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Mills, Thomas (1908–1978)

by Anthony Staunton

This article was published:

Thomas Mills (1908-1978), by unknown photographer, 1944

Thomas Mills (1908-1978), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 075963

Thomas Mills (1908-1978), soldier, tinminer and businessman, was born on 2 April 1908 at Charters Towers, Queensland, son of Thomas Mills, mining engineer, and his wife Hettie Mary, née Millican, both of whom were born in that town. Educated at Newington College, Sydney, young Tom completed his compulsory military training and worked as a woolclasser before becoming a tinminer at Emmaville during the Depression. Enlisting in the Militia in 1933, he served with the 12th Light Horse Regiment and was commissioned lieutenant in 1935. On 13 October 1939 he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force and posted to the 6th Divisional Reconnaissance (later Cavalry) Regiment.

At the Methodist Church, Crows Nest, Sydney, on 17 December 1939 Mills married Iris Irene O'Loan, a 26-year-old hairdresser. Twenty-three days later he embarked with his regiment for the Middle East to undertake further training in Palestine. On 4 January 1941, the second day of the Australian assault on Bardia, Libya, Mills commanded three troops of Bren-gun carriers which conducted a reconnaissance of the town. He showed coolness and courage in organizing attacks against isolated strong-points and was awarded the Military Cross.

The Australian-led invasion of Syria began on 8 June and the 6th Divisional Cavalry probed the enemy's positions on the coastal road towards Sidon. On 10 June they encountered a strong Vichy French position near Sarafend. Mills armed himself with a Thompson sub-machine-gun and, with three of his men, moved through rocky terrain to the top of a ridge that overlooked the enemy. Breaking cover, he fired his weapon, inflicting several casualties before his gun jammed. The French began shooting at him, but he continued to advance with his jammed weapon. After several bursts of supporting fire from Sergeant R. T. Cramp, forty-five French soldiers (with two anti-tank guns and three machine-guns) surrendered to Mills. He won a Bar to his Military Cross, the first of only fifteen such awards to members of the Australian army in World War II.

Rising to captain (June 1941) and major (February 1942), Mills returned to Australia in March 1942 and joined the 2nd/11th Armoured Car Regiment. In March 1943 he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the 2nd/5th Armoured Regiment. On 11 May 1944 he took over the 2nd/4th Armoured Regiment which was sent to Madang, New Guinea, in August. Two squadron groups were subsequently detached, one to support the 6th Division in the Aitape-Wewak campaign, and the other to assist the 3rd Division on Bougainville where the main body of the 2nd/4th also served from May 1945. Mills travelled extensively to visit his outlying forces. He came home in December 1945, relinquished his command in February 1946 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 27 March.

Lieutenant Colonel F. J. Mulally, who had served with Mills, described him as a tough man who was admired by everyone. After the war Mills owned and operated a pest-control business at Surfers Paradise, Queensland. Quiet and unassuming, he enjoyed reading and fishing. He died of myocardial infarction on 29 July 1978 at Ocean Beach, Moreton Island, and was cremated; his wife and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • Tank Tracks (Syd, 1953)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • S. O'Leary, To the Green Fields Beyond (Syd, 1975)
  • R. N. L. Hopkins, Australian Armour (Canb, 1978)
  • AWM 67, item 2/46 and AWM 88, item AMF 12/M (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Anthony Staunton, 'Mills, Thomas (1908–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 2 February 2023.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

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