Captain (Surgeon) Leonard Darby

By John Perryman

Surgeon Commander L Darby in full-dress uniform c.1922 (HMAS Cerberus Museum)
Surgeon Commander L Darby in full-dress uniform c.1922 (HMAS Cerberus Museum)

Leonard Darby was born in George Town, Tasmania, on the 3rd January 1889 and qualified as a medical practitioner at the University of Melbourne in 1912 with the degrees of MB. ChB. He joined the Royal Australian Navy on 23 September 1912 and served as a surgeon in HMAS Cerberus before joining the cruiser HMAS Sydney (I) on 21 June 1913.

Darby served in Sydney throughout World War I and was the senior surgeon in her when she intercepted the German cruiser SMS Emden at the Cocos Keeling Island group on 9 November 1914. During the ensuing action Darby and his small medical team tended to a stream of battle casualties. Many of the injuries were horrific in nature but in spite of this, and the appalling conditions in which his team found itself working, many lives were saved.

Following the action Sydney went to the aid of Emden which had been driven ashore on North Keeling Island. There, between seventy and eighty wounded German seamen were transferred by boat to Sydney where Darby, assisted by Surgeon Lieutenant ACR Todd, RAN and Dr HScOllerhead from Cocos Island, set about saving the lives of as many wounded men as they could. Together with Sydney’s sick berth attendants, they operated continuously from 18:00 to 06:00 the following morning.

The RAN Official History records:

it is perhaps worth while adding that the operations carried out under those exceptional conditions were so expertly done that in nearly all cases nothing remained for the land hospitals but to continue regular dressings and attention

Darby remained in Sydney until 16 June 1918 by which time he had been promoted Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander. He then returned to Australia serving in the depot ship HMAS Penguin for several years.

On promotion to Surgeon Commander, Darby joined the cruiser HMAS Melbourne on 22 May 1922 serving in her as the Fleet Medical Officer until May 1923. He then proceeded to the United Kingdom (UK) where he attended the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, before serving in the Royal Navy Hospital Haslar.

In November 1925 Darby’s loan to the Royal Navy ended and he returned to Australia serving in Penguin and in the naval wing of the Prince of Wales Hospital at Randwick, NSW. In 1927 he joined Navy Office, Victoria as the Director of Naval Medical Services with the temporary rank of Surgeon Captain. On 31 December 1932 Darby was confirmed in the rank of Surgeon Captain and at the same time appointed Honorary Surgeon to His Excellency the Governor General for a period of three years. This appointment was subsequently extended on several occasions before being terminated on 7 November 1940.

Surgeon Captain L. Darby c.1932
Surgeon Captain L. Darby c.1932

In December 1932 Surgeon Captain Darby returned to the UK where he undertook a three month post graduate course before again serving in the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar. He returned to Australia in 1934 joining HMAS Penguin, which at that time was the name given to the naval depot at Garden Island, Sydney.

In June 1939 Darby was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of his long and dedicated service to the RAN and medical services in general.

During World War II Darby served ashore in Sydney in Penguin, Rushcutter and Kuttabul in a number of medical appointments including Principle Medical Officer for Ships and Naval Establishments.

Following a long and distinguished career in the RAN Surgeon Captain Leonard Darby, CBE, MB, ChB, RAN transferred to the retired list on 24 January 1946. After retirement he lived in Queensland until he passed on 14 February 1980.

Group portrait of officers from the RAN light cruiser HMAS Sydney. The ship was on her way to the Atlantic after destroying the German raider SMS Emden at Cocos Island on 9 November 1914.
Group portrait of officers from the RAN light cruiser HMAS Sydney. The ship was on her way to the Atlantic after destroying the German raider SMS Emden at Cocos Island on 9 November 1914.

Back row, left to right: Assistant Paymaster Eric Kingsford-Smith; Engineer Lieutenant Cleon Dennis; Sub Lieutenant James M C Johnstone; Artificer Engineer G A Hutchinson; Lieutenant Basil Owen Bell-Salter; Lieutenant Frederick L Cavaye; Lieutenant Rupert Clare Garsia; Dr Arthur Charles Robert Todd; Gunner Lieutenant Denis E Rahilly. Middle row: Surgeon Lieutenant Leonard Darby; Engineer Lieutenant Lawrence Parsons Fowler; Lieutenant Commander John F Finlayson; Captain J C T Glossop; Paymaster Ernest Claude Norton; Chaplain Vivian Agincourt Little; Lieutenant Cuthbert John Pope (Navigator). Front row: Mr Alfred Moule Martin (Boatswain); Mr Edward Charles Behenna (Carpenter); Mr George B Salter (Gunner); Mr John C MacFarlane (Torpedo Gunner).