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William Blythe (Bill) Caldwell (1914–1983)

by Keith D. Howard

This article was published:

William Blythe (Bill) Caldwell (1914-1983), army officer and public servant, was born on 26 March 1914 at Croydon, Sydney, third child of Newcastle-born parents Henry Blythe Caldwell, blacksmith, and his wife Fanny Florence, née Rigg. Educated at Flemington Public and Parramatta High schools, Bill played Rugby Union football and tennis. After studying land valuation, he joined the Newcastle office of the New South Wales valuer-general in 1935 as an assistant-valuer. Having risen to sergeant in the 30th Battalion, Militia, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1937.

Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 October 1939, Caldwell was posted to the 2/2nd Battalion as a captain. He married Elizabeth Mabel Roger on 28 October that year at St James’s Presbyterian Church, Burwood, Sydney. In December he embarked for the Middle East with his unit’s advance party. As officer commanding `A’ Company, he moved to Egypt in September 1940 and to Cyrenaica, Libya, in December. The 2/2nd took part in successful attacks on the Italian-held towns of Bardia and Tobruk in January 1941. Caldwell led his company ably during these operations, especially on 4 January, when it captured an important enemy gun post overlooking Bardia. He was awarded the Military Cross for `his coolness and courage under fire’ which `set a stirring example to the men under his command’.

In March 1941 the 2/2nd Battalion was sent to Greece, but during April it was split into groups while withdrawing before the heavy German advance south. With nine others, Caldwell escaped daringly through the hills to the sea, reaching Crete on 25 April. He arrived in Palestine in June and was made officer commanding the battalion’s Headquarter Company. In September he was promoted to major. Following periods of garrison duty in Syria and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the 2/2nd returned to Australia in August 1942, with Caldwell as second-in-command. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 1 September and appointed to command the 14th/32nd Battalion in November.

Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall and heavily built, Caldwell was known by his men as `The Bull’. He trained his battalion in Western Australia, Queensland, Papua and New Guinea before it sailed to Jacquinot Bay, New Britain, in November 1944. The 14th/32nd patrolled forward along coastal tracks towards Wide Bay, leading and preparing the way for the 6th Brigade’s advance on Japanese-occupied positions in the Tol-Waitavalo area. Caldwell was designated commander, Wide Bay Force, in December. His battalion engaged in direct operations against the Japanese during February-March 1945. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his leading part in `tactical and administrative planning’ before the initial landing, his `careful and detailed work’ in developing a series of bases along the coast and his command of his battalion during the final assault on Tol. His `leadership throughout the whole operation’ was `an inspiration’ to his unit. He moved the 14th/32nd from New Britain to Queensland in May and relinquished command in July. After a short period in charge of the Leave and Transit Depot in Sydney, he was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 1 February 1946.

Caldwell rejoined the New South Wales Valuer-General’s Department. In 1947 he was appointed senior valuer in the land valuation branch of the Tasmanian Lands and Surveys Department in Hobart. He acted for the government in all its land acquisitions and advised on real-estate matters generally. During this period he arranged for the acquisition of land for Baskerville Raceway, which was opened in 1959.

Resuming his service in the Citizen Military Forces, Caldwell commanded the 40th Battalion in 1954-58 and served as an honorary aide-de-camp to the governor-general Sir William (Viscount) Slim in 1956-59. Appointed OBE in 1958, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers in 1962. In his spare time he was involved in many family and community activities. President of the Sporting Car Club of Tasmania and the Motor Yacht Club of Tasmania, he competed in motorcar rallies and yacht races, and built and sailed small fishing boats. He was also an active member of Legacy and enjoyed art exhibitions.

In October 1970 Caldwell was appointed Tasmanian surveyor-general and secretary for lands (subsequently director of lands). His energy and efficiency always generated enthusiasm in his office, where he was referred to unofficially as `The Colonel’. He lectured regularly at the Hobart Technical College, delivered papers at national and international conferences of valuers and in 1971 was elected a life fellow of the Commonwealth Institute of Valuers. In 1977 he retired from his post due to war-related back problems.

Although somewhat physically constrained, Bill Caldwell continued his active family life, playing croquet with his wife, taking caravanning holidays, exhibiting the family dog at shows, and playing the trombone, a skill he had learned from his battalion bandsmen in New Guinea. He died of complications arising from surgery for cancer on 6 December 1983 at Royal Hobart Hospital and was cremated. His wife and their son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (1952), Greece, Crete and Syria (1953), The Final Campaigns (1963)
  • S. Wick, Purple Over Green (1977)
  • K. Bilney, 14/32 Australian Infantry Battalion A.I.F. 1940-1945 (1994)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 14 Oct 1970, p 3
  • Valuer, Apr 1984, p 138
  • series B883, item NX92 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Keith D. Howard, 'Caldwell, William Blythe (Bill) (1914–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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