Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 12

John Gorton goes to Oxford

OXFORD, England, February 1932

Brasenose College at Oxford University is famous for educating an elite to be the future prime ministers, judges, governors and Whitehall mandarins of Great Britain. For 500 years, the sons of the aristocracy (women were admitted for the first time only in 1974) were sent to Brasenose to become the nation’s praetorian guard. It was a direct copy of learning institutions from ancient and mediaeval times when former empires taught well-bred men to be statesmen, court advisers, bean counters and military leaders.

In Britain, young blue bloods from private schools like Eton, Charterhouse, Winchester and Harrow were taught to be unflinching leaders fuelled by a sense of their own superiority and self-belief. It was an experiment in social engineering on an epic scale. Could Oxford and its sister university, Cambridge, mould generations of patricians to guide British imperialism through its savage history of global expansion to create the world’s biggest empire “where the sun never set and the wages never rose”? And when the UK could longer afford it, train this self same cadre to relinquish the Empire to the “savages” of India, Africa, China, the Far East and Latin America.

John Gorton, 1930s

John Gorton arrived at Brasenose in 1932 when Britain was caught in the midst of an epoch-defining debate. Should the nation prepare for war or prepare for peace? The division was between ruling-class appeasers and working-class anti-fascists. Appeasers tended to be hardline Tories in the Commons, the Lords and Press proprietors while anti-fascists tended to be socialists, communists and Jews. The college campuses of Oxford and Cambridge were centres of torrid debate when carefree John Gorton from Melbourne walked into the middle of it.

In January 1934, Lord Rothermere wrote a signed article in his mass-selling Daily Mail headlined “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”. His lordship praised UK fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists for their “sound, commonsense Conservative doctrine”. He gave the party’s Chelsea address to encourage recruits to sign up. For several days, Rothermere’s call to fascism became the country’s major talking point and students on Oxford’s campus were drawn into the debate.

In the 1930s British parliamentary life was morbidly chaotic with politicians shouting at each other but going nowhere. (Sound familiar?). Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had ratted on his own party to form a National Government in 1931with other Labour turncoats, Tories and Liberals. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had brought the Great Depression to the shores of Great Britain resulting in record levels of unemployment. On the left, Marxists maintained that capitalism was to blame. On the right, hardline capitalists blamed the Soviet Union’s “export” of Bolshevism and hailed the economic “success” of Mr Mussolini in Italy and Mr Hitler in Germany.

Britain’s National Government of 1931: Ramsay MacDonald seated centre, Stanley Baldwin second from left, Neville Chamberlain standing second from right

The global picture was fraught with danger. The Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria in 1931 and established a puppet state called Manchukuo loyal to Tokyo’s military regime. The invasion rendered the League of Nations useless and the diplomatic protests by Washington and London were ignored. It emboldened Europe’s fascist regimes to embark on greater military adventures. Communist anti-war groups from Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics (LSE) and University College, London, met over Easter 1932 to co-ordinate communist party anti-war activity throughout British universities, according to an MI5 report.

Half the Tory Party wanted to be friends with Adolf Hitler, as well as most of the House of Lords and two-thirds of Fleet Street’s proprietors and editors. Newspaper historian Lord Francis Williams wrote: “I remember when newspaper editors – myself among them – were summoned to Whitehall to be lectured by [Prime Minister] Mr Neville Chamberlain, [Foreign Secretary] Sir Samuel Hoare and other Ministers of varying authority and clarity of mind on the duty of newspapers to be polite to Hitler.”

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler in 1938

Gorton’s disillusionment with the Tory Party and the Labour Party continued to grow. He watched as a procession of Prime Ministers – Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain – kept British voters in a state of sleep-walking by repeating the passive message that the rise of European fascism was not a threat to the British way of life. Gorton recognised that it was leaving Britain dangerously unprepared. Australia’s Attorney-General Robert Menzies toured Nazi Germany in 1938 observing that the “abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty and of the pleasant things in life has something rather magnificent about it … they have erected the state, with Hitler at its head, into a sort of religion which produces spiritual exaltation that one cannot but admire.” Gorton, by then back in Australia, was aghast.

At the age of 21, somewhat older than other undergraduates, Gorton arrived in the university town to study for the Brasenose entrance examination. While studying, he boarded with a naval couple and took flying lessons at the local aerodrome. It was an idyllic time in Gorton’s life. He was young, handsome, bright and the world was at his fingertips. He was fulfilling one of the great passions of his life – learning to fly – and he was on the doorstep of one of great universities of the Western world.

The de Havilland DH60

He joined the Oxford University Air Squadron and obtained a pilot’s licence by training on de Havilland DH60s, or Gipsy Moths. “We flew terrible old crates, put together with spit,” he recalled. His British Air Ministry licence misnamed him “John Gray [sic] Gorton”, recorded his nationality as “British” and entered his birthplace incorrectly as “Wellington, New Zealand”.

But controversy arose, as it so often would later. The naval officer’s wife regularly visited Gorton’s room at night but their trysting came to an embarrassing end when the husband came home unexpectedly and found them in bed together. “He went off one way, and she went off in another,” recorded Gorton’s official biographer Ian Hancock.

Gorton passed Oxford’s entrance requirements and official records show that he entered the privileged world of Brasenose as a “commoner” (i.e. he did not hold a scholarship or exhibition) on 8 October 1932. Alexander Downer from Adelaide and a classmate from Geelong Grammar, and David Hay, also a classmate from Geelong Grammar who became a high-flying diplomat and civil servant, were among Gorton’s college friends. This trio of silver-tailed patricians were all destined for Great Things and their lives would cross again.

In Gorton’s day, Brasenose students were still boasting of the role they played in breaking the 1926 General Strike, when only eight undergraduates refused to volunteer as blacklegs to undermine the miners’ resistance. The college’s Tory board of governors were intensely proud of Brasenose’s sports-mad culture that turned most students into City idlers and rather dull conservatives. Colin Cowdrey (1932-2000), a future England Test cricketer, would be a notable exception.

Master spy Kim Philby

But external events in Britain, Europe and around the world, notably the rise of fascism and the Great Depression, had turned the Oxford campus into a hotbed of student politics. Eighty miles away at Cambridge University, undergraduates Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, were influenced so dramatically that they became communists. They joined the Soviet spy service, the KGB, using the “old boy network” to disguise their treason and to burrow deep inside the Foreign Office, the spy agencies MI5 and MI6, the War Office and the media.

Decades later when the dust had well and truly settled on the Cambridge spy network, it was innocently asked: “If the KGB recruited a spy network at Cambridge, why didn’t it establish a network at Oxford as well?” It was a good question, and so was this: “No student at Cambridge or Oxford ever came to MI5 and confessed, ‘I was recruited as a Russian spy at university in the 1930s and I want to tell you the name of my recruiter and who was in my cell’.” Obviously, students followed the old rule – what happened on campus stayed on campus. Or perhaps, the British spooks had a very good idea who was “unreliable” but decided to “keep on eye” on them rather make arrests and cause a public scandal.

Gorton followed Britain’s divisive debate. He instinctively disliked Britain’s appeasers and held no illusions about the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany: “I was sure that Hitler would bring on a war,” he said. On 9 February 1933, 10 days after Adolf Hitler was declared chancellor of Germany, the Oxford Union staged its “King and Country” debate. The motion “that this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” was carried by 275 votes to 153. The motion was proposed by Kenelm Hubert Digby of St John’s College and opposed by Balliol’s K R F Steel-Maitland. However, the most forceful and colourful speech was given by Quintin Hogg, later to become Lord Hailsham, the Tory Party chairman. He was nicknamed “Old Gas and Gaiters”, the name of a 1960s UK television sitcom.

Oxford Union 1933 Standing Committee, organisers of the ‘King and Country’ debate

Digby bravely summoned the winning votes saying: “It is no coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification for the last war [World War 1, 1914-18] was that it was the war to end all wars. If that were untrue it was a dastardly lie: if it is true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?”

Philosopher Cyril Joad delivered a passionate pacifist argument saying that the motion really meant “this house will never commit murder on a huge scale whenever the government decided it should be so”. Although limited wars had been justified in the past, he said, the scale of destruction now possible with modern weapons meant that war had become unthinkable. Joad’s argument was exploded in August 1945 when the US government dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fleet Street quickly whipped up a frenzy of indignation against the rebellious students. “DISLOYALTY AT OXFORD: GESTURE TOWARDS THE REDS”, shouted the headline in The Telegraph while Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express ranted against the verdict: “There is no question but that the woozy-minded Communists, the practical jokers and the sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great success in the publicity that has followed this victory. Even the plea of immaturity, or the irresistible passion of the undergraduate for posing, cannot excuse such a contemptible and indecent action as the passing of that resolution.”

Premises of the Oxford Union

A small parcel of 275 white feathers – one for every student who had voted “Yes” – was sent anonymously to the Student Union’s post box. When a second batch arrived, Union president Frank Hardie said all “Yes” voters would be awarded two white feathers instead of one and laughed it off. Speaking to the Oxford Union, Winston Churchill condemned the motion saying: “That abject, squalid, shameless, avowal … It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom.” In the days ahead, Oxford’s “pledge” was adopted by the University of Manchester and the University of Glasgow before Westminster politicians and Fleet Street editors realised that they were losing the public debate and the controversy was allowed to die down. For the record, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 it was Oxford University students, past and present, who answered the call in their hundreds.

Gorton told friends he did not attend the debate but he cannot have been left unmoved by the politics swirling around the colleges, even at very sporty Brasenose. He excelled as an oarsman in the college’s champion rowing team and spent hours training on the River Isis. He was a larrikin too who enjoyed carousing at the college bar and was once caught climbing over the college’s spiked wall after a late night out. If caught once again, he was warned, he would be “sent down” i.e. expelled.

Despite his obvious love of sport, Gorton was drawn to politics as well. During student vacations, he travelled twice to the Spanish town of Cadaques in Catalonia on the Mediterranean coast. He was accompanied by his closest friend at Brasenose, Arthur Brown, a card-carrying Communist, who was to become his brother-in-law.

International Brigade volunteers on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war

His imagination was fired by the battle which later erupted between Franco’s Catholic Falangists (fascists) and the Republican militias who were supported by international brigade irregulars from Britain, Europe, North America and Australia. He was especially attracted to war correspondents who led dangerous lives reporting from the front line and vowed to become one himself.

On his second holiday trip to northern Spain in 1934, Gorton met 18-year-old Bettina Edith Brown, a Quaker student from the United States who was studying languages at the Sorbonne. A year later, after living on and off together in Oxford and Paris, they decided to get married. With some trepidation, Bettina informed her domineering mother with the news of their forthcoming wedding. In response, her mother sent an urgent telegram saying: “Don’t do anything, am catching next boat [to England].”

Bettina Brown – Mrs Gorton

In a burst of youthful exuberance, the couple raced to the 12th century St Giles’ Anglican Church in the centre of Oxford where they were married telling the rector that Bettina was 21 (she was 20). Gorton was 23 and studying for his final year. Under college law, undergraduates were banned from marriage if they didn’t have formal permission from the college but the authorities waived the rule in Gorton’s case.

Instead, the vice chancellor held a wedding party – a males only affair from which Bettina was barred. His American bride was forced to spend her wedding night alone, returning to Paris the following day “very disappointed”. “We both were,” Gorton admitted. “But she’s a philosophical sort of girl.” A few weeks later Gorton graduated with respectable upper-second-class honours in modern history.

As it happened, Gorton’s studies at Brasenose were aided by his tutor, William Stallybrass, a law fellow of Brasenose who later became college principal from 1936-1948. William Teulon Swan Stallybrass, a successful barrister, changed his surname from Sonnenschein to Stallybrass to escape the fierce anti-German sentiment generated during World War One. As a result, he was nicknamed “Sonners” by students and staff.

William Stallybrass

With the very influential Stallybrass in his corner, Gorton was assured of preferment and promotion. The colonial from Melbourne impressed his sports-obsessed tutor by excelling at rowing, cricket and football. Stallybrass’s apparent success meant that he was promoted to become principal of Brasenose, a position he held from 1936 until 1948. He is fondly remembered for leading undergraduates on wildly bawdy exploits but drew the line when they returned from one night on the town with a bunch of trophies, including “ashtrays from various pubs, the ‘LADIES’ notice from the Clarence [pub] at Exeter and a milk churn from Seaton Junction”. Stallybrass was indignant but still took a photo of the trophies for posterity. The stolen “LADIES” sign adorned the back window of his car.

Stallybrass came to a sticky end. After World War 2, when Brasenose governors audited the books and became alarmed by the college’s falling academic results, steps were taken to replace him. However, according to college statutes the Principal could only be dismissed if he “alienated college property” or was guilty of “great incontinence or intolerable negligence, voluntary murder, or such thing as may cause him to be deem’d irregular” and was “afflicted with a contagious incurable distemper”. No charge was ever brought because “Sonners”, returning on a midnight train from Paddington to Oxford, fell from his carriage as the train hurtled through Buckinghamshire and was killed. Somewhat ambiguously, one obituary said he was “almost blind” at the time of the accident.

At college, John Gorton was an active member of the Boat Club and rowed in the First Torpid in February 1933 and in the Eights. (Torpid is a boat race down narrow rivers where rowers are allowed to “bump” other competitors to damage their chances of winning). The following year he coached the First Torpid and elected captain of the Boat Club in April 1934. He also helped to coach the Second Eight and rowed Stroke in the First Eight.

As soon as he received his academic results, Gorton joined his wife. He had no intention of hanging around for the formal graduation ceremony and its ritual wearing of gowns and mortarboards. The couple started their life together by travelling to the United States to spend some time with Bettina’s widowed mother, Grace.

When that became suffocating they travelled around America inspecting the historical monuments in Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles. At the start of the New Year, they returned to Melbourne where they were given a lavish welcome masterminded by John’s father.

Gorton was restless to start work and he told his father he had his heart set on starting work on Sir Keith Murdoch’s Melbourne Herald. He had learnt from his Oxford experiences that becoming a journalist was the best way to be involved in the “action”. His role models were Spanish civil war correspondents George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Koestler and fellow Melburnian Alan Moorehead.

Legendary Australian journalist Alan Moorehead

However, Gorton’s newspaper career was halted when his father suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. Suffering from terminal cancer, he died on 27 August 1936.

Cremated on the day of his death, his deceased father was listed as John Rose Gorton and his wife as “Kitty” O’Brien. John “Guy” Gorton and his sister Ruth were recorded as the surviving children. Gorton continued to supply the incorrect spelling of his own name.

John Grey Gorton and his wife Bettina moved to the family’s citrus orchard at Kangaroo Point in western Victoria and started to build a family residence with money borrowed from the bank. In the Depression, it was no mean feat and the couple struggled. “It was all pretty strange and primitive up there – no electric light, a kerosene fridge. You had to split wood to start the stove,” Gorton recalled.

Before the war: John and Bettina Gorton with children Joanna, 3 and Michael, 2

The Gortons had three tiny children, Joanna, Michael and Robin, when Europe erupted in war. “Time I got going,” Gorton told his wife, and reported to the local recruitment office to volunteer as a pilot. He was unable to supply a birth certificate so he signed a statutory declaration stating he was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 9 September 1911. He entered his correct name, John Grey Gorton, on another enlistment document.

At a second attempt to reiterate his case for recruitment, the shambolically dressed farmer was told he could not become a pilot without having a proper education. Gorton startled the official when he said that he had an Oxford University honours degree. “Will that do?” he asked sardonically.

After training in Victoria and NSW, Gorton returned to England to join the RAF flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. In January 1942 he was ordered to Singapore to help save Britain’s land, sea and air base from the invading Japanese Imperial Army. In a dog fight with Japanese Zeros Gorton’s Hurricane was hit and crash-landed on Bintan Island, south of Singapore. Local white settlers came out of the bush, looked at the pilot’s bloodied body and said: “No use, he’s a goner.” He ruefully recalled years later: “So they very kindly stole my watch and wallet and went off and left me.”

Gorton gains his wings – before the crash

Returning to Australia on a rescue ship, Gorton suffered further misfortune when the vessel was torpedoed and the wounded airman and his companions drifted at sea for 24 hours before a second rescue by the corvette, HMAS Ballarat. Gorton’s face had been smashed in the crash. He was unrecognisable. In an era before plastic surgery and facial reconstruction, the best that doctors could do was operate on his nose, forehead and mouth with the aim of overcoming the black and blue, elephant man look. “There wasn’t much anyone could do, except more or less at the first aid level,” Gorton said later. “A medical orderly or a doctor or someone stuck something up my nose and straightened it a bit. He said, ‘That’s all I can do for you’.”

One month before his official discharge from war duties, Flight Lieutenant Gorton checked himself into the plastic and facio-maxillary unit at Melbourne’s Heidelberg Military Hospital for a series of operations on his face. He went under the knife of B K Rank (later Sir Benjamin Rank, Kt CMG KStj Mb LRCP FRCS FRACS), the trail-blazer of plastic surgery in Australia. Surgeons broke his mangled nose and reset it; they carved out part of his hip bone and inserted it under his eye socket. The operations and recovery were excruciatingly painful. In constant agony, Gorton slept fitfully waking every few minutes to ask the time before drifting off again. He was discharged from the hospital on 1 December 1944 and from the RAAF on 5 December.

After facial surgery

At the time he was demobbed, Gorton was a very damaged person, physically and psychologically. The golden boy from Geelong Grammar and Brasenose College had managed – just – to survive the furnace of world war in which 60 million people had been killed. He had been to hell and back, but this was before PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) had become recognised.

He had come down from Oxford with a good degree, a young wife and a restless ambition to do something with his life.

Oxford and the war had matured him and he had grown up politically. He had received the best classical education and learned to drink, smoke, womanise and become a decorated war hero. But after his Hurricane was shot down just before the Fall of Singapore in February 1942 Gorton saw his smashed face in a mirror. It was someone he didn’t know or recognise.

“I looked in a mirror and saw this stranger, this great ugly brute,” recalled Gorton, “and I turned around and looked over my shoulder to see who it was … Well, there wasn’t much anyone could do. Wasn’t much use crying about it. If you get your face pushed in, it’s pushed in”.

Although Gorton’s primary post-war task was rebuilding his family life and the farm, his mind was already made up. “I was more drawn to politics than ever,” he said. For unexplained reasons, a career in journalism had been dumped. He had been politicised at Oxford University by the tumultuous events in Europe driven by the Great Depression and World War 2. While most veterans resolved to keep their heads down, their thoughts to themselves and live quiet existences devoted to their families, jobs and gardens, Gorton decided to come out fighting.

He volunteered for a vacant place on Kerang Shire Council and when no one else nominated he became a local councillor on 10 September 1946. His closest friends thought he was “natural Labor” and a “Curtin” man, referring to Australia’s wartime Prime Minister John Curtin who died in 1945. Others were convinced was a Country Party loyalist when it was imbued with the virtues of “rural socialism”. Instead, he deceived all of them by joining Robert Menzies newly-formed Liberal Party of Australia.

Sir John Gorton Library, Kerang shire

One person who may have understood Gorton’s startling evolution was writer John Buchan, a Brasenose boarder in 1895 and author of the espionage thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps. In an after-dinner speech in 1935 at his old Oxford college Buchan said: “Brasenose with all her virtues and her frailties, her surface philistinism, her very real culture, her physical robustness, her intellectual vitality, her rich generosity – there is nothing in England more intimately English than Brasenose.”

Next week: John Gorton’s most famous speech

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook is suspended temporarily while my revelations about Prime Minister John Gorton become my No 1 priority. Coverage of the NSW and Federal Elections, Brexit and Trump will resume shortly. A M.


One comment

  1. Amazing, invaluable history coloured with your usual eye for detail, for humour and recounting of the absurd. Many thanks ! Can’t see Alex as ‘a Brasenose man’ but pithy portrayal of that influential privileged lot. Shades of Cameron, Boris J and W Rees-Mogg?

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