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Collins, Sir John Augustine (1899–1989)

by Peter D. Jones

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

Sir John Augustine Collins (1899-1989), naval officer and diplomat, was born on 7 January 1899 at Deloraine, Tasmania, fourth son of Michael John Collins, a medical practitioner from Ireland, and his English wife Esther, née Copeland. Cuthbert Collins was his brother. Michael, who had spent many years as a merchant navy doctor, died seven months before John was born. Educated at Christian Brothers’ College, East Melbourne, he entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Osborne House, Geelong, with the first intake in 1913. The college relocated to Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, in 1915. Collins became a cadet captain, gained colours in Rugby and athletics, and graduated in 1916 with prizes for seamanship and engineering (theory) and `maximum time gained’, which accelerated his eventual promotion to lieutenant.

Appointed as a midshipman on 1 January 1917, Collins was sent to Britain for training with the Royal Navy. His first sea posting was to the battleship HMS Canada, a unit of the Grand Fleet. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant in September 1918 and, as World War I drew to a close, he joined the destroyer HMS Spenser, becoming her gun control officer. After serving in the destroyer HMAS Stalwart and rising to lieutenant in December 1919, he returned to Australia in 1921 to join the cruiser HMAS Melbourne.

In 1922 Collins went back to Britain to undertake the long gunnery course. He topped his class, winning the Commander Egerton prize, and completed the advanced course before coming home in 1925 to rejoin Melbourne, this time as her gunnery officer. Melbourne soon deployed to the Mediterranean Fleet as part of an exchange program with the RN. On his return to Australia, Collins was appointed naval liaison officer for the 1927 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. He accompanied the royal party at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra and in their passage in the battle cruiser HMS Renown back to Britain.

Promoted to lieutenant commander in December 1927, Collins joined the new heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, which was fitting out at Clydebank, Scotland. After serving in her for two years as squadron gunnery officer, he was placed in command of the destroyer leader HMAS Anzac in 1930. This appointment was a clear recognition of his potential for higher rank and the navy’s desire to round out his professional development. At St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, Sydney, on 3 June that year he married Phyllis Laishley McLachlan.

Collins was posted as first lieutenant of Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria, in 1931. He attended the staff course at the RN College, Greenwich, England, in 1932 and was promoted to commander in June. In 1933 he joined the Admiralty’s Plans Division, where he was responsible for Imperial port defences. While on leave at Portwrinkle, Cornwall, in 1934, he rescued a girl swept away by a rip. Phyllis assisted by manning an improvised lifeline. The Royal Humane Society, London, awarded Collins a testimonial on parchment for his actions.

In 1935 Collins was appointed executive officer of the new light cruiser HMAS Sydney. His commanding officer was the at times brilliant, but unpredictable Captain J. U. P. Fitzgerald, RN, who made Collins’s duties even more of a challenge. Sydney was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet in response to the Abyssinian crisis and did not arrive in Australian waters until August 1936. Promoted to captain in December 1937, Collins became assistant-chief of Naval Staff and director of naval intelligence at Navy Office, Melbourne, in February 1938. He played an important staffing role in the procurement of much-needed anti-submarine escorts; the successful Bathurst-class corvettes were the result. Another pressing issue was the production of naval mobilisation plans and procedures.

The period at Navy Office and his earlier service in the Mediterranean prepared Collins well for his most memorable operational appointment, that of commanding officer of Sydney. He had a good grasp of the strategic environment and knew his superiors from Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies down. Collins assumed command in November 1939 and in May 1940 Sydney once again joined the Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by the redoubtable Admiral Sir Andrew (Viscount) Cunningham. Cunningham’s leadership style was based on broad direction with the expectation that subordinates would use common sense and initiative to achieve the strategic aim. Captain Hec Waller and the 10th (`Scrap-Iron’) Destroyer Flotilla flourished under this approach. The less flamboyant but highly competent and astute Collins was to prosper equally.

In June-July 1940 Sydney took part in the bombardment of Bardia, Libya, sank the Italian destroyer Espero and fought in the battle of Calabria. On 18 July Sydney, with the destroyer HMS Havock, conducted a sweep off the Cretan coast while at the same time providing support to four other British destroyers. Collins used the freedom provided by Cunningham to remain close to the smaller ships while they remained vulnerable to attack in the Aegean Sea. Next morning the destroyers encountered two Italian cruisers, the Bartolomeo Colleoni and the Giovanni delle Bande Nere. Collins decided to maintain radio silence while closing for battle. This tactic proved decisive. Sydney’s appearance caught everyone by surprise, including Cunningham, and in the ensuing engagement Colleoni was stopped and subsequently sunk by torpedoes from two destroyers. Outnumbered, Bande Nere escaped using her superior speed.

The battle of Cape Spada was the first substantial naval victory in the war against Italy. It catapulted Collins and the Sydney into the world’s headlines. Appointed CB (1940), Collins became a national hero and was to wear that mantle for the remainder of his life. Sydney returned to her namesake port in February 1941 to a tumultuous welcome. Collins had only three months remaining in command, but in that time Sydney took the first naval member Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin to a conference in Singapore. There it was decided that Collins would be appointed assistant chief of staff to Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, commander-in-chief, China (based in Singapore).

Collins took up his duties in Singapore in June 1941, accompanied by his wife and daughter. His immediate task was to plan for the employment of Allied air and naval forces. He established a good rapport with Layton and was disappointed when Admiral Sir Tom Phillips relieved him. On news of the sinking of the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse and the death of Phillips in December, Collins had the presence of mind to rush to the departing Dominion Monarch to recall Layton to duty. So began a gruelling period for Collins. Having arranged for the evacuation of his family, in January 1942 he became commodore commanding China Force, which consisted of RN and RAN cruisers and destroyers based in Batavia (Jakarta). It was a significant command and Collins, who was made commodore, second class, was junior for the post.

Exercising his authority within the complex and unwieldy Australian-British-Dutch-American Command, Collins employed his forces escorting shipping to and from Singapore or assigned them to a Dutch-led striking force. After the surrender of Singapore and the Allied defeat in the battle of the Java Sea, it was clear to him that Batavia would fall. Collins organised evacuations of civilians and military personnel to Australia and India and embarked in one of the last departing ships. He was mentioned in despatches and appointed a commander of the Netherlands’ Order of Oranje-Nassau (1942).

On his arrival at Fremantle in March 1942, Collins became senior naval officer, Western Australia. During his tenure he was involved in the controversial decision to relieve his RANC classmate Acting Commander Paul Hirst of his command of the corvette HMAS Toowoomba. In Hirst’s assessment the ship was not in a fit material state to take to sea. This view was not shared by his superiors including Collins. Late that year he proceeded to Britain to take command of the heavy cruiser HMAS Shropshire, commissioned in the RAN in April 1943. He took Shropshire to the Pacific theatre, where she joined other RAN ships attached to the United States Seventh Fleet.

In May 1944, on Prime Minister John Curtin’s insistence, Collins was appointed commodore, first class, and given command of the Australian Squadron. His force took part in the New Guinea and Philippines campaigns and on 21 October at Leyte Gulf his flagship, Australia, was struck on the bridge by a Japanese dive-bomber. Thirty men, including Captain Emile Dechaineux, were killed and Collins was seriously wounded. After convalescence he returned to command the squadron in July 1945 and was the RAN representative for the Japanese surrender on board USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September. The US government appointed him an officer of the Legion of Merit (1946).

A rear admiral from January 1947, Collins attended the Imperial Defence College, London, that year. On 24 February 1948 he became the first Australian-trained officer to become chief of Naval Staff. He considered himself too young for the post, but Prime Minister Ben Chifley was adamant that an Australian should lead the RAN. Promoted to vice admiral on 10 May 1950, Collins was to remain in the appointment for seven years. This long tenure was partly the result of the war losses suffered by his generation of officers.

Collins proved to be a shrewd and capable administrator who enjoyed the respect of the higher echelons of defence and government. These qualities were much needed as he reshaped the navy to meet changing strategic, social and fiscal circumstances. Collins oversaw the introduction of aircraft-carriers into the fleet as well as the involvement of the RAN in the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency. He instigated co-ordinated strategic and operational planning by the RAN, RN and Royal New Zealand Navy, and followed this success with similar arrangements with the US Navy. The resultant Radford-Collins Agreement (1951) came to symbolise the postwar primacy of the RAN’s relationship with the USN. Appointed KBE in 1951, he relinquished his post on 23 February 1955 and retired from the navy on 16 March.

In 1956 Collins accepted the appointment of high commissioner to New Zealand. By virtue of his wife’s New Zealand heritage and his frequent naval visits, he was well acquainted with his host nation. He proved to be a sensitive observer of national affairs and developed an unrestrained love for the natural beauty of New Zealand. Travelling throughout the country, he especially enjoyed angling. His travels were further extended when in 1957 he also became one of the Australian members of the South Pacific Commission. He retired in 1962. Settling at Rose Bay, Sydney, he kept in regular contact with his former naval comrades, particularly at the Royal Sydney Golf Club. He wrote his memoirs, As Luck Would Have It (1965), and further pursued his hobby of bookbinding. In 1965 Menzies offered him the governor-generalship, but he refused the honour.

From the outset of his brilliant naval career, it was clear that Collins was a clever and ambitious officer. The reports by his superiors on his performance are striking in their consistently glowing assessments. Most notable in their estimation were his professionalism, cool head and keen sense of judgment, attributes he was to demonstrate in the battle of Cape Spada. As a leader he was brave and forceful. Conservative by nature, he actively maintained the traditions of the service. His patience would occasionally be tested by poor performances from subordinates, which probably led to his being viewed with more respect than affection by ships’ companies.

Collins was handsome and always well turned out. He was for a generation the public face of the Australian navy. Unlike most naval officers, he was very aware of the importance of the media and some of his peers accused him of self-promotion. Whatever the case, his contribution to the positive public image of the navy was considerable. There are numerous portraits of Collins, including one by Dennis Adams (1945) and another by (Sir) William Dargie (1958) held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Survived by his wife and their daughter, Sir John died on 3 September 1989 at St Luke’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, and, following a funeral conducted with full naval honours and Anglican rites at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, he was cremated. In 1993 Lady Collins launched HMAS Collins, the lead ship of a new class of submarines.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (1949)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (1957)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (1968)
  • D. Stevens (ed), The Royal Australian Navy in World War II (1996)
  • D. Stevens (ed), The Royal Australian Navy (2001)
  • People (Sydney), 28 Mar 1951, p 22
  • Salute, July 1989, p 9
  • Navy News, 15-29 Sept 1989, p 4
  • Naval Historical Review, Dec 1989, p 9
  • series A6769, item Collins J A, series MP1185/8, items 2026/3/351 and 2026/7/457 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Collins papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter D. Jones, 'Collins, Sir John Augustine (1899–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/collins-sir-john-augustine-12335/text22159, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 March 2017.

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

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