Adventure Kokoda

Commanders

SIR THOMAS ALBERT BLAMEY (1884 – 1951)

After Japanese hostilities commenced in the South West Pacific Area, General Blamey returned to Australia General Sir Thomas Blameyfrom the Middle East to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces in March 1942. In the Middle East he had been a corps commander and later the deputy commander-in-chief, British Forces. In his accompanying role of commander of the Australian forces, he argued trenchantly to maintain the national integrity of the force.

Blamey faced the daunting and complex task of preparing Australia’s defence against the real possibility of a Japanese land attack on its territory. It should be noted that Australia’s military organisation had been seriously neglected prior to the outbreak of war. His challenges were immense and unprecedented for a military leader in Australia. He had to ensure that the fighting elements of the Army were expanded and fully trained as well as providing the infrastructure to support and sustain these forces. When United States troops arrived in Australia, their senior officer General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area. This meant that he had authority over not just United States soldiers, but also Australian and Dutch forces in the region. Blamey became commander of the Allied Land Forces with direct responsibility to MacArthur for offensive operations and the defence of the Australian mainland. The Prime Minister, John Curtin used MacArthur as his prime source of strategic military advice. Blamey, who was excluded from their official meetings (the War Conference), insisted on retaining direct access to Curtin on military matters. The third member of the War Conference was the manipulative Secretary of the Department of Defence, Frederick Shedden. He believed himself to be an expert in the military arts and was of no assistance to Blamey.

The Japanese landings on the north coast of New Guinea in July 1942, along with the naval and air threat to mainland Australia, exerted great pressure on the Australian Government. The Government was inexperienced, lacking fundamental knowledge of military operations and was ill-prepared to guide a nation in crisis. When the Japanese advanced to within sight of Port Moresby, the Government panicked and on MacArthur’s advice, Curtin ordered Blamey to take personal command in New Guinea. Because of the scope of Blamey’s appointment, this was a totally inappropriate decision. As well, Blamey explained to Curtin that after a recent visit to Port Moresby he believed that the local commander, Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell had the situation under control. Nevertheless, Blamey was ordered to go. During the campaign in New Guinea, MacArthur was consumed in his own self interest and in his paranoia in competing with the United States Navy. He showed a profound ignorance of enemy strategy and capability. His shortcomings were repeated in the Korean War where he was eventually sacked by President Truman.

Unfortunately for Australia, its senior group of officers were disunited and relationships were fragmented and at times poisonous. Dating from their service together in the Middle East, Rowell’s behaviour towards Blamey was reprehensible and unprofessional. He openly displayed his disdain for Blamey on many occasions. Prior to his arrival in Port Moresby, Blamey sent Rowell a most conciliatory letter, explaining why he had to return. This did not placate Rowell and after he quarrelled a number of times with Blamey and denied him access to the most basic operational information, Blamey relieved him of command. Even Rowell acknowledged Blamey’s forbearance with him prior to being sacked.

After reaching Iorabaiwa ridge, the Japanese were forced back to a beach-head on the north coast of New Guinea where they were defeated by late January 1943. As the Japanese withdrew through the islands to the north, Blamey made ongoing representations to ensure that Australian forces played a meaningful role in the ensuing fighting. However his efforts were frustrated by MacArthur and the United States Government that wanted credit for the demise of Japan to rest with their troops. Blamey attended the surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945 on the USS Missouri, ending his service soon after on 30 November 1945. After the death of Curtin, the incoming Prime Minister Ben Chifley and his Army Minister Frank Forde unceremoniously and insensitively dispensed with Blamey’s services. Blamey was the only Allied commander to retain his command for the duration of the War. Both Curtin and MacArthur believed that Blamey had no peer as Australia’s Commander-in-Chief.

Criticisms of Blamey’s private life are well documented. A greater issue for him was his lack of understanding of the importance of public relations which cost him dearly. However, it should be understood that MacArthur was given complete control of the media by Curtin. Unlike MacArthur, Blamey was unconcerned about what others thought of him, including the press. The war correspondent Chester Wilmot criticised him regularly but provided no evidence for many of his accusations. Blamey’s address to the 21st Brigade after the Kokoda fighting at Koitaki has received considerable condemnation. This is not universal. For example, the Brigade Commander Brigadier Ivan Dougherty who was present at Koitaki, strongly believed that Blamey’s words were misinterpreted.

It wasn’t until the Menzies Government took office in 1949 that Blamey’s legacy to Australia was adequately recognised. After Menzies had overcome an uncooperative British Government, Blamey was named a field marshal in the Birthday Honours for 1950. He was presented with the baton of a field marshal at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg on 16 September 1950, where he was critically ill. The Governor General Sir William McKell made the presentation with the Prime Minister in attendance. Blamey died eight months later on 27 May 1951. A crowd of 250,000 lined the streets of Melbourne at his State funeral.

Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey:  Australia’s most promoted, but least appreciated soldier by  Major-General Gordon Maitland AO OBE RFD ED (Retd),  31 May 2005

Conflict in command during the Kokoda campaign of 1942: Did General Blamey deserve the blame? A research paper by Lieutenant-Colonel Rowan Tracey

Book Review: Blamey, The Commander-In-Chief by David Horner, Allen and Unwin