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Robert Lowry, The last knight: a biography of General Sir Phillip Bennett AC KBE DSO.

Robert Lowry, The last knight: a biography of General Sir Phillip Bennett AC KBE DSO, Big Sky Publishing, Newport NSW, 2011, v + 409 pages; ISBN 978 0 98081 404 0.

In a swampy, jungle clearing on the evening of 12 May 1968, the Australian Infantry regiment 3 RAR had only partially completed moving into positions with 1 RAR at Fire Support Base Coral, near Than Uyen in the north of Bien Hoa province in Vietnam. The situation was in no way perfect as there had been delays in bringing the combined forces into position due to the proximity of the reinforced battalion of the 141st North Vietnamese Army. At 3.30am that night, a barrage of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades heralded an attack in strength on Fire Support Base Coral.

The Australian and New Zealand officers in command of the base had not arrived and Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Bennett of 3 RAR found himself in charge of the situation. By all reports he acted with cool, calm, aplomb 'standing on top of the headquarters controlling the air support', according to Captain Mick Bindley, the battalion signals officer. The battle ceased at dawn on 13 May and the Vietnamese forces withdrew with at least 52 dead, while the Australians lost 14 killed and 36 wounded.

This action heralded what Ian McNeill and Ashley Ekins described in On the offensive: the Australian Army in the Vietnam War 1967-1968 (2003) as the beginning of a period in which 'Australians fought their largest, most hazardous and most sustained battles of the war.'

It also heralded the future career of General Sir Phillip Bennett, of whom his biographer Robert Lowry states that 'there was nothing inevitable about his rise to the top'. Bennett graduated as a lieutenant in the then newly-created Australian Regular Army in 1948. He was for many years regarded as a 'capable' officer, though never thought of by his superiors as particularly brilliant. As a young officer, the drowning of three soldiers under his command during training could have seen the end of his military career. But his distinguished role during the Battle of Coral, as Lowry puts it, placed him 'among a small group of contenders for the most senior ranks of the Army'.

The most significant part of Bennett's career lay ahead - in a period when the Australian Army fought few engagements. At first glance, a biography of the career of a senior officer that spans the Cold War era to the 1980s might not appear as interesting as one from World Wars I or II. Bennett's story is largely not about great battles or heroic exploits, but about the contest for 'policy dominance' between the civil servants and the military leadership in Australia at the end of the 20th century. It is about the professionalisation and co-ordination of the Australian armed forces. He led the way in re-thinking Australian military strategic concepts at the time of the Dibb Review and the Defence White Paper of 1987.

Lowry presents in Bennett's personal history an important overview of this critical period of what might be called a rapprochement of civil and military power, policy and strategic thinking. And he handles it well - it is clear, skilfully written and decidedly interesting. It is also well researched, with important interviews with Bennett's contemporaries.

Bennett may not have been a brilliant commander, and missed the opportunity for higher command in Australia's more significant wartime engagements, but his inspiring calmness and efficiency was perhaps the perfect choice for a chief of staff in such a potentially divisive period of significant re-alignment of military and foreign political strategy.

Bennett's life story is also marked by other significant political events. After retiring from the armed forces in 1987 he accepted the post of Governor of Tasmania and presided over the aftermath of the 1989 elections that saw the Greens party burst onto the political stage. The last knight to command the Australian Defence Force, General Sir Phillip Bennett's personal story adds greatly to understanding the context of the transformation of the military and civil order of an older Australian society during the late 20th century.

Stephen Gapps


Australian National Maritime Museum
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Author:Gapps, Stephen
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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