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Vincent, Douglas (Tim) (1916–1995)

by Ashley Ekins

This article was published online in 2020

Douglas ‘Tim’ Vincent (1916–1995), army officer, was born on 10 March 1916 at Corinda, Brisbane, only son of English-born William Frederick Vincent, civil engineer, and his Queensland-born wife Sarah Jane, née Cox. He attended Brisbane State High School before entering the Royal Military College (RMC), Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1935. In December 1938 he graduated as a lieutenant, and was allocated to the Royal Australian Corps of Signals.

Following the outbreak of World War II, in May 1940 Vincent volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force. He was adjutant of the 7th Division Signals from May 1940 to September 1941, including during the Syria–Lebanon campaign, and was appointed captain in March 1941. Subsequently he commanded the 25th Infantry Brigade signals before returning to Australia in 1942 and being promoted to temporary major in April of that year. A series of staff and instructional postings within Australia followed, including at RMC. In March 1944, in order to gain experience in amphibious operations, he became one of thirteen Australian officers selected for attachment to the British Army to participate in preparations for the invasion of Normandy. Posted to General Sir Bernard (Viscount) Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the thirteen were among the AIF’s most accomplished officers.

At the headquarters of the British XXX Corps, Vincent helped plan the complex landing operations. He went ashore on 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day. During the hard-fought advance that followed across northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, he served with the XXX Corps and three of its component formations, the 7th Armoured Division and the 43rd and 50th Infantry Divisions. He witnessed tank battles in Normandy’s bocage country and the grim near-total destruction of German forces trapped in the Falaise Pocket. The 43rd Division subsequently took part in the ill-conceived Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 during which he was second-in-command, and at one stage commander, of the divisional signals regiment. He was mentioned in dispatches ‘for gallant and distinguished services.’

Returning to Australia in December 1944, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel the following month and posted as chief signals officer, I Australian Corps. Units of the corps took part in the Borneo campaign’s amphibious assaults in 1945 on Tarakan, Labuan, and Balikpapan, the last major Allied operations in the South-West Pacific Area.

Promoted to temporary colonel in May 1946, on 31 July 1947 Vincent married Margaret Ector ‘Sue’ Persse, a fabric designer he had met prior to the war, at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne. He proceeded to a succession of senior staff, instructional, and signals appointments in Australia and overseas, including director of signals at Army Headquarters, Melbourne (1954–58), and chief of staff, Headquarters Eastern Command, Sydney (1960–62). In 1958 he was appointed OBE.

As a brigadier, from 1962 to 1963 Vincent was commander of the Australian Army Force with Far East Land Forces in Singapore and Malaya, during which he visited the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. The following year he attended the Imperial Defence College, London. He was then appointed commander of the 1st Task Force (1965–66), based at Holsworthy, New South Wales, as it prepared battalions for deployment in the Vietnam War. In 1966 he was promoted to temporary major general and placed in command of the 1st Division.

On 31 January 1967 he was elevated to substantive major general and appointed as Commander Australian Force Vietnam. Although primarily an administrative appointment based in Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City), this was arguably the most significant command in the Australian Regular Army, also including command of Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force units in Vietnam. With the Australian forces in Vietnam under operational control of military formations of the United States of America, the role required diplomatic skills and clear judgement in a conflict that was causing political and social division at home.

Vincent proved a tough and demanding commander, with an incisive mind. His forthright bearing and stern countenance seemed suggestive of taciturnity, an impression not shared by those working closely with him and belied by his genuine concern for his soldiers. He quickly identified problems within the Australian force structure. The main combat arm, a brigade-sized independent task force lodged in the communist-dominated southern province of Phuoc Tuy, was perilously understrength. The pressing need for an additional infantry battalion and armour support became obvious just two weeks after his arrival when, in Operation Bribie, the Australians suffered heavy casualties in a close-quarters battle with the Viet Cong. His request for reinforcements was delayed by prolonged high-level discussions in Canberra, and the vitally needed units did not begin to arrive until late 1967. He also sought, with varying success, to rectify deficiencies in logistic support and to provide Australian soldiers with more effective infantry weapons, as well as improved helicopter support.

Despite pressure from American commanders to adopt their more aggressive approach, Vincent eschewed the discredited ‘body count’ concept of number of enemy killed as a measure of overall progress. He upheld the Australian counter-insurgency doctrine of low-level operations aimed at providing security for the local people by separating the enemy insurgents from the population and conducting pacification operations. However, he could be flexible when warranted. In December 1967 he approved the deployment of the Australian Task Force on a large-scale combined operation with American forces outside Phuoc Tuy that helped disrupt communist preparations for their forthcoming major offensive.

On 30 January 1968 Vincent’s tour ended, just as the communist Tet offensive erupted. He became head of the Australian Joint Services Staff in Washington, DC (1968–70). In February 1969 he was appointed CB for his Vietnam service. On his return to Australia he was based in Canberra as adjutant general and second military member of the Military Board until his retirement in 1973. Having at the age of fifty qualified as an army aviator on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, he strongly advocated aerial support for ground forces and was honorary colonel of the Australian Army Aviation Corps. He chaired the Returned & Services League of Australia’s national defence committee (1974–93). His business interests included a directorship of the telecommunications company Alcatel Australia Ltd (1973–93). In January 1994 he was appointed AM. He died at his home at Yarralumla on 8 October 1995, survived by his wife and their two sons and one daughter. A funeral with full military honours was held at the Anzac Memorial Chapel of St Paul at Duntroon, and he was cremated.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Ekins, Ashley, with Ian McNeill. Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1968–1975. Vol. 9, Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 2012
  • Farmer, W. A. ‘3 Australians Win Awards in Europe.’ Courier Mail (Brisbane), 6 April 1945, 4
  • Horner, D. M. Australian Higher Command in the Vietnam War. Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence, no. 40. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, 1986
  • Horner, David. ‘Commander Led Forces in Vietnam.’ Australian, 13 October 1995, 15
  • Jackson, John. ‘Australians in “Overlord.”’ Wartime, no. 27 (July 2004): 12–14
  • McNeill, Ian. To Long Tan: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1950–1966. Vol. 2, Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1993
  • McNeill, Ian, and Ashley Ekins. On the Offensive: The Australian Army in the Vietnam War 1967–1968. Vol. 8, Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 2003
  • Sharpe, Simone. ‘Australians in D-Day.’ Wartime, no. 26 (April 2004): 34–37
  • Vincent, Douglas. Interview by R. F. Morison, 21 March 1972. Transcript. Army Historical Programme. Australian War Memorial, AWM107, 707/R2/38(1)
  • Vincent, Douglas. Talk on the Normandy landing, 22 August 1990. Australian War Memorial, AWM2017.1373225

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Citation details

Ashley Ekins, 'Vincent, Douglas (Tim) (1916–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vincent-douglas-tim-30032/text37260, published online 2020, accessed online 22 April 2021.

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