Major General Leslie James Morshead -
Ming the Merciless
Major General (Sir) Leslie James Morshead’s military career spanned both world wars. He served as a captain at the Gallipoli landing and later as a major at Lone Pine. His reputation for calmness and organisation brought him promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. He went on to serve in France where he developed under the eye of Sir John Monash.
Early in 1941, Morshead was sent to the Middle East; he was promoted to Major General and placed in command of the 9th Division. Unlike the more disciplined German soldiers, the Australians were generally hard types, independent by nature, used to making it up as they went along and finding a way to get the job done. As a leader, Morshead was vigorous and resolute. His insistence on discipline and hard work brought him the nickname ‘Ming the Merciless’, which in time became ‘Ming’.
The 9th Division eventually reached Tobruk. By then they were almost exhausted but were still an organised force, eager to have a go. At Tobruk, Morshead initially came under the command of Major General John Lavarack. However, he quickly succeeded Lavarack as commander of the fortress of Tobruk. Talking to his men, Morshead famously said: ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we should have to get out, we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.’ Morshead was a brilliant strategist, often using tactics which were new to the Germans. Morshead and his mixed force of Australian, British, Indian and Polish troops won this important defensive battle. Not only had they denied the Axis powers the port of Tobruk, but they had also compelled Lt General Erwin Rommel to hold a significant part of his army back from the Egyptian frontier for eight months.
Back in Australia after the war, Sir Leslie had a successful business career. He died of cancer on 26 September 1959.