The World at War


Lieutenant-General Sir Horace C. H. Robertson

Australian Soldier
Born: October 1894 at Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia
Died: April 1960

     Horace Clement Hugh Robertson was born at Warrnambool, Victoria Australia on the 29 October 1894 and in due time sent by his parents to Geelong College. From there he was successful in the examination for entry into the Royal Military College, starting attendance in March 1912. He was nicknamed 'Red Robbie', in regards to his red hair, and was one of the 41 cadets in the second class since the Australian military school opened in 1911. His training and studies were of a staff cadet, above average, with a low placing on entry yet graduated eighth in a class of thirty others.

     The war with Germany broke out in August 1914 and with recruiting beginning in Australia for the First Imperial Force the two senior classes at Duntroon were specially graduated for active service. Robertson was commissioned in the Permanent Military Forces and then posted to the 10th Light Horse Regiment in Western Australia, part of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. The horse brigade arrived in Egypt by Christmas 1914, a strange, mystical and biblical land to the lean tall colonial Australians & New Zealanders, and formations commenced mounted rifle warfare training from Mena camp near the ancient Pyramids on the desert outskirts of Cairo.
     With the continual heavy loses at Gallipoli on the 3 May 3LH Bde, without their Australian bred horses, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to a grim encounter with trench warfare. In early August 1915 they were ordered to frontally assault on a narrow ledge named the Nek confined by declivities on either side, with the inevitable result. Robertson came through unscathed and with such appalling losses to the light horse formations he was promoted to captain dated on that fatal day.

     At twenty years of age he commanded one of the two squadrons that were organised after the reduction in casualties to the 10LH Rgt. His reputation for courage of high calibre and as a leader with stamina had become apparent commanding his unit until ordered to evacuate from Gallipoli. Here Robertson experienced, and survived, the hard fought lessons of the different and unpleasant conditions of trench warfare and as a result his confidence, and of the hardships men in battle can endure and achieve was enhanced. In particular the close fighting ingrained the relationship between fire and movement and the necessity of valuable careful reconnaissance no matter what the situation or proximity of the enemy.
     Returning to Egypt the horsemen were quite enthusiastic to regain their mounts although there were many empty saddles to fill and time to devour in training for mounted operations across the Sinai desert. At the Battle of Magdhaba Major Robertson, acting in command of the 10LH Rgt, was directed to block the Turkish escape route. Moving under fire he ordered a charge capturing enemy troops and overrunning redoubts and paralysing the pinned enemy bringing a last minute victory.

     Across the Sinai Robertson gained the lessons in the use of ground, the value of mobility and the influence of morale coupled to other soldierly qualities. Robertson left the regiment for further advanced staff training bringing about his appointment as General Staff Officer Grade 3 (GSO3) at Headquarters, Yeomanry Mounted Division but a broken leg resulting through training set back his career. After two months in hospital then participating in the long, rapid advance along the Palestinian Plain where his leg injury troubled him, although never admitted this adverse uncomfort.
     Battle after battle he participated in, commanded outflanking manoeuvres and when the enemy stood their ground, which was often, the skilful use of terrain or the ability to-remount the horse infantry and make a rapid shift that could give the attacker an advantage. Fortunately he was transferred to a less psychically demanding job at HQ Delta Force in Cairo early 1918. He regained a level of fitness by the end of 1918, although in Egypt and not directly involved in Allenby's final offensive, the unforgettable experiences, the constant decision making and calculated risks for bold resolute action while in contact with the enemy would remain part of his character during the next war.

     Major Robertson was awarded the Order of the Nile (4th Class) and on three occasions mentioned in despatches. By mid-1919 Robertson, as assistant Adjutant-General, he had charge of all Australian administration and repatriation at AIF HQ, Cairo. Upon returning to Australia and his military career he immersed himself wholeheartedly into the Citizen Force training command. Insisting on realism with a novelty of approach bringing interest and enthusiasm to peacetime soldiering.
     He was an early selection to attend the Staff College at Camberly, UK, in 1923-24. He also contributed modern developments and training throughout the Australian Army and became responsible for the Vickers medium tanks that were to become the tools of development for an emerging Australian tank force. Robertson appointed on the Staff of the Inspector-General of the AMF was cut short by suddenly being in Brisbane and became Brigade-Major of the Infantry Brigade. His next major posting to the Royal Military College as Instructor in Tactics and later Director of Military Art between 1934 and early 1939.

     The newly raised Darwin Mobile force part of 7 Military District received the permanent officer Colonel Robertson as Commandant in March 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In due time with the raising of the Second AIF divisions for overseas service Brigadier Robertson became one of the three brigade commanders in the 6th AIF Division as senior officers were posted to new formations.
     His operational experience began on the 1 January 1941, when 19th Infantry Brigade was ordered into divisional reserve before battling the Italians at Bardia, Libya. Fifty-five days later, after the assault on Tobruk, through the town of Derna and capturing Benghazi, his fighting command withdrew to Gazala for transport to Greece.
     At this moment General Blamey transferred Robertson, now 47 years old, to superintend the AIF Reinforcement Depot in southern Palestine being replaced in the frontline brigade by a colonel G.A.Vasey. Brigadier Robertson's success in training AIF volunteers was remarkable prompting General Auchinleck, the C-in-C, to order all training formations in the Middle East to adopt his methods.

     Back in Australia Robertson was promoted to Major-General where he succeeded to the command of the 1st Cavalry Division in January 1942 and eventually took command from Maj-Gen Northcott of the newly created First Australian Armoured Division by April that year. An opportunity for a cavalryman experienced in the warfare art of mobile operations and with the overwhelming task of fiting the division to join Allied forces in North Africa. He set to work with enthusiasm plus, but the Japanese threat in the Pacific became too strong and the armoured division was piecemeal deployed in Western Australia during 1943.
     After the threat of invasion had subsided the heavy armour formations were disbanded, except for the 4th Armoured Brigade. Robertson held temporary posts then given the active command of the AIF 6th Division, including tank support, towards the end of the Wewak Campaign in northern New Guinea mid-1945 till the end of the war. He had the command of the First Australian Army in New Guinea with the rank of lieutenant-general.

     Returning to Australia and the position of GOC Southern Command, then unexpectedly within a few weeks Robertson was offered the post - 'Commander-in-Chief of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan' after the previous commander had been appointed Governor-General of New South Wales, Australia. He immediately lifted the morale of the overseas troops with his temperance personality and fiery drive.
     The new C-in-C established firm relationships and excellent liaison with US General MacArthur the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) and his general staff. After some controversy the overall British commander Robertson was knighted in 1950. When North Korea invaded the South in mid1950 Commonwealth Forces under Robertson played an important role with Macarthur's changing situation. Although reduction in BCOF had been considerable and the Australian government reluctant to allow units becoming involved in Korean operations Robertson's role was one of administration for the commonwealth force being assembled and those air assets being activated for action.
     His wisdom and experiences provided moral support and strength to the younger battalion commanders in the newly formed Commonwealth Brigade and diplomatically safeguarded the interests and fears of the varied Commonwealth governments in their UN commitment. During these difficult days the establishment of the Commonwealth Division owed much to the effectiveness of Robertson's command and when it became operational the mixed formation went on to be regarded as one of the best in that most difficult theatre of war.

     He returned to Australia and began another appointment, his last military position before retiring, that of his old job as GOC Southern Command before going to Japan, which ended in October 1954. Robertson led the first mounted cavalry charge by Australian horsemen in the First World War, yet was unable to have full operational opportunity in commanding armoured forces against the German panzers, let alone the imagined fear of invading Japanese onto the Australian shores, nor the adversity, lunge and thrust, and perhaps retreat on the ever changing battlefields. It is said that Robertson's strength of purpose and determination would have carried his character to reach new heights of brilliance in the exercise of his command in modern warfare. He died in April 1960.

UP - Biography Index - Homepage