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William Ballantyne Simpson (1894–1966)

by Jolyon Horner

This article was published:

William Ballantyne Simpson (1894-1966), by unknown photographer, 1942

William Ballantyne Simpson (1894-1966), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 024171

William Ballantyne Simpson (1894-1966), army officer, director-general of security and judge, was born on 12 June 1894 at Balmain, Sydney, eldest child of William Morrison Simpson, a Queensland-born solicitor, and his wife Margaret McBride, née McNeill, who came from Scotland. Young Bill was educated at Fort Street Model (Boys' High) School and the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1920). Having been commissioned in the Militia in 1914, he interrupted his studies to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 December 1916. He served as a driver in the 11th Field Company, Engineers, on the Western Front from January 1918 and returned to Australia in April 1919. On 18 May he was discharged from the A.I.F.

Admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 6 May 1920, Simpson specialized in cases concerning motor-vehicle accidents, sometimes using model cars to demonstrate his arguments in court. He joined the National Party and in 1922-25 unsuccessfully contested three State and Federal elections. At Scots Church, Sydney, on 8 July 1925 he married with Presbyterian forms Dorothy Margaret Peel Blackley.

A legal officer in the Militia from 1922, Simpson rose to lieutenant colonel in 1928. He was seconded to the A.I.F. as a temporary brigadier on 17 February 1941 and made deputy judge advocate-general of the A.I.F. in the Middle East. Back in Australia in June 1942, he became D.J.A.G. at Land Headquarters, Melbourne. On 23 September he succeeded W. J. MacKay as director-general of security. As head of the Commonwealth Security Service, based in Canberra, he was answerable to the attorney-general H. V. Evatt of whom he was 'a school and university associate'. He was responsible for investigating subversive and pacifist individuals and organizations, detecting and averting espionage, preventing sabotage and harmful rumours, vetting defence personnel and workers in defence-related industries, controlling the issue of passports and visas, and ensuring the security of airports, wharves, and factories engaged in war production. In addition, he identified enemy aliens for internment and exercised control over their release.

The recently formed C.S.S. was subject to intense interdepartmental jealousy and critics in the army complained that Simpson 'pulled rank' as an army officer when it suited him and at other times emphasized that he ran a civilian organization. He overcame the personnel problems that had troubled his predecessor, but his task was made more difficult by MacKay's removal of policemen and files from the service when he had left office. At the end of 1942 Simpson established an organizations section, led by J. C. G. Kevin, to make informed predictions about the activities of various groups in Australia. By mid-1943 Kevin had eight hundred organizations on his files, but a few months later reported to Simpson 'the unpalatable fact' that the C.S.S. had been 'unable to locate one known enemy agent or one major instance of sabotage'. Faced with other critical reports within the service, Simpson centralized the work of counter-espionage, established a group of special investigators and drastically reduced the secretarial staff.

Simpson was also responsible for radio security measures in Australia. He took direct control of the 1st Discrimination Unit, formed in February 1944, which examined all intercepted radio traffic within the country. No Japanese agents were discovered broadcasting from Australia. On 16 November Simpson transferred to the Reserve of Officers, but remained director-general as a civilian.

Late in 1944 the army and the security service learned that top-level information was being leaked to the Japanese. In January 1945 Simpson was briefed in general terms on 'Ultra' intelligence (received by the interception and deciphering of Japanese radio traffic) which revealed that the sources of the leaks were a Chinese liaison officer and the Soviet legation. To maintain the secrecy of Ultra, however, he was instructed to take no action. Instead, he produced a report in June on the Communist Party of Australia, in which he warned of the dangers it posed to democracy.

On 23 October 1945 Simpson resigned as director-general of security. Next day he was appointed sole judge of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory. He was conscientious and respected; lawyers enjoyed appearing before him. From 1946 he was also judge advocate-general of the army and air force, in which capacity he advised on the findings of war crimes tribunals and made recommendations concerning sentences. He chaired (1947-48) a committee inquiring into the cost of producing wheat in Australia, presided (1948) over a court of inquiry into the crash of the DC-3 airliner Lutana and served as judge of the Supreme Court of Norfolk Island.

Of middle height, thickset and jowly, Simpson suffered from Parkinson's disease during his later years. He retired due to ill health on 30 April 1960 and moved to Sydney. His recreations included gardening and reading. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 24 November 1966 at Marrickville and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • M. Bevege, Behind Barbed Wire (Brisb, 1993)
  • D. Ball and D. Horner, Breaking the Codes (Syd, 1998)
  • J. Thomson, Winning with Intelligence (Syd, 2000)
  • Defence Force Journal, no 16, May-June 1979, p 23
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Nov 1922, 19 Sept 1942, 25 Nov 1945, 11, 29 Mar, 27 Aug 1946, 15 Sept, 20, 25 Nov 1948, 25 Nov 1966
  • Canberra Times, 25 Nov 1966
  • C. Pappas, Law and Politics: Australia's War Crimes Trials in the Pacific, 1943-1961 (Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1998)
  • Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, 7th Report, vol 1, 1977, series A8908 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jolyon Horner, 'Simpson, William Ballantyne (1894–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 July 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

William Ballantyne Simpson (1894-1966), by unknown photographer, 1942

William Ballantyne Simpson (1894-1966), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 024171

Life Summary [details]


12 June, 1894
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


24 November, 1966 (aged 72)
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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