest of five children of George Shedden, a Victorian-born wheelwright, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Gray, who came from England. Fred was educated at Kyneton State and Kyneton Grammar schools. Placed fourth out of 300 candidates in the Commonwealth public service examination, he began work in the Department of Defence at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, in March 1910. Apart from service overseas, he was to work at the barracks until 1971. In his spare time he studied accountancy and learned shorthand, but the heavy workload caused by the outbreak of World War I forced him to abandon his law studies at the University of Melbourne.

Promoted in the finance branch, Shedden arranged a temporary exchange with a member of the pay staff at Australian Imperial Force Headquarters, London. On 19 March 1917 he was appointed lieutenant in the Australian Army Pay Corps. He reached London in May, visited pay offices in France, and served as acting paymaster of the 4th Australian Division in August. Returning home, he was discharged from the A.I.F. on 24 December. In later years he was proud of this limited military experience.

Shedden continued to rise in the finance branch while studying part time at the University of Melbourne (B.Com., 1932). On 14 December 1927, at her parents' St Kilda home, he married with Congregational forms Anne Cardno Edward, a bookkeeper. Later that day he sailed for England to undertake the course at the Imperial Defence College, London. The first Australian civilian to attend the college, he was deeply influenced by its commandant, Vice-Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, who reported that he worked 'indefatigably', and with 'acuteness and zeal'.

After the year-long course, Shedden spent a further nine months in London, studying financial administration and preparing a paper on the principles of Imperial defence with special reference to Australia. Back in Melbourne in October 1929, he was appointed secretary of the Defence Committee, which included the chiefs of staff of the three services. He witnessed the efforts of the new Labor government to cut costs during the Depression and took part in debates between senior naval and army officers over the most appropriate strategy for defending Australia. Shedden was an advocate of Imperial defence: he argued that the Australian navy should be built up so that it could co-operate with the Royal Navy in times of threat.

Following the defeat of the Labor government in December 1931, the new minister for external affairs (Sir) John Latham was nominated to attend the League of Nations' disarmament conference in Geneva in 1932. Shedden accompanied him as his assistant, but Latham was absent for much of the conference and Shedden acted in his stead. He was also appointed Australian representative to the British Cabinet Office, and to the Committee of Imperial Defence at which he established a friendship with Sir Maurice (Baron) Hankey. In 1933 he was secretary to the Australian delegation at the World Monetary and Economic Conference, held in London. For his work in London and Geneva, he was appointed O.B.E. (1933).

In December 1933 Shedden resumed work with the Defence Committee in Melbourne. Next year he accompanied Hankey during the latter's visit to Australia. Shedden tried to model himself on Hankey, and was later nicknamed 'the pocket Hankey'. In November 1936 Shedden was appointed first assistant secretary. He set about preparing the department's briefing papers for the 1937 Imperial Conference in London. The Australian delegation included the prime minister Joseph Lyons, the minister for defence Sir Archdale Parkhill and the treasurer Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey. Shedden was the delegation's defence adviser. While in London, he discussed Australia's war preparations with Hankey.

On 17 November 1937 Shedden succeeded Malcolm Shepherd as secretary of the Department of Defence. Since 1929 he had worked to expand the secretary's influence and authority. He had proven to be a skilful bureaucrat, unafraid to challenge the military chiefs and usually working behind the scenes. Preparations for war dominated his first twenty months as secretary, and he accelerated work on the Commonwealth War Book, which set out procedures to be followed when hostilities began. He assisted in the appointment of inspector-generals for the army, and for defence works and supplies, and helped to arrange the visit of a senior British air force officer to report on the Royal Australian Air Force. On becoming secretary of the Council of Defence—which included senior ministers, military chiefs, defence officials and representatives of industry—he encouraged it to meet more frequently.

As defence secretary, Shedden was an aloof and distant figure who 'eschewed publicity'. His whole life revolved around his work, and he spent most of his time at the office. The Sheddens had no children and lived modestly. Fred was 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, always well dressed in suit and tie, and conscious of his status. Some military chiefs, among them Major General (Sir) John Lavarack and Air Vice-Marshal (Sir) Richard Williams, resented his power. Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin noted that Shedden 'always had the ear of the Prime Minister and could generally get the Chiefs of Staff's view and wishes overridden. Still . . . he was an able and knowledgeable man and though one couldn't trust him personally his views were generally sound'.

The outbreak of World War II made Shedden his country's most important public servant. As the head of the Department of Defence, he played a crucial role in bringing Australia to a war footing over the ensuing months, but the prime source of his power and influence was his position as secretary of the War Cabinet, a post he held throughout the war. It was his task to ensure that War Cabinet decisions were promulgated and executed by various government departments. The prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, took over the defence portfolio, by then called Defence Co-ordination, and new ministries were formed to administer the three services. As secretary of the Department of Defence Co-ordination, Shedden exercised a measure of control over other defence-related departments. He was at the heart of the strategic decision-making process, co-ordinating advice from the service chiefs, preparing War Cabinet agenda papers, contributing to War Cabinet discussions and preparing minutes for action. After the federal election in September 1940, he also became secretary of the Advisory War Council, which involved the Opposition in key decisions affecting the nation's security. In 1941 he was appointed C.M.G.

Menzies left on a trip to the Middle East and Britain in January 1941, during which he hoped to persuade the British government to reinforce Malaya and Singapore. Shedden was his principal adviser throughout this journey. They visited Australian troops in the Middle East, and discussed war developments with Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey and senior British officers. In London, Menzies approved the decision to send forces to Greece. Shedden gained first-hand experience of how the British government was conducting the war. He was critical of British generalship in the Middle East. After they returned, Menzies created five additional ministries. In July Shedden was made secretary of the new Department of Home Security, while retaining his other responsibilities. Menzies agreed to allow a minute-secretary to attend the War Cabinet meetings, thus relieving Shedden of that burden. Throughout the next four years Shedden played a significant role in War Cabinet discussions.

When the Labor party came to office in October 1941, Shedden soon established himself as principal adviser to the prime minister and minister for defence, John Curtin. His influence was demonstrated after Japan entered the war. Following a War Cabinet meeting on 8 December, he advised Curtin that the information presented by the chiefs of staff was 'scrappy and meagre . . . the Government must press it right home that this is a new war'.

When General Douglas MacArthur became commander-in-chief of the South-West Pacific Area in April 1942, Shedden assumed an even more important role. Curtin established the Prime Minister's War Conference, which consisted of himself, MacArthur and any other minister he thought should be invited. Shedden attended every meeting of the conference. Curtin notified MacArthur, 'if I should not be readily available, Mr Shedden has my full confidence in regard to all questions of War Policy'. In July MacArthur moved his headquarters to Brisbane. The conference met less frequently, but Shedden travelled to Brisbane on several occasions for discussions with MacArthur. Curtin told Shedden in December that, without his assistance, 'he could not have carried on'; he later said that Shedden was his 'right and left hand and head too'. Shedden was elevated to K.C.M.G. in 1943. He was the only civilian to be knighted by the Labor government during the war.

In the second half of 1943 Shedden helped the War Cabinet to establish principles for reshaping the war effort. He then accompanied Curtin to Washington and London in April-May 1944 to seek allied approval for these measures. On his return, he tried to ensure that the government redeployed manpower from the services to essential industries, but his attempts were hindered by Curtin's illness. Shedden provided valuable assistance to the acting prime minister, Ben Chifley, and continued to do so after Curtin died and Chifley became prime minister.

Shedden believed that Australia's future defence policy should be based on three pillars: collective security through the United Nations, British Commonwealth co-operation, and local defence. The government approved these principles, and, after the war, he restructured the Department of Defence to improve co-operation with Britain. Chifley and John Dedman, the minister for defence, largely gave him a free hand. He accompanied Chifley to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in London in April 1946. Continuing to gain added power and authority, he was appointed chairman of the Defence Committee in February 1948—the first non-serviceman to hold the position. Admiral Sir Louis Hamilton, the chief of Naval Staff, claimed that he engineered this appointment to lock 'that little bastard Shedden' into the committee's decisions so that he would not undermine them. In fact, Shedden had already arranged his appointment long before Hamilton proposed it.

In 1948-49 Shedden spent time dealing with a leak of documents to the Soviet Union and the consequent reduction in the flow of classified information from the United States of America. He helped to form the Australian Security Intelligence Organization in March 1949, and later that year travelled to the U.S.A. and Britain in an effort to restore access to intelligence material. Initially, he was unsuccessful. American information only began to be released in December, after Menzies was elected prime minister.

Frustrated by the Chifley government's reluctance to enter into full-scale defence planning with Britain (particularly over the issue of committing forces to the Middle East), Shedden welcomed the new Liberal-Country Party ministry. For several years he was in his element. In June 1950 the Korean War began. The government increased defence preparations and in January 1951 Shedden accompanied Menzies to another prime ministers' conference in London. Back home, Menzies claimed that the nation had only three years to prepare for war. In December cabinet finally agreed to commit forces to the Middle East in time of conflict.

The threat of world war diminished, however, and the government began to focus more on strategic planning in South-East Asia. The signing of the Australia-New Zealand-United States pact offered the prospect of increased co-operation with the U.S.A. Shedden was closely involved in these aspects of defence planning, but his personal influence was waning. He and his department remained in Melbourne, while Menzies sought advice from the senior ministers and departmental secretaries located in Canberra. During a trip abroad with Menzies in January-March 1955, Shedden was disappointed to find that (Sir) Arthur Tange, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, received more attention than he did. Shedden had to fight off several attempts to remove him as chairman of the Defence Committee. Menzies thought that the problem with defence was 'the dead hand of Fred Shedden'. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to become ambassador to Japan or high commissioner to Canada. In July 1956 the government announced that Shedden would step down as secretary to write a history of Australian defence policy. After serving as defence secretary for almost nineteen years, he handed over to (Sir) Edwin Hicks in October.

Shedden failed in his task of writing the history, but not through lack of effort. He carried out research in the United States and Britain in 1958. Although he received full pay only until he reached retirement age in August, he continued collecting documents, conducting research and writing. When he submitted the first volume (covering the years 1901-39) to the publisher in October 1967, he was told that it was unpublishable: it was more a stringing together of documents than a history. He kept working until May 1971 (two months before his death), by which time he had brought the narrative (over 2400 typed pages) to the end of World War II. The manuscript is held by the National Archives of Australia, with more than 2400 boxes of his official papers.

Dedicated to his work, Sir Frederick appeared to take little recreation. He enjoyed gardening, and occasionally found time to play golf, or to watch cricket, football or tennis. At the Presbyterian Church, Deepdene, which he attended regularly, he was regarded as a 'gracious man' and 'a disciple of Jesus Christ'. Survived by his wife, he died on 8 July 1971 in St Andrew's Hospital, East Melbourne, and was cremated.

Shedden had long dominated defence decision-making, giving it purpose and consistency. He shaped a defence organization that persisted largely unaltered until the 1970s. To Sir Paul Hasluck, he was 'one of the few outstanding men in the civil side of the Australian war effort. Discretion, orderly arrangement and careful groundwork were so large a part of his training and his method that his achievement was often hidden'. Sir Frederick Chilton, who worked under Shedden for more than a decade, wrote that he:

had a real presence and powerful personality. He was ruthless with those who crossed him, and devastating with those in his Department who could not rise to his exceptional standards of performance . . . Shedden's 'forte' was top level policy and its broad application. He was not a good administrator in the sense of leadership of a team . . . He ruled by fear—and this stultified initiative. But as a head of a small policy Dept of Defence, he was superb.

Chilton thought that Sir Robert Garran and Sir Frederick Shedden were Australia's most outstanding public servants, 'the first as the architect and interpreter of the constitution, the other for his unique role and contribution during Australia's darkest hour'. Shedden devoted his life to the defence of Australia. No other person has played, or is likely again to play, such an important role in the making of Australian defence policy for so long a period.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (Canb, 1982)
  • D. M. Horner, Inside the War Cabinet (Syd, 1996)
  • D. M. Horner, Defence Supremo (Syd, 2000)
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 42, no 3, Aug 1971, p 632
  • Defence Force Journal, no 50, Jan/Feb 1985, p 21, no 83, July/Aug 1990, p 38
  • Shedden papers (National Archives of Australia and University of Melbourne Archives).

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Citation details

David Horner, 'Shedden, Sir Frederick Geoffrey (1893–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shedden-sir-frederick-geoffrey-11670/text20853, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 September 2014.

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

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