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'Uncle Stan' and the Staff Corps.

Sir Stanley Savige, KBE CB DSO MC ED had a long and distinguished record in both world wars, but clashed with his fellow officers almost as frequently as with the enemy. He is remembered as a long-standing contributor to the feud between the militia and Staff Corps officers during the Second World War, in favour of the militia. (1) David Horner has covered the broader debate, in his article 'Staff Corps verse militia: The Australian Experience in World War II', where he highlighted the debate was mainly confided to senior officers while they were in the Middle East. With the return of the Second AIF to Australia in 1942, the debate quickly shifted to the AIF-militia rivalry. (2) Yet why Savige was embittered towards the Staff Corps? The answer however lies in Savige's philosophy on the role of a commander and his own bitter experiences with some members of the Staff Corps.

Gavin Long, General Editor of the official histories of Australia in the Second World War, observed Savige was loyal to his seniors and junior officers, and looked on any officer who served under him as one of his family. He did not have 'a brilliant mind--his staff invariably beat him badly at Chequers, [but] he has a gift of leadership, knowledge of men, great tact, and much commonsense.' (3)

Savige was born on 26 June 1890 in Morwell, and grew up in Korumburra in Gippsland Victoria. At twelve, he left school and took up his first job as a blacksmith's striker. He subsequently held a variety of casual jobs, before working in a drapery. Savige was proud of his humble origins, and these experiences formed Savige's approach and outlook on life. 'You can never really know blokes unless you have worked along side them,' he once told war correspondent John Hetherington. 'I reckon the best education I ever had was swinging a pick as one of a gang of navvies when I was a young fellow.' (4)

Savige volunteered for the First AIF on 6 March 1915, and was posted to the 24th Infantry Battalion. He served in Gallipoli, where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, and was one of the last leave on the final night of the evacuation. (5) In 1916, as the AIF began operations on the Western Front, he was appointed Battalion Intelligence Officer. In May he was made Brigade Intelligence Officer. Throughout the Somme offensive Savige worked on the Brigade's staff. Savige rejoined his Battalion in 1917, becoming Adjutant during Second Bullecourt. In 1918, Savige served with distinction in Persia with Dunsterforce. (6)

The Great War gave Savige an opportunity for success and advancement that must have seemed unlikely five years earlier. Despite a rudimentary education and humble origins, he earned his commission, a DSO, MC and thrice mentioned in dispatches. He also formed a life long, friendship with his old commander Brigade-General John Gellibrand.

C E W Bean considered Gellibrand to have been best teacher of young officers in the AIF. (7) Savige moulded his own style of command from the lessons taught by Gellibrand, and years later Savige was proud to state he learnt his staff work from Gellibrand. It was Gellibrand who introduced Savige to the notion staff officers were servants of the troops.

'Well, my boy, [Gellibrand said to Savige,] I suppose you think that now you are a Staff officer you are a most important person ... [but] Never forget that the sole purpose of his appointment is that he becomes a servant of the troops. (8) Savige's biographer, W B Russell, believes Savige inherited a mistrust of the regular army system from Gellibrand. (9) But it was not until the interwar period, while Savige had his own militia command that his antagonism, towards the Staff Corps took shape.

The Staff Corps was established in 1920 to provide the organisational and administrative knowledge required by modern armies. During the interwar period these professional soldiers held the staff appointments in militia battalions and regiments, while milia officers held commands. Neglected by successive federal governments, it was a frustrating time for these men who were overworked, underpaid, and with stifled promotion. Warren Perry argues this formed a remarkably strong corporate spirit among the Staff Corps, who fought to maintain their interests. (10) It 'bound them up into a close corporation', observed one citizen soldier, 'so that if you touched one of them you hurt them all'. (11) H Some Staff Corps officers resented merely serving militia officers, and instead thought the militia should serve regular officers.

One such officer may have been Major Crombie, Savige's Brigade Major in the 10th Brigade. Savige paraded Crombie on several occasions for receiving and issuing orders through staff channels without informing him. Things came to a head in May 1935, when Savige discovered Crombie issued the Brigades' training policy to all units without consulting him. For Savige, this was a clear breach of military procedure, and defied his personal philosophy that it was the commander who led, with the staff officer assisting the commander and his troops. Savige could not stand this overt threat that took his command from out of his hands. Angrily he made his position clear to his GOC, 'I command the Brigade in fact and not in theory therefore my command is active and not relegated to the passive signing of documents as presented by my Brigade Major.' Generally, Savige did not think highly of the staff corps officers, and this incident only intensified his prejudices. Our men, Savige wrote to Gellibrand, 'are taken in hand from an early age & trained only to be soldiers. In peace they are chiefly military clerks with an ability to repeat the contents of the little red books. Some of course get well beyond that stage but are few in numbers'. (12) In the small peacetime army, Savige's reputation was well known, little wonder George Vasey later described Savige as being 'under suspicion as a shooter of the Staff Corps.' (13)

If Savige was suspicious of the Staff Corps before the war, his worse fears were realised during the Libyan campaign of 1941. At the outbreak of Second World War, Savige was quickly accepted as the commander of the 17th Infantry Brigade, 6th Division, enlisting on 13 October 1939. (14) Ivan Chapman has described the situation within the Division as being rife with 'jostling and manoeuvring for favour' among ambitious officers vying for postings. (15) More accurately, it was marked with factionalism and infighting.

When Major-General Iven Mackay became GOC 6th Division, his two principle staff officers were Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Berryman and Lieutenant-Colonel George Vasey. Both were career Staff Corps officers, and both were embittered by the mistaken belief that Government policy was that only militia officers would hold command appointments. This made them 'more firmly resolved than ever to defend [the] interests' of the Staff Corps. (16) Berryman denigrated militia officers as mere 'weekend soldiers', while Vasey describing them as 'amateur soldiers'. If you want a Doctor, Vasey told Long, you go to a professional Doctor not an amateur who studies medicine on the weekends. (17)

During the ensuing campaign, both Berryman and Vasey were to favour Brigadier Horace 'Red Robbie' Robertson and his 19th Brigade over Savige. A fellow Staff Corps officer, Robertson's flamboyant and flashy skills as a commander have been widely praised, but Savige was unimpressed with Robertson thinking he was 'not so capable but can put it over.' (18)

The hostility between Berryman, Vasey, Robertson, and Savige was brought out during the battle for Bardia. Savige was not invited to the first planning conference for the attack held on 28 December 1940, despite the important role the 17th Brigade was to play, being deliberately excluded by Berryman. (19) Savige was hurt and resented being slighted. The battle began on 3 January 1941, by the third day of the battle Savige's Brigade was advancing slower and meeting heavier resistance than expected, Berryman decided it bad become 'disorganised and tired'. Consequently he introduced Robertson's 19th Brigade into the battle, and told Savige to halt and assign one of his infantry battalions to Robertson. (20) Savige was incensed and. offered his resignation to Mackay who would not accept it. (21) This was the beginning of Savige's suspicion that the staff corps was out to get him, and there was good reason for his anxiety. Vasey wrote home on several occasions Savige should be removed. 'The one snag is Stan. He's hopeless. Quite unfitted for his job and I'm trying to do something about' and 'Had Iven any real go Stan would get a bowler hat'. (22)

The Brigade was disappointed with its performance and outcome, but Savige retained its confidence and support. (23) The rest of the Libyan Campaign frustrated and disappointed Savige. During the capture of Tobruk the 17th Brigade was used piece-meal with its components being dispersed over a wide area, and as a pool of reinforcements for other brigades. (24) Mackay had promised the 17th Brigade would lead the way to Derna, but when the time came the 19th Brigade was sent through. Vasey had chosen Robertson to lead the advance and not Savige. (25) This drove 'the iron of suspicion deeper' into Savige's soul. (26) When the 17th Brigade reached Giovanni Berta, it was again halted on the road in order to allow the 19th Brigade to lead the way to Barce. By now Savige had had enough. He called his Battalion commanders together and asked them whether they thought his presence was a hindrance. 'They protested and said that they were behind him. "Every man in the Bde [Brigade] knows what the racket is ... and they are behind you".' (27) Savige was a modest man but he was proud and super-sensitive. (28) He keenly felt he was being victimised by the Staff Corps, who were only interested in looking after the interests of its members. He was sure 'the Divisional staff did all it could to advance the prestige of Robertson'. (29)

Unhappy, suspicious and increasingly bitter, Savige retained command of his Brigade for another two campaigns; fast in Greece during April, and the battle for Damour during the Syrian campaign in July. In December Savige was recalled to Australia, and during 1942 commanded the 3rd Division shaping it into an effective frontline force that he led during the Salamaua campaign in 1943. During the Salamaua campaign an incident occurred that revealed Savige's philosophy about himself and his strengths and weakness as a commander. The commander of the US task force operating in the area approached Savige appealing for help in dealing with their supply problems. The US officer recalled 'Savige would not tall about supply. He waved his hand airily and said, "I don't worry about supply problems--I leave that to others. I fight battles."'(30)

In Savige's mind, the commander would train his men, look after their comfort and moral, and lead them in battle. 'The sight of the well-loved general toiling along the rugged tracks', David Dexter wrote, 'with his pack up and observing the battle area from the forward observation posts gave a great boost to the spirits of the men. As he moved through the units tin pannikins of tea were offered in such numbers that he could drink no more.' (31) A slow and gruelling campaign, it was the type of war best suited to Savige where the General's contribution was in personal inspiration and concern for his troops' welfare. It was his concern for the troops that earned him the nickname 'Uncle Stan'. Savige worked closely with his subordinates, regularly conferring with his staff and local commanders. This could only be done, Savige said, 'because of the wonderful team spirit which the difficulties of the day produced ... we were all "Mates" in a team, and the plan to obtain victory was the outcome of discussions on levels from Company Commander to Divisional Command'. (32)

These were his strengths. Savige's weakness was his limited interpretation of generalship and his difficulties in grasping the techniques of modern warfare. The 'others', to whom he would leave supply problems and the like, were his skilled and talented staff officers, such as his chief of staff Lieutenant-Colonel John Wilton. It was no accident Savige had a good staff. General Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief Australian Military Forces and a close personal friend, was 'well aware of Savige's military failings ... and always kept an outstanding staff officer close to him,' (33)

With the return of the Second AIF the regular verse citizen soldier debate changed its emphasis to AIF verse militia. With the expansion of the AMF, personalities and egos were more readily accommodated, consequently when Savige took his Division into battle during the Salamaua Campaign, and then the II Australian Corps on Bougainville, he worked with Staff Corps officers who suited his temperament. Savige thought no 'adjectives [were] too good' to described Wilton. (34) Savige thought his principle staff officers during the Bougainville Campaign, Brigadiers Ragnar Garrett and 'Roly' Pulver were 'outstandingly good'. Savige also worked closely with Major-General William Bridgeford, commander of the 3rd Division. (35) Savige's close relationship with these regular officers suggest his hostility towards the Staff Corps was not directed against all, but was based on personal experience and personality clashes. After all, Savige had had a spectacular clash with Lieutenant-General Ned Herring GOC New Guinea Force during the Salamaua campaign and he was a militia officer.

Savige survived the war, and was honoured with a KBE, a CB and again mentioned in despatches. Savige's final public shot in the militia--Staff Corps rivalry was a statement made to Melbourne's Herald in May 1946. Savige thought the Duntroon system had failed during the war, evident from the high percentage of Duntroon graduates who not only failed as Commanders but also inefficient Staff Officers.
 By their general attitude and actions a large number indicated their
 complete misconception and understanding of the frame work, role or
 spirit of Australia's National Army. They lived in a world apart and
 their attitude and actions indicated clearly an enforced toleration
 of their citizen colleagues. This was carried forward to and
 throughout the war. (36)


It is clear Savige's role in the Staff Corps--Militia debate was fuelled by his own bitter experiences with some Staff Corps officers. Savige knew war: he had seen it, fought it, and had successfully commanded men. He did not need some clerk to tell him how to fight, or worse, how to lead men. Savige felt the Staff Corps, were only concerned with furthering the interests of its members. This was a suspicion that first appeared in the late 1930s and confirmed during the Libyan campaign. Savige truly believed he had been victimised by the machinations of the Staff Corps. Curiously enough, Savige's good relationships with many regular officers while campaigning in the Pacific suggest personalities were also important. A Staff Corps officer might be all right, so long as they knew Savige was in command.

(1) Billett, 'Savige, Lieutenant-General Stanley George', in Beaumont, Joan, (ed), Australian Defence: sources and statistics, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001, p 159.

(2) Horner, D M, 'Staff Corps verse militia: The Australian experience in World War II, Defence Force Journal, no 26, Jan/Feb 1981, p 17.

(3) Australian War Memorial [AWM], AWM67, item2/27, notebook 27, pp 41-43.

(4) The Argus, 17 May 1954.

(5) National Archives of Australia [NAA], B888, item VX13, Stanley George Savige defence service record, and Savige, S G, 'Lone Pine Sector: 24th Battalion's Good-bye', Reveille, vol 6, no 4, 1932.

(6) For Savige and Dunsterforce see: Savige, S G, Stalky's Forlorn Hope, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1920; Savige, S G and F Lord, 'The Australians of the Dunsterforce', in Burke, Keast, (ed), With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia." The Story of Anzacs in Asia, Mart Committee, Sydney, 1927, pp 104-108; 'Epic of Dunsterforce', Reveille, December 31, 1931, and Lloyd, Ross, "Savige saviour: Dunsterforce in Persia', Wartime, issue 12, Summer 2000, pp 22-27.

(7) AWM, 3DRL/6405, item 4, letter Bean to Gellibrand, 30 July 1943.

(8) AWM, AWM254, item 170, GS Minute No 1--Address given to HQ New Guinea Force Junior Staff Officers Course by Lt Gen S G Savige, CB, CBE, DSO, MC, 20 Sep 1944, p 4.

(9) Russell, W B, There Goes a Man: The Biography of Sir Stanley G Savige, Longmans, Melbourne, 1959, p 189.

(10) Perry, Warren, 'The Australian Staff Corps--its origin, duties and influence from October 1920 to the outbreak of the War of 1939-45', Sabretache, vol 36, no 4, October/December, 1995, pp 30-41.

(11) Long, Gavin, The Final Campaigns, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1963, p 46.

(12) AWM, 3DRL/1473, item 75, Notes of conference with GOC 3Div, 9 May 1938, and letter Savige to Gellibrand, 26 May 1938.

(13) Letter Vasey to Jess Vasey, 17 November 1940, in Horner, David, General Vasey's War, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1992, p 74.

(14) NAA, B888, item VX13, Stanley George Savige defence service record. Given Savige's well-known position on the Staff Corps, it is interesting to note that only three of its officers went away with his Brigade. By the time the Brigade went into Libya only one was left, the others having been transferred, and the last staff corps officer went to the 16th Brigade after Bardia. AWM67, item 1/5, diary 5, 20 July 1944, pp 56-57.

(15) Chapman, Ivan D, Iven Mackay: Citizen and Soldier, Melway Publishing, Melbourne, 1975, p 152.

(16) Travers, B H, 'The Staff Corps--CMF conflict as seen by a young AIF officer 1940-41', Australian War Memorial History Conference, 1987, and Long, To Benghazi, p 46.

(17) Sayers, Stuart, 'Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Edmund Herring: Joint and Allied Commander', in Horner, David, (ed), The Commanders: Australian military leadership in the twentieth century, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, pp 247-248, and AWM67, item 2/44, notebook44, pp 35-36.

(18) Travers, B H, 'The Staff Corps--CMF conflict as seen by a young AIF officer 1940-41', Australian War Memorial History Conference, 1987, and AWM67, item 2/74, notebook 74, p 14.

(19) Russell, op cit, p 198.

(20) Long, op cit, p 190 and p 196.

(21) AWM67, item 1/5, diary 5, 20 July 1944, p 56.

(22) Letters, 1 March and 6 January 1941, Vasey Papers, in Grey, Australian Brass, p 223.

(23) See AWM, 3DRL/6850, item 100, letter Brock to Mackay, 11 January 1941; letter Godfrey to Brock, 8 January 1941, letter Walker to Brock, 8 January 1941, and letter Cremor to CRC 6 Div, 8 January 1941.

(24) Long, op cit, p 218 and p 235.

(25) Chapman, op cit, p 204.

(26) Russell, op cit, p 211.

(27) AWM67, item 1/5, diary 5, 20 July 1944, p 56.

(28) Harding, Eric, Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Savige KBE, CB, DSO, MC, ED and Legacy, (the author), Melbourne, 1971, p 1.

(29) AWM67, item 1/5, diary 5, 20 July 1944, p 58.

(30) AWM67, item 1/5, diary 5, 7 July 1944, pp 49-50.

(31) Dexter, David, The New Guinea Offensives, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1961, p 188, and Russell, op cit, p 271.

(32) AWM, 3DRL/2529, item 126, Australia in the War of 1939-45. Notes by Lt-Gen Sir Stanley Savige, on Vol V, Wau-Salamaua Campaign April-August 1943, chapter VII, p 2.

(33) Hetherington, John, Blamey Controversial Soldier." A biography of Field Marshal Sir Thomas Blamey, GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, ED, The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1973, p 315.

(34) AWM, AWM172, item 13, interview Savige with Dexter, 10 April 1951, p 2.

(35) AWM, 3DRL/2529, item 128, Australia in the war of 1939-45. Notes by Lt-Gen Sir Stanley Savige on vol VII, chapter 4, The Bougainville campaign takes shape, pp 6-7.

(36) 3DRL/0357, Statement made to Melbourne 'Herald' by Savige on the subject of Duntroon and the Military Board, S G Savige papers.

Karl James is a PhD researcher at the University of Wollongong, he is writing his thesis on The Final Campaigns: Bougainville 1944-1945. The author welcomes any constructive feedback and can be contacted c/o School of History and Politics, Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong, 2522 NSW.
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