Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Spry, Sir Charles Chambers Fowell (1910–1994)

by David Horner

This article was published online in 2018

Sir Charles Chambers Fowell Spry (1910–1994), army officer and director-general of security was born on 26 June 1910 at Yeronga, Brisbane, youngest child of Queensland-born Augustus Frederick Spry, bookkeeper, and his English-born wife Firenze Josephine Eglington, née Johnson. Charles was educated at local State schools, Brisbane Grammar School (on a scholarship), and the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, which he entered in February 1928. The college moved to Victoria Barracks, Sydney, in February 1931; he graduated in December that year and was appointed as a lieutenant in the Australian Staff Corps.

Although Spry excelled at sport—including cricket, tennis, squash, hockey, golf, and boxing—at school and the military college he had not worked hard academically. Thereafter, however, he applied himself diligently to all his duties and received excellent reports from his commanding officers, who noted his high professional standards, self-confidence, enthusiasm, knowledge, and strong character. He served in infantry units in Brisbane, Sydney, and Launceston, Tasmania. From September 1935 he was in India for a year with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, engaged in operations on the North-West Frontier. Returning to Australia, he was adjutant and quartermaster of the Sydney University Regiment, where he earned the nickname ‘Silent Charles,’ and then became a staff officer at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. On 1 June 1939 at Christ Church, Church of England, South Yarra, he married Kathleen Edith Hull Smith (d. 1992), a journalist with the Age.

After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Spry was one of the first officers to transfer to the Australian Imperial Force. Promoted to captain, he was general staff officer, grade 3, with the 6th Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey. In July 1940 he arrived in Egypt and, after attending the staff college at Haifa, Palestine (Israel), was promoted to temporary major and posted to the headquarters of I Australian Corps, now commanded by Blamey. He served with Blamey in the Greek and Crete campaigns in April and May 1941. A contemporary later described the`fearless’ Spry helping to organise the evacuation from Greece:`I saw him turn in no time a chaotic mass of about two thousand soldiers, nurses and wounded into orderly groups’ (Fleming, 2). He only just avoided capture but reached Crete and later held further staff appointments in Palestine and Egypt. Promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel in January 1942, he returned to Australia in March, and in April was promoted to temporary colonel (substantive 1950).

In August 1942 Spry became the senior staff officer of the 7th Division, commanded by Major General Arthur Allen, just as the division embarked for Papua. Two months later they were together on the Kokoda Trail as the division began a counter-offensive against the Japanese. Major General George Vasey relieved Allen at the end of October. Slightly wounded by a strafing enemy fighter plane a month later, Spry was evacuated. For his conduct in the campaign, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order; his citation read: ‘Under the stress of extreme physical and mental strain he was untiring in his efforts, never sparing himself’ (NAA B2458). He spent the rest of the war in senior training and staff appointments.

After serving (August 1945–February 1946) as a member and later head of the Australian Army mission in Singapore and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in April 1946 Spry was appointed director of military intelligence at Army Headquarters, as part of an effort to bring bright, capable officers into the organisation. He focused on communist subversion, believing that the Soviet bloc represented a threat to Australia equal to that of the Axis powers in the war. As a member of the joint intelligence committee, he played a major role in restructuring the Department of Defence’s intelligence organisations. Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell considered him ‘one of the outstanding officers in the Australian army’ (NAA B2458).

 The first director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Justice (Sir) Geoffrey Reed, had never intended to serve for more than a year following its establishment in March 1949 by the Chifley Labor government. At the suggestion of a Federal minister, Richard (Baron) Casey, Spry was selected to replace Reed and took up the appointment in July 1950 on secondment from the army. Drawing on his military experience, he quickly reorganised ASIO, establishing a formal headquarters, moving it from Sydney to Melbourne, and engaging new staff.

 It was the height of the Cold War. The interception of Soviet intelligence service communications in the 1940s (codenamed Venona) had implicated members of the Communist Party of Australia in espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union. At the government’s direction, ASIO undertook surveillance of members of the CPA, ‘front’ organisations, and sympathisers, and advised on the employment in sensitive positions of persons considered a security risk. Spry set up sections to penetrate the CPA. When the government conducted a referendum to ban the party, Spry assisted the government with information. The leader of the Opposition, H. V. Evatt, campaigned strongly against the ban on the grounds of civil liberties and the referendum was ultimately unsuccessful.

Spry’s four-year appointment and secondment from the army ended in 1954 and the government confirmed him as head of ASIO until he turned sixty. This was done to provide job security, and to place ASIO above party political considerations by ensuring continuity of management even if there was a change of government. Resigning from the army as brigadier on 14 June, he joined the Reserve of Officers.

In March 1954 Spry and ASIO had a major triumph when Vladimir Petrov, third secretary and intelligence officer of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, opted to remain in Australia with his wife Evdokia, an embassy clerk, cypher expert and accountant. The Petrovs provided valuable information to Australian and allied intelligence services on the identities of Soviet KGB (Committee for State Security) officers. As a consequence of their information as well as the Venona findings, on Spry’s recommendation the Royal Commission on Espionage was established and began sitting in May 1954.

Evatt used the royal commission to accuse ASIO of engineering the Petrov defections, and of falsifying documents to embarrass him and to assist the coalition. His allegations, which proved to be untrue, poisoned the relationship between ASIO and the Australian Labor Party for two decades. Spry had believed that ASIO should be non-partisan and had previously sought to keep the leader of the Opposition informed on security matters. When Arthur Calwell succeeded Evatt in March 1960, Spry sought to re-establish relations, and met with Calwell several times, particularly to discuss communist penetration of the ALP.

In 1956 Spry had convinced the government to pass the ASIO Act, which gave the organisation a legislative basis (until then, it had operated under a charter from the prime minister). The Act also allowed for the interception of telephone conversations, and better defined the crimes of treason, treachery, and sabotage. He established offices overseas to vet prospective migrants to Australia and to liaise with foreign intelligence services. Spry was appointed CBE in 1956. In 1963 he persuaded the government to declare a Soviet diplomat and intelligence officer, Ivan Skripov, persona non grata, after it was revealed that he had been cultivating a woman who was actually an ASIO double agent.

During the 1960s ASIO conducted extensive surveillance of Australians who were protesting against conscription for service in Vietnam and more generally against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The organisation came under increasing criticism as it struggled to adapt its activities to the changing nature of Australian society and politics. By this time the CPA had fragmented and was losing influence in the community. Spry had had good relations with Menzies as prime minister, but he had less influence with Menzies’ successor, Harold Holt, and even less with Prime Minster (Sir) John Gorton. Spry had been too long in the job. As early as 1962 officers who earlier had a high regard for him saw him drinking too much and returning to the office under the effects of alcohol. In 1964 he was knighted. Following a heart attack, he resigned in late 1969 for health reasons.

Standing five feet eight inches (174 cm) tall, with a brisk military air, Spry was a confident and inspiring head of ASIO. His administrative style was autocratic and paternalistic, but most ASIO officers, who appreciated his direct approach, held him in high regard. Those who served under him or knew him well trusted him completely. Despite his military moustache and homburg hat, away from the office he was a man of charm, wit, and courtesy. A bon vivant, without pomposity or self-pity, he had a good sense of humour; pursued interests such as golf, cooking, painting, and poetry; and was an entertaining raconteur. In retirement he maintained a close interest in ASIO and state security, and cared for his ailing wife after she had been immobilised by a stroke. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died in his home at Toorak, Melbourne, on 29 May 1994 and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Blaxland, John. The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963–1975. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015
  • Fleming, A. P. ‘Brigadier Sir Charles Spry. Speaking to His Memory.’ Memorial Service, St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Unpublished manuscript, 1994. Copy held on ADB file
  • Horner, David. General Vasey’s War. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1992
  • Horner, David. The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949–1963. Sydney: Allen& Unwin, 2014
  • Horner, David. ‘Spy Chief Led Fight against Communism.’ Australian, 7 June 1994, 15
  • National Archives of Australia. A8913, 3/1/13
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 338
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Thomson, Judy. Winning With Intelligence. Sydney: Australian Military History Publications, 2000

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Horner, 'Spry, Sir Charles Chambers Fowell (1910–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spry-sir-charles-chambers-fowell-27317/text34796, published online 2018, accessed online 20 May 2019.

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