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Delacombe, Sir Rohan (1906–1991)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published online in 2014

Rohan Delacombe, Herald &​ Weekly Times, 1963

Rohan Delacombe, Herald &​ Weekly Times, 1963

State Library of Victoria, 49345449

Sir Rohan Delacombe (1906–1991), governor, was born on 25 October 1906 at St Julians, Malta, second child and only son of Addis Delacombe, army pay officer, and his wife Emma Louise Mary, née Leland. The Delacombe family seat was Shrewton Manor, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, and several generations of Delacombes had served in the armed forces. Educated at Harrow School and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Rohan acquired the lifelong nickname of ‘Jumbo’ because, as he put it, ‘I was a very large small boy’ (Paterson 2001, 525). Commissioned in the Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment) in 1926, he served in Egypt, China, and India.

Posted to Palestine in 1938, Delacombe was wounded during a revolt by Palestinian nationalists. He was mentioned in despatches and appointed MBE in 1939. Early in World War II, from April to May 1940 he took part in the unsuccessful Allied campaign in Norway. An appointment followed as second-in-command of the 7th/9th Battalion of the Royal Scots. On 15 February 1941 at St Hilda’s Parish Church, Egton, Yorkshire, he married Eleanor Joyce Foster, whose parents resided at Egton Manor. In April 1943 he was appointed commanding officer of the 8th Battalion with the rank of lieutenant colonel. During the Normandy campaign, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (an honour also won by his father) for his leadership during a sustained German counter-attack at Haut du Bosq on 28-29 June 1944, when ‘his cool methodical manner and utter disregard for danger’ kept his battalion intact (NA WO 373/49/14). The next month he was severely wounded and evacuated to England. He commanded the 2nd Battalion in Italy from December 1944 to February 1945, and then in Palestine for the remainder of the war.

Delacombe served in Malaya (1945–49), then in West Germany, where he was promoted to CBE (1951) for his outstanding performance as colonel in charge of training the British Army of the Rhine (1949–50), and where he commanded the 5th Infantry Brigade (1950–53). Serving as deputy military secretary of the War Office (1953–55), he was then placed in command of the 52nd (Lowland) Division in Glasgow (1955–58). He was promoted to major general in 1956 and appointed CB in 1957.

In 1959 Delacombe returned to Germany to take up the role of commandant of the British sector in West Berlin. At a time when Cold War flashpoints in the divided city were frequent, his military post required diplomatic capacity. His most severe test came in August 1961, with the construction of the Berlin Wall and consequent tensions. When the border was first closed, Delacombe made the crucial and correct judgement that nearby Russian troops were moving to prevent people crossing the border, not preparing to attack his positions. Elevated to KBE in 1961, he retired from the army the next year.

On 8 May 1963 Delacombe was sworn in as governor of Victoria. More than six feet (183 cm) tall, round faced and moustached, he possessed an air of calm amiability and was thought to be ‘a decent and kindly man’ (Richards 2002, 327). His public image obscured the intensity of his interest in local events and politics, evident in his detailed and lively despatches to Britain. In 1969 he drafted a memo expressing dismay that the government had announced the appointment of the Victorian agent-general without consulting him; he felt that this action brought the office of governor-in-council into disrepute, ‘as a mere rubber stamp or cipher for the decisions of the Cabinet’ (PROV VPRS 7582). In 1974 he was angered by an ‘undemocratic’ (PROV VPRS 14578) directive from Gough Whitlam’s Federal Labor government requiring ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to be played at Anzac Day ceremonies instead of ‘God Save the Queen.’ At the ceremonies attended by Delacombe, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was not heard.

Delacombe largely avoided controversy, but in 1967 he was drawn into the bitter public debate preceding the execution of Ronald Ryan. Some anti-hanging campaigners hoped that the governor would intervene and exercise his prerogative of mercy; Delacombe took the view that he was bound to act on the advice of his ministers. When the full executive council was convened to approve the order for execution, he ‘carefully went around the table’ to ensure that all those present agreed with the order (Richards 2002, 283). In 1971 Victoria’s Opposition leader, Clyde Holding, criticised him for his presence at a rugby union match involving the visiting South African team, and for publicly supporting the actions of police against anti-apartheid demonstrators during the game.

While serving as governor of Victoria, Delacombe was appointed KCMG (1964) and KCVO (1970), and he received honorary degrees from the University of Melbourne (LLD, 1967) and Monash University (LLD, 1971). He acted as administrator of the Commonwealth of Australia on four occasions. Retiring from the governorship in May 1974, Delacombe was the last of his type as governor of Victoria, a well-bred Briton with a military background. The State’s first locally born governor, Sir Henry Winneke, succeeded him. Delacombe returned to his home at Shrewton Manor, where he died on 10 November 1991, survived by his wife, son, and daughter.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Lahey, John. ‘A Gentle and Respected Governor.’ Age (Melbourne), 13 November 1991, 21
  • National Archives (UK). WO 373/49/14
  • National Archives (UK). WO 373/158/226
  • Paterson, Robert H. Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard: A History of the First or the Royal Regiment of Foot, The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment). Vol. 2, 1919–2000. Edinburgh: Royal Scots History Committee, 2001
  • Public Records Office of Victoria. VPRS 14578
  • Public Records Office of Victoria. VPRS 7582, P0001/4
  • Richards, Mike. The Hanged Man: The Life & Death of Ronald Ryan. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2002
  • Taylor, Frederick. The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961–9 November 1989. London: Bloomsbury, 2006
  • Times (London). ‘Major-General Sir Rohan Delacombe.’ 12 November 1991, 16

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Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Delacombe, Sir Rohan (1906–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/delacombe-sir-rohan-17373/text29122, published online 2014, accessed online 22 September 2017.

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