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David Adie (Torpy) Whitehead (1896–1992)

by Robert C. Stevenson

This article was published:

David Whitehead, 1942

David Whitehead, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 041972

David Adie ‘Torpy’ Whitehead (1896–1992), soldier and business executive, was born on 30 September 1896 at Leith, Scotland, eldest child of English-born parents Frederick Victor Whitehead, quartermaster sergeant, and his wife Caroline Wilson, née Adie. David was educated at the York Grammar School, England. After the family migrated to Australia he attended the Sydney Coaching College and University Agency with the intention of pursuing a military career. He served briefly as an officer in the senior cadets before being selected to attend the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal (Australian) Capital Territory, which he entered in March 1914.

Standing over six feet one inch (185 cm) tall, with blue eyes and fair hair, Whitehead acquired his lifelong nickname ‘Torpy,’ a play on his stature and the Whitehead torpedo. After graduating on 4 April 1916, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).  He served on the Western Front with three machine-gun companies: the 9th (from November 1916), the 23rd (from September 1917), and the 3rd (from July 1918). On 4 October 1917, east of Ypres, Belgium, he skilfully led his battery forward under heavy fire, inspiring the whole company on its first day in action.  Awarded the Military Cross for his leadership that day, he was also promoted to captain (1917), twice wounded, mentioned in despatches (1917), and awarded the French Croix de Guerre (1919) during his service in World War I.

Whitehead’s AIF appointment was terminated in October 1919 and, although he initially returned to the regular army, in 1922 he left because of limited career opportunities. He continued his interest in soldiering, serving in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) and rising steadily to lieutenant colonel. He took command of the 1st Light Horse (Machine-Gun) Regiment in October 1937. Earlier that year, he had been awarded the King George VI coronation medal in recognition of his public service. In civilian life Whitehead worked as a civil engineer in Western Australia, before returning to Sydney. On 7 October 1926 at St Philip’s Church of England, he had married Marguerite Jean ‘Rita’ Forsyth, a bank clerk. In 1931 he joined the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Whitehead was appointed on 1 May 1940 to command the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, AIF. In February 1942 he was transferred to the 2/32nd Battalion, which he led during the attacks at Tel El Eisa, Egypt, in July. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his courageous and brilliant leadership. Promoted to colonel and temporary brigadier in September, he assumed command of the 26th Brigade, leading it in the battle of El Alamein in October and November. He was awarded a Bar to the DSO for exercising command with courage, determination, skill and judgement.

Whitehead’s brigade returned to Australia early in 1943 and was redeployed to New Guinea. It took part in the amphibious landing at Lae in September and the Huon Peninsula campaign from October 1943 to January 1944, culminating in the capture of Sattelberg. Whitehead was appointed CBE (1945) for his forceful and masterly performance. In May 1945 he commanded the 26th Brigade Group in its amphibious assault at Tarakan, Borneo. Relinquishing his command in December, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 9 February 1946, having been twice mentioned in despatches in World War II. Lean and rarely seen without his pipe, Whitehead was a hard though fatherly leader who managed to soften his stern demeanour with wry humour. His early training at Duntroon and experience in World War I shaped him, producing a thoughtful commander and one of the AIF’s adroit tacticians in the 1939–45 conflict.

Following the war Whitehead continued active part-time military and business careers. He commanded the 2nd Armoured Brigade from 1947, served as an honorary aide-de-camp (1949–52) to Sir William McKell, the governor-general, and led the Australian contingent that attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, for which he was awarded the coronation medal. He retired from the army as a brigadier in 1954. In 1946 he had moved to Melbourne to become Shell’s staff manager for Australia, a position he held until his retirement in 1956. From then until 1961 he served as a conciliator with the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Predeceased by his wife but survived by a son and daughter, Whitehead died on 23 October 1992 at Henry Pride Geriatric Centre, Kew, and was cremated. His portrait by Reg Rowed is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Dexter, David. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 (Army): Volume VI, The New Guinea Offensives. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1961
  • Lee, Colonel J. E. Duntroon: The Royal Military College of Australia. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952
  • Long, Gavin. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 (Army): Volume VII, The Final Campaigns.  Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963
  • Maughan, Barton. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 (Army): Volume III, Tobruk and El Alamein. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1966
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, Whitehead, David Adie [NX376 and First AIF]
  • Oakes, Bill. Muzzle Blast: Six Years of War with the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion AIF. Lane Cove: 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion History Committee, 1980
  • Trigellis-Smith, Syd. Britain to Borneo: A History of the 2/32 Australian Infantry Battalion. Sydney: 2/32 Australian Infantry Battalion Association, 1993

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert C. Stevenson, 'Whitehead, David Adie (Torpy) (1896–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

David Whitehead, 1942

David Whitehead, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 041972

Life Summary [details]


30 September, 1896
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


20 October, 1992 (aged 96)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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Military Service
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