Rear Admiral Denis Adrian Pritchard

Denis Adrian Pritchard was born on 26 April 1895 at Petersham, Sydney, NSW the son of William and Florence Pritchard. He was educated at Hayfield Preparatory School (Homebush) and Sydney Grammar School before studying at the University of Sydney and graduating with a BSc in 1916. He was employed as a munitions worker during World War I and continued to study medicine at the University of Sydney. After graduating (MB) he joined the Royal Australian Navy, at the Garden Island depot ship HMAS Penguin as a probationary Surgeon Lieutenant on 3 August 1923. His first ship was the destroyer HMAS Anzac (June-September 1924), followed by service in the destroyer depot ship HMAS Platypus as the ship’s Medical Officer, and for service in destroyers as required, until November 1926.

Pritchard then served briefly in the light cruiser HMAS Melbourne before joining the survey vessel HMAS Moresby for charting work in Queensland waters during March 1927-September 1928. This was arduous work for Pritchard as the ship's company conducted the hard and often difficult work of surveying the remote Barrier Reef searching for navigable passages. Injuries were commonplace and likely to turn septic in the hot climate, and with the risks from sharks, sea snakes and box jellyfish ever present. In late 1928 he was appointed to Penguin as one of the four RAN Medical Officers supporting naval establishments in the Sydney region. Denis Pritchard married Mary Campbell Dumaresq Portus at Singleton, NSW in 1929 and they later had a daughter. He was promoted Surgeon Lieutenant Commander in August 1929.

During his time in Penguin Pritchard was loaned to the sea plane carrier HMAS Albatross during her sea trials, and also served briefly at the RAN College, Jervis Bay as the Medical Officer during January-July 1930. In early 1934 he travelled to England for training at the Royal Naval Hospital Chatham and to complete a number of professional courses, including the anti-gas course (reflecting the concern that in future conflicts mustard and chlorine gas would still be used despite being banned by the League of Nations).  Pritchard also conducted postgraduate education in Australia to enhance his professional ability by completing a Diploma in Tropical Medicine in 1931 at Sydney University, and becoming a Member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1935. In 1938 he was a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

While serving overseas he was promoted Surgeon Commander in August 1934, and upon returning to Australia in mid-1935 was appointed to HMAS Cerberus as a senior member of the depot medical staff responsible for the medical treatment of hundreds of officers and sailors under training. Pritchard joined the light cruiser HMAS Sydney as the ship's Medical Officer in November 1936, with the ship operating in Australian and New Zealand waters. In July 1937 he transferred to the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra, flagship of the Australian Squadron, where he served as the ship's Medical Officer for over 800 men, and also as the Squadron Medical Officer. During his service in Canberra the cruiser operated in Australian and New Zealand waters as well as visiting ports in New Guinea and the Netherlands East Indies. Following the outbreak of war on 2 September 1939, Canberra conducted patrol and convoy escort duties in Australian waters. In June 1940 with Canberra proceeding to the Cape of Good Hope, the Rear Admiral Commanding the Australia Squadron, and his staff, were transferred to the light cruiser HMAS Perth.

Perth remained on the Australia Station for the next six months, conducting patrol and escort duties. In November 1940 Surgeon Commander Pritchard, who had served continuously at sea for four years, was posted ashore to HMAS Leeuwin (the shore depot in Fremantle, WA) where he served briefly, before being appointed to Penguin in late December as the Medical Officer in charge of the Naval Wing at the Prince of Wales Hospital. He joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia in late April 1942 as the ship's Medical Officer and also as the Squadron Medical Officer. Pritchard’s predecessor, Surgeon Commander James Flattery, had recently dealt with the death on board of Stoker John Joseph Riley who had been stabbed and mortally injured by two other stokers on 12 March 1942.

Shortly after Pritchard joined Australia the cruiser sailed from Sydney with Rear Admiral John Gregory Crace, RN (commanding the Australian Squadron) embarked. Crace was given command of Task Force 17.3 (including the cruisers USS Chicago, HMAS Hobart and three US Navy destroyers) which was sent to intercept a Japanese force heading via the Jomard Passage towards Port Moresby. This action was part of what was to become known as the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942). Crace’s force did not locate the Japanese surface forces, which had turned back, but was heavily attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers and high level bombers.  While the attacks were pressed home with determination, none of the Allied ships were hit although there were several near misses and some Japanese aircraft were shot down. This battle marked the first real defeat for Japan, in that its plan to invade Port Moresby by sea was thwarted and her forces then attempted to seize Port Moresby by a land assault via Milne Bay and Kokoda.

Australia was to see much action over the next two years, including the landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in August 1942, where her sister ship Canberra was sunk as a result of the battle of Savo Island on the night 8/9 August. In 1942-43 the cruiser was involved in patrol work in the Coral Sea and was present when the light cruiser HMAS Hobart was torpedoed and badly damaged by a Japanese submarine to the west of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) on 20 July 1943. The end of 1943 saw Australia providing naval gunfire support for US Marines landing at Cape Gloucester on the western end of New Britain. In 1944, Australia, as part of Task Force 74, supported the successful Allied landings at Hollandia (Jayapura), Wakde and Biak on the north coast of New Guinea. At the Biak landings in May-June there were frequent attacks by Japanese aircraft including torpedo bombers, but Australia sustained no damage during these operations. 

It was a war weary Pritchard who was appointed to Penguin as the Port Medical Officer Sydney in July 1944. He was promoted Surgeon Captain on 31 December 1945, and the following January was appointed as Director of Naval Medical Services (DNMS) at Navy Office in Melbourne. He was to serve as DNMS for the next nine years, during which time the RAN underwent a significant demobilisation from its wartime strength of nearly 40,000 personnel, while maintaining forces in Australian waters, New Guinea (based at HMAS Tarangau at Manus Island), Southeast Asia, in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (1945-1952) and also on active service in the Korean War (1950-53). All these areas of operation required robust and diverse medical facilities and trained personnel, which was Pritchard’s responsibility. His service to the Navy was of a very high order, particularly in re-establishing the peacetime medical service of Royal Australian Naval Reserve. Pritchard was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on the 1952 New Year’s Honours List, for services to medicine in the RAN. He was promoted Rear Admiral on 20 March 1952 and remained as DNMS.

Pritchard was a quiet and reserved person and because of this he was regarded by some as aloof and even a little difficult. He was a good doctor but was always a naval officer in outlook; a strict disciplinarian and a stickler for the rules. He was honorary physician to the Governor-General (HRH the Duke of Gloucester) and also honorary physician to HM King George VI from 1946 to 1951, and to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II from 1952. Privately he enjoyed gardening and was a renowned authority on camellias. He was also an excellent cabinet maker and these two hobbies took up much of his spare time. Surgeon Rear Admiral Denis Adrian Pritchard was due to retire in late April 1955. However in early 1955, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away in Melbourne on 11 March 1955.