Leslie Morshead

From Academic Kids

Sir Leslie James Morshead (September 18, 1889 - September 26, 1959) was an Australian soldier with a distinguished career in both world wars. He is considered to rival John Monash for the appellation of "Australia's greatest general". During World War II, Morshead was known to his soldiers, in part affectionately, as "Ming the Merciless", after the villain in Flash Gordon comics.

Morshead was born in Ballarat, Victoria and became a schoolteacher, first at The Armidale School and later Melbourne Grammar School. By July 1914 he was appointed temporary assistant housemaster of School House.

His teaching career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War 1914. He travelled to Sydney, from Melbourne, to join the 2nd Battalion First Australian Imperial Force(AIF). On 19th September he was commissioned as platoon commander. He served in Gallipoli, fighting in the Lone Pine offensive (after which he was hospitalized in England), and in France commanding the 33rd Battalion, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and having been mentioned in dispatches six times.

After leaving the AIF, at the end of the Great War, Morshead tried farming - accepting a soldier settlement block of 23000 acres near Quilpie, Queensland. This venture was a failure. After working odd jobs he joined the Orient Line in Sydney on 24 October 1924. In 1926 he was appointed passenger manager of the Sydney office. Many Orient Line appointments followed including: publicity manager - January 1927; acting manager of the Melbourne office - May 1928; passenger and publicity superintendent; temporary business manager Brisbane - April 1931; temporary manager of the Melbourne office, permanent, December 1933. Throughout the inter-war years he remained active in the Australian Citizens Military Forces, as the army's reserve force was then known.

When World War II broke out, Morshead was sent to North Africa as commander of the 18th Brigade in the Second AIF. In February 1941, the Australian 9th Division was formed, with Morshead as its commander.

The 9th Division was pitched into the thick of the action almost immediately, steadying the retreat of Commonwealth forces from the newly-arrived German Afrika Korps, under Erwin Rommel, and occupying the vital port of Tobruk in Libya. Morshead was given command of the Tobruk garrison which, as the retreat continued, became surrounded, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.

General Archibald Wavell instructed Morshead to hold the fortress for eight weeks, while the remaining forces reorganised and mounted a relief mission. With the 9th Division and supporting forces from various Allied nations, Morshead decisively defeated Rommel's powerful initial assaults, and retained possession of the fortress. His strategy for the defence of Tobruk is still mentioned in officer training colleges around the world as an example of how to arrange and conduct in-depth defences against a superior armoured force.

An important part of Morshead's strategy was offensive operations when these were possible. His attitude was summed-up in a reported remark, made when his attention was drawn to a British propaganda article entitled "Tobruk can take it!" Morshead commented: "we're not here to take it, we're here to give it.". The 9th Divsision held Tobruk not for eight weeks, but for eight months, during which time three separate relief campaigns, by the main Allied force in Egypt failed. The Axis troops learned to fear the aggressive patrolling of the Australian infantry who dominated no-man's-land and made constant raids on enemy forward positions for intelligence, to take prisoners, to disrupt attack preparations and minelaying operations, even to steal supplies that were not available in Tobruk.

Axis propagandists described him as "Ali Baba Morshead and his 20,000 thieves" and branded the defenders of the port as the "Rats of Tobruk", a sobriquet that they seized on and wore as a badge of pride.

At this point, political considerations came into play. The newly installed Curtin government in Australia wanted to relieve the 9th Division before the next election, and the overall Australian commander in the Middle East, General Thomas Blamey wanted to have all the Australian forces in that theatre serve in one corps. Over several months between August and October 1941, Morshead and most of the 9th Division was replaced by the British 70th Division and the Polish 1st Carpathian Brigade. The 9th moved to Syria to serve as an occupation force, as well as resting, re-equiping and training replacement troops.

The outbreak of war with Japan, in December 1941, and the imminent threat of invasion saw Blamey and the 6th and the main bodies of the 7th Division transferred to Ceylon and Australia respectively, in early 1942. In March that year, Morshead was given command of all Australian forces in the Mediterranean theatre. Morshead was one of only a few Allied divisional commanders with a distinct record of success at this stage of the war, but he was overlooked in favour of General Bernard Montgomery when the time came to name a leader of the Eighth Army. Various theories regarding this have been floated, including an alleged prejudice within the British Army against non-professional officers.

When the Second Battle of El Alamein began, responsibility for a prolonged and difficult phase of preliminary raiding and probing operations was given to the 9th Division.

After El Alamein, Morshead and the 9th Division were recalled to the South West Pacific Area — re-organising in Australia before joining the New Guinea campaign. Morshead was made commander of the Australian I Corps in 1944, and also commanded Allied forces in the Borneo campaign (1945).

After the war Morshead returned to civilian life, becoming the Orient Line's Australian general manager on 31 December 1947.


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