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Armstrong, John Malet (Jock) (1900–1988)

by J. S. Sears

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Malet (Jock) Armstrong (1900-1988), naval officer, was born on 5 January 1900 at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, younger child and only son of William George Armstrong, medical practitioner, and his wife Elizabeth Jane, née Garnsey. Richard Armstrong and Charles Garnsey were his grandfathers. John was educated at Sydney Grammar School and All Saints’ College, Bathurst. In 1914 he entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Osborne House, Geelong, Victoria (relocated at Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, next year). A natural leader and sportsman, he became a chief cadet captain and received colours for Rugby and swimming before graduating in 1917.

Appointed midshipman on 1 January 1918, Armstrong joined the battle cruiser HMAS Australia in April at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Back in Australia, he transferred to the light cruiser HMAS Brisbane in September 1919 and was promoted to sub-lieutenant in October. He was made lieutenant in March 1921 and sent to Britain, where he completed a series of courses, specialising in gunnery. On 7 July 1924 he married Philippa Suzanne Marett at the parish church, St Brelade, Jersey, Channel Islands. In the years that followed Armstrong was posted to a variety of sea and staff jobs in both Britain and Australia. He found the long and frequent absences from his growing family difficult and, as the pay of a junior officer was not high, he relied on financial support from his father and uncle. Nevertheless, his excellent professional performance continued and in 1927 he was the navy’s guard commander for the opening of Parliament House in Canberra.

In March 1929 Armstrong was promoted to lieutenant commander while serving in HMS Castor on the China Station. He rose to commander in June 1935 and, as executive officer of HMS Shropshire in 1937, was involved in the evacuation of refugees from the Spanish Civil War. He briefly commanded the destroyer HMS Broke and her flotilla, which provided him with invaluable ship-handling experience. Returning to Australia in 1938, he was appointed executive officer of the RANC, which had moved to Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria.

At the outbreak of World War II Armstrong was executive officer of the cruiser HMAS Australia, which escorted convoys of the Australian Imperial Force, patrolled Australian waters and participated in the Dakar operations against the Vichy French in July and September 1940. In October Australia went to the aid of a Sutherland flying boat which had come down in the North Atlantic in a vicious gale. The Sutherland capsized as the ship approached and Armstrong led a dozen sailors with bowlines over the side into the heaving, freezing ocean to rescue nine of the aircraft’s thirteen crew. Australia spent much of 1941 escorting convoys and searching for raiders in the Indian Ocean. That year Armstrong was mentioned in despatches.

Recalled to Australian waters in December 1941, Australia operated from Noumea with United States forces. In March 1942 Armstrong left the ship to command (as an acting captain) the armed merchant cruisers Manoora (April-October) and Westralia (October-December). He was promoted to substantive captain on 31 December while chief of staff to the flag officer-in-charge, Sydney, and in November 1943 he was appointed naval officer-in-charge, New Guinea.

On 21 October 1944 a Japanese aircraft struck Australia at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, wounding Commodore (Sir) John Collins and killing the commanding officer Captain Emile Dechaineux . Armstrong assumed command of the ship on 29 October. In January 1945 Australia supported the landings at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon. During the operation she suffered five kamikaze attacks, which killed forty-four and wounded sixty-nine of the ship’s company. Extensively damaged, Australia sailed for Plymouth, England, in May for a refit. Armstrong was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1945) for the Lingayen Gulf operation and the United States awarded him the Navy Cross (1946) for his `gallantry and intrepidity’ in the action.

Arriving in New York in June 1945, Australia embarked the New South Wales premier (Sir) William McKell for the passage to Plymouth. He was so impressed with Armstrong that he recommended that he succeed Lord Wakehurst' as governor of New South Wales but the Dominion Office rejected the nomination.

Armstrong relinquished command of Australia on 6 August with the jocular `Goodbye you pack of bastards’. Selected to command Australia’s planned postwar aircraft-carrier, he gained experience captaining HM ships Ruler and Vindex. On 3 April 1946 he was appointed second naval member of the Naval Board with the rank of commodore, second class. Unfortunately, a medical examination that year concluded that he was unfit for sea service; deteriorating eyesight and weak bones ended his prospects for further promotion. From 1948 he held staff appointments at Navy Office, Melbourne, and in London, before becoming the Department of Supply’s liaison officer in Washington in 1955. He retired on 14 August 1958.

Known as `Jock’ from childhood and as `Jamie’ by his wife and his fellow naval officers, Armstrong was described by the Bulletin in 1954 as `inevitably “Black Jack” to all hands, from hair, cliffy eyebrows and a dark general weathering burned-in over 40 years of naval service’. He was a good-looking man, standing six feet (183 cm) tall with a nose broken when playing Rugby. Armstrong had many friends and was able to move in all circles. He was dedicated to the naval profession and fearless under fire. Typical of many successful naval officers of the time, he preferred activity and practicality over staff work, which was his distinct weakness. A modest, humane and devoted family man, he took a progressive attitude to training, believing young naval officers to be poorly educated, too isolated and over-supervised and disciplined.

From 1962 Armstrong and his wife lived on Jersey. He trained the Jersey Sea Scouts, fished, tended his gardens and joined the Imperial Service Club and the Naval and Military Club, London. Survived by his wife, and their two sons and daughter, he died on 30 December 1988 in his home at La Haule and was cremated; his ashes were buried in the Marett family grave in the cemetery of the parish church, St Brelade.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (1949)
  • A. Payne, H.M.A.S. Australia (1975)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (1985)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (1985)
  • Bulletin, 29 Sept 1954, p 10
  • Sun (Sydney), 16 Aug 1984, p 16, 8 Jan 1985, p 32
  • Naval Historical Review, Dec 1988, p 15, Mar 1989, p 7, June 1989, p 25
  • series A6769, item Armstrong J M (National Archives of Australia)
  • Armstrong papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. S. Sears, 'Armstrong, John Malet (Jock) (1900–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armstrong-john-malet-jock-12147/text21765, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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