- Zammitt, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1988 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
BETWEEN MAY 4 AND MAY 8 1942 the battle of the Coral Sea took place. The Coral Sea Battle was just one of the many highlights of the Naval career of Rear Admiral H.B. (Fearless Frank) Farncomb, CB, DSO, MVO, the US Legion of Merit and Navy Cross.
Born in Sydney in 1899, he entered the Royal Australian Naval College as an original entry at the age of 13. At 17 years of age, during World War I, he saw active service in HMS Royal Sovereign, followed by service in Royal Navy destroyers including attacks against the Zeppelin sheds on the Flanders Coast. After the cessation of hostilities he served in a destroyer guarding the surrendered German Fleet.
Between 1933 and 1935, he was Executive Officer of HMAS Australia during the Royal Cruise to England with the Duke of Gloucester. Midshipman W.F. Cook, now Captain W.F. Cook, LVO, RAN Retd., recalled as the bugle sounded ‘Hands fall in’ each morning at 6 a.m. Commander Farncomb would join the sailors, dressed in an old reefer jacket, a white scarf, with his trousers tucked into his sea boots and his telescope under his arm. There was no delay, he would detail the many jobs that had to be done. The ship had to gleam, and she did, the 630 feet of scrubbed wooden decks, enamelled paintwork, brass and steel, had to glitter all the time.
Commander Farncomb always had the situation under control. On the ship’s arrival at Portsmouth, the Prince of Wales, Duke of York, and many other VIP’s were waiting to welcome the Duke of Gloucester. The Royal gangway was too heavy to be lifted by the sailors, and there was no crane available. In no time Commander Farncomb had sheer legs rigged and the gangway in place. He was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order for his service to the Royal Family on this cruise.
In 1937 he was the first Graduate from the Royal Australian Naval College, and one of the youngest officers, to attain the rank of Captain in the RAN. After a year in command of HMAS Yarra he proceeded to England for courses and then commissioned HMAS Perth in June 1939. When War broke out hostilities kept HMAS Perth patrolling Caribbean waters, and the new Cruiser did not arrive back in Sydney until March 1940.
In June 1940 he was appointed to command the then Flagship, HMAS Canberra. While on patrol in the Indian Ocean in March 1941, Canberra intercepted the German raider supply ship Coburg and her consort, the tanker Ketty Brovig. Both these ships were scuttled and sunk by their crews. The German Navy crews were taken POW by the Canberra.
In December 1941, Rear Admiral Crace transferred his flag to HMAS Australia, and Captain Farncomb assumed command of the Flagship Australia, and as the Chief Staff Officer to the Admiral, Captain Farncomb’s first action against the Japanese was the Coral Sea Battle in May 1942. Rear Admiral Crace’s Australian-American Support Force Squadron consisted of HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, USS Chicago and three US Destroyers. On May 7, Admiral Crace was ordered to intercept the Japanese invasion force heading for Port Moresby. At 2.30 p.m., eleven aircraft were sighted. Half an hour later, twelve Japanese twin-engined Torpedo Bombers, each armed with two torpedoes, attacked the Squadron. By Captain Farncomb’s skilful handling, Australia avoided two torpedoes. His first mention in despatches was awarded after this action. A number of Japanese aircraft was shot down. A short time later nineteen bombers attacked the Squadron and their main target was the Flagship. Some twenty 500 pound bombs were dropped in a pattern around Australia. The bomb’s water spouts rose well above the ship’s masts. Admiral Crace, Captain Farncomb and the crew on the bridge, over fifty feet above the waterline were drenched to the skin. The other ships thought the ‘Aussie’ had been hit and the Japs claimed to have sunk her. The Japanese aircraft attack was followed up by an attack by US B26 bombers from Townsville, who mistook the ships for Japanese. By night Admiral Crace was 120 miles south of New Guinea and did not retire until after the Japanese Port Moresby invaders turned back.
Between March and August 1942, Captain Farncomb’s three previous Commands had been sunk. On March 1st 1942 HMAS Perth was lost, only 218 from her complement of 681 survived the War. The Yarra was sunk in action on March 4,1942. Of Yarra’s crew of 151, 138 lost their lives, and 83 of Canberra’s Ships’ Company died. Many of these men had served under Captain Farncomb, and the loss of these three ships was a great personal blow to him.
For Captain Farncomb’s skill, resolution, and coolness during activities around the Solomon Islands, he was awarded the DSO. During December 1943 his ship took part in the landing at Arawa and Cape Gloucester. In March 1944, after being in Command of Australia for more than 2 years, Captain Farncomb proceeded to England to assume command of the aircraft carrier HMS Attacker. He was Mentioned in Despatches for Distinguished Service and Gallantry during the invasion of the south of France. His third Mention in Despatches was for Distinguished Service, Efficiency and Zeal, while in Command of HMS Attacker in the clearance of the Aegean Sea and the relief of Greece in 1944.
As a result of the wounding of Commodore Collins, off Leyte, Commodore Farncomb returned to the Pacific to become Commodore Commanding the Australian Squadron. At the Lingayen landings in January 1945, his Flagship HMAS Australia was hit five times by Kamikazes. When the Australia withdrew south for repairs, Commodore Farncomb transferred his Broad Pennant to HMAS Shropshire. For Commodore Farncomb’s services at Lingayen Gulf he was Awarded the CB. After Luzon, he was in action at Corregidor, Brunei, and Balikpapan. In July 1945 he returned to Australia, and became Commodore Superintendent of Training.
In November 1946 he was again appointed Commodore Commanding His Majesty’s Royal Australian Naval Squadron, and in January 1947, was promoted to Rear Admiral. He remained at sea, and saw the Australian Naval Squadron become a Fleet after HMAS Sydney was commissioned. In October 1949, he left the Fleet to head the Australian Joint Service Staff in USA, and retired from the RAN in 1951. After leaving the Navy, Rear Admiral Farncomb studied Law, and became a Barrister. He passed away in 1971.
Whenever old Sailors meet, dits are told about how ‘Fearless Frank’ Farncomb saved their ship; how he served almost the whole of the 1939-45 War at sea in Command; how he was one of the most highly decorated Senior Officers of the RAN and how many of the Naval Records he made will never be broken. He will be remembered as a Sailor’s Admiral.
I am grateful for assistance received from John Bastock, Captain Bill Cook LVO RAN RTD, PO Steve Given, Captain Max Hinchliffe DSC RAN Rtd, Mr. Lew Lind BEM, Sub. Lieut Keith McCarron RAN.