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Heathcote Howard Hammer (1905–1961)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Heathcote Howard Hammer (1905-1961), by unknown photographer, 1944

Heathcote Howard Hammer (1905-1961), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 080834 [detail]

Heathcote Howard Hammer (1905-1961), army officer, commercial traveller and storekeeper, was born on 15 February 1905 at Southern Cross, Western Australia, second son of Victorian-born parents William Hammer, miner, and his wife Ada May, née Williams. Educated at the Ballarat School of Mines, Victoria, he took a local job before becoming a commercial traveller. At St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, on 26 October 1935 he married Mary Frances Morrissey, a clerk; they were to have two children before being divorced in 1955. Having joined the Militia in 1923, he was commissioned in the 8th Battalion in February 1926, transferred to the 17th Light Horse (Machine-Gun) Regiment in 1937 and promoted major in 1939.

'Tack' Hammer was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force in May 1940. He sailed for the Middle East in September and carried out instructional duties in Palestine. His posting as brigade major of the 16th Brigade in March 1941 soon brought him the operational experience he craved. After participating in the disastrous campaign in Greece, his brigade built defences in Syria. In January 1942 he was appointed to command the 2nd/48th Battalion, 9th Division; he led the unit with distinction in the fighting at El Alamein, Egypt, from July. His capture of Trig 29 on 26 October was brilliantly planned and executed. In the last attack launched by the division, on 30-31 October, although Hammer was wounded, he took two German prisoners and, when only forty of his men remained, withdrew this remnant and had them dug-in by dawn. One of his soldiers said of him at El Alamein: 'Tack will do us. He's a soldier and a half'. Hammer was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Returning to Australia in February 1943, he took command of the 15th Brigade in New Guinea in July. Following strenuous operations which led to the capture of Salamaua in September, Brigadier Hammer was given a brief time to rest and train his men at Donadabu before they joined the 7th Division in the Ramu Valley in January 1944. There they took part in the clearing of the Huon Peninsula and entered Madang on 24 April. Hammer was awarded a Bar to the D.S.O. (for Salamaua) and appointed C.B.E. (for the Ramu).

In December 1944 the 15th Brigade began its move to Bougainville. Even before his troops embarked, Hammer had appreciated the potential problem of morale and discussed it frankly in an address to the whole brigade. On Bougainville he developed amenities such as a sportsground, swimming pool, concert area and rest camp. The 15th went into action in April 1945. When the Japanese surrendered in August, he set up schools and courses to prepare his men for their return to civilian life. Mentioned in dispatches, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 29 November 1945.

One of the most thoughtful and successful Australian commanders of World War II, Hammer was a 'tireless, fiery and colourful leader', immaculate in the desert and even in the jungle. 'Hard as nails' was the motto he proclaimed at his first inspection of the 2nd/48th and it inspired his training methods throughout the war. Like Field Marshal Earl Wavell, he understood and expounded the logistical basis of battle: 'Weapons, ammunition and food are treasures in this country', he told his troops on the way to Salamaua, urging them to fight their battles 'wisely'. Evidence of his own wisdom was to be seen in the strict anti-malarial routines in his brigade, which he regarded less as a medical than as a disciplinary problem. He was also an imaginative tactician, as his night operations against the Japanese near Salamaua demonstrated. On Bougainville he employed artillery, tanks and air power with the aim of limiting casualties among his infantry.

As controller of demobilization in Victoria (1945-46), and as an assistant-commissioner for repatriation (1946-47) and a member of the Repatriation Commission from July 1947, Hammer remained close to the ex-service community. Seeking refuge from the 'hurly-burly', he resigned in September and bought a general store at Bright. He returned to the Militia as commander, 2nd Armoured Brigade (1953-56), and was an aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. Promoted major general, he commanded the 3rd Division in 1956-59 and was appointed honorary colonel of the 8th-13th Victorian Mounted Rifles in 1959. In the postwar army he threw himself into training with the same creativity and drive that had distinguished his career in the A.I.F.

On 14 January 1956 at the College Church, Parkville, Melbourne, Hammer had married with Presbyterian forms Helena Irena Olova, née Vymazal, an Austrian-born interpreter. Survived by his wife, and by the daughter and son of his first marriage, he died of a coronary occlusion on 10 March 1961 at Brighton and was buried in Springvale cemetery with Anglican rites and full military honours.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • J. G. Glenn, Tobruk to Tarakan (Adel, 1960)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • R. Mathews, Militia Battalion at War (Syd, 1961)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • Bulletin, 27 Aug 1947
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 Aug 1947
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Hammer, Heathcote Howard (1905–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Heathcote Howard Hammer (1905-1961), by unknown photographer, 1944

Heathcote Howard Hammer (1905-1961), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 080834 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1905
Southern Cross, Western Australia, Australia


10 March, 1961 (aged 56)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.