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Sir Bernard James Callinan (1913–1995)

by Christopher Wray

This article was published:

Sir Bernard Callinan, c.1985

Sir Bernard Callinan, c.1985

Australian Catholic University, 956510

Sir Bernard James Callinan (1913–1995), army officer and civil engineer, was born on 2 February 1913 at Moonee Ponds, Victoria, second son of locally born parents, Michael Joseph Callinan, commercial traveller, and his wife Mary Catherine, née Prendergast. Bernard began his education at Christian Brothers’ College, East Melbourne, before moving to St Kevin’s College, East Melbourne (later located in Toorak), where he gained the Leaving certificate (1929). Matriculating in 1930, he studied civil engineering at the University of Melbourne (BCE, 1935).

In 1934 Callinan joined a civil engineering firm as an engineering assistant. Operated by Alan Gordon Gutteridge, the firm later became Gutteridge Haskins and Davey (GHD). Although young, Callinan supervised large sewerage and water projects in country areas. Following the outbreak of World War II, he was appointed on 5 July 1940 as a lieutenant in the Reserve of Officers (R of O), Royal Australian Engineers.  He completed courses in military engineering in New South Wales and Victoria and, transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 3 March 1941, joined the 7th Infantry Training Centre, Wilsons Promontory, which instructed personnel in irregular warfare. In July he was promoted to captain and appointed second-in-command of the 2nd (later restyled 2/2nd) Independent Company. As part of Sparrow Force, the unit was deployed in December, first to Koepang (Kupang), Netherlands Timor (Indonesia), then to Dili, Portuguese Timor (Timor-Leste). After the Japanese invaded the island in February 1942 and rapidly overwhelmed the Allied defenders, the 2/2nd escaped to the mountains. From there, with other survivors of Sparrow Force, the unit mounted a guerrilla campaign, collecting intelligence and harassing the enemy.

On 20 May Callinan was placed in command of the company and in July was promoted to temporary major (substantive in September). The 2/4th Independent Company arrived in September and on 19 November he assumed command of the enlarged Sparrow Force (renamed Lancer Force in December). Under increasing Japanese pressure, all Allied troops, apart from a small intelligence-gathering party, were withdrawn from Timor by January 1943. ‘Always cheerful, cool and clear-thinking’ (NAA B2458), the ‘tireless and brave’ (McCarthy 1962, 599) Callinan had skilfully handled his commands, inspiring his men to inflict severe casualties on the enemy with minimal losses to themselves. He was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches for his leadership on Timor. Returning to Australia in January, he married Naomi Miriam Cullinan, a signals officer in the Australian Women’s Army Service, on 6 February at St James’s Catholic Church, Gardenvale, Victoria.

In March Callinan was posted as a staff officer at First Army headquarters, Toowoomba, Queensland, then in November as second-in-command of the combined 31st-51st Battalion, stationed at Merauke, Netherlands New Guinea. The unit returned to Australia in August 1944 and in December moved to Bougainville. On 8 February 1945 Callinan was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed to command the 26th Battalion, which was ordered to clear the Japanese from the north-west coast of the island. His troops carried out ‘a brilliant series of manoeuvres’ (Long 1963, 175) that liberated the Soraken Peninsula and neighbouring islands in March. For his conduct of the operation, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The 26th was relieved at the end of June. Relinquishing his command in December, he returned to Victoria and transferred to the R of O on 6 January 1946. From April 1948 to June 1951 he was active in the Citizen Military Forces, commanding the 58th-32nd Battalion, and between 1972 and 1978 he was honorary colonel of the 4th  /19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse Regiment. He wrote Independent Company: The 2/2 and 2/4 Australian Independent Companies in Portuguese Timor 1941–1943 (1954).

Callinan returned to GHD in 1946, managing the firm’s Victorian and Tasmanian branches. Rising in the company, he became chairman and managing director in 1971. That year he was also appointed CBE. He was a councillor (1958–77) and president (1971) of the Victorian division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. In the following year, the IEA awarded him the Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal for notable contribution to the science and practice of engineering in Australia. He was knighted in 1977 and retired from GHD in 1978.

Sir Bernard continued to serve in a variety of roles after retirement. He was chairman of the Parliament House Construction Authority (1979–85). A leading Catholic layman, he was a member of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace (1977–84) and chairman of the National Catholic Education Commission (1985). Having been a member of the West Gate Bridge Authority since 1965, he became chairman (1981–82). In 1982 the University of Melbourne awarded him the Kernot memorial medal for distinguished engineering achievement. Callinan was a commissioner of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (1976–83), the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1977–83), the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (1963–83), and the Australian Post Office Commission of Inquiry (1973–74). He served the Royal Humane Society of Australasia as president (1986–92). Companies of which he was a director included British Petroleum Company of Australia Ltd (1969–85) and CSR Ltd (1978–85). He was a deputy chancellor of La Trobe University (1967–69), a councillor of the University of Melbourne (1976–81), and a member of its faculty of engineering (1965–81). Honorary doctorates of engineering and laws were conferred on him by Monash University and the University of Melbourne, respectively. In 1986 he was appointed AC.

Although not an active sportsman, Callinan was a keen follower of cricket and, like his father, supported Carlton in Australian Rules football. A member of the Melbourne Cricket Club committee from 1966, he served as president (1980–85). In that role he oversaw the erection of lighting towers and an electronic scoreboard, and ensured retention of the Victorian Football League grand final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. A ‘quiet, unassuming man’ (Lloyd 1995, 14), who displayed both charm and firmness, for relaxation he enjoyed reading, especially biographies and history. Although he displayed great skill as a leader, he had never become politically involved with his friend B. A. Santamaria, whom he had known from his school days. Callinan died at Kew on 20 July 1995, survived by his wife and their five sons, and was buried in Springvale cemetery.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Arneil, Stan Foch. A Firm Foundation: The Story of Gutteridge Haskins and Davey, Consulting Engineers 1928–1988. Railway Square, NSW: Gutteridge Haskins & Davey, 1988
  • Callinan, Nicholas. Personal communication
  • Canberra Times. ‘War-Time Leader and Parliament Builder.’ 22 July 1995, 4
  • Lloyd, Brian. ‘Life of Leadership Touches Many.’ Age (Melbourne), 27 July 1995, 14
  • Long, Gavin. The Final Campaigns. Vol. VII of Series 1 (Army) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963
  • McCarthy, Dudley. South-West Pacific Area–First Year. Vol. V of Series 1 (Army) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 3/82001

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christopher Wray, 'Callinan, Sir Bernard James (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 21 July 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir Bernard Callinan, c.1985

Sir Bernard Callinan, c.1985

Australian Catholic University, 956510

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1913
Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 July, 1995 (aged 82)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Military Service
Key Organisations