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Sir Thomas Joseph (Tom) Daly (1913–2004)

by John Farquharson

Sir Thomas Daly, by Brian Dunlop, 1980

Sir Thomas Daly, by Brian Dunlop, 1980

Australian War Memorial, ART28349 H01388

For Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Daly, who has died in Sydney, aged 90, the Army always came first, along with a strong sense of commitment to Australia. This stemmed from having been brought up to believe that ‘what was good for the Army must surely dominate his country’s military thinking’.

But what made him the quintessential ‘soldier’s soldier’ was his concern for the ordinary soldier and his welfare. He often said he felt a ‘deep sense of personal loss when he heard that an Australian serviceman had been killed in Vietnam’.

A competent, skilful commander in the field, he first made his mark as the young brigade major of Major-General Sir George Wooten’s outstanding 18th brigade at Tobruk and in the Western Desert. Over the years, he more than fulfilled the ‘big future’ General Wooten predicted for him.

After being sent to the Staff School in Haifa in 1942, he was appointed senior staff officer (GSO1) to the 5th Australian Division, a CMF formation. While serving with the division in the New Guinea campaigns, he was awarded the OBE. Later he played a major role as commanding officer of the 2/10th Battalion (Adelaide Rifles) in the battle for Balikpapan in Borneo in July 1945. There, in what concluded his fighting career in the AIF, Daly was awarded the DSO for leading his battalion into action in what was described as ‘a brilliant feat of arms’. He emerged, in the words of official war historian, Gavin Long, ‘with full marks – the outstanding CO of the campaign’.

Daly displayed the same flair and distinction when he commanded the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, comprising two Australian and two British battalions, in Korea from June 1952 until March 1953. As the first Australian officer to hold the command, he was credited by the Commonwealth divisional commander, Major-General James Cassells (later Field Marshal, Sir James) with having helped to make the 28th, the best of his three brigades and having ‘led [it] with skill and style’.

Later, applying lessons learnt from the Vietnam War, he went on as Chief of the General Staff (1966-71) to oversee a reorganisation of the Army. The Army’s striking power was multiplied after he argued successfully for the acquisition by the RAAF of heavy troop-carrying helicopters, thus improving the air mobility of infantry units. Vietnam experience also dictated Daly’s fight for the creation of the position of Vice-Chief of the General Staff and of functional commands to replace the old geographical districts. He envisaged these moves as the first steps in an ongoing process that would see the Army, in the post-Vietnam period, adopt new training methods, not only in field operations, but also in logistics and administration.

Daly had his setbacks, too. As Adjutant-General, he lost out in the debate over where the Third Battle Group should be located. His preference for the Mornington Peninsula was rejected for Puckapunyal. And when the value of the army base in Townsville came up, when Daly was General Officer Commanding Eastern Command, in Sydney, he was not consulted. During his time as head of the Army, he unwittingly became caught up in events that led to John Gorton’s Prime Ministership being cut short after Malcolm Fraser, in resigning as Minister for Defence accused him of ‘disloyalty to a senior minister’ (himself). The affair arose from newspaper reports claiming that the Army was failing to comply with government policy in implementing civic action programs in Vietnam. The inspiration for these articles was said to have arisen from unofficial press briefings that the Defence Department had given to selected Canberra political correspondents. Daly and Fraser had clashed ever since Fraser got his first portfolio as Minister for the Army in 1966. The tensions between them spilled over again when Fraser moved to Defence and, in 1970, may have cost Daly the post of chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which went to Admiral Sir Victor Smith.

Concerned about these developments, Gorton called Daly to Parliament House to discuss them. And according to Gorton’s biographer, Ian Hancock, the Prime Minister also quizzed Daly on his relations with Fraser. Daly described his relationship with Fraser as ‘pleasant, both socially and officially, despite some differences of opinion’. Satisfied also about the explanation about the Army’s civic action programs, Gorton assured Daly of his ‘full confidence in the Army’. However, arising from this meeting came suggestions that Daly had accused Fraser of disloyalty both to the Army and to its ministerial head, Andrew Peacock.

When Alan Ramsey, from the Australian, questioned Gorton about the disloyalty charge, Gorton declined to comment. Without a direct denial from Gorton, Ramsey went ahead and filed his story. What until then had been seen as a ‘Fraser versus the Army’ issue became a conflict between Fraser and Gorton. So Fraser, who felt Gorton should have denied the published account of what had transpired at his meeting with Daly, moved against his Prime Minister and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

For his part, General Daly, known among his colleagues as a ‘man of absolute integrity and independence of mind’ always vehemently denied he had accused Fraser of ‘disloyalty to the Army or anyone else’, declaring also that the idea of complaining to Gorton would never have entered his mind.

Despite the consummate professionalism Daly brought to his military career, he never considered himself born to be a soldier. Born in Ballarat on March 19, 1913, and educated at St Patrick’s College, Sale, and Xavier College, Melbourne, his first choice of career was medicine. But, failing to get a university scholarship, he became interested in Duntroon after General Sir Harry Chauvel, of Light Horse fame, visited his bank-manager father, who had served in the Great War as an officer of the 9th Light Horse.

Entering the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1930, he graduated top cadet in 1933 and in 1934 was commissioned into to 4th Light Horse Regiment as acting adjutant before being posted as adjutant to the 4th Light Horse. In 1938 he served in India on the North-West Frontier with the 16/5 Lancers, returning to Australia in 1939 to be appointed adjutant of the 2/10 Battalion. After service in the Middle East with the 18th Brigade, he finished the war back with the 2/10th, but as its CO. His post-war career began with staff appointments and as an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley, before attending the Joint Services Staff College in Britain. In 1952, he went to Duntroon as director of Military Art and then as director of Infantry he was sent to Korea to command the 28th Commonwealth Brigade.

Back in Australia his progress to CGS – director operations and plans, GOC Northern Command, Adjutant-General, GOC Eastern Command – was almost inevitable. As CGS Sir Thomas, who was knighted in 1967, became the Army’s chief defender against its critics and detractors, not least the Defence Department. His overriding concern was to ensure that Australia had a highly trained, completely professional army that, though small, could rank with any other regular army in the Western world.

He believed that the more the Army could mix easily with the general population the better its public image would become. To that end, he supported national service training, not only for its military worth, but also as a means of ‘taking the Army into more and more houses throughout the land’. 

In retirement, apart from several company directorships, he devoted his time to the Australian War Memorial as chairman of its council from 1974 to 1982. Though some opinion suggests that he wasn’t as effective as he could have been in that position, he nevertheless backed his director, Noel Flanagan, in breathing new life into the memorial and laying the foundations for it becoming the dynamic institution it is today.

Whatever, his actions, as Australia’s top soldier, his motives were clear: to protect ‘his’ army from being slighted or used in anyway as a political cat’s paw. Along with General Sir John Wilton, Daly was regarded as the most notable of the post-war Chiefs of Staff.

His wife, Heather, whom he married in 1946, and three daughters (Betty-Ann, Susan and Edwina), survive him.

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Joseph Daly, born March 19, 1913; died 5 January 2004.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Daly, Sir Thomas Joseph (Tom) (1913–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Sir Thomas Daly, by Brian Dunlop, 1980

Sir Thomas Daly, by Brian Dunlop, 1980

Australian War Memorial, ART28349 H01388