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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bierwirth, Rudolph (1899–1993)

by Karl James

This article was published online in 2020

Rudolph Bierwirth, 1941

Rudolph Bierwirth, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 022133

Rudolph Bierwirth (1899–1993), army officer, was born on 30 January 1899 at Kent Town, Adelaide, eldest of four surviving children of German-born Louis Ullrich Henry Frederick Gertrudis Ralph Bierwirth, schoolmaster, and his South Australian-born wife, Bertha Eleanor Mary, née Pimlott. Ralph Bierwirth had migrated to South Australia from Hanover in 1891, and was naturalised in 1897. The family were Anglican. Rudolph and his family moved around South Australia as Ralph was transferred between schools. When a student at Yankalilla Public School, Rudolph was awarded an exhibition, and proceeded in 1912 to Adelaide High School where he became a senior cadet. In April 1914, he successfully applied to enter the Royal Military College (RMC), Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory. He did so as ‘Bismarck Rudolph Bierwirth,’ the name used within his family, but in later life declined to acknowledge his German heritage.

Commencing at the RMC on 18 February 1915, he graduated in December 1918 and that month was appointed as a lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Although World War I had ended, he was sent to England, serving briefly with the 43rd Battalion, AIF (1919), and the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards (1919–20). He resumed duties in Australia in June 1920. Bierwirth held regimental and training positions in South Australia, the Federal Capital Territory, New South Wales, and Victoria during the interwar period, including as an instructor (1935–36) at RMC. On 15 July 1922 he had married South Australian-born Rosalind Madge Guerin at All Soul’s Church, St Peters, Adelaide.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Major Bierwirth was seconded to the AIF on 13 October 1939. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he commanded the 2/33rd Battalion in Britain and the Middle East (June 1940–June 1941), before becoming the 6th Division’s assistant adjutant and quartermaster general (June–August 1941) in Palestine. In this role he began his association with Major General (later Lieutenant General Sir) Edmund Herring. Bierwirth was appointed OBE in January 1941 and promoted to colonel in June. As a temporary brigadier, he was responsible for the administration of Northern Territory Force, commanded by Herring (April 1942–April 1943). In June 1943 he joined Herring in Papua, becoming deputy adjutant and quartermaster general of I Corps, subsequently New Guinea Force (August 1943–January 1944). On 28 September 1943 Herring and Bierwirth survived a plane crash on take-off at Dobodura, New Guinea, that killed their close colleague Brigadier Roy Sutherland; two briefcases that Bierwirth was carrying were cut away by flying metal splinters, leaving just the handles in his grip. He was later deputy adjutant and quartermaster general of First Australian Army headquarters, based at Lae (March 1944–April 1945).

Although the demanding Major General George Vasey, one of Herring’s divisional commanders, thought Bierwirth tiresome and lacking intelligence, he was usually well regarded for the quality of his staff work, particularly in logistics. Herring praised him for his efforts in 1943 during the New Guinea offensive that led to the capture of Lae and Salamaua, acknowledging that in facing a ‘gigantic’ task Bierwirth ‘showed fine organisational ability and capacity to get things done quickly and well’ (AWM119), leading to his being mentioned in dispatches (1944). Lieutenant General (Sir) Vernon Sturdee congratulated him for ‘brilliance, foresight, and great attention to detail’ (AWM119) during the First Australian Army’s final campaigns in New Guinea, Bougainville, and New Britain in 1944–45, resulting in his appointment as CBE in 1946.

After the war, Bierwirth attended the Imperial Defence College, London (1946–47). He was promoted to brigadier in January 1949 and temporary major general in 1950 (substantive 1952), and served as Australian defence representative in London (1951–52). On return to Australia he became general officer commanding in Western Australia and was promoted to temporary lieutenant general in 1954. His final military appointment was as the last commander-in-chief of the British Commonwealth Forces Korea (October 1954–June 1956), based at Kure, Japan. He oversaw the reduction of Commonwealth forces in South Korea and Japan, proving adept at tactful negotiation and diplomacy. His last day in the army was 1 August 1956.

In retirement, Bierwirth settled in Melbourne, and in 1957 became Victorian State development officer for the Commonwealth government’s ‘Bring out a Briton’ campaign, a sponsorship scheme aimed at bolstering the proportion of British migrants entering Australia. At the same time he moved into finance, becoming a director and subsequently deputy chairman of the Mutual Permanent Building Society and its successor the Statewide Building Society. He retired in 1983.

Six foot (183 cm) tall and distinctly portly late in his career, ‘Biery’s’ humour, cheerfulness, and direct speech made him popular with his troops, some of whom called him ‘Hamburger Bill.’ His hobbies included tennis, history, music, and art. He was a member of the Naval and Military Club and president (1968–71) of the Melbourne Savage Club, where members found him ‘irascible, lovable, and committed to punctual ritual’ (Johnson 1994, 179). His daughter, Judith, would remember him as ‘a simple man, uncluttered, but not foolish,’ yet also ‘surprisingly often ill at ease’ (Bierwirth 2006, 12, 22), in which state he could behave unkindly. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1983), and survived by his son and daughter, he died in Melbourne on 27 November 1993. He was cremated with military honours at Springvale Crematorium.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM119, 38A
  • Bierwirth, Judy. Late Entry. Ashburton, Vic.: privately published, 2006
  • Crooks, William. The Footsoldiers: The Story of the 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion, A.I.F. in the War of 1939–45. Brookvale, NSW: Printcraft Press, 1971
  • Horner, David. General Vasey’s War. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1992
  • Johnson, Joseph. Laughter and the Love of Friends: A Centenary History of the Melbourne Savage Club 1894–1994 and A History of the Yorick Club 1868–1966. Melbourne: Melbourne Savage Club, 1994
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 314
  • O’Neill, Robert. Australia in the Korean War 1950–53. Vol. 1, Strategy and Diplomacy. Canberra: Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, 1981
  • Sayers, Stuart. Ned Herring: A Life of Lieutenant General the Honourable Sir Edmund Herring. Melbourne: Hyland House in association with the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1980

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Karl James, 'Bierwirth, Rudolph (1899–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/bierwirth-rudolph-30520/text37838, published online 2020, accessed online 27 October 2020.

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