Cyril A. Clowes was a senior Australian general responsible for the first Allied land victory over the Japanese, at Milne Bay (25 August-7 September 1942). Clowes was born in 1892 at Warwick, Queensland, the son of Albert Clowes, an English dentist and captain in the Australian militia. Cyril and his brother Norman both attended the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, from 1911-1914, and both served with distinction during the First World War (Norman was decorated twice in the First World War, and rose to the rank of major general in the British Army). Cyril was posted to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. He fought at Gallipoli, where he directed naval support-fire, before being appointed staff captain of the 2nd Divisional Artillery. He was then moved to the Western Front, winning the Military Cross in June 1916 at Bois Grenier. He was also awarded the DSO for his role in organizing the nines brigades of artillery at Villers-Bretonneux in August 1918.
Between the wars Clowes taught at Duntroon (1920-25), then served staffed, training and command duties at Brisbane, Sydney and Darwin. From 1936-1938 he took a gunnery staff course in England, before returning to Australia to become chief instructor at the School of Artillery, Sydney. In August 1939 he was appointed commander of the 6th Military District (Tasmania), and promoted to colonel.
In 4 April 1940 he was appointed commander, Royal Australian Artillery, I Corps, with the temporary rank of brigadier. He reached the Middle East in December 1940, and was soon involved in the intervention in Greece. His most notable achievement in Greece came on 14-16 April 1941, when he rallied the New Zealand 21st Battalion, which was guarding the Anzac Corps’ eastern flank against an attack by the German panzers. Over three days Clowes and the 21st held their position, allowing the main Anzac force to escape from northern Greece.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Clowes was recalled to Australia as part of an attempt to improve the quality of the large militia army that appeared to be all that stood between Australia and a Japanese invasion. In January 1942, Clowes was promoted to temporary major-general, with command of the 1st Division, holding this post until the summer and the Japanese invasion of Papua. Clowes was first appointed as commander of New Guinea Force, but before he could take up this post he was moved again, this time to command Milne Force, defending Milne Bay at the eastern end of New Guinea.
Clowes took command at Milne Bay on 22 August. He had command of two Australian brigades (18th regular and 7th militia), one company of American engineers and one airborne anti-aircraft squadron, a total of around 8,700 men, supported by two squadrons of RAAF Kittyhawk fighters. Four days after Clowes took command the Japanese attacked (battle of Milne Bay, 25 August-7 September 1942). The Japanese were heavily outnumbered, but at this point in the war they had never lost a land battle, and had a reputation for invincibility in the jungle. At Milne Bay they were supported by a number of light tanks, and by repeated naval bombardments. Despite this Clowes won the first land victory of the war against the Japanese, and on the night of 5-6 September the Japanese evacuated their troops.
Clowes was poorly rewarded for his victory. General MacArthur’s less than generous reaction was to comment that “the enemy’s defeat at Milne Bay must not be accepted as a measure of relative fighting capacity of the troops involved” – he had interfered with the details of the battle at long range, and had failed to appreciate how well the inexperienced Australian militia had performed. Clowes was also a close friend of General Sydney F. Rowell, who at the time of the fighting at Milne Bay was the overall Australian commander on New Guinea, based at Port Moresby, but in late September Rowell argued with General Blamey, the head of the Australian Army, and was replaced, removing Clowes’s only ally amongst the high command on New Guinea. In the aftermath of this controversy Clowes took a period of leave, returning only to suffer from malaria. He remained in command of the force at Milne Bay (11th Division from 7 December) until 1943, then from 1943-45 commanded the Victorian Lines of Communication Area. In 1943 he was appointed C.B.E. for his achievements in Greece and on New Guinea. After the war he commanded South Command, before retiring in 1946, with the honorary rank of lieutenant general. Clowes died in 1968 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg (Melbourne, Australia)