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Vasey, George Alan (1895–1945)

by David Horner

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

George Alan Vasey (1895-1945), A. M. E. Bale, 1946

George Alan Vasey (1895-1945), A. M. E. Bale, 1946

Australian War Memorial, ART26932

George Alan Vasey (1895-1945), army officer, was born on 29 March 1895 at East Malvern, Melbourne, third of six children of Victorian-born parents George Brinsden Vasey and his wife Alice Isabel, née McCutcheon. His father, a relatively unsuccessful barrister and solicitor, edited the Argus Law Reports. Alan, as he was known within his family, was educated at Wesley College. In March 1913 he entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory. Following the outbreak of World War I, Vasey's class graduated early and he was commissioned lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces on 29 June 1915. He joined the Australian Imperial Force next month, arrived in France in March 1916, held various regimental posts in the 2nd Divisional Artillery and saw action in the Somme campaign. Promoted captain in August, he became commander of the 13th Field Battery in November.

In February 1917 Vasey was appointed trainee staff captain on the 11th Infantry Brigade's headquarters. The brigade took part in the battles of Messines (June) and Ypres (October) in Belgium. Vasey, who had been made brigade major in August, developed a strong friendship with his commander Brigadier General James Cannan, who described him as 'hard-working, meticulous, alert, convincing and courageous—yet somewhat shy and bashful'. Except for a short break, Major Vasey held that appointment until the war ended, taking part in the defence of Amiens (March 1918), the allied offensive (August) and the attack on the Hindenburg Line (September-October). He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1918) and twice mentioned in dispatches.

Vasey returned to Australia in September 1919. When his A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 6 November, he went back to the P.M.F. as a lieutenant and honorary major. He was not promoted to substantive major until 1 March 1935. In the meantime, he endured a series of discouraging postings as adjutant, quartermaster and brigade major of artillery and infantry units in the Militia. The Vasey who had been so confident and outgoing during the latter fighting on the Western Front gradually withdrew into himself. Studying at night, he qualified as an accountant. At St Matthew's Church of England, Glenroy, Melbourne, on 17 May 1921 he married Jessie Mary Halbert. He attended the Staff College, Quetta, India, in 1928-29. Back in Australia in 1930, he accepted more Militia appointments, but contemplated leaving the army. In 1934, however, he returned to India on exchange as brigade major of the 8th Indian Brigade. From 1936 he served at the headquarters of the Rawalpindi District on the North-West Frontier where there were minor operations against local tribesmen.

In April 1937 Vasey joined Army Headquarters, Melbourne, and in December 1938 became general staff officer, 1st grade (training). He was promoted substantive lieutenant colonel on 2 November 1939. Apart from the two years at Quetta, he had spent twenty years as a brigade major or in a similar posting while citizen-officers who had joined the Militia after World War I had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the mid-1930s.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of the 6th Division, A.I.F., selected Vasey as his assistant-adjutant and quartermaster general. On 15 December 1939 the 6th Division's advance party, headed by Colonel Vasey, embarked for Palestine. He was still the division's senior administrative staff officer during the capture of Bardia in January 1941, but was head of the operational staff when the division advanced to Benghazi. Promoted temporary brigadier in March, he was given command of the 19th Brigade and appointed C.B.E. (1941).

In bitter fighting in Greece in April 1941 Vasey revealed outstanding ability as a leader. His brigade took the first shock of the German assault and fought a determined rearguard action at Vevi, near the Greek-Yugoslav border. Later, it held the vital Brallos Pass. Vasey's tall, gaunt frame, with his head of wiry black hair parted in the middle, could always be found in the forward areas. He talked to his soldiers in colourful language that soon became legendary but never seemed to offend. As commander of the Australian forces on Crete in May 1941, he faced a series of desperate situations and was among the last to be evacuated. He was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. (1941) and the Greek Military Cross (1944).

Returning to Australia in December 1941, Vasey was promoted temporary major general (substantive 1 September 1942), initially as chief of staff, Home Forces, and then—after Blamey became commander-in-chief, Australian Military Forces—as deputy-chief of the General Staff. In September 1942 he was sent to Port Moresby to command the 6th Division. Next month he took over the 7th Division, then fighting its way north along the Kokoda Trail. His leading soldiers entered Kokoda on 2 November. Boldly sending troops through the jungle, he trapped the Japanese at Gorari. Between mid-November and mid-January 1943 Vasey's division fought the grim battles for Sanananda and Gona on the north coast of Papua. The American general Robert Eichelberger remarked that, even after many weeks in the jungle, Vasey 'looked like a commander'. He was appointed C.B. (1943) and awarded the United States' Distinguished Service Cross (1944).

For much of 1943 Vasey trained the 7th Division on the Atherton Tableland, Queensland, before leading it throughout the successful Lae-Nadzab campaign in New Guinea. On 5 September, the day after the 9th Division landed by sea near Lae, elements of the 7th Division landed by air at Nadzab. The 25th Brigade advanced rapidly and captured Lae on 16 September. Often near the front line, Vasey had a strong rapport with his soldiers. '[T]hese fellows of mine are in marvellous form', he wrote, 'I have never seen a body of men so physically and mentally fit'. They nicknamed him 'Bloody George'.

Vasey moved quickly. Reversing his axis, he sent his troops up the Markham Valley and into the Ramu Valley. In a daring attack the 2nd/6th Independent Company seized Kaiapit, and Vasey reinforced it by flying in the 21st Brigade. The 2nd/16th Battalion stormed Shaggy Ridge on 27 December and the division continued the offensive towards Madang. Major W. B. Russell recalled providing a platoon to escort Vasey to Shaggy Ridge: 'They cleaned and tried to polish their sodden boots and equipment as though it was a ceremonial parade. Whenever General Vasey appeared, either on foot or in a jeep, it was all the troops could do to avoid calling out ''How are you George?'', such a sense of comradeship prevailed between the General and his men'. In February 1944 Vasey was evacuated sick, shortly before his division was relieved by the 11th. He was twice more mentioned in dispatches.

Sent home to recuperate, Vasey was disappointed to find that Blamey preferred Major General (Sir) Stanley Savige for corps command. In June 1944 Vasey was stricken with polyneuritis and forced to relinquish his command. He was determined to lead a division in battle again, although it was to be months before he began to regain his strength. Blamey feared for Vasey's health, but the latter's immense popularity and the intervention of Frank Forde, minister for the army, assisted Vasey's cause. There were suggestions that the government was grooming him to replace Blamey. Early in 1945 he was given the 6th Division, which was fighting around Wewak in New Guinea. He flew north to assume command, but on 5 March 1945 the Hudson aircraft in which he was travelling crashed into the sea off Cairns killing all on board. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he was buried with full military honours in Cairns cemetery.

Blamey described Vasey as 'a well loved friend . . . brave . . . resourceful . . . destined by training and capacity to rise to the very top of his profession'. Prime Minister John Curtin thought that Vasey was 'a brilliant soldier' and that Australia owed him 'a very great debt of gratitude'. General Douglas MacArthur regarded him 'as a superior division commander'. Major Russell wrote: 'No soldier or general could have been so loved and worshipped by his men. I think most of our heroic dreams were associated with some hope of special service or sacrifice for him'.

Another unnamed senior officer passed the following judgement on Vasey:

He could be ruthless and kindly, tolerant of human weakness in the doers and triers, fiercely intolerant of conniving, laziness and inefficiency. He hated importance and was quick to deflate it. He could throw away the book when the occasion required, and he could produce it and use it when it served his ends. Like many apparently tough characters, Vasey was at bottom sentimental, and that was one of his most loveable traits.

It was a 'fair estimate', with the qualification that, as a commander, 'Vasey never let sentiment transcend logic; in military matters his head always ruled his heart'.

Shortly before his last flight, he had told his wife to 'look after the war widows because the bloody government won't'. Alice Bale's portrait of Vasey is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Australians (Melb, 1960)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • M. T. Clark, No Mean Destiny (Melb, 1986)
  • D. M. Horner, General Vasey's War (Melb, 1992)
  • Vasey papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Horner, 'Vasey, George Alan (1895–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vasey-george-alan-11914/text21343, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 November 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

George Alan Vasey (1895-1945), A. M. E. Bale, 1946

George Alan Vasey (1895-1945), A. M. E. Bale, 1946

Australian War Memorial, ART26932