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Joseph Lawrence Andrew Kelly (1907–1970)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Joseph Lawrence Andrew Kelly (1907-1970), army officer, was born on 10 March 1907 at Cowra, New South Wales, third child of native-born parents Joseph Patrick Kelly, general labourer, and his wife Sarah Mary, née Hennessy. Young Joe's early years were difficult: his father died some three months after his birth and his school-days ended when he was about 12. He moved to Sydney where he became a builder's labourer. During the Depression he knew the misery of unemployment, often walking from Bondi to the city when he could not afford the tram fare. An active member of North Bondi Surf Life-Saving Club, he also played Rugby League for Eastern Suburbs.

In 1926-29 Kelly served in the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers, under the compulsory training scheme. His service, and the worsening Depression, led him to enlist in the Permanent Military Forces on 29 October 1931. He was posted as a gunner and spent two years in Darwin before returning to Sydney. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 20 April 1935 he married Sybil McKenzie, a milliner. In August 1936 Sergeant Kelly was sent to the Australian Instructional Corps Training Cadre. He was promoted staff sergeant major, third class, in June 1937 and allotted to the infantry in the 1st Division. After the outbreak of World War II he was made temporary quartermaster and honorary lieutenant. This grudging promotion was followed in May 1940 by his elevation to captain, Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 2nd/13th Battalion, he sailed for the Middle East in October and was given the key appointment of adjutant in November.

Kelly quickly established himself in this young battalion during its first campaign which culminated in the defence of Tobruk, Libya, from April 1941. By September he was at 20th Brigade headquarters as staff captain and by October 1942 at 9th Division headquarters in Egypt. On 29 October, at the height of the battle of El Alamein, G. E. Colvin, the commander of the 2nd/13th, was injured. Kelly was immediately promoted major and sent to take command. 'To the dazed and battered troops, it was like a shot in the arm to see Major Joe back in the fold.' He scraped together men from his Headquarter Company and elsewhere to reinforce his shattered rifle companies and led the battalion until the end of the battle.

Returning to Australia in February 1943, Kelly was dispatched to Papua in July as second-in-command of the battalion. Two months later he took part in the assault on Lae, New Guinea. In the fighting for Finschhafen in September-October he commanded Kelforce, which included two companies of his own unit. After being admitted to hospital in Australia with otitis and post-malarial debility in February-March and May-June 1944, he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in November and appointed commander of the 31st-51st Battalion. On Bougainville, from December 1944 to March 1945, he and his Queenslanders knew that their operations made no difference to the outcome of the war, but they fought skilfully and resolutely, as in the three-day struggle for Tsimba Ridge on 6-9 February. For his leadership, Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In World War II he was thrice mentioned in dispatches and was probably the only member of the A.I.C. to command an infantry battalion in action.

In 1946-47 Kelly was director of general stores and clothing at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. He then commanded (1948) the Recruit Training Brigade at Greta, New South Wales. While in charge (1949-51) of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, he led Norforce which maintained coal production around Muswellbrook during the 1949 miners' strike. He commanded the 11th National Service Training Battalion (1951-53) in Brisbane, and was chief instructor at the School of Infantry (1953-54), Singleton, New South Wales, and at the Jungle Warfare Wing, Jungle Warfare Centre (1954-55), Canungra, Queensland. His last appointment was staff officer cadets and commander, 2nd Cadet Brigade, based in Sydney.

Transferring to the Retired List as honorary colonel on 11 March 1957, Kelly had charge of the State government's stationery office until 1958 when he was appointed general manager of Craig & Aitken Pty Ltd, a wholesale company in Sydney. He died on 9 September 1970 at Royal North Shore Hospital from injuries received in a motorcar accident and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery; his wife and son survived him.

Kelly was a tall, strong man who had found his métier in the regular army and the A.I.F., moving easily between staff and command. Calm, considerate and careful in his planning, he counselled junior leaders: 'Remember it is the man that counts NOT the machine, be firm . . . and above all study the human factor'. He enjoyed life, whether gardening, extending his home, or watching cricket and Rugby League. His three loves were 'his wife, his son and the Australian army'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 2 Sept 1950
  • private information.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Kelly, Joseph Lawrence Andrew (1907–1970)', 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

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