This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Sir Vernon Ashton Hobart Sturdee (1890-1966), army officer, was born on 16 April 1890 at Frankston, Victoria, son of Alfred Hobart Sturdee, a medical practitioner from England, and his Victorian-born wife Laura Isabell, née Merrett. Lieutenant (Sir) Doveton Sturdee, Royal Navy (later admiral of the fleet), and (Sir) Charles Merrett were his uncles. His father was to command the 2nd Field Ambulance, Australian Imperial Force, at Gallipoli.
Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Vernon was apprenticed to an engineer at Jaques Bros, Richmond. He spent nine months as a sapper in the Corps of Australian Engineers, Militia, before being commissioned in 1908. On 1 February 1911 he was appointed lieutenant on probation, Royal Australian Engineers, Permanent Military Forces. In the following year he was posted to Brisbane for staff duties in the 1st Military District. At St Luke's Church of England, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, on 4 February 1913 he married Edith Georgina Robins.
In March 1913 Sturdee was posted back to Melbourne. Transferring to the A.I.F. on 25 August 1914, he was promoted captain in October, the month he embarked for Egypt. On 25 April 1915 he landed at Gallipoli as adjutant, 1st Divisional Engineers. Suffering from influenza, he was evacuated in July, but returned in September as a major, commanding the 5th Field Company, 2nd Divisional Engineers. For the next three months he controlled the engineering and mining work at Steele's, Quinn's and Courtney's posts. From January 1916 he supervised the building of huts at Tel el Kebir camp, Egypt. After the 5th Division was raised, his field company was transferred to that formation and renumbered the 8th. In March he took charge of the construction of defences at Ferry Post and showed 'marked ability'.
Sent to France in June 1916, Sturdee was commended for the 'skill and energy' with which he prepared for major operations in July in the Cordonnerie sector, near Armentières. He acted as commander, Royal Engineers, Franks Force, in September-October, and led a party which repaired the road between Albert and Montauban in November. For his work in 1915-16 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. On 13 February 1917 he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and given command of the 4th Pioneer Battalion. Over the next nine months the unit maintained roads, constructed camps, laid cables and dug communication trenches.
In November 1917 Sturdee was appointed commander, Royal Australian Engineers, 5th Division. In what was an exceptional case for an officer from the dominions, he was seconded in March 1918 to British General Headquarters, France, as a general staff officer, 2nd grade. The secondment gave him invaluable experience and an insight into the conduct of large-scale operations. Returning to the 5th Division in October, he sailed for Australia next month and disembarked in Sydney in January 1919. He was appointed O.B.E. (1919) and twice mentioned in dispatches for his service in World War I.
After Sturdee's A.I.F. appointment terminated on 14 March, he carried out staff duties in Melbourne. In 1922-23 he completed the course at the Staff College, Quetta, India. A year as instructor in engineering and surveying at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, was followed by a term (from 1925) on the staff of the 4th Division. Sent to London in May 1929, he served on exchange at the War Office with the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence, attended the Imperial Defence College in 1931 and then held the post of military representative at the Australian High Commission.
Home once more in February 1933, Sturdee was appointed director of military operations and intelligence at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. In May 1935 he was given the added duties of assistant-secretary (military) to the Council of Defence. Two months later he was promoted brevet colonel (substantive July 1937). He was primarily concerned with the operational aspects of plans to mobilize forces to defend Australia and to raise other formations to serve overseas. In March 1938 he became the inaugural director of staff duties. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1939. At the request of the Australian government a British officer, Lieutenant General E. K. Squires, reviewed the Australian Military Forces in 1938-39. Sturdee supported his proposals for reform.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Squires (then chief of the General Staff) promoted Sturdee temporary lieutenant general in September 1939 and appointed him head of the new Eastern Command, Sydney, from 13 October. Next month Sturdee was also given the duties of commander, 2nd Military District. He took charge of raising, accommodating, training and equipping A.I.F. units in New South Wales at the same time as he prepared local defences. On 1 July 1940 he readily accepted demotion to major general on his appointment as commander of the 8th Division. His pleasure in having been given an operational command was to be brief. Squires had died in March and his successor as C.G.S., Sir Brudenell White, was killed in an aeroplane crash on 13 August. Seventeen days later Sturdee was promoted lieutenant general and appointed C.G.S., first military member of the Military Board and head of the Australian Section of the Imperial General Staff.
A 'gifted officer', Sturdee was well qualified by education and experience for his role as principal military adviser to the government. He oversaw the expansion of the A.I.F. and the Militia, encouraged the local production of munitions, formulated plans to meet a southward thrust by the Japanese, developed coastal and anti-aircraft defences, and initiated a vast works programme. Despite his efforts, Australia remained relatively unprepared, even vulnerable, when Japan entered the war in December 1941. Sturdee found himself obliged to deploy inadequate forces to outposts north of Australia, only to see them lost in futile and costly operations. None the less, he correctly advocated that Port Moresby be held as the base for a counter-attack in Papua and New Guinea.
In the 1920s and 1930s Sturdee had questioned the wisdom of relying on the British base in Singapore for Australia's security. On 15 February 1942, the day Singapore fell, he submitted a paper that dealt with the future employment of the A.I.F. Observing that, in the war against Japan, 'we have violated the principle of the concentration of forces in our efforts to hold numerous small localities', he concluded that Australia was the only suitable strategic base where the Allies could build up their strength and take the offensive against the Japanese. The immediate problem was to protect Australia from invasion. To that end, the 7th Division—which was en route to the Far East—and the remainder of the A.I.F. in the Middle East should be brought home. He threatened to resign if the government rejected his advice, but Prime Minister Curtin agreed with him. While Curtin took on (Sir) Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to prevent the 7th Division from being sent to Burma, Sturdee firmly maintained his position against the views of the chiefs of staff in London and Washington.
The appointments, in March and April 1942, of Sir Thomas Blamey as commander-in-chief, Australian Military Forces, and General Douglas MacArthur as supreme commander, South-West Pacific Area, diminished the importance of the office of C.G.S. Recognizing that all major decisions affecting the conduct of the war would thereafter be made in the United States of America, Curtin and Blamey sought a senior and experienced officer to head the Australian Military Mission to Washington. They chose Sturdee. He took up the post in September, having extracted a promise from Blamey that, after one year, he would return to an operational command. In Washington, he forcefully brought Australia's requirements to the attention of the Combined Chiefs of Staff and established the right of direct access to General George Marshall, chief of the U.S. Army. Sturdee was appointed C.B. in 1943.
Blamey honoured his promise, albeit six months late, and in March 1944 Sturdee took command of the First Australian Army. From his headquarters at Lae, New Guinea, he directed the operations of 110,000 personnel engaged in fighting the Japanese between the Solomon Islands in the east and the border with the Netherlands New Guinea in the west. Those who served under him found him to be 'a wise and tolerant commander who gave clear orders' and left his subordinates 'to get on with the job whilst he did his utmost to see that they were adequately supported'. At a ceremony on board H.M.S. Glory at Rabaul, New Britain, on 6 September 1945 he accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in his area. Blamey recommended him for a knighthood, and he was mentioned in dispatches for his services in the South-West Pacific Area.
On 1 December 1945 Sturdee was appointed acting commander-in-chief, Australian Military Forces, based in Melbourne. Four months later he resumed the duties of C.G.S., first military member of the Military Board and chief of the Australian Section of the Imperial General Staff. He had to oversee the repatriation and demobilization of the wartime army, and to organize the Australian contingent for service with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, Japan; he was also responsible for the establishment of the Australian Regular Army and of the reconstituted Citizen Military Forces. To meet future requirements of the armed services, he strongly supported efforts to retain the industrial capacity that Australia had developed during the war.
Sir Sydney Rowell described Sturdee as 'a kindly, humble and simple man who carried out his work with the minimum of fuss'. Sturdee's sheer professionalism earned him the trust of politicians of all parties. His steadfastness in the anxious months that followed Japan's entry into the war had won him widespread admiration, and he was described as 'the rock on which the army, and indeed the government rested during the weeks of panic in early 1942'. His resolute insistence that the A.I.F. divisions intended for operations in the Far East should return to Australia helped to ensure that troops were available to halt the Japanese advance in Papua. On 17 April 1950 he was placed on the Retired List. In 1951 he was appointed K.B.E. He burnt his private papers, commenting, 'I have done the job. It is over'.
Sir Vernon was 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall and slimly built. Uninterested in sport, he liked pottering about his garden and making things in his well-equipped workshop. In retirement, he continued to live at Kooyong, Melbourne. He was a director of Standard Telephones & Cables Pty Ltd and honorary colonel (1951-56) of the Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Survived by his wife, their daughter and one of their two sons, he died on 25 May 1966 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg; he was accorded a full military funeral and was cremated. Murray Griffin's portrait of Sturdee is held by the family.
James Wood, 'Sturdee, Sir Vernon Ashton Hobart (1890–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sturdee-sir-vernon-ashton-hobart-11798/text21107, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 May 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002