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Cullen, Paul Alfred (1909–2007)

by Paul Ham

Paul Cullen, who distinguished himself in the African, Middle Eastern and Pacific theatres of World War II, was a rumbustious character whose extraordinary life seems to leap from a Rider Haggard novel. Yet Cullen was the genuine article, a man who responded to life's slings and arrows with guts, laughter, love and dash.

All who met him were struck by his wit, intellect and barnstorming character; all he befriended knew a loyal and steadfast bloke who could not deny a friend in need.

A soldier at heart, he cared for his men and showed them that he cared. In 78 years of near-continuous involvement with the Australian Army, he cherished most his command of the 2/1st Battalion in Papua, where his troops led the counter-offensive against the Japanese over the Kokoda Track.

Cullen's impulsive heroism was perhaps best captured during the evacuation of Crete in 1941, when his unit's last boat got stuck on the sand. Cullen jumped off and, with the help of a wave, pushed it away, leaving him at the mercy of advancing Germans. His batman hurled a rope and he was dragged onto the escaping vessel.

Cullen, who has died at 98, was born Paul Alfred Cohen, at Newcastle, the youngest of three children to businessman Sir Samuel Cohen and his wife Elma (née Hart). In 1913, the family moved to a mansion in Woollahra, with five live-in servants. Paul attended Cranbrook School, surfed at Bondi and rode horses in Centennial Park. His father, knighted in 1937, became the recognised lay leader of the NSW Jewish community.

Though pampered as a child, Paul learned life's tougher lessons. "The iron entered my soul," he recalled, when caned at school after being unfairly accused of a "spectacular fart". When the real culprit was made head prefect, Cohen left school a year before matriculation, to join an accounting firm.

On coming second in the NSW accounting exams, he impetuously insisted on being made a partner. When the firm rebuffed the 23-year old, he left to set up his own practice, JAL Gunn & Cohen, with friend John Gunn. The firm flourished, but hardly contained Cullen's ambition. He helped establish a relief fund for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany; co-founded Australian Fixed Trusts, the nation's first unit trust; and became founding treasurer of the Temple Emanuel, Australia's first reform synagogue. In 1932, he married Phyllis Marjorie Sampson, and the couple produced twins, Christopher and Dinah.

When Australia declared war on Germany, Cullen volunteered for the 2nd Australian Imperial Force as Captain Paul Cohen, commanding B Company of the 2/2nd Battalion, 16th Brigade. In 1941, he and his elder brother registered their surname as Cullen: Jewish soldiers knew their likely fate should they fall into German hands. Paul later abandoned Judaism – "too dogmatic" – for a quiet atheism.

The 2/2nd Battalion was "blooded" at Bardia, the North African desert fortress where Australian and British units defeated far bigger Italian forces and captured 40,000 prisoners, whose cries of "Aqua! Aqua!" Cullen would never forget.

His battalion were in the vanguard of the attack on Tobruk and participated in the terrible retreat from Greece, during which Cullen led a fragment of his men through the icy northern mountains ahead of German tanks. On Chios, during the journey to Crete, Cullen's unit spent a night in a nunnery, where he stumbled into the wrong dorm and awoke a room of screaming neophytes.

The Pacific crisis brought the 16th Brigade home to join the desperate struggle against the Japanese over the Owen Stanley Mountains. Cullen had been promoted to lieutenant colonel in command of the 2/1st Battalion. In October 1942, General MacArthur farewelled his brigade as they marched off over the Kokoda Track: "By some act of God [you have] been chosen for this job. The eyes of the Western world are upon you. Good luck and don't stop."

At Eora Creek, Cullen was ordered to force the river crossing in the sights of Japanese machine guns. Thirteen men had already died in the attempt but Cullen's men did it. They never gave up. At Oivi, Gorari and Sanananda – the turning points in the Pacific land war, wrote Eric Bergerud – his battalion wiped out Japanese forces in hand-to-hand fighting.

After the war, Cullen refused to testify at the War Crimes hearings, partly because he sensed the futility of blaming soldiers after a tragedy of such scale; and partly because he knew of instances where AIF personnel had machine-gunned Japanese prisoners.

Cullen never really left the army. He commanded the 45th Battalion, of the Citizen Military Forces. He rose to brigadier and, in 1962, to major general, becoming head of the Army Reserves.

As president of Austcare, he jointly received the Nansen Medal, the UN's highest accolade for refugee relief. In business, he co-founded Mainguard, Australia's first merchant bank, which failed after a poor investment in a rice farm. Cullen bounced back, with several ill-fated rural ventures. The risk-taking that served in war often seemed to override his civilian judgment.

His tumultuous private life was exhausting for the women drawn into his orbit. His second marriage, to Jenny Whitington (nee Drake-Brockman), ended in bitter divorce, after which she kept the family farm at Braidwood. Cullen noted: "Every time you have a divorce your farm gets further from Sydney." In 1973 he married Eve Daly, a woman of earthly beauty and great character whose energies almost matched his. From 1983 the couple raised Galloway cattle at Wingello Park, near Goulburn.

In war, he was honoured with a DSO and bar; in peace, with a CBE and AC. Asked to sum up his life, he said: "Reckless, impulsive. But those qualities have served me well. I've had a wonderful life."

He is survived by his first two wives, children Christopher and Dinah, eight grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. A full military service will be held at Victoria Barracks at 10.30 am today.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 2007

Additional Resources

Citation details

Paul Ham, 'Cullen, Paul Alfred (1909–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cullen-paul-alfred-20603/text31457, accessed 17 October 2019.

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