“In the early morning of the 4th March, 1942 the following ships of the No. 2 Fleet were cruising in the area Latitude South 12° 15′ Longitude East 1100 10′; “A” Class Cruisers ATAGO, TAKAO and MAYA, No. 4 Destroyer Squadron, ARISHI and NOWAKI. They sighted two enemy transport vessels under the escort of two light naval vessels which were; attacked by gunfire and sunk. None of the Japanese ships suffered any damage” ((HERMAN GILL, G. – Royal Australian Navy, 1939-42; Australian War Memorial, 1957.)). So concluded the brief Japanese report on the sinking of HMAS YARRA. YARRA, and the small convoy she was escorting, was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin, RAN, and on that fateful day in March 1942 his actions and that of the Ship’s Company of YARRA brought about what is regarded by many as the finest action in Australian Naval history.
Robert William Rankin was born in the central New South Wales town of Cobar on 3 June, 1907. He was the second of three children born to Jack and Florence Rankin. Jack Rankin was a clerk whose father had emigrated to Australia in the early 1850’s and settled in the Central West of N.S.W. ((DUFFY, C.J. – “Rankin of YARRA”. Biographical address delivered by Monsignor Duffy to meeting of Naval Historical Society, February 1972.))
When Robert was seven, his father enlisted in the AIF and served overseas for the duration of the war. Most of Rankin’s education was at the state school in Merrylands, a suburb of Sydney, until he was awarded a bursary to Parramatta High School in 1920. However in 1920 Rankin sat for and passed the RAN College entrance exam.
Some weeks later Rankin was advised that he was one of the eleven successful candidates to enter the College at Jervis Bay in 1921. This small intake was characteristic of the post World War I Navy. The Royal Australian Naval College had been created in 1913 and intakes had normally been of 25 to 30 boys. However by the early 1920s the demand for post war disarmament and reduction in funding for the Navy combined to limit the 1921 entry to only eleven boys.
One of the 1921 entry recalled in 1980 his arrival at RANC:
“In February 1921, we eleven chosen new cadets (at 13 years of age) assembled at Sydney Central Railway Station and took a train to Nowra, a journey of about 90 miles. We carried with us only the essentials we had needed in the journeys from our respective states to reach Sydney and to catch that train. A cadet whose home was in Sydney (such as Rankin) had only the clothes he was wearing. At Nowra we were met by the College charabanc (car). It was about 10 p.m. when we arrived at the College at the end of the 23 mile drive from Nowra, assembled and were “welcomed” by our Term Officer who told us that he would be father and mother to us; we filed past the doctor: “No Complaints” and were herded to our dormitory. Next day we were issued with all our clothing; we arranged our gear into our sea chests in the approved manner, and were ready to begin our Naval Service.” ((GATACRE, G.G.O. – Report of Proceedings. Nautical Press and Publications, 1982.)) The parents of boys entering the College were required to complete an Indenture Form for their sons, stating that the boy would make the Navy his career, and serve until at least the age of 30. If a boy wished to leave the Navy during his training his parents would be charged 75 pounds for each year of training that the boy had completed.
Shortly after arriving at the College it was alleged Rankin was in trouble because of his religion. His father, Jack, was a Presbyterian, but whilst he had been overseas in the AIF his children had been baptized and confirmed into the Catholic faith. Rankin was questioned as to why he had misled the Navy by stating he was a Presbyterian on his entrance papers but now professed to being a Catholic. Eventually the problem was resolved when it was realised that his father had filled in the entrance papers and had incorrectly put down his own religion instead of that of his son.