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Salisbury, Alan George (1917–2004)

by John Farquharson

Alan Salisbury, who has died in Canberra aged 87, played a key role in helping to progress Australia’s war effort in World War ll and was involved on the financial side in developing some of the early postwar defence policies as well as negotiations for the re-equipment of the services.

As the sole survivor of the five remarkable men who made up the working side of the War Cabinet Secretariat, Alan Salisbury, in his day, probably knew as much, if not more, as anyone about the intricacies of Defence Department administration. It was a knowledge, which in his self-effacing style, he wore lightly. Though his Defence career began and ended in the finance area, over the years he found himself thrust into positions where he had to become conversant with all that was going on within the department. Schooled to the exacting standards demanded by the long-serving legendary Defence Department head, Sir Frederick Shedden, Salisbury’s career marked him as one of that solid band of senior officers whose quiet efficiency did so much to enhance the respect in which the old apolitical Commonwealth Public Service was held.

The secretariat, set up in 1941, headed by Shedden, included, apart from Salisbury, Herbert Port, Vincent Quealy, and Sam Landau. Unusually in the Public Service all five, with the exception of Sam Landau (later Secretary of the Navy Department), spent the whole of their working lives in the Defence Department. The wide experience of this tight-knit group has been acknowledged as invaluable in the recording and processing of the proceedings of the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council.

As the war went on, Port concentrated on the financial management, while Quealy handled operational and organisational matters, leaving Salisbury and Landau to apply their working knowledge over the whole field. Salisbury later recalled that the work was ‘intense, physically and mentally demanding over long hours’. So closely were they bound up in advancing the war effort that almost everything else, even leave and recreation, had to be put aside. Shedden insisted that staff had to be available any time he might need them, including weekends and holidays. Though Shedden was a hard taskmaster, who remained aloof from his staff and never mixed with them socially, those who worked closely with him admired him for his ability. Salisbury once said, ‘You never made a mistake with Shedden and I was expected to know everything’. He added that no man had a greater influence upon him than Shedden, whom he regarded as Australia’s greatest public servant, closely followed by Secretary of the Treasury, Sir Roland Wilson.

Although Salisbury found being at the centre of all that was going on during those war years immensely interesting and satisfying, he always considered his postwar years in Defence as the most rewarding. Among other things, he found particularly stimulating the work on postwar reconstruction with the Deputy Secretary of the Defence Department, Sir Frederick Chilton, the reorganisation of the defence forces from a wartime to a peacetime footing, major initiatives in defence policy taken in those years and re-equipment of the services.

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran on 14 March 1917, Alan Salisbury was educated at University High School and Melbourne University, where he undertook accountancy and commerce courses. He began work with the Defence Department in April 1934. As he was then completing the preliminary stage of an accounting course he was assigned to the finance branch where he acquired a basic knowledge of Treasury accounting and finance systems. In 1938, he was moved to the Finance Secretariat under Herbert Port to assist in the formulation of the first three-year defence program, which had just been inaugurated.

In January 1941, he was transferred to the War Cabinet Secretariat where he remained until it was disbanded in early 1946. Salisbury kept in the closest daily contact with Port and Quealy for almost 30 years. He had been associated with Port in the finance area before both moved over to the War Cabinet Secretariat. With the phasing out of the War Cabinet, Salisbury held several senior appointments in the Defence Department, mostly associated with Port and Quealy. With Port’s retirement in 1964, Salisbury succeeded him as First Assistant Secretary (Program and Budget), remaining in that position until his own retirement in 1972.

Towards the end of the war and immediately after, he was involved in processing recommendations for bravery awards, including sorting out the problem of more than 100 American decorations, for Australian servicemen. As well as dealing with post-retirement entitlements for senior officers promoted above their substantive ranks, Salisbury was also involved in the setting up of the Defence Forces Retirement Benefit Scheme.

One of his early appointments in the postwar years was as secretary of the Board of Business Administration, an advisory body of businessmen who gave advice on big government projects until it was disbanded under a reorganisation of the Defence Department. Under the re-organisation he became Assistant Secretary (Manning) working for Chilton and Quealy.  He was also appointed Chilton’s executive officer. In 1961, after the department had moved from Melbourne to Canberra in 1959, Salisbury represented Australia at a month-long Defence Administration Conference, chaired by Lord Louis Mountbatten, at Oxford University. He described the conference as an ‘eye-opening experience’ which helped him immensely in his later work.

When Britain approached Australia about establishing a rocket testing range in the country, Salisbury was involved in the negotiations on the financial side. This resulted in the Long Range Weapons Establishment being sited at Woomera.  He was also heavily involved in working out the financial arrangements and accommodation requirements for the establishment of the US communications base at North-West Cape, Western Australia. This also entailed negotiations with landowners and WA Government over the transfer of land to the US so as to ensure Australia had retention rights over the land. One of the major re-equipment projects that Salisbury had a hand in was the acquisition of the F111 swing-wing fighter-bomber, which was selected on trust before any of the aircraft had been constructed. He made two trips to America for discussions over what Australia was to pay for the aircraft and logistical support. His first visit was with Lenox (later Sir Lenox) Hewitt, then Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, to work out the basis for what became the Co-operative Logistical Agreement between Australia and the US. He made another trip with Sir Edwin Hicks, who succeeded Shedden as Secretary of the Defence Department, to wrap up the final financial arrangements for the F111 purchase. Another US negotiation in which he had a part on the financial side was for Australia’s purchase of the DDG destroyers for the RAN. He also made several trips to Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam in connection with logistical arrangements and support for Australian forces fighting in the Malayan Emergency campaign and the Vietnam War.

In 1953 Salisbury received the Queen’s Coronation Medal in recognition of his services to defence and in the New Year’s honours list of 1969 was made a Companion of the Imperial Service Order.

Though his life was so tightly bound up with the Defence Department, Salisbury never let it dominate to the exclusion of all else.  He made time to pursue outside interests. He was a highly regarded philatelist, who collected for 48 years and wrote a regular column, 'Commonwealth Corner', from 1972 to 1986 in Stamp News, which in 1980 named him Collector of the Year. He was made a member of the Australian Philatelic Order in September 1995. He was also a foundation member of the Canberra Railway Historical Society, of which he was made a life member. A keen Anglican churchman throughout his life in both Melbourne and Canberra, he was treasurer of St John’s Church, Canberra, and business manager of St Mark’s Library in the early 1960s, as well as being a member of Bishop-in-Council in the 1970s and a member of Synod between 1961 and 1978.

While working in the War Cabinet Secretariat, Salisbury met Jean Nicholson, daughter of Ray Nicholson, a member of the Air Board. After working in the typing pool, she became Shedden’s personal stenographer but, under the prevailing Public Service regulations, had to leave the Defence Department upon marrying Alan Salisbury in May 1945. Battling illness and sight impairment, Alan Salisbury spent his last years in Brindabella Gardens Nursing Home in Canberra, where he died on June 28. His wife, Jean, two sons, John and David and daughter, Barbara, and their families survive him.

Alan George Salisbury, born March 14, 1917; died June 28, 2004.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2004
  • Canberra Times, 30 July 2004
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 July 2004

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Salisbury, Alan George (1917–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/salisbury-alan-george-892/text893, accessed 11 August 2020.

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