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Sir Walter Joseph Cawthorn (1896–1970)

by Peter Hohnen

This article was published:

Sir Walter Joseph Cawthorn (1896-1970), soldier, diplomat and intelligence chief, was born on 11 June 1896 at Prahran, Melbourne, second child of William Cawthorn, a commercial traveller from England who later entered publishing, and his Victorian-born wife Fanny Adelaide, née Williams. Educated at Melbourne High School, Walter became a schoolteacher, as did his sister Minnie. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 3 February 1915 and was posted to the 22nd Battalion. Arriving at Gallipoli in September, he was promoted regimental sergeant major that month and commissioned on 9 November. During his time on the peninsula he kept a diary in which he recorded his experiences.

Moved to Egypt in January 1916, the battalion was transferred to France in March. Near Armentières, Cawthorn suffered a severe shrapnel wound to the abdomen on 27 June and was evacuated to England. He returned to the Western Front in November. Sent to England for training duties in April 1917, he was promoted captain in May. Having rejoined his unit in August, he again went to England where his A.I.F. appointment terminated when he was commissioned in the Indian Army on 13 February 1918. In the 1920s he served in India with the 16th Punjab Regiment. At Marylebone Presbyterian Church, London, on 10 March 1927 he married a widow Mary Wyman Varley, daughter of Andrew Gillison; their only son Michael was to be killed (1951) in the Korean War. Walter saw active service on the North-West Frontier (1930-35) and was later a general staff officer, grade 2, at the War Office, London.

Holding the local rank of colonel, in 1939 'Bill' Cawthorn (as he was familiarly known) took charge of the Middle East Intelligence Centre in Cairo. In 1941 he became director of military intelligence at General Headquarters, India, and was later an acting (temporary) major general. From October he held the additional post of deputy-director of intelligence, South East Asia Command. Mary also performed intelligence duties in World War II and served as an officer in the Women's Army Corps, India, for four years. In 1945 her husband was a member of the Indian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco, United States of America. He was appointed C.B.E. (1941), C.I.E. (1943) and C.B. (1946).

Recommended by his friend R. G. (Baron) Casey, the governor of Bengal, Cawthorn was sent to Melbourne in 1946 as Indian representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Australia. From 1948 to 1951 he was deputy chief of staff of the army of newly-independent Pakistan, and forged strong links with local political and military leaders. In 1952 he was appointed director of the Joint Intelligence Bureau, a liaison section in the Department of Defence, Melbourne. Seeking 'a better outlet for Cawthorn's talents', Casey—now minister for external affairs—selected him for a five-year posting (1954-59) as Australian high commissioner to Pakistan. During Cawthorn's term the two countries were to enjoy close ties. Casey visited Karachi in 1956 and noted that, as a result of Cawthorn's rapport with 'top Pakistanis', 'we are much better informed than the much larger diplomatic posts'. Governor-General Iskander Mirza told Casey: 'We have no secrets from Bill Cawthorn'.

Knighted in 1958, Cawthorn was appointed high commissioner to Canada next year. His stay, however, was short. In September 1960 he was back in Melbourne as head of the Australian Secret (Intelligence) Service, after being nominated by Casey for the post. With the Cold War intensifying, the job was a demanding one and he relied heavily on his able and experienced deputy W. T. Robertson. Cawthorn took a particular interest in Indonesian affairs and expanded the Jakarta office to be A.S.I.S.'s biggest station. It has been suggested that the organization played a significant role with the U.S.A.'s Central Intelligence Agency in creating an atmosphere for the overthrow (1966) of President Sukarno. A.S.I.S. also provided instruction in clandestine operations for members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam.

Sir Walter retired in July 1968. He lived at Little Tocknells, at Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges. Tall and dignified, with dark hair and a military moustache, he was a quiet, unassuming man whose demeanour endeared him to many. These attributes, coupled with his discretion and ability, had enabled him to progress from private to major general, and had earned him acceptance in the highest circles. In early 1970 he was admitted to hospital following a savage attack by an unknown assailant near the Melbourne Club; survived by his wife, Cawthorn died on 4 December that year in Melbourne and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 2 (Syd, 1940)
  • B. Toohey and W. Pinwill, Oyster (Melb, 1989)
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1983
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Hohnen, 'Cawthorn, Sir Walter Joseph (1896–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


11 June, 1896
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


4 December, 1970 (aged 74)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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