Brigadier John Gilbert
C.B.E., D.S.O., M.V.O., C.St.J. E.D., F.A.I.M.,
A.M.A.I.M.M., J.P., C.M.G.
Born in Adelaide in 1906, and educated at Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide. He enlisted in the 2/27th Battalion in 1940 (an original member) and finished the war in command of the 25th Battalion, having served in Darwin, the Middle East, New Guinea and Bougainville. He commanded the 9th Brigade in the C.M.F. from 1952-1955. He served as Honorary A.D.C. to the Governor-General from 1953-1956. Following the war he became the Manager of Quarry Industries Ltd. In January 1956, he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Police and in July 1957, was appointed Commissioner after being recalled from an overseas study tour of Police establishments following the sudden death of the Commissioner of Police. In 1960, 1965 and again in 1968 he represented Australia at the InterPol General Assembly and on each occasion whilst overseas visited various Police Forces to study their techniques and method of operation. In 1969 and again in 1972, at the request of the Prime Minister, he visited Papua New Guinea to advise respectively on Field Operations Training and Officer Component. The Queeensland Government requested his services also in 1969 and 1972 to examine and investigate their Police organisation and, on the second occasion, in an advisory capacity. While he was in office there was considerable progress in the organisation of the Police Department and the provision of equipment and buildings. He was responsible for increased efficiency and the provision of a structure on which a subsequent re-organisation programme was based.
In 1956 the South Australian Police Department was in some difficulties. The Commissioner, Mr Green, was a very sick man. There were only two Superintendents, one for the Country and the other for the Metropolitan area. The Government of the day was concerned about the situation and decided to find a responsible person to make a report on the running of the Police Department. They looked in the community and selected John McKinna. He was then the General Manager of Quarry Industries. He had been involved in the Militia since College days and held the rank of Brigadier. He had a distinguished War Service, was highly decorated and had received a high honour from King George 6th He was at that time an Honorary A.D.C. to the Governor General, Lord Slim. When approached to take the new temporary position of Deputy Commissioner for 1 year, he was not really interested. He already had a full life. Sometime later the position was advertised in the Press. He was again urged to apply. He put in a brief application with no references. Sometime after that he was telephoned, telling him that he had been appointed Deputy Commissioner and asked how soon he could take up the position.
He had had very little to do with the Police. There was an occasion one night at Norwood, when as a young man he was returning from a boxing lesson and went to the aid of a Police Officer who was having difficulties with a group of larrikins.
In Court next day one man complained that the young man assisting in the arrests had hit him on the ear and made it bleed. However, he obligingly pleaded guilty.
It could not have been an easy situation to walk into the hierarchy of the Police Department. It was inevitable that there would be some suspicion on the part of serving officers. Still, he was able to spend time with the different sections, visit Police Stations, and get out with the patrols and detectives. All the time he was listening and learning. During the year he was asked by the Government to accompany the Chief Secretary, Sir Lyell MeEwen, overseas to look into the administration of the Police Forces in Britain and America, to visit Scotland Yard and various Police Organizations. Sometime after they had been away they received the news that Mr Green, the Commissioner, had died. The Brigadier continued his task and was preparing the required report for the Government, when he was requested by the South Australian Government to return home by the 30th June 1957. On arrival home he was called into the Premier’s Office and offered the position of Commissioner. This caused him some soul-searching, as his old job had been kept open for him. Nevertheless, he could see a big challenge ahead and decided to accept.
He was then 50 years of age. The next 15 years were years of total dedication to the South Australian Police. He was ably assisted by his Secretary, our late member, Barbara Allan. She had then been Commissioners Secretary for 10 years and was as dedicated as he was. Due to his personal efforts the efficiency of the Police increased rapidly. New systems and procedures were introduced, and streamlined organisational changes were made. The morale of the Force was raised to an unprecedented degree, which resulted in the improved bearing of members, as well as their standing in the community.
He had long been involved in the training of young men in the Militia and his own profession of Engineer. He could see the need for better training for new entry men.
He owned a weekend cottage with five acres at Echunga. He could see that the cadets of that time were ill equipped for search and rescue work, lacking training in compass and map reading. He borrowed some tents from the Army and set up a camp on his own land in front of the cottage. From that small beginning emerged a Police Complex.
Gradually, with the approval of the Government, some adjoining land was purchased, first from a Mrs. Hegarty who owned the Hotel Rundle. It was some 90 acres. A larger piece of land, some 120 acres, was acquired from the Woods and Forests Department.
The Reserve became a place of activity for the Cadets. They were engaged on field exercises, as well as the development of the Reserve. Fencing was included in their duties. Trenches were dug for pipes, Land clearing progressed and a Small Arms Range was included. An area was sown with oat seed and green pasture was grown for the horses at Barracks.
Pedro Warman was the cook. The menu occasionally included grilled snake. The whole area was declared a Wild Life Sanctuary, perhaps because of the depredations of native species by Pedro Warman.
The Mounted Branch had long been wanting land for the Police Horses, where they could have plenty of space for grazing and soft ground beneath their feet, after the hard-standing of their working hours. The Commissioner was sympathetic to their needs. He was himself the last Commissioner to perform duty while mounted. This led to the establishment of an area set aside for the horses. Prior to this the horses had to be agisted in private paddocks, at cost to the Department.
With the Reserve up and running, the Commissioner saw a very real need for a Police Academy. In this objective he was warmly supported by Eric Meldrum, then responsible for Cadet Training. In 1961, the old Fort Largs, owned by the Army was to be disposed of by them. The Commissioner could see that this property would make an ideal situation for Police purposes. There were large buildings and some 34 acres of land.
He became concerned to learn that several other bodies were keen to buy the place, and there was a great risk, that with the usual delays of applying through slow Government channels it might mean that the Police would miss out.
He decided on a somewhat desperate measure. He would dash over to Canberra and secure the place before anybody else. He told no one but his secretary Barbara, who had to hold the Fort, in more ways that one, during his absence. He left one morning, flew to Canberra and set about the purchase agreement on behalf of the South Australian Government with no authority whatsoever, for the price of 1 30,000 and caught the 5.30 plane back to Adelaide. Contemplating what he had done he didn’t sleep very well that night. Next morning he sought an early appointment with the Premier, Tom Playford. The Premier greeted him jovially, saying,” Well, John, come in. Now, what do you want”
When the Commissioner told him the story of the previous days events, the Premier just sat there, looking at him as if it was a joke. Then he said “John, you shouldn‘t have done that. “He did a bit of grumbling, then said, “all right, we'll find the money somehow.” He was a shrewd man and could see the enormous benefit the purchase would be and as usual, they parted good friends. The Commonwealth had to wait until the next year's estimates for the Bill to be paid. They had added an extra 4 shillings and 10 pence, but nobody knew what the 4 shillings and 10 pence was for. The Commissioner offered to pay the 4/1O pence. but the Auditor waved it aside.
During his years as Police Commissioner for South Australia, John McKinna’s ability as an administrator became widely known. He was requested to enquire and report into the administration of both Queensland and Papua New Guinea Police.
By the time of his retirement in 1972 he had established a Police organization,
which was second to none in the nation, and we are his inheritors.
In retirement he was a foundation member of the Police Historical Society. When the members would still address him as “Sir” he would smile and say, “Call me John.” Many found it difficult to address the old Chief in this familiar way, because they had for so long held him in high esteem.
There have been many fine serving officers in the South Australian Police, and he is up there among the best.
We honour his memory with pride and affection.