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Behind the Directorate: Kerr on Conlon

When Alf Conlon died in 1961, the mates and colleagues of the man who was ASOPA's progenitor agreed to provide their memories and opinions of him for a book published to mark his career. John Kerr, later Australia's Governor-General, offered this analysis:

Top_hat I think it would be fair to say that the Directorate [of Research and Civil Affairs] really lived on the fringe of the Army, it was not of the Army in any true and deep sense, it was a peripheral institution existing for the purposes of the Commander-in-Chief’s relations and the Army’s relations of a slightly unorthodox character with outside institutions in the country and abroad.

We were then for the first time in history a nation in arms, we had an army which consisted of not just a few divisions in somebody else’s army. There was no Military Board, however, and the Commander-in-Chief felt the need of a group of people to advise him on what were non-orthodox military problems, not merely internally, but in relation to Whitehall, the British Army, and also, as time showed, colonial problems in New Guinea and Borneo and relations with the Americans in Japan and so on.

[General] Blamey was very impressed by Alf [Conlon], relied on him a great deal, and one of the great services he rendered to the General was that he handled his relations with Mr Ward. Ward was at that time Minister for External Territories, and he and General Blamey were, as anyone would know, entirely different people. Alf’s very great skill in handling people made him a very successful middleman, if one could put it that way, between the Minister in charge of the civilian side of New Guinea affairs and the Commander-in-Chief who was responsible for the military occupation of the area.

It has to be appreciated that Alf was a master of talking to people in their own language, and he was in those days a very skilled political realist. He was able to deal with actualities of power and position, and it was quite possible for him at the same time to convince the Minister for Territories that he was mainly concerned, in the exercise of army power, to ensure that a proper policy in relation to New Guinea affairs was evolved and, if possible, begun in army days, whilst at the same time being able to persuade General Blamey that the army wouldn’t suffer by any steps that were taken, but on the contrary would profit, and so would his reputation in the eyes of history.

It has to be appreciated, though it isn’t remembered nowadays, that there had built up around this unconventional idea of the Australian army being headed not by a Military Board, but by a Commander-in-Chief, a very considerable amount of opposition. This opposition was expressed not only in Opposition parties but in the Government parties too, although Blamey had the very strong support throughout of the Prime Minister. But also in the Civil Service during 1943, 1944, and even on into 1945, a considerable attack was mounted on the position of Commander-in-Chief. A great effort was made to have the position abolished and to bring about a reversion to orthodox military organisation.

Conlon played a significant role by way of defence of the office, both on the files and in unorthodox and directly political ways, and in the upshot the office was preserved until the final surrender in Tokyo Bay. General Blamey went up to participate in that surrender, and then he, as it were, laid down his arms, in a letter, which as far as I can recollect was drafted by Alf.


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