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Simpson, Colin Hall (1894–1964)

by J. Whitelaw

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

Colin Hall Simpson (1894-1964), by H. D. Bickham, 1946

Colin Hall Simpson (1894-1964), by H. D. Bickham, 1946

Australian War Memorial, 125878

Colin Hall Simpson (1894-1964), pharmacist and army officer, was born on 13 April 1894 at St Kilda, Melbourne, son of Colin Simpson, a plumber from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Elizabeth Fulton, née Jordan. Young Colin was educated at Caulfield Grammar School and apprenticed to a pharmacist. After serving in the cadets (1909-14) and the Militia, he was appointed second lieutenant, 3rd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 1 May 1916. Next month he embarked for England. In November he transferred to the 3rd Divisional Signal Company, Australian Engineers, which was sent to the Western Front. He was mentioned in dispatches in January 1917 and won the Military Cross for maintaining communications during the battle of Messines, Belgium, in June. In October 1917 he was gassed at Passchendaele, and evacuated to England. He returned to Melbourne in February 1918. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 9 August.

Registered as a pharmacist in July 1918, Simpson set up as a retail chemist at Brunswick. At the Congregational Church, Ascot Vale, on 12 August 1919 he married Jean Elizabeth Watson. In 1937, in collaboration with D. E. Robertson and A. E. Moore, he formed Allied Master Chemists of Australia Ltd which sold products to fellow pharmacists to enable them to compete against other retailers.

Meanwhile, Simpson remained active in the Militia. In October 1918 he was posted to the 2nd/14th Battalion. Promoted captain in 1920, he was transferred to the Australian Engineers (signal duties) in 1921. As a lieutenant colonel (from 1923), he commanded the 3rd Divisional Signals (1923-29 and 1935-39) and the 39th Battalion (1929-33). In May 1939 Colonel Simpson was appointed commander of the 6th Brigade. He had become a confidant of Major-General Sir Thomas Blamey in the 1920s. They were both involved in the 'White Army', a secret organization formed principally by ex-servicemen to maintain law and order in the event of civil unrest.

On 14 October 1939 Blamey appointed Simpson to command the 6th Divisional Signals, A.I.F., in the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the expansion of the force, Simpson was promoted colonel and made chief signals officer, I Corps, in April 1940. He sailed for the Middle East in September 1940. Based in Palestine, he ensured that every signals unit in the corps was trained to the highest standards, militarily and technically. During the Greek campaign (April 1941) he did his best with scant resources. His own radio receiver, housed in a packing case for kerosene cans, provided news from the British Broadcasting Corporation on 15 April that Yugoslavia had sought an armistice with Germany, thereby exposing the Anzac Corps' left flank. Thus warned by Simpson, Blamey took measures to meet the new danger before official notification was received two days later. Simpson was appointed C.B.E. (1941) for his work in Greece.

Back in Palestine, I Corps headquarters took command of the invasion of Lebanon and Syria, launched on 8 June. The operation involved Australian, Indian and Free French forces moving over three main routes, on a wide front, in difficult terrain. As C.S.O., Simpson solved the numerous communications problems that arose. For his services between February and July 1941 he was mentioned in dispatches. In September he was injured in an accident and incapacitated for four months. On the 11th of that month, while in hospital, he was promoted temporary brigadier—the first officer in the Australian Corps of Signals to achieve that rank. He was evacuated to Australia in November. Even during his convalescence he made arrangements to improve the training of signals reinforcements.

In January 1942 Simpson joined a team of senior officers, from I Corps headquarters, in Java, Netherlands East Indies. They consulted General Sir Archibald (Earl) Wavell, the newly appointed supreme commander of the Australian-British-Dutch-American Command, about the deteriorating situation that followed Japan's entry into the war. Faced with the continued success of the Japanese offensive, I Corps headquarters was withdrawn to Australia. Simpson reached Adelaide on 14 March.

Appointed commander-in-chief, Blamey chose Simpson as the army's signals officer-in-chief and promoted him major general on 6 April 1942. Acting with drive and determination, Simpson expanded the signals component of the army to over 25,000 personnel (including large numbers of women) to meet the demands of the war. He formed the signals intelligence organization, which yielded valuable information about enemy intentions; he made further provision for communicating with aircraft supporting ground forces; and he integrated women into an extensive fixed-communication-system.

The close relationship between Blamey and Simpson was based on mutual respect. It has been said that Simpson was Blamey's 'eyes and ears'—a quasi inspector-general. Simpson was kept constantly aware of Blamey's thinking. In his frequent visits to formations and units, Simpson inquired into matters of fundamental interest to the commander-in-chief, and reported in detail by semi-official letter, telephone, or face to face.

In the course of his wartime duties, Simpson travelled widely, visiting outlying camps, and making trips to Britain and the United States of America. The pace took its toll and he spent at least three terms in hospital. After the war ended in August 1945, the tasks of demobilization, the repatriation of troops and prisoners of war, the return of equipment from overseas, and the organization of an occupation force in Japan all demanded a continuing, flexible and effective communication service. Simpson fixed his attention on these problems until he was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 8 November 1946. Blamey had recommended in October 1945 that Simpson be appointed C.B. Like a number of his recommendations, this one was not approved by the government.

In the postwar years Simpson was involved (1947-52) in another secret army, 'The Association', which came into being to counter a possible communist coup. Blamey was its titular leader, Simpson its main organizer. He resumed his role as a pharmacist and a director of A.M.C.A.L. In addition to supporting the Carry On clubs in Victoria, he was president of the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women, and colonel commandant (1958-63) of the Royal Australian Corps of Signals. He barracked for the Essendon football team.

Simpson died of cancer on 23 August 1964 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His wife and their daughter survived him; their son had died in infancy. Geoffrey Mainwaring's portrait of Simpson is held by the Defence Communications Training Centre, Watsonia.

Select Bibliography

  • Members of the Australian Corps of Signals, Signals (Canb, 1944)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey (Canb, 1973)
  • D. Horner, Crisis of Command (Canb, 1978)
  • D. Horner, High Command (Syd, 1982)
  • D. Horner, Blamey (Syd, 1998)
  • T. Barker, Signals (Melb, 1987)
  • G. Haines, A History of Pharmacy in Victoria (Melb, 1994)
  • C. Coulthard-Clark, Soldiers in Politics (Syd, 1996)
  • A367, item C94121 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. Whitelaw, 'Simpson, Colin Hall (1894–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simpson-colin-hall-11694/text20899, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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