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Wootten, Sir George Frederick (1893–1970)

by A. J. Hill

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

George Frederick Wootten (1893-1970), by unknown photographer, 1945

George Frederick Wootten (1893-1970), by unknown photographer, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 085558

Sir George Frederick Wootten (1893-1970), soldier, solicitor and administrator, was born on 1 May 1893 at Marrickville, Sydney, seventh child of London-born parents William Frederick Wootten, carpenter and later civil engineer, and his wife Louisa, née Old. He attended Fort Street Model School and, encouraged by his father, entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1911. Graduating in August 1914, Lieutenant Wootten was posted to the 1st Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. He went ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, became adjutant of his battalion next day and quickly won a reputation for courage. In May he was promoted captain. By the time of the evacuation in December he was a major.

When (Sir) John Monash was forming the 3rd Australian Division in England in 1916, Wootten served briefly on his staff, but he made his name at the infantry brigade level in 1916-17. He was brigade major first to James Cannan of the 11th Brigade, then to (Sir) Charles Rosenthal of the 9th Brigade, both outstanding commanders. Wootten was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in October 1917 for excellent staff work. Two months later he was transferred to the headquarters of the 5th Division where he worked in the operations branch. In October 1918 he joined the General Staff at Field Marshal Sir Douglas (Earl) Haig's headquarters. His six months there completed a remarkable wartime experience as a staff officer. He was four times mentioned in dispatches. Only 25 years old, he was posted to the Staff College, Camberley, England, in March 1919. At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Roehampton, London, on 3 January 1920 he married Muriel Anna Frances Bisgood, a nurse.

That month Wootten sailed home to an Australia tired of war and with little interest in its army which was about to be reorganized and sharply reduced. Junior staff appointments in Adelaide then Hobart had no allure for Wootten who, as a brevet major, was on captain's pay. In 1923 he resigned his commission. His father-in-law in England came to the rescue, obtaining for him the managership of a clothing factory. He went back to England where he made a success of his job and enjoyed playing Rugby Union football. His children did not flourish, however; advised to move them to a warmer climate, he returned to Australia in 1926 with little prospect of work.

Perhaps Wootten recalled the advice of his headmaster at Fort Street that he should become a lawyer. As assistance was available from the Repatriation Commission, he opted for the law and was articled to J. E. Harcourt at West Wyalong. This was a period of poverty for the Woottens, whose fourth child was born in 1930, although their vegetable garden and poultry enabled them to eat well. Like many former officers, Wootten joined one of the anti-communist organizations, the Old Guard; by 1931 he was employed as an organizer in Sydney. On 30 July that year, having completed his articles, he was admitted as a solicitor. He practised in a number of centres including Singleton, then went back to West Wyalong in 1936 to join a firm which became known as G. P. Evans, Englert & Wootten, but there was not much work in so small a town. His army pension, with money and parcels from England, kept the family going.

Developments in the army, made in response to events in Europe and East Asia, gave Wootten his chance. He was given command of the 21st Light Horse Regiment, Citizen Military Forces, in 1937 and promoted lieutenant colonel. By this time he was, in one respect, a changed man. Having given up smoking in 1930, he had begun to put on weight; he was over fifteen stone (95 kg) when he took command. By 1941 he would weigh twenty stone (127 kg). He was 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall.

On 13 October 1939 Wootten was seconded to the A.I.F. and appointed to command the 2nd/2nd Infantry Battalion, despite doubts about his physical fitness for such a post. When the A.I.F. Reinforcement Depot was set up in Palestine late in 1940, he was promoted temporary brigadier and made its commander. In February 1941 he was given the well trained and equipped 18th Brigade.

As part of the 7th Division which was earmarked for the expedition to Greece, Wootten was instructed in March 1941 to capture the minor Italian fortress at Giarabub, Libya. This done, he was suddenly ordered on 4 April to move his brigade forthwith to Tobruk because the German Afrika Korps was transforming the situation in the Western Desert. Nine days later he came under the command of Major General (Sir) Leslie Morshead who had raised and trained the 18th Brigade. After nearly five months besieged, Wootten's was the first brigade to be relieved. It rejoined the 7th Division, but only after the 7th's successful campaign in Syria. He was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. for his leadership at Tobruk.

In March 1942 Wootten returned to Australia. When belatedly the 7th Division was sent to Papua to intervene in the crisis on the Kokoda Track in August 1942, his brigade was detached to bolster the defence of the Milne Bay airstrips. Having helped Milne Force to crush the Japanese, he took part in the worst fighting of the Pacific war—Buna and Sanananda, where pressure from General Douglas MacArthur's ignorant General Headquarters for quick results in impossible situations caused unnecessary casualties. In March 1943, as temporary major general, Wootten succeeded Morshead as commander of the 9th Division, which was training on the Atherton Tableland, Queensland. He was appointed C.B.E. in May.

Wootten's massive frame attracted irreverent nicknames, but he won the respect of his division. If he was not as close to his soldiers as Morshead, he left lasting impressions of his mental power and tactical skill on officers of great distinction. MacArthur rated him as 'the best soldier in the Australian army who had it in him to reach the highest position' and Lieutenant General Robert Eichelberger, who commanded the Americans at Buna and Sanananda, wrote: 'He was always one of the best'. Brigadier Sir Frederick Chilton saw him as 'a formidable man indeed—I have never met another man of stronger will and personality'. Although his anger could be frightening, it was usually brief; his sense of humour extended even to himself. To the officer discreetly watching him test a wooden bench he remarked: 'When you are my size, Hill, you sit with circumspection'. It was probably his bulk that accounted for the rarity of his visits to forward troops during battle. His children were to remember him for his gentleness and the fun they had with him, but this was also the man who was to dismiss Brigadier Bernard Evans at Finschhafen, New Guinea.

The task of training his division for jungle warfare and amphibious operations was not lightened for Wootten by the death of his elder son George in an aircraft accident in May 1943 while he was on active service with the Royal Australian Air Force. From September that year to January 1944 he led his division to victories in New Guinea at Lae, Finschhafen and Sattelberg. A year of rest and training in Australia was followed by the pointless but successful operations of June-July 1945 in Borneo around Brunei and Labuan. Wootten worked to re-establish civil order in the former British territories, supporting the British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit attached to his headquarters. He was appointed C.B. (1945); General Sir Thomas Blamey twice recommended him and other generals in vain for appointment as K.B.E. In 1944 he had received the United States of America's Distinguished Service Cross. One of his brigadiers, Selwyn Porter, remembered him as 'the shrewdest Divisional Commander whom I have encountered . . . He was sound, sure and careful'.

Wootten left Labuan for Sydney on 22 September 1945 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 14 October, but Blamey appointed him to the military court of inquiry into Major General Gordon Bennett's escape from Singapore. Another task, more to his liking, was the chairmanship (1945-58) of the Repatriation Commission in Melbourne; he devoted himself strenuously to the welfare of veterans. Yet the army still called: he commanded the 3rd Division, C.M.F., in 1947-50 and was the C.M.F. member of the Military Board in 1948-50.

Elevated to K.B.E. in 1958, Wootten returned to Sydney on his retirement that year from the Repatriation Commission. He was exhausted by the intensity of the work, after two world wars and the difficult years between them. 'Even the zest for sailing had gone', but he watched tennis and Test cricket. Although Sir George lived for a time in nursing homes, his wife and family cared for him. He died at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, on 31 March 1970 and was buried with full military honours and Anglican rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery; his wife, and their two daughters and younger son survived him. A portrait (1956) by (Sir) William Dargie is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • D. M. Horner, Crisis of Command (Canb, 1978)
  • A. Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Syd, 1989)
  • P. Brune, The Spell Broken (Syd, 1997)
  • J. Coates, Bravery Above Blunder (Melb, 1999)
  • Wootten papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Wootten, Sir George Frederick (1893–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wootten-sir-george-frederick-12073/text21659, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 December 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

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