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Alfred William Buttrose (1912–1978)

by Keith D. Howard

This article was published:

Alfred William Buttrose (1912-1978), by unknown photographer, 1942

Alfred William Buttrose (1912-1978), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 027039 [with Major G. F. Larkin (right)]

Alfred William Buttrose (1912-1978), army officer and businessman, was born on 18 November 1912 at Glenelg, Adelaide, son of William Frederick Buttrose, clerk, and his wife Priscilla Marion, née Hawkes. Educated at Glenelg Public School and Thebarton Technical High School, in 1928 Alfred joined Elder, Smith & Co. Ltd and rapidly advanced in the wool department. He enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces, rose to sergeant in the 27th Battalion and in March 1933 was commissioned lieutenant. On 14 December 1935 he married Rhona Marion Barrett at St Cuthbert's Anglican Church, Prospect.

Appointed captain (13 October 1939) in the Australian Imperial Force, Buttrose was posted to the 2nd/10th Battalion which arrived in England in June 1940. He transferred to the 2nd/33rd Battalion and was promoted major in July. The battalion was sent to North Africa and in May 1941 to Syria. Next month, while commanding 'C' Company, Buttrose conducted successful engagements against the Vichy-French in the Merdjayoun sector. He was mentioned in dispatches for his service in the Middle East. The battalion returned to Australia to prepare for operations in Papua and New Guinea; in April 1942 Buttrose was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and placed in command. Because of his comparative youth, his troops referred to him as 'Alfie the Boy Wonder' and—when his disciplinary measures were not appreciated—as 'The Boy Bastard'. He would win their confidence in battle.

From September to December 1942 the 2nd/33rd helped to push the Japanese back from Imita Ridge, Papua, to Gona on the north coast. In appalling conditions Buttrose deployed his unit with skill and aggression, playing a large part in defeating the enemy at Templeton's Crossing (October), Gorari village (November) and Gona (December). For his deeds, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Reduced in strength from some 550 to 178 men, the battalion was withdrawn to Australia early in 1943. Buttrose was relieved that year due to a long bout of sickness. On recovering, he performed training duties until July 1944 when he took command of the 2nd/5th Battalion.

By January 1945 his battalion was in action in the Torricelli Mountains, south-east of Aitape, New Guinea. Buttrose's troops penetrated the Japanese defences in the Perembil area, and destroyed their forces at Balif, Bulamita and Luwaite. In June the 2nd/5th carried out a vigorous offensive south of Wewak, outflanking and crushing the defenders at Yamil, Ulupu and Ilipem. For his planning and leadership, he won a Bar to his D.S.O. and was again mentioned in dispatches. He relinquished his command in November and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 8 December.

Resuming work with Elders, Buttrose managed the skin department in Adelaide before moving to Perth in 1948 to be staff superintendent. In May 1950 he rejoined the C.M.F. as temporary brigadier in charge of headquarters group, Western Command. Having commanded (1953-56) the 13th Infantry Brigade, he was to be placed on the Retired List in 1968 as a brigadier. Meanwhile, business took him to Brisbane where he became the company's manager for Queensland in 1958, but he returned to Perth three years later as general manager for Western Australia. The acquisition of the rival pastoral house, Goldsbrough Mort & Co. Ltd, in 1962 gave him authority over one of the State's largest commercial organizations.

In his military and business careers Buttrose was an imaginative, enterprising and decisive leader. Phlegmatic and ever 'the commanding officer' to subordinates, he expected them to do their best and to give allegiance, but he was compassionate, scrupulously fair and repaid loyalty with his own. He had a tremendous capacity for work and 'never, throughout his life, failed to perform a duty to the satisfaction of his seniors'. Stocky in build, with a broad, fresh face, shining, blue eyes and light-brown hair, he was chairman (1969-78) of the Perth Diocesan Trustees, president (1972-78) of the Meath Ministering League Anglican Homes and a lay canon (1973-78) of St George's Cathedral. The Western Australian government appointed him a member of the Post-Secondary Education Commission in 1976. He was active in many community service bodies, among them Perth Legacy and Rotary.

Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, Buttrose died of coronary vascular disease on 26 December 1978 at Crawley and was cremated. An offer of appointment as O.B.E. arrived after his death.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Crooks, The Footsoldiers (Syd, 1971)
  • S. Trigellis-Smith, All the King's Enemies (Melb, 1988)
  • 2nd/33rd Battalion Association, Mud and Blood, July 1953, July-Sept 1975, Jan-Mar 1979
  • Elders Weekly, 70, no 2844, 11 May 1978
  • Elders (Western Australia) Staff News, 22, no 19, 11 May 1978
  • Countryman (Perth), 11 May 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

Keith D. Howard, 'Buttrose, Alfred William (1912–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alfred William Buttrose (1912-1978), by unknown photographer, 1942

Alfred William Buttrose (1912-1978), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 027039 [with Major G. F. Larkin (right)]

Life Summary [details]


18 November, 1912
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


26 December, 1978 (aged 66)
Crawley, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.