Gordon Bennett file photo

Gordon Bennett

Born12 Apr 1887
Died1 Aug 1962
CountryAustralia
CategoryGround

Contributor: Morgan Bell

Amidst the myriad of controversial senior officers in the Australian military during the Second World War, Gordon Bennett is by far the most controversial. It must be acknowledged that there a different reasons for controversy, four being evident to the casual observer of human nature: some may be associated with ill-fated ventures, have performed ignoble deeds, be in possession of ignoble character, or be in conflict with controversial superiors. Bennett was in possession of all four, all of which will become evident upon a glance at a summary of his life.

Henry Gordon Bennett was born in Balwyn, a suburb of Melbourne, near the close of the nineteenth century. He tried a career as an actuarial clerk, attending Hawthorn College after Balwyn State School. He might not have achieved such infamy had he remained an actuarial clerk, but in 1908 he was commissioned into the militia, and posted to the 5th Infantry Regiment, promoted to major in 1912. When a bullet fired from Gavrilo Princip's gun barrel tore into Archduke Franz Ferdinand's flesh in Sarajevo, sparking the First World War, Bennett was transferred to the 1st AIF. He was dispatched from Australia in 1914 as second in command of the 6th Battalion. Landing at Gallipoli early on the morning of 25 April 1915, Bennett was wounded that afternoon. He was evacuated on a hospital ship, but decided those circumstances were not in keeping with a reputation of courage and leadership that he had developed. He returned to the front line as commander of the 2nd Brigade, which he led in the assault on Turkish positions at Krithia on 8 May. The next day he was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel and given command of the 6th Battalion, which he led in fighting on the Western Front. There he continued his reputation for bravery and leadership, but got a reputation of a different kind: he was known by fellow officers as a prickly, jealous, and querulous man, traits that would become evident during later years. At war's end, Bennett switched from military to civilian pursuits: in 1916 he married Bessie Buchanan. During the interwar years Bennett found employment in Sydney as an accountant and clothing manufacturer. He sat on the NSW State Repatriation Board, becoming one of the three commissioners for the city of Sydney. In 1931-33 he presided over the NSW Chamber of Manufacturers. All this time he remained in the military, in 1926 he took command of the 2nd Division.

Despite an unblemished record of courage and strong leadership in the First World War, Bennett was an old-fashioned soldier, and a new war was on the horizon. When Blamey was appointed commander of the 6th Division, Bennett nursed a grudge against him that lasted the entire length of the war. Anger at someone else getting this appointment rather than him may sound like a small matter for which anger is unjustifiable, but Blamey's appointment to the 6th Division is more significant than it sounds: at the time the 2nd AIF was expected to grow to five divisions like it had in the First World War, and Blamey had been third in line for the position with Bennett and Lavarack higher in rank than Blamey at the time, yet both were passed over in favour of Blamey for reasons of war cabinet politics and preferences. Still, it was Bennett's jealous character that turned the misguided rage towards Blamey, he was just the war cabinet's choice for the position, and John Lavarack did not harbour similar ill feeling towards Blamey. Bennett's pettiness and anger would have made him a poor choice anyway, he could have reserved his energy, even though he did not initially get appointed to the command of the 7th, 8th or 9th Divisions, strange things happen in wartime. The Chief of the General Staff, Brudenell White died in a plane crash in Canberra on 13 August 1940, and the commander of the 8th Division, Vernon Sturdee, was promoted into White's position. Sturdee nominated Bennett as the new commander of the 8th Division. In 1941 the 8th Division was assigned with aiding the defence of Malaya and Singapore. This was a difficult task, the British had not made adequate preparations for the defence of the centerpiece of imperial defence strategy. Bennett, at 54 years of age, was not up to this task physically, after an extensive medical examination Alf Derham, the 8th Division's senior medical officer observed:

he is not robust even for his age, gets overtired easily, and seems to feel the effects of the strain unduly. It is my opinion as a medical officer that he is too old for active service in the field and that he would not stand the strain of operations for more than a few weeks at most.

It was not merely Bennett's physical condition that was too fragile for active command in the field, according to his chief of staff, Colonel Jim Thyer:

Between the wars he was a civilian and did not study military tactics, but rested on his World War I laurels. He was moved by hunches and believed in the stars. He was tremendously ambitious and had his head in the clouds, which is the last place a good battle commander's head should be.

This was the commander assigned with halting Yamashita's advance down the Malay Peninsula at Johore. An ambush, executed with devastating effect, at Gemas was a welcome success in Allied operations on the Malay Peninsula. The Australian 2/30th Battalion set up observation posts overlooking the bridge over the Gemencheh River, once a thousand Japanese cyclists had crossed the bridge, it was blown up. The cornered Japanese soldiers, separated from the bulk of their army, were then the target of grenades and concentrated machine gun fire. Once Singapore Island fell, Bennett was at the centre of the plethora of excuses for the controversial fall, he accused the British commanders of a "retreat complex" and the 8th Division and its physically and mentally unfit commander were accused in turn by the British commanders of looting, rape, fighting their way onto evacuation ships, and other breaches of discipline. The Australians were not the only ones to crack under the pressure of the victorious Japanese advance. Bennett escaped on a civilian evacuation ship, claiming that Australia needed his expertise in fighting the Japanese. In June 1942 the British took the final step in the search for scapegoats for the fall of Singapore, Wavell publicly held Bennett responsible for the debacle.

After the Second World War Bennett took up farming west of Sydney, passing away in Dural during 1962.

Sources: J. Beaumont, Australia's War: 1939-45, P. Thompson, Pacific Fury, The Australian War Memorial.

Gordon Bennett Timeline

12 Apr 1887 Gordon Bennett was born.
1 Aug 1962 Gordon Bennett passed away.

Photographs

Gordon Bennett, pre-1939General Gordon Bennett of Australian 8th Division outlining current situations in Singapore to journalists, circa Jan 1942




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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Anonymous says:
    12 Sep 2009 06:12:47 PM

    I think you will find that Gordon Bennett did not escape from Singapore on a "civilian evacuation ship" but comandeered a local fishing vessel, with about 20 other escapees, and eventually made his way to Australia via Sumatra and Batavia in several small vessels and aircraft.
  2. Adam says:
    21 May 2011 06:03:05 AM

    I think the term 'escape' is misleading, Bennett 'fled' Singapore by taking a sampan at gunpoint.
    He did this without telling his commanding officer and left his own men to fend for themselves (although many supported his this action after the war)
    Bennett only achieved command of the AIF because 2 key Australian ministers were killed in an aircrash shortly before the war.
    Bennetts contribution to the war was far more negative than positive,
    Britian had enough of its own'scapegoats'for the fall of Singapore, Bennett was just a bit part player in the failure.
  3. Anonymous says:
    30 Aug 2011 05:23:59 PM

    lol
  4. Bob Piper (MARS) Canberra. says:
    10 Jun 2012 11:01:35 PM

    As well as Bennett there was Major Moses (later head of ABC Australia). If you read other accounts of their escape and those who met them as they fled you would realise what a bunch of deserters they were.

    In Singapore Bennett wouldn't let Australian artillery shoot a an important Japanese observation post becuae it was part of the local Rajah's house - with whom he was friends.

    In Java Moses, who was carrying a large amount of Army money, critisized and was reluctant to give any pay to other escaping Australian soldiers who were destitute.

    They all should have been court marshalled. Thye led us poorly and were highly incompetent.
  5. Peter Alkemade says:
    20 Apr 2013 12:12:41 AM

    General Bennett is highly controversial, clearly a brave individual who was respected by his soldiers, he was also highly critical of British Officers and Australian regular army officers. His performance in Malaya was somewhat better than might be assumed from other comments on the site where he showed much more enterprise and innovation than most of his British peers.
    On balance I think he genuinely believed he understood how the Japanese fought and how traditional tactics needed to be changed to defeat them. His decision to handover command after surrender and to escape was based on this belief and was itself a difficult undertaking albeit one that he had considered and planned for in advance. Although technically the Japanese success at Singapore can be attributed to the failure of the Australian defence on the Western sector the deployment was largely determined by the overall plan for the defence of the island which assumed the main effort would come from the east. Bennett's plan was for an extended battle on the island and he ensured that Australian forces were prepared for such a battle. The decision to surrender was taken by the British commander who considered that the situation was hopeless and resistance was futile. When face with a demand for immediate and unconditional surrender he capitulated even though the Japanese were virtually out of supplies having almost consumed all of the supplies captured from the British in Malaya.
  6. Michael Bennett says:
    27 Apr 2013 04:17:50 AM


    One thing that isnt noted in anything ive seen, and I knowe because I have his personal letters in the other room, was that h, unlikeevery other AIF officer, realised that the Japanese soldier was to be respected, and that the so called fortress of Singapore was vulnerable to being attack as it was from the North.

    He was begging for reincforcments from the Malay Peninsula side and essentially didnt get them due to his clashes with Blamey, note also that Blamey and Bennett didnt just start hating eachother from the time Bennett was passed over for the top job being the most senior citizen soldier, but ran back to childhood when as teenagers they knew eachother and the rivalry developed.

    The other thing, and excuse my ignorance im nto a historian is that in those days the caucasion man was seen as a far superior soldier to the little yellows, but Bennett had a healthy respect for thier toughness and believed they were capable of riding bikes down to SG. The other thing thats not often noted is that the jap solders were, by the time they arrived at the Straits not just a spant force but almost no force at all being near dead and having been on a long amhphetamine fueled march.

    At the end of they day the true measure of a General is the esteem they were held in by their men, on this front Bennnett scored astoundingly.

    If anyone is interested ive got the last of his personal papers which im about to finally have arcdhived properly at the War Museum, and ill happilyscan them for anyone interested.

    Im the last of the Bennetts so after me its all gone into the blackness of history.
  7. Steve Rush says:
    18 Aug 2013 01:51:04 PM

    We can not go on as a nation unless we accept our past, there are no awards for the British or the Australians for the Fall of Singapore, we live in an age of radio communication that did not exist in those days and can not really understand the difficulties of fighting in that situation, holding large military groups together in jungle conditions is beyond our Ken, we have to accept it and move on.

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