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Becher, Otto Humphrey (1908–1977)

by Tom Frame

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Otto Humphrey Becher (1908-1977), by Harold Vaughan Dunkley, c1951

Otto Humphrey Becher (1908-1977), by Harold Vaughan Dunkley, c1951

Australian War Memorial, DUKJ3812

Otto Humphrey Becher (1908-1977), naval officer, was born on 13 September 1908 at Harvey, Western Australia, son of Francis Joseph Becher, orchardist, and his wife Antonia Amalie, née Vetter, both native-born. Entering the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, in 1922, Humphrey had a good scholastic record, and won colours for hockey and tennis. In 1926 he served in H.M.A.S. Adelaide and H.M.A.S. Brisbane as a midshipman, then travelled to Britain for further sea-training and professional courses with the Royal Navy.

Returning to Australia in 1930, Lieutenant Becher went to sea in the R.A.N.'s heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra before electing to specialize; in 1932-34 he was based in England where he took the long course at the R.N.'s gunnery school, H.M.S. Excellent. On 7 January 1935 in St Michael's Anglican Church, Vaucluse, Sydney, he married Valerie Chisholm Baird; they were to have three sons. Following postings to H.M.A.S. Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, and to H.M.A. ships Canberra and Stuart, Becher was promoted lieutenant commander on 16 June 1938 and again sailed for Britain. At the outbreak of World War II he was squadron gunnery officer in the cruiser H.M.S. Devonshire. In May 1940 the ship supported the withdrawal of troops from the Namsos region of Norway: for his performance during the operation Becher was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Joining H.M.A.S. Napier in November 1940, he saw action in the Mediterranean.

On 26 April 1942 he returned to Cerberus as officer-in-charge of the gunnery school. He was posted in command of the destroyer, Quickmatch, on 3 March 1944. Pressing home a successful attack on the Japanese naval base at Sabang, off Sumatra, on 25 July, Becher showed such coolness, skilful ship-handling and courage in the face of enemy batteries that he was awarded a Bar to his D.S.C.; he was mentioned in dispatches for his service in Quickmatch, and was promoted commander on 31 December. From 1945 to 1948 he performed staff duties at Navy Office, Melbourne, then went back to sea to commission the new aircraft-carrier, Sydney. His posting in command of the Sydney shore-establishment, H.M.A.S. Watson, was cut short on 28 July 1950 when he hurriedly relieved Captain (Vice Admiral Sir) Alan McNicoll as commanding officer of another destroyer, Warramunga, about to sail for Korea.

Throughout a busy deployment, Becher confronted numerous operational problems which included poorly-charted waters, severe weather conditions, and complex control arrangements involving senior commanders from Britain and the United States of America. On 5-6 December 1950 Warramunga took part in the hazardous evacuation of Chinnamp'o. Her accurate bombardment of Haeju in August 1951 received special praise. Becher had been promoted captain on 31 December 1950; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and appointed to the Legion of Merit (U.S.A.) for his exploits in Korea. In the period from late 1951 to 1962 he occupied senior staff posts in Navy Office, Melbourne and Canberra, among them appointments as deputy-chief of Naval Staff (1952-54 and 1959-62); he attended the Imperial Defence College, London (1956), and commanded the aircraft-carriers, Vengeance (1954-55) and Melbourne (1957-58). Having acted in the rank for twelve months, he was promoted rear admiral on 7 January 1960. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1961, and was head, Australian Joint Services Staff, London, in 1962-63.

In January 1964 Becher succeeded McNicoll as flag officer commanding H.M. Australian Fleet. Next month H.M.A. ships Melbourne and Voyager collided off the southern coast of New South Wales. The incident was to make Becher a controversial figure. He discussed the evidence he would give (to the royal commission inquiring into the loss of Voyager) with Melbourne's commanding officer, Captain R. J. Robertson, D.S.C., R.A.N., which gave rise to speculation of collusion. For all that, Becher's subsequent contention that Melbourne should have challenged Voyager's final movements may have helped to influence the royal commissioner Sir John Spicer to blame Robertson unduly for the disaster. In 1965 Becher became flag officer-in-charge, East Australia Area; he retired on 6 March 1966. As director-general of recruiting for the armed forces in 1966-69, he opposed conscription, believing that it lowered professional standards.

Popular, personable and an accomplished ship's captain with vast operational experience, as a naval officer Becher displayed dash and occasional flamboyance. In his retirement he refrained from public comment on naval matters, and was chairman of the Council of the Institute of Marine Sciences, University of New South Wales. He enjoyed golf and tennis. Survived by his wife and sons, Becher died of myocardial infarction on 15 June 1977 in Sydney Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (Melb, 1949)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1957)
  • G. H. Gill, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • H. Hickling, One Minute of Time (Syd, 1965)
  • G. H. Gill, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • R. O'Neill, Australia in the Korean War, vol 2 (Canb, 1985)
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1944
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Feb 1955, 18, 19 Mar 1964, 15 June 1977.

Citation details

Tom Frame, 'Becher, Otto Humphrey (1908–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/becher-otto-humphrey-9465/text16649, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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