THE FALL OF GENERAL GORDON BENNETT

By Brett Lodge

Robinson Reynolds 2023

ISBN: 978 1 914973 55 0

RRP: $35 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Brett Lodge’s The Fall of General Gordon Bennett (just released in a revised edition) is advertised as the “definitive biography”. In fact, Lodge has meticulously researched and brought to a comprehensive and accessible format not so much the life of his subject as the fascinating twists and turns of Gordon Bennett’s military career in the 1930s and 1940s. A career which ended in a military court of inquiry followed by a royal commission into his escape from the Japanese after the fall of Singapore leaving his troops to their fate as prisoners of the conquering army. Research that has been added in this new release supports Lodge’s findings in his earlier edition.

Lodge’s forensic examination of Bennett’s fall is no exoneration of the general but within the myriad of letters, reports, military relationships and commands, personal recollections, revised official history and more besides, a picture emerges of an army command in the Malaya campaign that, for all its heroic force, was fractured by human weakness. The fall of Singapore is cast as inevitable as the lines of retreat are drawn, and give way, amid some confusion between competing officers and levels of seniority.

The book is methodical in the examination of events surrounding Bennett’s fall. But it is Lodge’s analysis, at the outset, of Bennett’s personality that holds the key to what is to come. After distinguishing himself during World War I in campaigns at Gallipoli and the Western front – for his bravery and outstanding leadership – Bennett ended the war with medals and honours at the rank of brigadier-general in command of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade. He was the youngest general in Australia and had enjoyed what Lodge describes as a “meteoric rise to senior rank”.

But war had also led to developments which Lodge writes would be “of increasing importance as his career progressed”. These were judgements among his colleagues as the result of his competitive and ambitious personality, his poor relationship with Thomas Blamey, who would become Australia’s commander-in-chief, and his disdain for the regular officers of the Australian Staff Corps. Bennett had trained as a citizen soldier before World War I.

In peace time, Bennett returned to the world of business, moving from Melbourne to Sydney, where he occupied a number of important appointments. He, likewise, continued his citizen military commitments. With the outbreak of war again in 1939, Bennett had expectations of a senior post. But his character as seen by his superiors stood in the way.

As far back as his years in World War I, Bennett had provoked annoyance in other officers for his “propensity for acting without orders from divisional headquarters” causing Major-General Glasgow to retort on one occasion, “Bennett is a pest.” Moreover, throughout his career, Bennett would be aggrieved at being passed over for advancement in favour of officers he regarded as below him. From early days, he saw Blamey as a rival and even the one who stood in his way of promotion.

Bennett was also strongly opinionated and retained views highly critical of Australia’s regular officers and the Military Board. His Pocket Companion of Military Tactics, published in 1936, along with comments in the press, led Chief of the General Staff Major General J D Lavarack to write to the Secretary of Defence F G Shedden concluding: “I can assure you that there is no question of objection to senior militia officers as such, and I really fear that all the jealousy is confined to Bennett’s own breast. He has had his cake and he wants to eat it all over again.” Unsurprisingly, Bennett was considered by key command officers as being of unreliable personality for battle command.

It would be pure happenstance that the tragic air crash in August 1940 and the death of Chief of the General Staff, Sir Cyril Brudenell White, gave Bennett his chance. As positions were rearranged to accommodate the loss of the General, albeit not without some reservations, Bennett was appointed the lead the Australian 8th Division – in February 1941 Bennett arrived in Singapore to join the Malaya campaign.

The story of British unpreparedness in the Far East against the Japanese while consumed with defending Britain against Germany in 1941 is well known. Less well known has been the tactical unpreparedness of the British command in Malaya as the Japanese advanced. On this and the failure of the campaign, the biggest in British military history, Lodge has shone protracted light in a detailed examination of the leadership, the various battles lost down the Malay peninsular and onto the island of Singapore and the conflict of personalities within and between the commanding officers of the British groupings. Not least in this was the assertive pugnacity of Gordon Bennett.

More significant as events would unfold, however, was Gordon Bennett’s intention, which he made known to the Sultan of Johore some days before the British surrender, that he would not become a prisoner of the Japanese and would arrange his escape. Lodge does not condemn Bennett directly in relating the moments of this escape, told in the best adventure story style, but leaves it to the evidence of what happened to show this was a leader hell bent on saving himself to continue in the ranks of an engaged army even if it meant deserting his troops.

As in most military action, there was a deal of mistaken judgements on the part of commanders in the fall of Singapore. Lodge deftly sorts through retreat move after retreat move and the many maps included in the book are a boon for those researching military history. There were misjudgements aplenty as the British took up new positions falling back to Singapore island. In the midst of this, Bennett not only clashed with some officer colleagues under his command, in particular Brigadier Harold Taylor who was in charge of the 22nd Infantry Brigade, but also resisted occasional instructions from British commander Lieutenant-General Percival because they were outside the responsibilities given him by the Australian government as the AIF commander, orders which Percival would declare as never shown to him. The tale as told by Lodge is a murky one exposing a fragile unity in the defence of Singapore.

Lodge makes clear that, as the end approached, Bennett could be shown to shed many of his responsibilities as commander, even handing over to officers in whom he had little confidence because as Lodge puts it: “Perhaps it was his dislike of detail which led him to leave the withdrawal to others, or possibly his thoughts were turning more to escape.” In that, Lodge sees a leader who showed panic at failure in the frantic getaway. As the stolen sampan carrying its escapees was soon shown to be inadequate for a sea voyage, Englishman H R Oppenheim recalled: “There was complete chaos on the sampan … The General [Bennett] screams like a young girl and curses Gordon Walker who is standing up in the nude [he had swum out to get the sampan] for being so saying that it would be scandalous if the Japs saw him like that.”

Bennett’s personal war would begin after he successfully made it back to Australia. As one whom Lodge shows to have had a lack of self-awareness, even from his days in World War I, Bennett saw himself as inheriting the “mantle of Sir John Monash”.

In this mould, Bennett eventually handed in an elaborate report on what he had done in Malaya and made his critical views on the warfare tactics of the British command in Malaya clear.

At this point, Lodge sets out to tackle the intricate story in the aftermath of the war as the chroniclers sought to unravel the true record of what did happen in the Malaya campaign. It would lead to a military inquiry and royal commission as Bennett fought to re-establish his reputation. A fighting man who had used the press to criticise Australia’s armed forces now was at the mercy of a public scandal.

At times, many of the arguments seemed to hang on pedantics, such as arguments around what precise point surrender might have been confirmed or the British/Australian troops considered prisoners of war. As a prisoner of war, Bennett would have been entitled to attempt to escape. Conclusions from the inquiries determined that Bennett, while believing he was acting in the best interests of his country, had left his command before capture. Lodge writes:

It is not difficult to imagine that if Bennett had stayed in Singapore and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese his military reputation in 1945 would have been considerably higher than it was. By escaping he laid himself open to criticism from many quarters and handed his professional enemies the blade with which to strike him down.

Lodge has scripted a comprehensive account of the fall of General Gordon Bennett. In it, there are moments when Bennett stands tall as a fine Australian fighting man. Sadly, due to his conflict with colleagues and desertion of his troops in Singapore, his biggest campaign in the end was a personal one. One that he lost. Brett Lodge has indeed written a definitive account of that fall.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director hard of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History. Her most recent book, Menzies Versus Evatt – The Great Rivalry of Australian Politics (Connor Court), was published in 2023