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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Turner, Leonard Charles Frederick (1914–1984)

by Peter Dennis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Leonard Charles Frederick Turner (1914-1984), professor of history, was born on 29 August 1914 at Johannesburg, South Africa, son of English-born Leonard Robinson Turner, publicity agent, and his wife Henrietta Sarah, née Chapman, born in South Africa. Len was educated at King Edward VII School, Johannesburg, and at the University of Witwatersrand (BA, 1937; MA, 1939). When World War II broke out in September 1939, he abandoned his doctoral research and in November was commissioned in the British Army. He served in England, in the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) campaign and in East Africa, until 1942. After attending the Middle East Staff School, Haifa, Palestine, he spent the remainder of the war as a staff officer with East Africa Command, Nairobi; he was demobilised as a temporary major. On 17 November 1945 at St Nicholas’s Church of England, Blundellsands, England, he married Olive Marion Evans.

In March 1946 Turner joined the team of writers producing the official history of South Africa’s participation in the war. Assistant-editor from July 1949, he wrote two volumes, Crisis in the Desert (1952) and The Sidi Rezeg Battles 1941 (1957), and co-authored a third volume, War in the Southern Oceans (1961). From 1946 to 1955 he lectured at the South African military and air force colleges.

A man of liberal beliefs, Turner left South Africa for Australia in 1956; he had become increasingly anxious to live in a less restrictive environment after 1948 when the National Party, which was committed to apartheid, came to power. Appointed lecturer in history (from 1956; associate-professor from 1962) at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, he was naturalised in 1961. In 1963 he received a Carnegie Foundation travel grant to pursue his interest in the American Civil War and to visit its battlefields. That year he was visiting professor of history at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada.

In 1968 Turner was appointed foundation professor of history at the newly established faculty of military studies, University of New South Wales, at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra. As chairman (1968-70) of the faculty he was immediately confronted with the crisis over ‘bastardisation’ — the improper cadet behaviour that the military authorities at the college had tacitly condoned for many years. His strong leadership on this issue was critical in averting a move to break the association between Duntroon and UNSW. A member of the 1970 committee of enquiry into the college, chaired by Justice Russell Fox, he helped to provide a balanced report.

Turner earned an international reputation as a military and diplomatic historian. He believed passionately in the value of history for the education of military officers, and his writing was as much directed towards improving the quality of the officer corps as it was conceived in traditionally academic terms. His full-scale study of Napoleonic warfare was never published, and he restricted his writing to articles and short monographs. These ‘booklets’ — as he described them — were models of conciseness and insight. Their brevity belied the authoritative scholarship that underpinned them, exemplified in Origins of the First World War (1970) and his articles on pre-1914 war planning. In 1974 he was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

Somewhat eccentric — he regularly brandished a long barbecue fork as a pointer — Turner was an arresting lecturer, speaking without notes and delivering tightly organised analyses of complex situations. He treated both colleagues and students with courtesy and fairness, and he quietly but effectively supported his staff in the development of their individual teaching and research interests. His focus on detail was astonishing: after his retirement in 1979 he sent a twelve-page list of historical and geographical errors to the editors of The Times Atlas of the World.

At Armidale Turner had learned to fly, having found that his 6 ft 3 in (191 cm) frame made his first choice, gliding, difficult. He had been a keen participant in amateur dramatics, served as president of the local branch of the Animal Welfare League, and had regularly spoken to community groups. Reading, watching Test cricket, and the comfort of his family were enjoyments that remained to him in retirement. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 12 January 1984 in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • ASSA News, vol 3, no 2, 1984, p 5
  • Historical Studies, vol 21, no 83, 1984, p 313
  • Canberra Times, 18 Jan 1984, p 12
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Dennis, 'Turner, Leonard Charles Frederick (1914–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-leonard-charles-frederick-15565/text26777, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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