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Sir Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens (1896–1969)

by Michael Boyle

This article was published:

Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens (1896-1969), by unknown photographer, 1940

Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens (1896-1969), by unknown photographer, 1940

Australian War Memorial, 004804

Sir Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens (1896-1969), army officer, public servant and businessman, was born on 7 September 1896 at Daylesford, Victoria, youngest of seven children of Melbourne-born parents Herbert Clarence Stevens, draper, and his wife Violet Ophelia, née Bury. Educated at Daylesford State School, Jack began work in a cigar factory at the age of 12. In 1915 he joined the Postmaster-General's Department as a clerk in the electrical engineers' branch. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 2 July, having served four years in the senior cadets and one in the Militia.

Following signals training, Stevens sailed for Egypt in November as a corporal. In March 1916 he was promoted sergeant and allotted to the 4th Divisional Signal Company. Three months later he was sent to France. For his 'devotion and keen sense of duty' during the fighting at Pozières and at the Ypres salient, Belgium, in August-October, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. He was commissioned on 17 January 1917 and transferred next month to the 5th Divisional Signal Company. In April he was promoted lieutenant. He took part in operations at Polygon Wood (September) and in March 1918 was posted to the Australian Corps Signal Company. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 28 October 1919.

Stevens resumed work with the P.M.G. At the Presbyterian Church, South Melbourne, on 26 April 1920 he married Catherine McAllister Macdonald. He rejoined the Militia in 1921. Promoted captain in 1922 and major in 1924, he commanded the 2nd Cavalry Divisional Signals (1923-26) and, as lieutenant colonel, the 4th Divisional Signals (1926-29), the 3rd Divisional Signals (1929-35) and the 57th/60th Infantry Battalion (1935-39). On 13 October 1939 he was seconded to the A.I.F. and given command of the 6th Divisional Signals. Short and slightly built, but 'waspishly aggressive and persistent', he was chosen by Major General (Sir) John Lavarack in April 1940 to form and command the 21st Infantry Brigade, and was promoted colonel and temporary brigadier. He sailed for the Middle East in October.

Throughout the campaign against the Vichy French, in Syria in June-July 1941, Stevens handled his brigade with 'great skill'. His leadership, determination, courage and buoyant outlook were important factors in forcing an assault across the Litani River on 12 June when success seemed unlikely. Although wounded, he personally directed the operation. He won the Distinguished Service Order and was mentioned in dispatches. The actions of his brigade during the battle of Damour (5-9 July) further demonstrated his ability to carry out difficult missions.

The 21st Brigade returned to Australia in March 1942. Next month Stevens was promoted temporary major general and given command of the 4th Division. In August he was appointed commander of Northern Territory Force; four months later he was given additional command responsibilities for the 12th Division and the Northern Territory Lines of Communications Area. In April 1943 he took over the 6th Division, which was then undergoing training on the Atherton Tableland, Queensland. The division was deployed to New Guinea in late 1944 and saw action in the Aitape-Wewak area. Stevens's forces advanced along the coast to Wewak and cleared Japanese units from the Maprik area, inflicting heavy losses. For his 'gallant and distinguished service' and 'outstanding leadership in operations against the Japanese', he was appointed C.B. (1946). Against his wishes he relinquished his command in August 1945 to become assistant-commissioner of the Commonwealth Public Service Board. He was to continue his service in the Citizen Military Forces, commanding the 2nd Division in 1947-50 and serving as C.M.F. member of the Military Board for the two months prior to his transfer to the Reserve of Officers on 1 July 1950.

In September 1946 Stevens was made general manager and chief executive officer of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission. He was appointed secretary of the Department of National Development in 1950. As the Australian government developed an increasing interest in atomic energy, he was given responsibility for uranium mining at Rum Jungle, Northern Territory. In 1951 he became secretary of the newly restructured Department of Supply, which oversaw research and development of war matériel, including the procurement and use of uranium. 'Abrupt, tough and alert', he 'ran the department with a stern hand'. He negotiated agreements with Britain and the United States of America on atomic research issues, and helped the British to organize atomic tests in Australia. The minister for supply (Sir) Howard Beale was kept 'in the dark' about preparations for tests on the Monte Bello Islands, off Western Australia. Stevens felt uneasy that such information was withheld from the minister. Contrary to directions from Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, he secretly informed Beale of the plans.

Cabinet agreed to the creation of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in September 1952 and appointed Stevens its first chairman. The A.A.E.C.'s role was to carry out research into atomic energy and earn Australia 'access to overseas technology during the Cold War'. Stevens led delegations to Washington and London to secure technical co-operation, and was closely involved in establishing the experimental reactor at Lucas Heights, Sydney. In 1955 he was appointed K.B.E.

Sir Jack retired from the public service in 1956. He became chairman of Australian Electrical Industries Ltd and of British Automotive Industries Pty Ltd, and a director of Commonwealth Industrial Gases Ltd, Custom Credit Corporation Ltd, Mount Isa Mines Ltd and the Trustees Executors & Agency Co. Ltd. Survived by his wife, he died of a coronary occlusion on 20 May 1969 in Sydney and was cremated with Anglican rites. A royal commission (1964) into the sinking of H.M.A.S. Voyager and another (1967-68) into the conduct of his only son Captain Duncan Stevens proved ordeals that probably contributed to his death.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • H. Beale, This Inch of Time (Melb, 1977)
  • A. Cawte, Atomic Australia 1944-1990 (Syd, 1992)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1969
  • J. Stevens, A Personal Story of the Service, as a Citizen Soldier, of Major-General Sir Jack Stevens, KBE, CB, DSO, ED (manuscript, Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Michael Boyle, 'Stevens, Sir Jack Edwin Stawell (1896–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 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

Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens (1896-1969), by unknown photographer, 1940

Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens (1896-1969), by unknown photographer, 1940

Australian War Memorial, 004804