Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin

Robert William Rankin (1907-1942), naval officer, was born on 3 June 1907 at Cobar, New South Wales, second of three children of Australian-born parents Francis John Rankin, sharebroker's clerk, and his wife Florence May, née Harvey. Robert was educated at Merrylands Public School, Sydney, and Parramatta High School. In 1921 he entered the RANC, Jervis Bay. Nicknamed 'Oscar', he excelled at Rugby Union football, became cadet captain and graduated in 1924 with prizes for engineering and mathematics. Having served as a Midshipman in HMA Ships Brisbane and Melbourne, Rankin undertook training with the RN in 1926. Next year he attended the Junior Officers' War Course at the RN College, Greenwich, where he was one of six Sub-Lieutenants whose essays were commended by the Admiralty. Following further courses at Portsmouth, he joined the newly commissioned cruiser HMAS Canberra in 1928 and returned in her to Australia where he was promoted Lieutenant in August 1929.

Deciding to specialise in hydrography, Rankin joined the survey ship HMAS Moresby on 18 January 1934. Apart from occasional periods on shore, he charted Australian and New Guinea waters until February 1938. His superiors regarded him as a keen, hard-working officer, if somewhat lacking in powers of command. At the Bellevue Hotel, Brisbane, on 4 October 1937 he married with Catholic rites Mary Glennie Broughton, a 25-year-old nurse.

Rankin had been promoted Lieutenant Commander in August 1937. Sent to Britain on exchange duty, he was posted (March 1938) to the Home Fleet's HMS Gleaner, a minesweeper engaged in survey work. After courses at HMS Dryad, he was appointed (December 1939) to the repair ship HMS Resource as First Lieutenant. Serving in the Mediterranean and South Atlantic under difficult wartime conditions, he proved a 'conspicuous success'.

Back in New South Wales from September 1941, Rankin was employed on a survey of the Broken Bay-Pittwater area. Early in 1942 he was posted to the sloop HMAS Yarra, with the intention that he would succeed (Sir) Hastings Harrington [q.v.] in command. On 5 February, while under air attack near Singapore, Yarra took on board 1804 people from the burning troop-ship Empress of Asia. Harrington commended Rankin's help in organising the rescue.

Rankin assumed command of Yarra on 11 February 1942 and performed escort duties around the Netherlands East Indies. At 6:30 on the morning of 4 March, while escorting a small convoy from Java to Australia, the sloop encountered a Japanese squadron comprising three cruisers and two destroyers. Rankin immediately transmitted a sighting report, ordered the convoy to scatter, and placed Yarra between the enemy and the fleeing ships. The sloop made smoke and vainly engaged the enemy with her 4-inch (102mm) guns, but the convoy was quickly overwhelmed. Yarra fought to the last. Some time after 8am Rankin finally gave the order to abandon ship. A direct hit on the bridge killed him minutes later. Of Yarra's complement of 151 men, only 13 were rescued. Rankin's wife and daughter survived him.


Richard Pelvin, Rankin, Robert William (1907-1942), in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 16, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 58, as modified for Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs, No. 17.

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