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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henderson, William George (Bill) (1919–1995)

by Chris Clark

This article was published online in 2020

William George Henderson (1919–1995), army officer, was born on 19 July 1919 at Clifton Hill, Melbourne, son of William Alfred Leslie Harrison Henderson, medical practitioner, and his wife Winifred Ethel, née Jenkin, both Sydney-born. During the 1920s the family moved to Parkes, New South Wales. Bill was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore, 1934–38), becoming a prefect, captain of athletics, and a lieutenant in the school's cadet corps. Having worked as a jackeroo and served part time in the 6th Light Horse Regiment, Citizen Military Forces, in February 1940 he entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory. He was commissioned in June 1941.

Following a series of training and regimental postings in Australia and his transfer (July 1942) to the Australian Imperial Force, Lieutenant Henderson served with the 19th Battalion in Papua and New Guinea from March 1944. He moved with the unit to New Britain in December 1944 and saw action in March 1945. By May he was at First Army headquarters, Lae, New Guinea. On 2 July 1945 he was promoted to temporary captain (substantive August 1948). He married Catherine (Kate) Dorothy Russ, a corporal in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, on 23 July 1945 at the chapel of his old school.

The next year Henderson attended the Army Staff College, Cabarlah, Queensland, before holding appointments at Western Command, Perth, and as brigade major of the 13th Infantry Brigade. Between 1950 and 1952 he served at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. In January 1953 he joined the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), in Korea. He served as a company commander and second-in-command during final operations on the Jamestown Line, a series of defensive positions. For his administration and leadership he was appointed OBE in 1954. Having left the unit in March, he was made temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive May 1955) and joined the headquarters of the 3rd Division. In June 1955 he was posted to the headquarters of Far East Land Forces in Singapore, where he coordinated operations against communist insurgents in Malaya. Returning to Australia in November 1957, he took command of 2nd Battalion, RAR. At his first unit parade at Holsworthy army camp, he gave an unusual command for the men to sit on the ground while he inspected their footwear, giving rise to his nickname ‘Boots.’

Appointed chief instructor at the School of Tactics and Administration, Seymour, Victoria, in November 1958, Henderson was subsequently acting commandant of the Jungle Training Centre, Canungra, Queensland, from July 1960. He was granted the temporary rank of colonel in November (substantive May 1964), and proceeded to London as assistant head of the Joint Services Staff at the Australian High Commission. Back in Australia in 1963, he became commander of the support unit at the Woomera rocket range, South Australia. After serving on the headquarters staff of Southern Command (1964–66), Melbourne, he went to Washington as military attaché and army representative at the Australian Embassy, and also military adviser to the Australian high commissioner in Ottawa (October 1966–February 1969). On 1 August 1967 he was promoted to brigadier. Having returned to Australia in early 1969, he was appointed commander of the 6th Task Force, based in southern Queensland.

In May 1970 he left for South Vietnam, where he assumed command of the 1st Australian Task Force on 1 June. The Gorton government had announced in April that his three infantry battalions would be reduced to two late in the year. Believing that the People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) were avoiding pitched battles and waiting for all foreign forces to withdraw, he replaced large-scale operations with close ambushing. This was to deny the enemy access to infrastructure and sources of supply in the principal villages, as well as to inflict heavy casualties with minimal own losses. Concurrently, he increased efforts to train South Vietnamese forces and cooperate with them in the field. In November he courted controversy when he observed to the press that the reduction of his force would mean the remaining units would have to work harder to maintain control of the same area of responsibility. He was awarded the DSO (1971) for his leadership. Returning to Australia in March 1971, he was promoted to temporary major general (substantive June 1973) commanding the 1st Division, the army's principal field formation. From November 1973 he headed Training Command, until transferring to the Retired List on 16 March 1976.

Appointed AO in January 1976, Henderson was described as ‘genial, conscientious and personally caring’ (Ekins and McNeill 2012, 432). In retirement he was honorary colonel of the Cadet Corps in New South Wales, and enjoyed rugby, cricket, tennis, and sailing. Despite suffering from osteoporosis, he proudly participated in the National Reunion and Welcome Home Parade for Vietnam veterans held in Sydney on 3 October 1987. On 10 October 1995 he died in Mosman Private Hospital and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their three sons, of whom the eldest, William, served in Vietnam as a second lieutenant while on national service in 1968–69.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris, ‘Commander Made an Impact, Boots and All.’ Australian, 21 November 1995, 16
  • Ekins, Ashley, and Ian McNeill. Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War, 1968–1975. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2012
  • Gorham, J. R., and Christopher Hewett, eds. The Torch Bearers. North Sydney: Sydney Church of England Grammar School, 1999
  • Horner, David, and Jean Bou, eds. Duty First: A History of the Royal Australian Regiment. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2008
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 3210, Henderson, William George
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Sydney Church of England Grammar School Register, 1889–1994. North Sydney: Shore Old Boys Union, 1994

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Henderson, William George (Bill) (1919–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/henderson-william-george-bill-27640/text35092, published online 2020, accessed online 14 August 2020.

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