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Dudley McCarthy (1911–1987)

by John Farquharson

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Dudley McCarthy (1911-1987), war historian and diplomat, was born on 24 July 1911 in North Sydney, second of four sons of New South Wales-born parents James McCarthy, schoolteacher, and his wife Ivy Iris Alice, née Green. Educated at Kempsey West Intermediate High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1932; Dip.Ed., 1933), Dudley could not pursue his teaching career immediately, because the New South Wales Department of Education did not employ new graduates during the Depression. Instead, he went in 1933 to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea as a cadet patrol officer (kiap). Based mainly in the Sepik and Morobe areas, he sustained arrow wounds during an encounter with hostile natives. As he was bonded to the New South Wales Department of Education, he returned to Australia in 1935 and taught English and history at Petersham Intermediate and Homebush Junior Boys’ High schools. In 1938-39 he worked as a flight clerk for Qantas Empire Airways Ltd’s flying-boat service. He married Shelagh Adele Major, a mannequin, at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, on 17 April 1939.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 1 June 1940 and commissioned as a lieutenant the next month, McCarthy went to the Middle East with the 2/17th Battalion in October and transferred to the headquarters staff of the 6th Division in November 1941.  From March 1942 he was back in Australia where he held staff appointments as a temporary major. He also performed staff duties in New Guinea in 1944. For his work at headquarters of II Corps on Bougainville in 1944-45, he was appointed MBE (1947). His AIF service ended in Australia in December 1945. Then employed as an administrative officer with the Universities Commission in Sydney, he later became the consultant on native education in the Commonwealth Office of Education. Divorced in 1948, on 24 December that year he married Olivia Beatrice Maria Fiaschi, a public servant and daughter of Thomas Fiaschi, at the South Yarra Presbyterian Church, Melbourne.

Before the war, as a freelance journalist McCarthy had contributed articles to Walkabout under the pseudonym Brian Stirling. In August 1941 he submitted to the Bulletin an evocative article on the Australian retreat in North Africa from El Agheila to Tobruk (March-April), in which he had participated. Gavin Long subsequently invited him to write Volume V in the Army series of the official history, Australia in the War of 1939-1945. His South-West Pacific Area–First Year: Kokoda to Wau (1959) dealt with the Papuan campaign mainly with operations in Papua and New Guinea, including the desperate fighting on the Kokoda Trail, the victory at Milne Bay, the arduous operations in the Wau-Salamaua area and the bitter combat that eradicated the Japanese beachheads on the northern coast. To test the correctness of his narrative against conditions on the ground, McCarthy walked the track himself. He acknowledged the Japanese soldiers’ fighting prowess and championed the sacked Kokoda commander, Major General Arthur 'Tubby' Allen, whom he described as a ‘gallant and capable commander’. At the risk of his own career, he resisted pressure from Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring to change his assessment of Allen. McCarthy also wrote radio plays and scripts for television.

In 1952 McCarthy joined the Department of Territories, where he was assistant secretary (1958-63), Australian senior commissioner on the South Pacific Commission (1960-62) and Australian special representative for New Guinea and Nauru on the United Nations Trusteeship Council (1961-62). Transferring to the Department of External Affairs, in 1964 he became assistant secretary of the overseas division and was Australian minister (1963-66) to the UN. Ambassador to Mexico (1967-72) and to Spain (1972-76), where his military background enabled him to establish a rapport with the taciturn General Franco, he retired in 1976.

From 1977 to 1981 McCarthy was chairman of the Films Board of Review. In 1979 he published the largely autobiographical The Fate of O’Loughlin: A Novel. Winning praise for his descriptive writing and handling of the action, he was criticised for aspects of dialogue and plot. His biography of C. E. W. Bean, Gallipoli to the Somme (1983), won the 1984 Best Australian Book of the Year award. However, his finest writing was his war history.

Humane, with a deep attachment to Papua New Guinea and concern for its people and their future, McCarthy was a man of culture and intellect. He was a gifted raconteur who ‘loved the written word’. Tall, distinguished, of florid complexion, and inseparable from his pipe, he was a devoted Australian, happiest when furthering its causes. He was difficult to get to know but his friendship, once given, was steadfast. Survived by his wife, their two daughters and son, and the daughter of his first marriage, he died on 3 October 1987 in Canberra and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Dennis et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (1995)
  • S. Braga, Kokoda Commander (2004)
  • Stand-To (Canberra), Nov-Dec 1954, p 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Aug 1979, p 7
  • National Times, 9-15 Sept 1979, p 41
  • Canberra Times, 6 Oct 1979, p 17, 10 Nov 1982, p 20, 7 Oct 1987, p 12
  • A1361, item 34/1/12 part 1157, C5285, item 49/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • D. McCarthy papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'McCarthy, Dudley (1911–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 July, 1911
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


3 October, 1987 (aged 76)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 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.