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Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig Porter (1905–1963)

by Mark Johnston

This article was published:

Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig Porter (1905-1963), by unknown photographer, 1942

Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig Porter (1905-1963), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 025956

Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig Porter (1905-1963), army officer and commissioner of police, was born on 23 February 1905 at Tintaldra, Victoria, son of Australian-born parents William Thomas Porter, inspector of stock, and his wife Minnie Weller, née Craig. Educated at Wangaratta High School, Selwyn joined the State Savings Bank of Victoria as a clerk and worked in Melbourne. He was commissioned lieutenant in the 58th Battalion, Militia, in 1924 and promoted major in 1936. Meanwhile, he studied (1934-39) commerce part time at the University of Melbourne. At the Presbyterian Church, Gardenvale, on 30 December 1936 he married Hilda Vera Mavis Drury, a typiste.

In October 1939 Porter was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as second-in-command of the 2nd/5th Battalion, which was sent to the Middle East in April 1940. During the Libyan campaign he temporarily commanded the 2nd/6th Battalion in the advance beyond Derna and was mentioned in dispatches (1941). Promoted lieutenant colonel and transferred to the 2nd/31st Battalion in February 1941, he led the unit in Syria, where he showed conspicuous bravery and aggression. Although he was wounded in the thigh at Jezzine on 14 June, he remained on duty until ordered to hospital. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1942). One member of his staff marvelled at his extraordinary concentration and grasp of the overall picture throughout the demanding campaign. Porter knew that it was 'a big trust' to be the 'guardian of the lives' of 800 men, and he grieved for the dead.

Known as 'Promissory Bill' because of his frequent promises, Porter was an imposing figure: 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, with a thrusting chin and a voice that could be terrifying, he inspired respect, confidence and admiration. After returning to Australia, he was posted to Port Moresby in March 1942 with the temporary rank of brigadier and placed in command of the 30th Brigade, the only Militia formation then serving outside Australia. Aware that his brigade had recently been assessed at the bottom of the scale in combat readiness, he introduced A.I.F. officers to improve discipline and training.

Following Japanese landings at Buna in July, Porter led his brigade—and in August-September the larger Maroubra Force—on the Kokoda Track. His judgement that some members of the exhausted 21st Brigade, A.I.F., were suffering 'general demoralization' caused resentment at the time and controversy later. In October he declared that his own 'chocos' had 'earned fame' by their deeds, but he was bitterly and perhaps unfairly critical of the training and spirit of two fresh Militia battalions which fought under his command at Sanananda in December. The static warfare in this area, where he also commanded A.I.F. and American troops, did not suit his dashing nature.

In September 1943 Porter was appointed chief instructor at the Land Headquarters Tactical School, Canungra, Queensland. In November he was given command of the 24th Brigade, which was stationed near Sattelberg, New Guinea. He felt 'marvellous to be back in the A.I.F. again with . . . voluntary fighters'. His men rated him highly for the changes he made in administration and the way he conducted the successful Finschhafen campaign. In March 1945 he planned his brigade group's invasion of British North Borneo; his plan included the unprecedented tactic of landing artillery with the assaulting infantry. He was appointed C.B.E. (1947).

Porter returned to Melbourne in October 1945 and was placed on the Reserve of Officers in November. Joining the Myer Emporium's personnel department, he rose to be staff superintendent. He also continued to serve in the Citizen Military Forces, commanding the 6th Brigade (from 1948), and the 3rd Division (from 1950) as a temporary major general (substantive January 1951). In 1953-54 he was the C.M.F. member of the Military Board.

In 1954 Porter was appointed chief commissioner of the Victoria Police. Although the choice of an outsider was controversial and provoked an outcry from the police, he held the post from January 1955 until his death. He set out to improve the force's efficiency, discipline and standing in the community. His genuine concern for, and pride in, those he commanded—in war and peace—emerged repeatedly in his correspondence and public statements. He was 'not just big in frame, he was big in personality'. Porter was a member of Rotary, patron of the Essendon Football Club and assistant chief commissioner (from 1946) of the Victorian branch of the Boy Scouts' Association. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died of a coronary occlusion on 9 October 1963 at Mentone and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • R. Paull, Retreat from Kokoda (Melb, 1958)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • J. Laffin, Forever Forward (Syd, 1994)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 July 1954
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 29 Aug 1961, 10 Oct 1963
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1963
  • Porter papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • Bosher papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Mark Johnston, 'Porter, Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig (1905–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig Porter (1905-1963), by unknown photographer, 1942

Selwyn Havelock Watson Craig Porter (1905-1963), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 025956