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Allan Percy Fleming (1912–2001)

by John Farquharson

As a soldier, journalist and senior Commonwealth public servant, Allan Fleming had a long, distinguished and exceptionally varied career, marked at times by high romanticism.

In all that he undertook, he showed initiative, creativity, ability to adapt readily to new situations and relate well to people. All these attributes were evident when, during the North African campaign in 1941 when he came face-to-face with the famed commander of the German Afrika Korps, General (later Field-Marshal) Rommel. This now almost legendary incident occurred during a tank battle in the midst of ‘Operation Crusader’, south of Tobruk. Fleming, then a captain, was serving with 60 or so other Australians with British forces as part of a unit co-ordinating air support for ground troops.

He and another Australian, Major Arch Molloy, were in a British command vehicle being pursued by the Germans as they raced to link up with some British tanks they could see in the distance. When they reached the tanks, they found they were in the hands of the Germans and they were captured. Taken to a German advanced post, a German motorcyclist turned up with a bottle of Fourex beer, which he had picked up from an overrun British canteen. After trying it himself, the German handed it to Fleming and Molloy, who polished it off. Suddenly, they heard the Germans around them shouting, ‘Rommel, Rommel’ and there he was arriving in his famous pose – peaked cap, silk scarf, goggles with hands on the windscreen of a Volkswagen command car. As General von Ravenstein, one of his divisional commanders, was showing him the British command vehicle, the Australians were summoned to join them.  Rommel was fascinated to learn that they were Australians and asked what others were in the battle, to which Fleming and Molloy gave a non-committal reply.

Rommel went on to say, ‘You Australians are not bad fighters’ and they replied, ‘Well, we think so’. When Rommel then told them, they would not win the war, Fleming, getting a bit cheeky, said, ‘We don’t think so, because we have a secret weapon’ and pointed to the bottle of Fourex. Giving them a quizzical look, Rommel moved on. After being dragged around with the Germans as the battle swirled around the countryside, Fleming and Molloy managed to liberate a truck and escape to their own lines. There they were summoned by the British commander, General (later Field-Marshal) Claude Auchinleck, who thought they might have information about Rommel’s strength and intentions.

Entering the Public Service through the Defence Department, Fleming played a  significant part in the formative stages of Australia’s post-war military intelligence agencies as director of the Joint Intelligence Bureau, Controller of Joint Intelligence, later becoming an assistant secretary, then Controller Joint Service Organisations. Later he held senior positions in the Department of Trade and Industry before becoming Parliamentary Librarian and later National Librarian. At the behest of Sir Peter Lawler, as Secretary of the Department of Administrative Services, he came out of retirement in 1976 to spend two years as Commonwealth Government VIP Security Co-ordinator. In this, his last Public Service appointment, he was responsible for the general planning of security arrangements for all public figures.

However, Fleming, who has died in Melbourne from lung cancer aged 88, is probably best remembered in his role as National Librarian, to which he was appointed in 1970, having previously been Commonwealth Parliamentary Librarian for two years. Coming to the National Library in succession to the long-serving and legendary Sir Harold White, the task confronting Fleming was not an easy one, particularly as he was a non-librarian. This aroused a certain amount of ire among professional librarians, as it had when he went to the Parliamentary Library. But in his disarming way, he soon overcame this. Interestingly, it was Sir Harold White who had recruited him for the parliamentary job.

It was a time of change in library practice as computer technology began to be applied to the delivery of library services. Against this background, what he set about doing was to produce a national information policy oriented towards user needs. From the basis that, ‘you can’t get anywhere without people in libraries’, he built up staff with the expertise needed to integrate all areas of information and make it available to users as speedily as possible. And in seeking to extend the library’s scope beyond the humanities and social sciences, he sought to make information on science and technology available to library users. To do this, he was not averse to seeking co-operation of outside bodies and working with them.

With Fleming at the helm, the library entered a major development phase with his appointment of Alec Bolton, from Angus and Robertson, to establishing a publishing section; the acquisition of a major music collection and, in the film area, copies of the Cinesound-Movietone collection, now a prized item in Screensound Australia’s holdings.

The emphasis he put on the dissemination of information at the National Library, was a natural progression from what he had put in train after becoming Parliamentary Librarian in 1968. There he had consolidated and expanded the research service, established on a small scale a few years previously. The service was greatly enhanced by the introduction of a subject ‘groups’ concept, which led to substantial increases in output as measured against the number of requests. As well as generally building up staff, another of his projects was to encourage and foster the development of the current information section.

Born in Melbourne on March 5, 1912, after his parents moved there from Whitfield, north-eastern Victoria, Fleming was educated at Lee Street State school, North Carlton, and on scholarships to Scotch College and Melbourne University, from where he graduated with an arts degree and, among other things, edited Farrago, the student newspaper. At Scotch, among his schoolmates were Geoffrey Hutton, Alan Moorhead and Ross Campbell, later well-known journalists, and Ted Laurie who became a communist lawyer. While at university, he helped support himself by taking up an offer to be a teacher-in-training and housemaster at Scotch. And it was there that he met is future wife, Margaret, a nursing sister, whom he married in Jaffa in 1940, after she managed to secure passage on the last ship allowed to carry civilian passengers to the Middle East and actually arrived before his ship docked.

He abandoned the prospect of a teaching career when offered a place as a cadet reporter on the now defunct Melbourne Argus. Approached by the Herald papers in Melbourne, Fleming went to the Courier-Mail, Brisbane, where he became assistant editor of the Sunday-Mail, and wrote leaders (editorials) and a daily column for the Courier-Mail. Enlisting in the AIF as a private in 1939, he saw service in North Africa, Greece, New Guinea and the South-West Pacific. He rose to Lieutenant-Colonel, having been commissioned before leaving for the Middle East, and, after various intelligence appointments, finished the war as air liaison officer Advanced Land Headquarters. He was awarded the OBE and twice mentioned in despatches.

Another short stint in journalism at the Sun, Melbourne, followed; he was senior magazine editor and a columnist. His career in the Public Service began when, at the instigation of Charles Spry, then director of Military Intelligence, he applied and was appointed director of the Joint Intelligence Bureau. He went on to become Controller of Joint Intelligence before serving as assistant secretary 1949-53 and Controller of the Joint Services Organisation (1953-58). Then he switched to Trade and Industry with three years in Paris as Trade Commissioner, four years in Canberra as a first assistant secretary in the international and policy divisions and a further year in London as special commercial adviser. While at Trade, he led delegations to GATT and UNCTAD and was president of the UNCTAD board in 1965. In 1968 he became Parliamentary Librarian and two years later National Librarian. His last Public Service appointment was in 1976 when he was appointed Commonwealth Government VIP Security Co-ordinator. There, until 1978, he was responsible for the general planning of security arrangements for all public figures and for ensuring that all the agencies involved worked together and knew what each other was doing.

Though he had no specific training for most of the jobs he ended up in, he never left any of them without having made a significant contribution. This was recognised with the award of a CBE in 1979. After his retirement, he lived quietly in Melbourne with his wife, Margaret, who predeceased him in 1999. His daughter Alannah and his grandchildren survive him.

Allan Percy Fleming, Born March 5, 1912; died January 18, 2001.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Fleming, Allan Percy (1912–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

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