|Born||15 Dec 1894|
|Died||12 Apr 1975|
Contributor: Morgan Bell
ww2dbaseSydney Rowell was the ying to Thomas Blamey's yang, although the pair lacked the harmony suggested by the ying-yang symbol when they were called upon to work in close contact. Whereas Blamey chose a profession in the military after numerous attempts to find a civilian occupation failed to provide him with adequate opportunity for advancement, Rowell was a permanent officer; Blamey's career was moulded by opportunity afforded by the prevailing political and international situation at the time, Rowell's was defined by study and skill in his chosen art-form. The stage was set for a showdown between the two, but both would be involved in the war in the Middle East with only petty arguments between the two, resulting in bruised egos. The final battle between the two would occur in the jungles of New Guinea when the specific conditions of the Pacific War were in effect: the threat of Japanese invasion loomed over Australia; Blamey was commander-in-chief of the Australian Army; and an American general held sway over military decisions made in Australia. Rowell was dismissed from his command, but Blamey did not walk away unscathed, his actions that day have been a source of controversy ever since.
ww2dbaseSydney Fairbairn Rowell was born in Lockleys in South Australia in 1894. He was one of the first students to graduate from the Royal Military College in Duntroon during 1911. He was commissioned on 14 August 1914, joining the 3rd Light Horse Regiment. He joined the regiment in Egypt in early 1915, shortly after arriving, he broke his leg. He arrived at Gallipoli on 12 May 1915, being hospitalised in Malta. Upon his return to the peninsula he contracted typhoid and was evacuated in November, then returned to Australia. As appealing as going home may sound after experiencing Gallipoli, this slowed Rowell's early career. There is a statute in force in the Australian Army that no permanent officer may serve overseas once he has returned to Australia, so Rowell taught at Duntroon until June 1917. At the conclusion of this time teaching he was offered a staff post in Adelaide, and in August 1919 married Blanche Murison. He studied at the Staff College in Camberley between 1924 and 1926, being promoted to major as soon as he completed the course requirements. He then returned to Australia to take up a staff posting in Perth. He transferred to Melbourne in 1932, then returned to England on exchange in 1935, serving as Operations Staff Officer in the Territorial Army. He began studying at the Imperial Defence College in 1937.
ww2dbaseAll this experience earned Rowell a reputation within the Australian Army as one of its most capable, hard working, and professional staff officers, universally known within the Army as "Syd". When Blamey was assigned command of the 6th Division, it was not surprising that he nominated Rowell his chief of staff. Unfortunately, the differences of personalities and ethics of the two men drove a wedge between them. The tension between them became exacerbated during the fighting withdrawal of Lustre Force, the Australian and New Zealand troops opposing the German invasion of Greece. The combination of the massed German armour and air superiority threatened a breakthrough at Pinios Gorge in the period between 15-18 April 1941, endangering a segment of the force and slowing the Allied retreat along the main road. Rowell suggested he go to speak with the New Zealand commander to assess, and if possible, remedy the situation. In the presence of other officers, Blamey repeatedly refused. He later was convinced by other officers to follow Rowell's advice, somewhat reluctantly. David Horner, the legendary Australian military historian, accounted for the reason Rowell could not dismiss this as water under the bridge, when he wrote that Rowell was
ww2dbaseBlamey's behaviour was far from this standard. After this point the two men felt a mutual dislike for the other, Rowell considered Blamey to be "incompetent", and Blamey thought that Rowell lacked the stamina for an extended campaign. Despite this early evidence of cracks in their relationship, Blamey recognised Rowell's ability. When the 7th Division was formed, creating a corps command with the existing 6th Division, Blamey promoted Rowell to Brigadier General Staff, the role in which Rowell performed a significant portion of the planning for the campaign in Syria. He returned to Australia in August 1941 to become the Deputy Chief of Staff. He assumed command of I Corps in March 1942, and was sent to Papua in July 1942, assuming the command of New Guinea Force. Assuming responsibility for defending Port Moresby and capturing Kokoda, his command became a political and military issue when the Japanese drove the Australians out of Isurava on 1 September. The Australians were at the end of a stretched supply line, so the diggers began a retreat that would last until they could establish a defensive line at Imita Ridge, the last obstacle before Port Moresby, on 16 September. The commander of air forces in the SWPA, George Kenney, visited Port Moresby and reported to MacArthur that the Australians were about to lose Port Moresby, and that Rowell had lost his nerve. The American general saw the potential of Port Moresby as a base from which the Japanese could launch an invasion of Australia, if the town was lost. MacArthur feared what would happen to his reputation if Japan launched a successful invasion of Australia, which might be possible if the Japanese took Port Moresby. Blamey reported to the Advisory War Council that Port Moresby would not fall, he trusted Rowell's military judgement. This, however, was different from judging how little Blamey trusted Rowell's personal motives. The two dissimilar men were about to be thrown together, with explosive consequences. MacArthur, eager to protect his reputation, suggested to Curtin that Blamey be sent to Port Moresby to "energise the situation". Many members of the Cabinet agreed, reasoning that "if Port Moresby fell, Blamey would fall with it". Even though Blamey trusted Rowell from a military perspective, but with openly hostile ALP parliamentarians and an egotistical foreign general determining he should visit Papua, Blamey saw no way to avoid the inevitable, even if it meant a clash with Rowell. Upon arrival in Port Moresby, Blamey removed Rowell from command of New Guinea Force in September 1942, replacing him with Major-General Edmund Herring. Blamey later wrote of the confrontation between the two in his diary:
ww2dbaseAfter returning to Australia, conflict with Blamey ensued, and Blamey threatened to demote Rowell to the rank of colonel. The Prime Minister forced Blamey to yield in this feud, so he sent Rowell to Cairo, with the rank of major-general. There he filed reports on the progress of war in the Mediterranean, and processing prisoners-of-war liberated from Italian camps. Rowell finished the war working in the War Office in London, involved in high-level planning of the fighting that would follow D-Day. For service in the War Office, Rowell received the Companion of the Order of the Bath. When Prime Minister Curtin visited London in May 1944, Rowell was on his "best behaviour". In November 1945, Blamey's place as Commander-in-Chief of the Australian army was terminated, Prime Minister Chifley replacing him with Vernon Sturdee, creating a much friendlier atmosphere for Rowell's advancement. Now that the war was over, he returned to Australia to assume the position of Vice Chief of Staff, playing a role in breaking the coal miners' strike in 1949. He became Chief of the General Staff in 1950, becoming the first Duntroon graduate to hold the post. The need to maintain a force in the Korean War, at a time when the Australian Army was short on almost everything, required Rowell to travel to attend major conferences. Ironically, he was one of the pallbearers at Blamey's funeral in 1951. In 1953 he was awarded a KBE. He retired to Melbourne in 1954, thereafter holding several company directorships. He died on 12 April 1975, twelve days before his ill wife. They were cremated, and succeeded by their daughter. Long after the war, and the deaths of both Rowell and Blamey, their clash of personalities has continued to provoke controversy among historians.
ww2dbaseSources: The Australian War Memorial, P. Brune, A Bastard of a Place: Australians in Papua, Australian Dictionary of Biography, P. Thompson, Pacific Fury, Wikipedia.
Last Major Revision: Jun 2009
Sydney Rowell Timeline
|15 Dec 1894||Sydney Rowell was born.|
|12 Apr 1975||Sydney Rowell passed away.|
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945