Heroes & Villains: Colin Smith on Major-General Gordon Bennett ; the Writer and Historian (below) on a Villain of the War with Japan

Article excerpt

IN FEBRUARY 1942, when Singapore fell to the Japanese, Major- General Gordon Bennett, the commander of some 16,000 Australian volunteers and a much decorated 1914-18 veteran, was the only senior commander who chose to escape rather than go into captivity with his men. A few hours after the surrender, he left for Sumatra in a junk, transferred to a motor-launch and, shedding travelling companions like a multi-stage rocket, got back to Australia in 12 days.

He expected plaudits but General Vernon Sturdee, Australia's Chief of the General Staff, was unimpressed. 'My reception was cold and hostile,' Bennett wrote in Why Singapore Fell, a rare moment of honesty in a markedly mendacious memoir. 'Sturdee told me my escape was ill advised.' A hero turned villain as far as many of his countrymen were concerned, Bennett was mailed white feathers and even a pair of old running shoes. He was never given another field command and before the war ended he had resigned from the army.

Short and wiry, with red hair and the temper to match, at Gallipoli the wounded Bennett had deserted a hospital ship to return to the beachhead. By 1918 he was a temporary brigadier general with a DSO, eight Mentioned in Despatches and, at 29, the youngest general in the Australian Army. Between the wars Bennett became a clothing manufacturer but he remained an enthusiastic member of the militia he had first joined in 1908 while working as an insurance clerk. By the 1930s he was a major-general. Bennett thought soldiers were born, not made. He despised the professional officers, often products of British staff colleges, who ran the Australian Army, and he said so in print. He began to acquire a reputation as an irascible old soldier. 'He was moved by hunches, believed in the stars,' recalled Col James Thyer who, a professional himself, would become his divisional chief-of-staff. 'He was tremendously ambitious and had his head in the clouds " the last place a good commander's head should be.'

When war broke out with Nazi Germany, men junior to him were given command of Australia's overseas divisions. Only a reshuffle necessitated by the death of another senior officer put Bennett in command of the 8th Division. It began to arrive in Malaya 10 months before Pearl Harbor, while the colony was still at peace. …