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Sir Mervyn Francis Brogan (1915–1994)

by Tristan Moss

This article was published:

Sir Mervyn Francis Brogan (1915–1994), army officer, was born on 10 January 1915 in North Sydney, second son of New South Wales-born parents Bernard Brogan, jeweller, and his wife Hilda Marcelle, née Richard. Mervyn grew up in Manly and attended Sydney Technical High School. Awarded a scholarship tenable in a technical college diploma course, in 1932 he instead entered the Royal Military College (RMC), then temporarily located at Victoria Barracks, Sydney. He excelled academically, earned the nickname ‘Basher’ for his boxing prowess, and graduated in 1935 with the sword of honour for exemplary conduct and performance of duties.

Lieutenant Brogan then studied civil engineering at the University of Sydney (BE, 1938), where he was awarded a Blue for rugby and was a member of the water polo and swimming teams. From March 1938 he held junior regimental and staff posts in Melbourne. He represented Victoria in rugby union (1938 and 1939), and would later play for the Australian Capital Territory (1941 and 1944). After World War II broke out, he was posted in November 1939 to the instructional staff of the RMC, which had returned to Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory. In July 1940 he was promoted to temporary captain. On 16 June 1941 at St John the Baptist Church of England, Canberra, he married Sheila Jones, a local resident. The following September he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force.

By April 1942 Brogan was a temporary major at Second Army headquarters, from which he was posted in November to New Guinea Force headquarters as deputy assistant quartermaster general. In August he rose to assistant quartermaster general, with the rank of temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive 1948). He was mentioned in despatches (1943) and, for his work on the scheme to transport supplies to front-line troops by air, was appointed OBE (1944). Back in Australia, he filled a succession of staff positions, before being attached from August 1946 to the British Army in the United Kingdom and Germany. In January 1947 he became chief instructor at the Army School of Military Engineering, Casula, New South Wales. When the Federal government decided to use troops to operate open-cut coal-mines during the 1949 miners’ strike, he mobilised army engineering personnel for the deployment.

From 1950 Brogan undertook engineering training in Britain and the United States of America, and in 1952 attended the Joint Services Staff College in England. He then held increasingly senior posts in Melbourne at Army Headquarters (1953 and 1954–56) and Southern Command (1953–54), from 1954 as a colonel. In 1956 he was appointed as brigadier, general staff, at the Singapore headquarters of the British Far East Land Forces. Having completed the 1959 course at the Imperial Defence College, London, he was commandant of the Australian Staff College, Queenscliff, Victoria, until July 1962, when he was promoted to temporary major general (substantive January 1963) and appointed as commander of Northern Command, Brisbane. He was director of joint service plans in the Department of Defence, Canberra (1965–66), quartermaster general and third member of the Military Board (1966–68), and commander of Eastern Command, Sydney, from 1968.

On 19 May 1971 Brogan was promoted to lieutenant general and appointed as chief of the General Staff (CGS) in Canberra. In February 1972 he oversaw the withdrawal from Vietnam of the last Australian combat troops, and in December of the handful of remaining advisors. To him the return of peace and the absence of an imminent threat gave the army `much needed time to put our house in order and to clarify where we are heading’ (Moss 2017, 219). The first CGS with a university degree and an able administrator, he was well equipped to guide the army through its most extensive reorganisation. Following government approval in January 1972 of the report of a review committee headed by Major General (Sir) Francis Hassett, the regionally based command structure was replaced by three functional commands: Field Force, Logistics, and Training. Units for which Army Headquarters, Canberra, had direct responsibility were transferred to the new commands, leaving AHQ to focus on policy-making.

While Brogan had not opposed the Whitlam government’s decision to end national service in December 1972, he was concerned about the impact of the departure of about twelve thousand troops at once. He strongly believed that, despite the reduction in numbers, the existing nine infantry battalions should be retained, some of them necessarily undermanned, so as to allow the army to maintain the structure of a full field division. At the insistence of the Department of Defence, however, the number of battalions was decreased to six. Concurrently, he supervised the transfer in 1973 of the army’s forces in Papua New Guinea to the newly established Papua New Guinea Defence Force, in preparation for that country’s independence. He welcomed improvements to the pay and conditions of Australian service personnel arising from the deliberations of the Kerr—Woodward committee, and encouraged sport and interesting training activities to maintain morale.

Brogan transferred to the Regular Army Reserve on 20 November 1973. He had been appointed CBE (1963), CB (1970), and KBE (1972). In retirement Sir Mervyn contributed to debates about Australia’s defence: firm in his view that traditional reliance on citizen forces backed by a small regular army was impractical and outmoded, he strongly supported reorganisation of the Citizen Military Forces as a reserve to augment permanent forces capable of rapid deployment. He was colonel commandant (1974–78) of the Royal Australian Engineers; honorary colonel (1975–80) of the University of New South Wales Regiment; a member (1971–73) of the board of the Australian War Memorial; an honorary fellow (1970–94) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia; and a director of a number of companies.

Remaining physically active, Brogan played tennis and swam regularly near his Sydney home. His successor as CGS, wrote that he ‘was delightful company … a raconteur of note but he was also a good listener’ (Hassett 1994, 13). He died at Potts Point, Sydney, on 8 March 1994 and was cremated. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Army Journal. ‘Army Reorganization.’ No. 274 (March 1972): 2–33
  • Brogan, M. ‘The Australian Army—Points and Problems.’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies 118, no. 1 (March 1973): 54–60
  • Canberra Times. ‘Top Cadet to CGS.’ 16 March 1994, 15
  • Connery, David. Which Division? Risk Management and the Australian Army’s Force Structure after the Vietnam War. Australian Army Historical Unit Occasional Paper Series. Canberra: Defence Publishing Services, Department of Defence, July 2014
  • Grey, Jeffrey. A Soldier’s Soldier: A Biography of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Daly. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2012
  • Hassett, Francis. ‘Officer with a Gift for Friendship.’ Australian, 28 March 1994, 13
  • Horner, David Murray. Strategic Command: General Sir John Wilton and Australia’s Asian Wars. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2005
  • Moss, Tristan. ‘Postwar Planner: Lieutenant General Sir Mervyn Brogan, 1915–1994.’ In Shadow Men: The Forgotten Legacies That Shaped the Australian Army from the Veldt to Vietnam, edited by Craig Stockings and John Connor, 211–30. Kensington, NSW: NewSouth Publishing, 2017.

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Citation details

Tristan Moss, 'Brogan, Sir Mervyn Francis (1915–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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