Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Esdaile, James Claude Durie (1899–1993)

by Peter D. Jones

This article was published online in 2017

James Claude Durie Esdaile (1899–1993), naval officer and farmer, was born on 3 October 1899 at Bendigo, Victoria, youngest son of Scottish-born parents Thomas Esdaile, science lecturer and later mining engineer, and his wife Martha, née Durie. Thomas’s employment involved the family in several moves; James completed his schooling at Boulder Central School, Western Australia. In 1913 he joined the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) as part of its inaugural entry of cadet midshipmen. Initially at Osborne House, Geelong, Victoria, the college was relocated in 1915 to Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, where Esdaile graduated second in his class in the next year.

In 1917 he joined HMAS Australia, then part of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron based at Rosyth, Scotland. His World War I service was uneventful and he returned to Australia in 1920, the year he was promoted to lieutenant. In 1923 he was one of the first two Royal Australian Navy officers to attend the anti-submarine specialist course in Britain. He excelled in his specialisation and remained on the staff of the training establishment HMS Osprey. Back in Australia in 1925, instead of proceeding to sea as would be the normal practice, he was posted to Navy Office, Melbourne, to help plan the navy's anti-submarine defences. In 1926 he joined the flagship, HMAS Sydney, as the inaugural fleet anti-submarine officer. Promoted to lieutenant commander two years later, Esdaile returned to Osprey to conduct experimental work. In 1931 he briefly commanded the destroyer HMAS Anzac before transferring to HMAS Australia as her executive officer. He was promoted to commander in December 1933. On 4 December 1934 at St John’s Church of England, Toorak, he married Désirée Ursule (Judy)Finch.

During the interwar period, Esdaile was arguably the most influential figure in Australia in the development of anti-submarine defences. In 1933 he co-authored an important report, `Seaward Defence of Australian Ports.’ For the fleet, he advocated that planning should be based on actual sonar performance in Australian waters, a concept ahead of its time. He and his classmate, (Sir) John Collins, were the driving force behind the Bathurst class corvette program that provided much needed locally constructed escorts during World War II. In England again, Esdaile attended the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich, in 1935 and the Imperial Defence College, London, in 1936.

Esdaile was appointed senior staff officer to the commodore-in-charge, Sydney (1939–40), and then commanded the depot ship HMAS Penguin (1940–42) as an acting captain. He was closely involved in the installation of Sydney's anti-submarine defences, for which he was appointed OBE (1941). In 1942 he took command of the cruiser HMAS Adelaide, then involved in convoy protection. In November Adelaide intercepted the German supply ship Ramses but she was scuttled before she could be captured. As naval officer-in-charge (1944–45), New Guinea, Esdaile was responsible for the inshore work of a heterogeneous array of small logistic and patrol craft that supported army operations. He was mentioned in despatches and appointed a CBE (1945) for his leadership.

After the cessation of hostilities Esdaile served as controller of naval demobilisation (1945–49), before retiring in 1950. A reserved but intelligent officer with keen powers of analysis and a good sense of humour, he had been highly respected by the officers and sailors under his commands, and by most of his superiors. At Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria, he took up egg and poultry farming. He and his wife lost their farmhouse and many of their possessions in the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires and they retired to Berwick. There, survived by his wife, son, and two daughters, Esdaile died on 12 October 1993 and was cremated. By virtue of his longevity Esdaile had the distinction of being the last surviving member of the RANC’s `pioneer’ class.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Eldridge, Frank B. A History of the Royal Australian Naval College. Melbourne: Georgian House, 1949
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, ESDAILE J. C. D. National Archives of Australia. A6769, ESDAILE J. C. D. Royal Australian Naval College Magazine editions 1913–1948
  • Stevens, David. A Critical Vulnerability: The Impact of the Submarine Threat on Australia's Maritime Defence 1915–1954. Canberra: RAN Seapower Centre, 2005
  • Private information from family

Citation details

Peter D. Jones, 'Esdaile, James Claude Durie (1899–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/esdaile-james-claude-durie-17799/text29378, published online 2017, accessed online 22 January 2019.

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