Vice Admiral Sir Wilfred Hastings Harrington

Chief of Navy (1962-1965)

RADM Sir Wilfred Hastings Harrington

Wilfred Hastings ('Arch') Harrington was born on 17 May 1906 at Maryborough, Queensland, second child of native-born parents Hubert Ernest Harrington, solicitor, and his wife Laura Irene, née Barton. After attending Wychbury Preparatory School, Maryborough, in 1920 'Arch' entered the RAN College at Jervis Bay, where he excelled scholastically, and gained colours for rugby union football and hockey. In 1924 he went to sea as a Midshipman in the cruisers HMA Ships Brisbane and Adelaide.

Later that year Harrington was sent to Britain for training with the RN and joined the battleship HMS Malaya, in the Mediterranean Fleet. While an Acting Sub Lieutenant at the RN College, Greenwich, he was commended by the Admiralty in September 1927 for an outstanding war-course essay. Back in Australia, he was promoted Lieutenant in 1928 and served in RAN ships until 1933 when he returned to Britain on appointment to the cruiser HMS Cornwall, which was deployed to the China Station for three years. Home again, he was a Lieutenant Commander (from December 1936) and Executive Officer (from January 1937) of HMAS Swan.

Following seven months on the staff of the RAN College at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria, on 30 August 1939 Harrington assumed command of the sloop HMAS Yarra. In August 1940 the ship sailed for Aden. There she was attached to the Red Sea Force. In the war against Iraq (May 1941) she supported troops occupying positions on the west bank of the Shatt al Arab. On 24 May Harrington commanded naval elements of a combined operation at Habib Shawi. He was mentioned in dispatches and promoted Commander in June.

When the British moved against Persia on 25 August, Yarra sailed down the Shatt al Arab from Basra to Khorramshahr. That morning she sank the sloop Babr, captured two gunboats in the Karun River, and landed troops. On the 29 August at Bandar Abbas she saved the burning Italian ship Hilda, and took her in tow. Commodore Cosmo Graham, the Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf, observed that, having given Harrington an order, he was able to dismiss the matter from his mind until Harrington reported, 'as is his custom, that the task has been successfully achieved'. Harrington was awarded the DSO.

In November-December Yarra was in the Mediterranean, escorting convoys which supplied Tobruk, Libya. By January 1942 she was in the Far East, running between Singapore and the Sunda Strait. On 5 February, near Singapore, the ship suffered superficial damage when the Japanese made an air raid on the convoy she was protecting. Manoeuvring Yarra to the aid of a transport, Empress of Asia, which had been stricken in the attack, Harrington 'did a fine rescue job', laying his vessel's bow alongside the liner's stern and taking off 1804 people. He relinquished his command on 10 February and was transferred to HMAS Australia in March as Executive Officer. For his organisation and administration of that ship in the South West Pacific Area, particularly at Tulagi and Guadalcanal in July-August, he was again mentioned in dispatches. From July 1944 he commanded the destroyer, HMAS Quiberon, in operations chiefly around the Netherlands East Indies.

On New Year's Day 1945 at St Anne's Anglican Church, Strathfield, Sydney, Harrington married a nursing sister Agnes Janet, daughter of Cyril Legh Winser who had been private secretary to governors of South Australia in 1915-40 and Australian amateur golf champion in 1921. Harrington served in the shore establishment, HMAS Penguin, in 1945-46 and was promoted Captain in 1947 while attached to the Department of Defence, Melbourne. His command of the destroyer, HMAS Warramunga, from April 1948 to January 1950 included a three-month deployment to Japanese waters. In 1950-51 he was Director of Manning at Navy Office, Melbourne. He attended the Imperial Defence College, London, in 1952 and spent the next two years in the Admiralty's Naval Equipment Department at Bath. Home again, he commanded the aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, from 1955 and was appointed CBE in 1957.

As Rear Admiral (March 1957), Harrington was Flag Officer in Charge, East Australia Area, in 1957-58, Second Naval Member of the Naval Board (responsible for personnel) in 1958-59, and Flag Officer Commanding HM Australian Fleet from 1959. He was appointed CB in 1962. On 24 February that year he was promoted Vice Admiral and succeeded Sir Henry Burrell as Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) in Canberra. Harrington was elevated to KBE in 1963.

Over several years before Harrington's appointment as CNS, the Navy had experienced a series of unrelated accidents with increasingly serious consequences. Then, in October 1963, five junior officers from Sydney drowned when the whaler they were sailing capsised near Hook Island, North Queensland. In February 1964 eighty-two lives were lost in a collision between the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, and the destroyer, HMAS Voyager, off the New South Wales coast near Jervis Bay. Controversy surrounding these events dominated the second half of Harrington's term.

The tragedies provoked a crisis of public confidence in the Navy and heightened concerns outside the Service that professional standards had declined since the departure, a decade earlier, of the last British flag officer to be seconded to Australia. Harrington enlisted the support of two Ministers for the Navy - (Sir) John Gorton (to December 1963) and (Sir) Frederick Chaney (from March 1964) - who were prepared to defend the RAN's reputation in the face of widespread criticism.

Harrington's personal belief was simply that the Service was having a run of bad luck that had to end. In the Naval Board's confidential submission to Federal Cabinet on the findings of Sir John Spicer's royal commission into the loss of Voyager, Harrington argued that the failures and shortcomings which led to the disaster were unconnected, and could not have been foreseen and prevented. Moreover, he considered that the incident revealed no fundamental flaw in the administration and operation of the RAN. He was, however, privately critical of the Captains of both Melbourne and Voyager.

In the wake of Voyager's loss, Harrington obtained permission from the Admiralty for the long-term loan of the destroyer, HMS Duchess. He skilfully managed the Navy's programme for acquiring equipment, persuading the Chiefs of Staff Committee to accept it without major amendment and gaining government approval for the construction of two new frigates, Swan and Torrens, as permanent replacements for Voyager. These achievements revealed his resolution and determination, and reflected the close relationship he enjoyed with senior British naval officers, notably Earl Mountbatten, with whom he maintained a personal correspondence.

Harrington retired on 24 February 1965. Although the RAN's public standing had declined, levels of Government funding remained high and there was no shortage of recruits. It was also to his credit that the Navy was in a high state of preparedness to meet the challenges of its involvement (from 1964) in supporting Malaysia against Indonesian Confrontation and of its subsequent operations in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, he continued the policy of reducing the RAN's reliance on Britain and increasing its ability to operate with the USN.

A stern disciplinarian, Harrington was regarded by many as an unfriendly man, yet, to those he came to know and trust, he was sympathetic. Most who sailed under him admired his ability. He was driven by ambition and by a determination to do his best, whatever the circumstances. Although old-fashioned in some ways, he was receptive to new ideas and innovative in applying them. All who encountered him took him seriously, but the tufts of hair which he grew on his cheeks provided a source of humour. On noticing a sailor who affected similar whiskers, Harrington said: 'On me they look dignified; on you they look bloody ridiculous'. The sailor was ordered to be clean-shaven.

In September 1965 Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed Sir Hastings Commissioner-General to represent Australia at the Canadian international exhibition, to be held in 1967 and known as Expo 67. Harrington died of hypertensive cerebrovascular disease on 17 December 1965 in Canberra Community Hospital; at his own wish, he was buried at sea off Port Jackson. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him.

Harrington's brother Charles Frederick (1914-1941) was born on 22 June 1914 at Eagle Junction, Brisbane. He was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, New South Wales, and the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1938). Appointed Surgeon Lieutenant, RAN Reserve, on 1 September 1939, he was mobilised for full-time service in October 1940 and briefly posted to the auxiliary, HMAS Wyrallah, before joining Yarra's sister ship, HMAS Parramatta, on the East Indies Station in January 1941. She was transferred to the Mediterranean in June.

An inspirational figure, Harrington trained a crew from his staff in the use of a Vickers machine gun, mounted it aft and took charge of it in action. East of Tobruk, on 24 June, a force of some fifty enemy bombers attacked Parramatta and the sloop, HMS Auckland, which was sunk. Parramatta recovered survivors as the air raids continued. Harrington turned the officers' and petty officers' messes into emergency sickbays, and he and his men worked tirelessly in caring for the wounded and those suffering from shock. He was awarded the DSC (gazetted 1942).

Charles Harrington was presumed lost in action on 27 November 1941 when his ship sank after being torpedoed north-east of Tobruk by the German submarine, U-559. Of Parramatta's complement of 9 officers and 151 sailors, all save 23 sailors died.