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Steele, Sir Clive Selwyn (1892–1955)

by Darryl Bennet

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

Clive Selwyn Steele (1892-1955), by Edward Cranstone

Clive Selwyn Steele (1892-1955), by Edward Cranstone

Australian War Memorial, 001900

Sir Clive Selwyn Steele (1892-1955), engineer and army officer, was born on 30 September 1892 at Canterbury, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Herbert Selwyn Steele, warehouseman, and his wife Alice Lydia, née Sinclair. Clive was educated at Scotch College, where he was a prefect and captain of boats (1910), and at the University of Melbourne (B.C.E., 1919). Commissioned in the Militia in 1912, he was appointed second lieutenant, Royal Australian Engineers, Australian Imperial Force, on 8 October 1915. He sailed for Egypt in November with the 5th Field Company.

Transferred to the Western Front in March 1916, Steele rose to captain in September. On 6 January 1917 at the parish church, West Brompton, London, he married Amie Osland Bilson; they were to remain childless. At Péronne, France, in August 1918 he supervised repairs to bridges while under artillery and machine-gun fire. On the 31st he crawled some 200 yards (183 m) in front of the Australian lines and brought back details of damage to bridges across the River Somme and the Somme Canal. The information assisted planning to restore the crossings and he was awarded the Military Cross. In October he was promoted major. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 1 August 1919.

Steele worked for the Australian Reinforced Concrete & Engineering Co. in 1919-21 and for James Hardie & Co. Pty Ltd in 1921-23. He set up in private practice as a consulting engineer in 1924. As designer and supervisor of structural works, he was involved in the construction of or alterations to the State Savings Bank of Victoria building in Melbourne, the members' stand at Flemington racecourse, the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd building in Brisbane, Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney and the Melbourne Town Hall. Meanwhile, he continued to serve in the Militia. Promoted lieutenant colonel (1926), he commanded the 4th Divisional Engineers (1926-31) and the 14th Infantry Battalion (1933-39).

On 13 October 1939 Steele was seconded to the A.I.F. and placed in command of the 6th Divisional Engineers. After the government decided to raise another division, he was promoted temporary brigadier and appointed chief engineer, I Corps, in April 1940. He sailed for the Middle East in September. During the campaign in Greece (April 1941) he was chief engineer of the Anzac Corps. At Fársala, on 18 April, a bomb crater in the road impeded the withdrawal of allied forces. Traffic came to a halt and vehicles were 'jammed head to tail for 10 miles [16 km]'. Despite attacks by German aircraft, Steele took charge of a party which filled the crater, clearing the way for the convoy. He won the Distinguished Service Order and the Greek Military Cross.

Twice mentioned in dispatches for his service in the Middle East, Steele flew to Java, Netherlands East Indies, in January 1942. On 14 February he was sent to Sumatra, where he helped to organize the evacuation of allied troops from Oosthaven. He returned to Australia next month. Believing that General Sir Thomas Blamey was to remain in the Middle East indefinitely, Steele, (Sir) Edmund Herring and George Vasey asked Frank Forde, the minister for the army, to appoint (Sir) Horace Robertson commander-in-chief. They did not know that the government had already chosen Blamey. In April Steele was promoted temporary major general and appointed engineer-in-chief at Land Headquarters, Melbourne. Blamey learned of his part in the misnamed 'revolt of the generals' and treated him coolly until Steele assured him that no disloyalty had been intended.

To handle the influx of recruits needed for the war against Japan, Steele established the R.A.E. Training Centre at Kapooka, New South Wales, and increased the size of the School of Military Engineering at Liverpool. By 1945 there were 28,000 sappers in the Australian Military Forces. They cleared and disarmed mines, demolished obstacles, provided water supplies and other services to military camps, cut and milled timber, built huts, roads, bridges, railways, airfields and wharves, and operated the army's water-transport vessels. Steele travelled extensively in the South-West Pacific Area to inspect their activities. Finding that the 6th Divisional Engineers were languishing at Wondecla, North Queensland, in 1943, he set them research and development tasks. 'Some of the work was of doubtful usefulness but it kept the troops occupied'.

A reorganization at L.H.Q. in October 1943 added fortifications, works, engineer stores and transport to Steele's operational responsibilities. Although the consolidation of engineering functions increased efficiency, Brigadier Geoffrey Drake-Brockman obliquely accused Steele of empire-building. Drake-Brockman was one of a number of people who found Steele's antipathy towards public servants, especially finance officers, excessive and unproductive. Steele was also criticized for meddling in design work, better left to his subordinates.

Despite his impatience with bureaucracy, Steele 'respected the need for paper-work, but would never let formalities stop him from gaining his ends'. He was admired throughout the army for his energy, drive and ability to get things done. Within the R.A.E., his humane leadership and loyalty to his officers and soldiers fostered esprit de corps. On 12 March 1946 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. The University of Melbourne had awarded him the W. C. Kernot medal for 1944. In 1953 he was appointed K.B.E. A council-member (1933 and 1946-50) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he chaired (1946) the Melbourne division and became an honorary member in 1954.

For recreation, Sir Clive played golf. He belonged to the Melbourne Club. Ebullient and personable, he moved comfortably among the city's professional élite. In 1945-46 he presided over the Old Scotch Collegians' Association and, from 1950, chaired the school council. He liked to proclaim the superiority of Scotch College over Melbourne Church of England Grammar School to provoke Herring and other friends who were old boys of Grammar. Survived by his wife, he died of myocardial infarction on 5 August 1955 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £46,131.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Hetherington, Blamey (Melb, 1954)
  • G. Drake-Brockman, The Turning Wheel (Perth, 1960)
  • L. J. Hartnett, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (Melb, 1964)
  • R. McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers 1902 to 1919 (Canb, 1979)
  • S. Sayers, Ned Herring (Melb, 1980)
  • R. McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers 1919 to 1945 (Canb, 1982)
  • eminent members' records—Sir Clive Steele (Institution of Engineers, Australia, Canberra).

Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Steele, Sir Clive Selwyn (1892–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steele-sir-clive-selwyn-11755/text21023, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 November 2014.

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

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