National Memorial to the Royal Australian Navy

In late 1983 the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), in consultation with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), invited suitably qualified sculptors and architects to submit designs for a national memorial to mark the 75th Anniversary of the formation of the RAN. The Commonwealth Naval Forces had been formed on 1 March 1901, from the previous colonial navies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, and the title ‘Royal’ was granted by King George V on 10 July 1911.

A panel of assessors met in January 1984 to consider the 61 registrations of interest and subsequently selected 14 entrants to proceed with their proposals. The assessors were Mr Anthony Powell (Chairman) and former Commissioner of the NCDC, Mr John Enfield (Secretary of the Department of Territories); Rear Admiral Ian Richards (Deputy Chief of Naval Staff); Surgeon Captain Austen Ferguson (Federal President of The Naval Association of Australia); and Mr Graeme Sturgeon (Director of Artbank - Department of Home Affairs and Environment).

Vice Admiral David Leach (Chief of Naval Staff) talking with Ante Dabro regarding his winning design for the National Memorial to the Royal Australian Navy.
Vice Admiral David Leach (Chief of Naval Staff) talking with Ante Dabro regarding his winning design for the National Memorial to the Royal Australian Navy.

At a subsequent meeting five entrants were selected to proceed to Stage 2 of the project. Those selected were:

  • Ante Dabro - Sculptor;
  • Les Kossatz - Sculptor;
  • John Robinson - Sculptor
  • Peter Schipperheyn - Sculptor; and
  • PDCM Pty Ltd - Architects

Individual briefing session were held with each of the finalists to inform them of comments made by the assessors which might guide or influence their future work. At the third meeting of the assessors the design by Canberra sculptor, Ante Dabro, was selected.

Mr Ante Dabro was born in Cavoglave, Croatia (former Yugoslavia) on 13 January 1938 and graduated from the Academy of Fine Art, Zagreb in 1964. He specialised in sculpture at the studio of Master Sculptor Antun Augustinsio, during 1964-66. He arrived in Australia in 1967 and commenced lecturing at the Canberra School of ART (Sculpture Department) in 1969. He was a Winston Churchill Fellow in 1982.

Some of his former work included the portrait bust of Alfred Deakin (Deakin High School, Canberra) in 1970; the crucifix and figurative sculpture at St Augustine’s Church, Farrer, Canberra in 1975; the portrait bust of Sir Robert Garran at the Robert Garran Offices, Canberra in 1983; and the figurative sculpture at St Mathew’s Church, Page, Canberra in 1983.

His proposed bronze sculpture was to be 7.5 metres in height, cast in geometric shapes with representational figures emerging from them. Dabro described his work and its symbolic reference as “Sailors and Ships - Interaction and Interdependence”. He envisaged the members of the RAN as brave, highly trained and dedicated men and women operating well designed and well-constructed machines. The geometric shapes symbolised the machines, and the interaction of the more representational figures representing interdependence.

The memorial taking shape at Ante Dabro's workshop in Canberra during 1985.

The metal-like forms contribute significantly to the artistic impact of the memorial. The lack of horizontality in the planes of these forms recognise that ships at sea do not present their crews with horizontal surfaces upon which to carry out their duties. Also, from a sculptural point of view, a dynamic force is added. Naval duty is distinguished by being constantly watchful, vigilant, ready and able to make immediate disciplined response. The figures in this memorial are to convey, quite explicitly, activities commonly undertaken and associated with naval life. Finally the sculpture incorporated moving water - but neither the artistic impact or the total symbolism was dependent on this component.

The assessors forwarded their recommendation to the Canberra National Memorials Committee and the Prime Minister, The Honourable Robert Hawke, MP, announced the winning entrant on Friday 4 January 1985.

Three members of the RAN were selected to assist Mr Dabro as fabrication assistants. They were Chief Petty Officer Richard Wyndham Habel, Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Charles Brinckman and Leading Seaman Eric Hedley Price.

Left: Chief Petty Officer Habel, Leading Seaman Price and Chief Petty Officer Brinckman were fabrication assistants to Ante Dabro during the construction of the Memorial. Right: The Memorial on a low loader heading towards Anzac Parade for installation.

A site on the eastern side of Anzac Parade close to Australian War Memorial was chosen for the location of the memorial. The NCDC was in overall control of the project with John Hindmarsh (Canberra) Pty Ltd as the project manager; Lester Firth Associates Pty Ltd as architects and landscape architects; and Mr Michael Grace as the NCDC project architect. The budget for the sculptural element of the Memorial alone was $250,000.

The Memorial was transported to the site in early 1986 and installed. Two ceremonial flag poles stand forward and to one side of the Memorial, and a plinth at their bases supports the RAN Badge and dedication plaque. RAN Battle Honours are mounted on two substantial piers which stand on either side of the paved podium.

The National Memorial to the Royal Australian Navy being installed on Anzac Parade in early 1986.

The National Memorial to the Royal Australian Navy dedication plaque was formally unveiled on 3 March 1986 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Left: Booklet for the unveiling of the Memorial. Right: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II dedicating the Memorial on 3 March 1986.

Left & Right: The Battle Honour piers located at the National Memorial to the Royal Australian Navy.