Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wells, Sir Henry (1898–1973)

by E. M. Andrews

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

Henry Wells (1898-1973), by unknown photographer

Henry Wells (1898-1973), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 100134

Sir Henry Wells (1898-1973), army officer, was born on 22 March 1898 at Kyneton, Victoria, youngest of seven children of Arthur Wells, draper, and his wife Elizabeth, née Carter, both Victorian born. Educated at Kyneton High School, 'Bill', as he was known to his family, entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in February 1916. A notable sportsman, he graduated in December 1919 and was appointed lieutenant, Permanent Military Forces. He trained in England before becoming adjutant and quartermaster of the 8th (1921) and 9th (1922) Light Horse regiments. Appointed brigade major of the 6th Cavalry Brigade in February 1926, he was made instructor at the Small Arms School, Sydney, in July. At St John's Church of England, Cessnock, on 14 December that year he married Lorna Irene Skippen.

Returning to the R.M.C. as a company commander in 1927, Wells rose to captain in December. He again taught at the Small Arms School (from 1931) and in 1934-35 attended the Staff College, Camberley, England. Back in Australia in 1936, he was adjutant and quartermaster of the 4th/3rd Battalion, then brigade major of the 1st Infantry Brigade. In 1938 he was appointed lecturer in tactics at the R.M.C.

Wells transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in April 1940 as a major and was posted to 7th Division headquarters. Arriving in the Middle East in December, he was promoted lieutenant colonel and seconded to headquarters, I Corps, as senior liaison officer. He was appointed O.B.E. for his work in the disastrous Greek campaign of April 1941, during which he travelled extensively between the headquarters and co-ordinated the withdrawal of Imperial and Greek troops from the Veria Pass. Evacuated, he became a general staff officer, 2nd grade, at headquarters, I Corps, in June. Five months later he was promoted colonel and posted as general staff officer, 1st grade, of the 9th Division under Major General (Sir) Leslie Morshead. For the 'ability, keen perception and anticipation, and sound knowledge' he displayed during the battle of El Alamein, Egypt, in October-November 1942, Wells was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1943). He had been twice mentioned in dispatches.

By February 1943 Wells was back in Australia. Next month he was appointed brigadier, general staff, on the headquarters of II Corps. Promoted temporary brigadier in April, he served in New Guinea from October 1943 to February 1944. He was elevated to C.B.E. (1945) for his 'tireless energy and ready adaptability' during the successful operations in the Ramu Valley which culminated in the capture of Madang. Again mentioned in dispatches, he transferred in April 1944 to I Corps which moved to Hollandia, Netherlands New Guinea, in October.

Attached to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, from September 1945, Wells was appointed director of military operations in March 1946. Four months later he became deputy chief of the General Staff as a temporary major general. In 1947 he attended the Imperial Defence College, London, and in 1949-51 commanded R.M.C., Duntroon. Promoted temporary lieutenant general in February 1951 (substantive 12 April 1954), he was given Southern Command. In 1953-54 he was commander-in-chief, British Commonwealth Forces, Korea. He was appointed C.B. and to the United States of America's Legion of Merit in 1954.

Wells was made chief of the General Staff in December 1954. He presided over the deployment of Australian troops to Malaya during the Emergency and the creation of the first regular brigade group. Elevated to K.B.E. in 1956, he made official visits to Britain, the U.S.A., Canada, Thailand and the Philippines. He became the first chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in March 1958. An extremely competent staff officer, he retired on 22 March 1959 and was appointed honorary colonel of the Royal Victoria Regiment in April 1961.

Five ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall and stocky, Wells had a dark complexion, brown eyes and bushy eyebrows; he was balding from an early age. His friends nicknamed him 'Bomba'. He had a clear speaking voice, with a good turn of phrase, but was somewhat reserved and taciturn. Keen on physical fitness, he played golf in his later years. He was frugal: even during the Depression, he told his officers, he had invested 10 per cent of his income in shares. In retirement he was a director of a number of companies, among them Broken Hill South Ltd, Metal Manufactures Ltd, Navcot Australia Pty Ltd and Sitmar Line (Australia) Pty Ltd. Survived by his wife and their two sons, Sir Henry died on 20 October 1973 at Yarrawonga, Victoria, and, following a funeral conducted with full military honours at Toorak Presbyterian Church, he was cremated. He bequeathed a large part of his estate, sworn for probate at $161,543, to Junior Legacy, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Controversial Soldier (Canb, 1973)
  • R. O'Neill, Australia in the Korean War 1950-53, vols 1-2 (Canb, 1981, 1985)
  • P. Dennis and J. Grey, Emergency and Confrontation (Syd, 1996)
  • private information.

Citation details

E. M. Andrews, 'Wells, Sir Henry (1898–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-sir-henry-11996/text21511, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 December 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Henry Wells (1898-1973), by unknown photographer

Henry Wells (1898-1973), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 100134