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Book Review: Kokoda Commander

Kokoda Commander by Stuart Braga

Major General Arthur "Tubby" Allen was an Australian general who commanded the 16th Brigade in the 1940 campaign in Libya and the 1941 campaign in Greece and the 7th Division in Syria in 1941 and on the Kokoda Trail in 1941. Dismissed from command of the 7th Division, he commanded the 12th Division in the Northern Territory until it was disbanded in October 1944.

General Allen had a distinguished career as a fighting leader in the Great War and distinguished himself in Libya and Greece but his ultimate fate casts a long shadow over his biography. Allen's reputation is of a man subject to the Peter Principle, being a great brigade commander but a mediocre division commander and unsuitable to command a corps.

Allen was relieved on the Kokoda Trail for failing to advance fast enough. His pursuit of the retreating Japanese was not fast enough for Generals MacArthur and Blamey and his corps commander, Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring, relieved him of his command.

Allen was the third of three Australian officers relieved in this campaign. All three were controversial and biographers have argued about it since. Usually, Generals Blamey and MacArthur are cast as the villains. This book, rather oddly, casts points the finger at General Herring.

Herring and Allen were both militia (i.e. reservist) officers who were brigadiers in the original 6th Division in 1939. World War II marked a transition from an Australian Army dominated by reservists to one dominated by regulars. Allen's performance at the battle of Bardia and later in Greece led to him being promoted to major general in 1941 ahead of Herring. Herring was, however, later promoted to major general and given command of the 6th Division. He was, moreover, subsequently selected, ahead of Allen, to command a corps.

The book details how unalike Herring and Allen were. Herring went to Melbourne Grammar, an elite secondary school, the University of Melbourne and then Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In the Great War, he served with the British Army in Salonika, rising to the rank of major, commanding a battery, and winning the Military Cross for bravery. Afterwards he became a King's Council, the most highly paid of lawyers.

Whereas Allen left school at 14 and eventually became an accountant. His service in the Great War was in the trenches, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel at age 24, commanding a battalion and winning the Distinguished Service Order.

Socially, the two men were far apart. Temperamentally, they were also quite different. Allen could be a difficult subordinate and was argumentative at times. This may have led other officers to discount Allen's accounts of his difficulties on the Kokoda Trail. General Blamey appears to have decided to merely rest Allen and bring him back later. It was Herring who balked at this.

Which brings us to the big question: Under just what circumstances is it permissible to relieve a subordinate?

In a letter to Herring in 1959, General R. L. Eichelberger (who had himself relieved a couple of division commanders) had this to say:

It is a funny thing about war historians. If a general dismisses a subordinate at ay time he is immediately attacked; whereas in our football game, if you have a better player for a particular place, you always play him, and everybody expects you to do this. I have little doubt that the same is true of your ball game. War historians never seem to give generals credit for having thought that X might be better than Y for the next phase of operations.