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Dumaresq, John Saumarez (1873–1922)

by Peter Firkins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Saumarez Dumaresq (1873-1922), rear admiral, was born on 26 October 1873 at Tivoli House, Rose Bay, Sydney, son of William Alexander Dumaresq, pastoralist, of Furracabad station, Glen Innes, New South Wales, and his English-born wife Edith Helen, née Gladstone. Though Dumaresq was brought up in England from the age of 2, his family ties with Australia dated from 1825 when his grandfather, William John Dumaresq had come to New South Wales with his brother-in-law Governor Darling, and established an estate near Scone and large pastoral runs in the New England district.

On 15 July 1886 Dumaresq entered the Royal Navy as a cadet in H.M.S. Britannia; he was commissioned lieutenant on 28 August 1894 and after a period at sea with the Channel Fleet began to specialize in torpedo work. Promoted commander in 1904, he was attached to the Admiralty to supervise the equipment of torpedo vessels. By then he was recognized as one of the navy's most innovative officers and he devoted much of his time to the science of naval warfare. Switching his experiments from torpedoes to gun-room control, he invented a calculating instrument by which the rate of movement of enemy warships could be determined within seconds; this range-finder, named the Dumaresq by a grateful Admiralty, gave naval gunnery an unprecedented accuracy. On 18 September 1907 he married Christian Elizabeth Louisa, daughter of Sir Charles Dalrymple, baronet. Next year he commanded the torpedo flotilla which escorted King Edward VII on his visit to the Tsar of Russia and for his services was appointed M.V.O. and awarded the Order of St Catherine of Russia. He was then appointed Commander of the Swift and the Nith, torpedo-boat destroyers of the Home Fleet.

A captain from 30 June 1910, Dumaresq studied at the Royal Naval War College, Portsmouth, and invented several fire-control devices which were used in World War I. From December 1913 he commanded the Shannon, 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron. The Shannon led the squadron into action when Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet intercepted the German High Sea Fleet at the battle of Jutland; Dumaresq's squadron was used to screen Jellicoe's six lines of battleships. For outstanding service in this action he was created C.B. At Jutland he first conceived the idea of launching aircraft from the decks of cruisers rather than lowering them into the sea. On 5 February 1917 he was transferred on loan to the Royal Australian Navy as captain of H.M.A.S. Sydney and the R.A.N.'s second senior officer. The Sydney at that time was with the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, Grand Fleet, and Dumaresq was the squadron's second-in-command. In May he took part in an action with a Zeppelin in the North Sea; with her six-inch (152 mm) guns the Sydney forced the airship up out of range but it then stalked the vessel, dropping bombs around it. With his back against the bridge-screen and his feet against the base of the compass Dumaresq became probably the first naval officer to develop the zig-zag system of bomb avoidance. For almost two hours he weaved in evasive action until the Zeppelin ran out of bombs. In November, while the Sydney was being refitted, he commanded H.M.S. Repulse in the battle of Heligoland: in a clash with the German flagship, Königsberg, the Repulse smashed her funnel and set her on fire.

The Sydney rejoined the squadron on 1 December 1917. The R.A.N.'s official war historian, A. W. Jose, wrote that, at this time, Dumaresq 'was a man of exceptional ability and vivid imagination—an originator, both of novel devices and of tactical ideas. When he joined the Sydney he was in the thick of a campaign for inducing the Admiralty to use light cruisers against the Zeppelins which were at the time infesting the North Sea area—a scheme which in the end involved the installation of launching-platforms for aeroplanes on the cruisers'. Dumaresq was jubilant when, during the refitting of the Sydney, the Admiralty authorized installation of the first launching-platform to be fitted to a ship: one was later added to H.M.A.S. Melbourne. The first flight was successfully accomplished off the Sydney's platform on 8 December 1917 and the plane soon proved its value by driving off Zeppelins before they could get within bombing range of the ship. Dumaresq's planes again proved their worth when Admiral Beatty launched a raid on enemy minesweepers in Heligoland Bight in June 1918: two land-based enemy reconnaissance planes were flying towards the British ships when Dumaresq's pilots chased one off and shot the other down. He continued to command the Sydney until 28 February 1919 and for the next month was based in London.

On 22 March Dumaresq was appointed commodore commanding the Australian Fleet, a post which brought fresh challenges. In June, when he was bringing H.M.A.S. Australia back from London to Sydney, the vessel stopped at Fremantle and about a hundred of the ship's company asked that her departure be delayed for one day. Captain C. L. Cumberlege, supported by Dumaresq, refused the request and later seven men were summarily sentenced to imprisonment and five court-martialled for mutiny and sentenced to longer terms. Dumaresq regarded the matter as one purely involving naval discipline and when the five men were eventually released through political pressure both he and Rear Admiral Edmund Grant, first member of the Australian Naval Board, tendered their resignations. These were later withdrawn.

Dumaresq was appointed C.V.O. in 1920. He was promoted rear admiral in June 1921, becoming the first Australian-born officer to hold that rank and to command the R.A.N. He brought to the small but professional Australian navy very high standards of discipline and competence. The measure of his success was the long succession of distinctions gained by R.A.N. officers attending Royal Navy training establishments and, ultimately, the high standard of leadership in the R.A.N. in World War II. The stringent financial restrictions imposed on the Australian Fleet from 1920 brought Dumaresq into constant conflict with the Australian government as he sought to protect the navy's interests. His service with the R.A.N. ended on 29 April 1922 when he reverted to the Royal Navy. Speaking on his flagship before leaving Sydney, he strongly criticised the attitudes and apathy of the nation towards defence expenditure. He left for England on the Japanese liner, Tango Maru, but on nearing the Philippines, fell ill with pneumonia and died at the American Military Hospital, Manila, on 22 July. In a ceremony attended by 1200 United States troops, he was buried in San Pedro Macati cemetery with full military honours. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

Although a strict disciplinarian 'D.Q.', as he was known in Australia, was popular with all ranks and gave the navy a spirit it had never possessed. Of a cheerful disposition, he soon had the whole fleet involved in off-duty sports while he himself regularly took part in yachting events on Sydney Harbour. He detested personal publicity. His contribution to the R.A.N. had been considerable. He had brought the fleet to a high standard of efficiency despite the severe restrictions of the period and had welded it into a highly proficient force after its dispersal during the war years.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918 (Syd, 1928)
  • Royal Australian Navy, Jubilee Souvenir (Canb, 1961)
  • Sea, Land, and Air, Aug 1922
  • Parade, July 1959
  • Public Administration (Sydney), 29 (1970), no 3
  • Naval Historical Review, Summer 1972, no 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 24, 26 July 1922
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 29 Oct 1973.

Citation details

Peter Firkins, 'Dumaresq, John Saumarez (1873–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dumaresq-john-saumarez-6037/text10321, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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