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Ming The Merciless was a nick name given to one of our most outstanding Australian military commanders of WW2.

His name was Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead. He was the Commanding Officer of the 9th Division of the 2nd AIF, Commander of the garrison of Tobruk during its period under siege from April to December, 1941, the chief Rat of Tobruk one might say, and still in command when the 9th got around the German defences to break the deadlock in the Battle of El Alamein in October, 1942.

He has been rightly described as “The Hero of Tobruk and Alamein”

His greatest achievements were against the German General Erwin Rommel, known as The Desert Fox but Morshead outfoxed him at every throw of the dice.

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Morshead’s battlefield career began in WW1 on the first day’s landing at Gallipoli. He was the only officer not to become a casualty at Lone Pine and after evacuation distinguished himself as commander of the 33rd Battalion at Messines, Ypres and Villers Bretonneau.

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He was described by Charles Bean, the official war historian of WW1 as follows:- “….the traditions of the British Army had been bottled from his childhood like tight-corked champagne; the nearest approach to a martinet among all the young (he was 28) Australian colonels but able to distinguish the valuable from the worthless in the old army practice; insistent upon punctiliousness throughout the battalion………and with his own experience of fighting as a junior captain of the 2nd Battalion upon Baby 700 in the ANZAC landing, he turned out a battalion which anyone acquainted with the whole force recognised…as one of the very best.”

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Gallipoli Landing

At war’s end he was involved with the administration of the AIF demobilisation department. He held hopes for a permanent military career which did not eventuate. Returning to civilian life he rejoined the teaching profession, spent an unsuccessful stint as a farmer in a soldier settlement block then joined the Orient Steamship Company as a clerk where he rose eventually to become Managing Director.

Chester Wilmot described him thus:- “His whole doctrine was aggression” when reporting on his successful tactics during the siege of Tobruk. His success was due to his uncompromising command of a force that was predominantly untrained and ill equipped”.

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 After the end of the North African campaign, the 9th Div. was sent to New Guinea where he was promoted to command New Guinea Force and II Australian Corps. Joining with the US Army the Japanese were driven from New Guinea then he commanded I Australian Corps in the amphibious landings on Borneo.

 

In July, 1943 there was serious upheaval in Australia’s higher command. There was strong political pressure to replace Blamey as Commander-In-Chief of the army. Prime Minister Curtin offered the role to Morshead. He refused. There are various reasons speculated as to why he refused but his wife stated that “he had no desire of dealing with incongruous politicians”. Morshead preferred to be near the action. He was much more comfortable leading his troops than “playing politics”.

In July, 1941 the intended tenure of the 9th Div. of 8 weeks in Tobruk had long passed.

General Auchinleck had replaced Wavell following the failure of Operation Battleaxe and Morshead assessed that the Australian troops were exhausted and demoralised to the point where they could not fend off another major assault by Rommel.

Morshead requested that they be relieved. Auchinleck refused. Then followed a mutual disrespect for each other’s leadership qualities. He put his concerns to Blamey, the Australian CIC. Blamey agreed and advised Auchinleck and Prime Minister Menzies that evacuation should be implemented immediately.

Auchinleck had never visited Tobruk. Instead, he relied on a report of a staff officer, Col. Charles Lloyd who confirmed Morshead’s description of the state of the troops. Auchinleck decided to go along with Blamey’s request except that the means of evacuation were simply not available. The RAF were unable to provide cover for a sea-borne evacuation and a compromise was reached that the withdrawal would be done in stages during the moonless periods in August and September.

Auchinleck did not agree or co-operate in carrying out this decision until a change of government in Australia saw Menzies being replaced as PM by Arthur Fadden. Fadden was very supportive of Blamey’s case for evacuation. Fadden intervened with Churchill who conceded, the evacuation was carried out as planned and on 22nd October Morshead handed over command to Major General Scobie of the British 70th Division.

Morshead had successfully defended Tobruk for 242 days with offensive tactics. Rommel had superiority in numbers of tanks and aircraft. Morshead had superiority in infantry. His aggressive patrolling had unnerved Rommel.

Maintaining the siege tied up a lot of Rommel’s armour which, in turn arrested the German advance into Egypt. He dispelled the myth of German invincibility.

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At El Alamein (23rd October to 4th November) Morshead led the 9th Div. For 12 days in a complete rout of Rommel’s best troops in the crucial northern coastal sector of the front. On the extreme right flank of the 8th Army, against the sea, the 9th penetrated around the German left flank and attacked it from behind.

General Montgomery stated that “. I do not know of any other Allied Division who could have done it.” In Montgomery’s autobiography, he was unstinting of his praise and admiration of the 9th Division. He said that “…when the 9th Div. marched into the line at El Alamein, he had never before in his life seen a more magnificent body of men.”

 

In November, he was awarded the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross for his leadership of the fortress of Tobruk. He then went on leave but on 8th December he received the report of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour. He cut short his leave and returned to Cairo and ordered increased training in anticipation of a return to Australia to fight the Japanese.

When the 9th Div. was moved to New Guinea they were fighting alongside the Americans. Morshead and the Americans formed an excellent coalition in the Huon Peninsular campaign which drove the Japanese completely out of New Guinea and they were unable to launch any further attacks on the island.

In March, 1943 Morshead relinquished command of the 9th Div. when he was promoted to command II Corps. The return from the Western Desert to the tropics of New Guinea demanded a re-education of the 9th Div. and its officers, including Morshead. Working with the Americans the Australians had to learn about jungle warfare, amphibious and airborne assault.

The voice over is not necessarily my cup of tea but the footage is amazing. 

 The period following the latter stages of the Kokoda Trail campaign was rife with intrigue, jealousy, insecurity and any other negative among the senior Australian staff. Blamey’s position as CIC was a constant topic of discussion at government level and Morshead was seen as a potential replacement. Morshead had received high praise from Macarthur and Marshall for his leadership in the coalition defeat of the Japanese. Blamey felt his position was under threat and in March 1944 decided that Morshead’s health was deteriorating and arranged for his reassignment to command the newly created 2nd Army; a training formation.

On 6th May he returned to Australia and took up his command in Parramatta.

Borneo was the last Australian operation in the SW Pacific. Morshead was involved in the planning but did not take part in the field. He directed the battles from afar onboard Macarthur’s command vessel.

Morshead’s final task was his appointment to preside over the court marshaling of Major General Gordon Bennett who had escaped from Singapore in 1942. Bennett was found guilty of deserting his troops but the finding was widely disputed, particularly by the surviving members of the 8th Division.

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On 31st December, Morshead was demobilised from the army and he returned to his former civilian role as manager of the NSW branch of the Orient Steam Navigation Company. He had been offered, but rejected, positions of Ambassador to Moscow, and Governor of Queensland. He was not interested in public life and remained as a senior executive of the Orient Line until he retired. He died on 26th November, 1959 of necrosis of the liver contracted at El Alamein.

Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead Ming the Merciless. An Australian hero. 

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