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Bruce Alexander McDonald (1925–1993)

by Michael O'Brien

This article was published:

Bruce Alexander McDonald (1925–1993), army officer, was born on 23 March 1925 at Geelong, Victoria, third son of Angus Alexander McDonald, stock and station agent, and his wife Olive, née Penny. At Ballarat College Bruce was school captain and dux (1942); he was also awarded Blues for cricket, tennis, rowing, Australian Rules football, and athletics. In February 1943 he entered the Royal Military College (RMC), Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory, where he excelled at athletics and graduated from the shortened war course in December 1944. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in both the Permanent Military Forces and the Australian Imperial Force that month.

In June 1945 Lieutenant McDonald joined the experienced 2/5th Battalion, which was fighting in the Wewak campaign in New Guinea. On 8 July he and a classmate, Lieutenant K. W. Newton, led their platoons in an attack at Ulupu. With great daring, McDonald moved well ahead of his men, neutralised two Japanese pillboxes with grenades, and then, despite being wounded, crawled forward under fire to silence a machine-gun. Both he and Newton were awarded the Military Cross.

McDonald then served (1945-47) in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. On his return to Australia, in March 1948 he became adjutant of the 8th/7th Battalion, North Western Victorian Regiment. Promoted to captain in June, on 11 August at St James church, Kyogle, New South Wales, he married Elizabeth Mary Griffiths in a Church of England ceremony. In November 1953 he was posted to the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), in Korea. After suffering a slipped disk in March 1954 he became aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief of the British Commonwealth Force Korea. In October he was appointed aide-de-camp to the chief of the General Staff in Australia, and was promoted to major in December.

Attending the 1956 course at the Staff College, Camberley, England, McDonald impressed its commandant with his potential as a staff officer or commander. His next postings were to the Australian Army Staff, London (1957); RMC, Duntroon (1958–60); and Army Headquarters, Canberra (1960–63). He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in December 1962 and appointed commander of the 3rd Battalion, RAR, in May 1963. The unit carried out an operational tour in Malaya and Borneo from July that year to July 1965. McDonald’s British commanders praised the high morale and military efficiency of the battalion, which participated in anti-terrorist searches on the Thai-Malaysian border and operations against the Indonesians in Malaya and Borneo, including the secret cross-border incursions, code-named `Claret’, in the latter. He was appointed OBE (1966) for his exceptional ability, initiative, and drive. His soldiers nicknamed him ‘mother,’ not in a derogatory sense but because they felt he looked after them so well.

Back at Army Headquarters, Canberra, McDonald undertook a series of staff postings, during which he was promoted to colonel (1968). In February 1971 he assumed command of the 1st Australian Task Force in South Vietnam, as a temporary (substantive, 1972) brigadier. In the conduct of operations he left his battalion commanders to carry out their assigned roles without undue interference, in circumstances that varied from little activity to frenzied conflict. He continued to pursue a largely successful strategy of preventing enemy access to villages, by close ambushing and cooperation with the local South Vietnamese forces. He complemented this policy by targeting the enemy main force units on the northern borders of the province, though this effort was not greatly successful. Imposing careful control on the operations of the Special Air Service, he ensured that its work directly supported battalion operations. He was a forthright critic of what he saw as the premature withdrawal of tanks from his task force. The successful reduction of the force as Australia progressively disengaged from the war was a testament to his command skills. By December most of the combat troops had left the country. Returning to Australia that month, McDonald was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1972) and appointed to the Republic of (South) Vietnam Legion of Merit.

Having attended (1972) the Royal College of Defence studies in London, McDonald was chief of staff, Northern Command, Brisbane,(December 1972–October 1973) before his promotion to temporary (July 1974) and substantive (February 1975) major general. In that rank he held the appointments of chief of the Army Reserve (1974—76), and commander of the 1st Division (1976—77) and Training Command (1977—82). In 1979 he was appointed AO. He retired from the army on 10 March 1982.

Hardworking, imperturbable, resourceful, and analytical, McDonald was cool and calculating, rather than dashing. He knew when to trust his subordinates and related well to his superiors—he was a first-class commander in all respects. Seen by his contemporaries as an upright gentleman, he was an enthusiastic golfer, a follower of Australian Rules football, and a surfer. He retired to Queensland and supported veterans through his membership of Legacy. A heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer on 23 March 1993 at Auchenflower, Brisbane, and was buried in Pinaroo cemetery. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Dennis, Peter and Jeffrey Grey. Emergency and Confrontation: Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966. Vol. 5 of The Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975, edited by Peter Edwards. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1996
  • Long, Gavin. The Final Campaigns. Vol VII of Series I (Army) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963
  • McNeill, Ian and Ashley Ekins. The Australian Army and the Vietnam War, 1968-1973. Vol. 2 of The Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975, edited by Peter Edwards. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 2012
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 3392
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Citation details

Michael O'Brien, 'McDonald, Bruce Alexander (1925–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 3 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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