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Sir Iven Giffard Mackay (1882–1966)

by Jeffrey Grey

This article was published:

Iven Giffard Mackay (1882-1966), by Joshua Smith, 1958

Iven Giffard Mackay (1882-1966), by Joshua Smith, 1958

Australian War Memorial, ART27537

Sir Iven Giffard Mackay (1882-1966), army officer, was born on 7 April 1882 at Grafton, New South Wales, eldest of three children of Isaac Mackay, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, and his Canadian-born wife Emily Frances, née King. Iven was educated at Grafton Superior Public School, Newington College and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1904). He opened the batting for the university's cricket team, won Blues for Rugby Union football and rowing, and demonstrated in physics in his final year. After teaching (from 1905) at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), he returned to the university in 1910 as an assistant-lecturer in physics, 'glad to resume an academic career'.

At Newington, Mackay had been a sergeant in the school cadets. Although he showed no interest in the university regiment as an undergraduate, he became a lieutenant (1911) in the cadet corps instituted under the universal military training scheme. In July 1913 he transferred to the Militia as adjutant to the 26th Infantry Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel H. N. MacLaurin. During 1913-14 Mackay studied military science at the university. Promoted captain in June 1914, he volunteered for service with the Australian Imperial Force on the outbreak of World War I. On 27 August he was posted as adjutant to the 4th Battalion in MacLaurin's 1st Brigade. Eight days later, on 4 September, at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, he married Marjorie Eveline, the 23-year-old daughter of John Meredith.

Prevented by a riding accident from embarking with his unit, Mackay sailed for Egypt in December with reinforcements for the 13th Battalion. In February 1915 he was posted back to the 4th, which landed at Gallipoli on 25 April. The duties of military transport officer prevented him from joining the battalion until 8 May 1915. Heavy casualties in the early fighting saw him promoted major in July and placed in command of a company in August. Wounded at Lone Pine that month, he was evacuated to Malta and thence to England. He was mentioned in dispatches for his work at Gallipoli. In February 1916 he rejoined the 4th Battalion in Egypt.

Mackay accompanied the unit to France in March. Next month he was promoted lieutenant colonel and given command. He led his battalion in action at Pozières (July) and Mouquet Farm (August). During the second battle of Bullecourt in May 1917, he held temporary command of the 1st Infantry Brigade. For his service in this period he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (December 1916), a Bar to the D.S.O. (June 1917) and the French Croix de Guerre (1919); he was again mentioned in dispatches. He commanded the 1st Machine-Gun Battalion from March 1918. Promoted temporary brigadier-general, he took command of the 1st Infantry Brigade in June. He was appointed C.M.G. for his conduct at Hazebrouck (June-July) and on the Somme (August-September), and was mentioned in dispatches twice more.

Following the Armistice, Mackay entered the University of Cambridge to study physics. He returned home early in 1920 and lectured in that subject at the University of Sydney before accepting administrative posts: between 1922 and 1932 he was student adviser; from 1925 he was also faculty secretary. In 1933 he was appointed headmaster of Cranbrook School. (Sir) Kenneth Street and other members of the school council blamed him for Cranbrook's relatively slow recovery from the Depression, and he left in acrimonious circumstances in February 1940. Mackay had continued to serve in the Militia, and had held several brigade commands in the 1920s and 1930s. Assuming command of the 2nd Division in March 1937, he was promoted major general in July and was thus one of the most senior officers in the army when World War II began in September 1939.

The decision to raise a second division for the A.I.F. and the consequent elevation of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey to command I Corps led to Mackay being selected in April 1940 to replace him as general officer commanding the 6th Division. The troops nicknamed him 'Mr Chips', a reference to his peacetime profession, and to the initial impression he gave of being cool, reserved and strict. Some of his senior regular officers had reservations about him. Colonel George Vasey asserted that Mackay lacked the ruthlessness to remove Militia officers who were not performing well.

Such doubts soon disappeared with the commitment of the division to the campaign (January-February 1941) in Libya against the Italian Tenth Army. In a short contest of rapid movement over considerable distances, Mackay demonstrated careful planning and recognized the need to reinforce success; he also impressed others with the way he cared for soldiers' lives. 'Not only do I want Tobruk quickly', he told his senior officers before the battle, 'but I . . . want it cheaply'. His British superior in Libya, General Sir Richard O'Connor, wrote that 'behind a rather diffident and shy manner [Mackay] possessed an extremely strong and resolute character'. The war historian Gavin Long thought that Mackay's tenacity of purpose bordered on obstinacy. At the end of the fighting Mackay cracked down on indiscipline among his troops (an outbreak of 'civilianism', as he termed it). Mindful of the reputation which Australians had acquired in the Middle East in World War I, he was particularly offended by looting. Yet, while he was stern, he was also fair and approachable. For his leadership, 'outstanding gallantry and efficiency' he was appointed K.B.E. (1941).

Mackay led the 6th Division through the débâcle in Greece (April 1941), during which he further earned the respect of his men for sharing their conditions in the field, for his lack of interest in creature comforts, and for his courage and coolness under air-attack. One staff officer 'never forgot the way Mackay would stand round during bombings, looking down calmly (but not critically) on people crouching behind cover or in slit trenches'. Awarded the Greek Military Cross and mentioned in dispatches, he relinquished command of the division in August 1941 and returned to Australia. Next month he was promoted lieutenant general and appointed general officer commanding-in-chief, Home Forces.

In seeking to prepare Australia for defence against the Japanese, Mackay submitted an appreciation in February 1942 which gave rise to the 'Brisbane Line' controversy. In the event of invasion, he proposed to concentrate his forces in locations between Brisbane and Melbourne, without reinforcing strategic peripheries such as North Queensland. Later suggestions that areas north of Brisbane were to be abandoned, and the brigades based there withdrawn, are untrue, as is the notion that a line was drawn on the map. Mackay later stated that he had never known the term 'Brisbane Line' until it appeared in newspapers. The problems he faced in 1942 stemmed from neglect of Australia's defence in the interwar years. Although on paper he commanded a force of five divisions, in practice he had manpower for only three. Moreover, the chiefs of staff had directed that the region between Port Kembla and Newcastle was vital, and that, so long as it was held, Australia could continue to fight the war.

Mackay's appreciation was current for only a few weeks. It was superseded by the knowledge that two divisions of the A.I.F. were returning from the Middle East. Thereafter, the 'Brisbane Line' became 'the plaything of American propagandists and Australian politicians'. General Douglas MacArthur used it to reinforce his image as the saviour of Australians allegedly prey to defeatism; the Australian Labor Party member for East Sydney Eddie Ward mounted attacks in 1942 and 1943 on (Sir) Robert Menzies and (Sir) Arthur Fadden, claiming that their governments were responsible for the 'Brisbane Line' strategy.

Following a reorganization of Australia's defences in early 1942, Mackay was given command of the Second Army in April. Between January and May 1943 he was based in Papua and New Guinea as commander of New Guinea Force. The fighting for Wau took place during this period. Blamey sent him back to New Guinea in August to orchestrate the capture of Finschhafen, and the early stages of the battles for Sattelberg and the Ramu Valley. Mackay's second tenure of command in New Guinea was marked by disagreements with the Americans over the movement of reinforcements by sea to Finschhafen, which led to delays in the capture of Sattelberg. Major General Vasey and Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring believed that Mackay was wanting in forcefulness. Herring thought that Mackay should have moved more quickly to enlist Blamey's support in resolving the difficulties over shipping. Mackay appears to have been disinclined to refer such matters to his commander-in-chief, with whom he enjoyed excellent relations.

Aged 61, Mackay—in Herring's words—was 'getting older [and] a bit slower'. By this stage he probably lacked the mental and physical robustness needed for the rigours of campaigning in New Guinea. In January 1944 he relinquished command of New Guinea Force and the Second Army. One month later he took up an appointment as Australia's first high commissioner to India. His duties, until the war ended, were more military than diplomatic. On 27 February 1946 he retired from the army. He promoted trade between India and Australia, and fostered a plan for Indian students and technicians to study and train in Australia. His term as high commissioner ended in May 1948.

Retiring to Sydney, Sir Iven chaired (1950-52) the New South Wales recruiting committee which was set up by the Federal government to increase enlistment in the armed forces. He became active in ex-servicemen's organizations. In 1952 he represented Australia at the unveiling in Athens of the British Commonwealth memorial to those who fell in the Greek campaign; he again visited that city in 1961 for the dedication of the Commonwealth war cemetery at Phaleron. The University of Sydney appointed (1950) him honorary esquire bedell and conferred (1952) on him an honorary doctorate of laws. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died on 30 September 1966 at his East Lindfield home and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. (Sir) John Longstaff's, (Sir) Ivor Hele's and Joshua Smith's portraits of Mackay are held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • I. D. Chapman, Iven G. Mackay (Melb, 1975)
  • Australian Army Journal, no 218, 1967, p 3
  • Mackay papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • G. Long, notebooks and diaries (Australian War Memorial)
  • Vasey papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jeffrey Grey, 'Mackay, Sir Iven Giffard (1882–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Iven Giffard Mackay (1882-1966), by Joshua Smith, 1958

Iven Giffard Mackay (1882-1966), by Joshua Smith, 1958

Australian War Memorial, ART27537

Life Summary [details]


7 April, 1882
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia


30 September, 1966 (aged 84)
Lindfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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