|Born||12 Apr 1887|
|Died||1 Aug 1962|
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:
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:
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.|
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