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Farncomb, Harold Bruce (1899–1971)

by Alan Zammit

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Harold Bruce Farncomb (1899-1971), by Harold Abbott

Harold Bruce Farncomb (1899-1971), by Harold Abbott

Australian War Memorial, ART31765

Harold Bruce Farncomb (1899-1971), naval officer and lawyer, was born on 28 February 1899 in North Sydney, second child of Frank Farncomb, a timber surveyor from England, and his Victorian-born wife Helen Louisa, née Sampson. Educated at Gordon Public and Sydney Boys' High schools, in 1913 Harold was among the first intake at the Royal Australian Naval College, Osborne House, Geelong, Victoria (soon to be relocated at Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory). He did well academically, gained colours for cricket and topped his final year (1916). Promoted midshipman in January 1917, Farncomb was immediately sent to Britain for training with the Royal Navy: his first appointment was to the battleship, H.M.S. Royal Sovereign, in the Grand Fleet; in 1920 he was awarded the maximum of five first-class certificates for his lieutenant's courses.

Back home, in 1921-22 he was gunnery officer in the destroyer, H.M.A.S. Stalwart. While serving on Commodore (Sir) Percy Addison's staff in the flagship, Melbourne, Farncomb was commended for intelligence work during the fleet's northern cruise in 1922. Next year he sailed for England and in 1924 graduated from the R.N. Staff College, Greenwich. Returning to Australia in 1925, he performed staff duties at sea. On 31 March 1927 at Trinity Congregational Church, Strathfield, Sydney, he married Jean Ross Nott; they were to remain childless. Jean provided staunch support throughout the vicissitudes of her husband's career.

Promoted lieutenant commander (1927), Farncomb attended the Imperial Defence College, London, at the unusually young age of 31. While posted to Navy Office, Melbourne, he was promoted commander on 30 June 1932. He joined the heavy cruiser, H.M.A.S. Australia, as executive officer in April 1933. Strict but fair, he fostered high morale in the ship. With her midshipmen, he was curt yet considerate, usually addressing them as 'Mr Bloody . . . '; they nicknamed him 'Uncle Hal'. The commanding officer, Captain W. S. F. Macleod, R.N., was impressed by his ability and recommended him for accelerated promotion. In December 1934 the Duke of Gloucester embarked in Australia on his voyage to England, following which Farncomb was appointed M.V.O. (1935).

From August 1935 he was attached to the Naval Intelligence Division at the Admiralty. By 1937 he thought that war with Germany was inevitable, and took leave to visit that country and improve his knowledge of the language. On 30 June 1937 Farncomb was the first R.A.N.C. graduate to be promoted captain. Home again, he commanded the sloop, H.M.A.S. Yarra (October 1937 to November 1938), then went back to England to commission the cruiser, H.M.A.S. Perth, in June 1939.

The ship was in the western Atlantic en route to Australia at the outbreak of war in September. She interrupted her voyage, and for six months patrolled Caribbean and nearby waters. It was probably at this time that Farncomb acquired the nickname 'Fearless Frank'. Signalling instructions to a convoy in the event of an attack, he is reported to have said: 'My intention is to engage the enemy with my main armament and close him until I am in torpedo firing range. If gun-fire and torpedoes are not sufficient in disabling the raider, I intend to ram the enemy ship'.

In June 1940 Farncomb transferred to the heavy cruiser, Canberra, which spent most of the next eighteen months in the Indian Ocean escorting convoys and hunting German raiders, among them the 'pocket-battleship', Admiral Scheer. On 4 March 1941, south-east of the Seychelles Islands, Canberra encountered two ships, reported by her aircraft to be an armed raider and a tanker. The supposed raider ignored warnings. Canberra opened fire from about 21,000 yards (19.2 km). Farncomb manoeuvred Canberra to keep the range beyond 19,000 yards (17.4 km) in case his adversary carried torpedoes; firing ceased when the merchant ship was seen to be burning.

It transpired that Canberra had attacked the enemy supply-ship, Coburg; the accompanying tanker was the Ketty Brovig. Both were scuttled by their crews and sank. Having interrogated his German prisoners, Farncomb warned the Admiralty of the Admiral Scheer's projected movements. Papers which later circulated in Navy Office criticized him for being 'over cautious' in the action: had he approached nearer to Coburg, he could have saved ammunition. The adverse reaction to Farncomb's prudent conduct may have influenced the subsequent behaviour of Captain Joseph Burnett in H.M.A.S. Sydney. His decision in November to close with the disguised raider, Kormoran, resulted in the loss of his ship and all on board.

On 24 December 1941 Farncomb joined Australia as commanding officer and chief staff officer to Rear Admiral (Sir) John Crace. At sea on 12 March 1942 a stoker John Riley was stabbed. Before he died the following day, he named fellow stokers Albert Gordon and Edward Elias who, he claimed, attacked him after he had threatened to report their homosexual activities. The men were charged with murder. It was Farncomb's unwanted duty to prosecute at their court martial, convened on 15 April at Noumea. He studied available law books and, after a 'masterly' performance, secured convictions. Gordon and Elias were sentenced to death. Reverting to the role of commanding officer, Farncomb then submitted an eloquent appeal for their lives; the sentences were subsequently commuted to imprisonment.

On 7 May 1942, in the Coral Sea, Australia led a force of cruisers and destroyers sent without air cover to intercept Japanese troop-ships headed for Port Moresby. The flagship came under heavy bombing and aerial torpedo attack. Although Australia was given up as lost, she emerged safely from the smothering spray. Farncomb had handled her brilliantly. He was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the battle of the Coral Sea. Extolling his qualities, Crace recommended him for promotion to flag rank.

Rear Admiral (Sir) Victor Crutchley replaced Crace in June. He and Farncomb joined officers of the United States Navy in planning the invasion of Guadalcanal. Embarked in Australia, Crutchley commanded the force that screened the transports. The landings took place on 7 August. Dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers harried the allied ships. On the night of 8-9 August Crutchley placed five of his heavy cruisers around Savo Island, before being summoned in the flagship to attend a conference off Lunga Point. At about 1.40 a.m. a Japanese force of seven cruisers and a destroyer caught the defenders by surprise. In the ensuing battle the Allies lost four heavy cruisers, including Canberra, and the Japanese none. Had Australia—with Farncomb and his experienced crew—been at Savo Island, the tragedy might have been averted.

For the remainder of the month Australia operated in the South Pacific and escorted U.S. aircraft-carriers which fought in the battle of the Eastern Solomons. Farncomb was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1942) for his services in the Solomon Islands. He saw little action in 1943 until December when he directed the ship's bombardment that supported the landings at Cape Gloucester, New Britain.

Crutchley was less impressed with Farncomb than Crace had been. In early 1944 the Federal government decided that Captain (Sir) John Collins would be the first R.A.N.C.-trained officer to command the Australian Squadron and that Farncomb would succeed him. Farncomb left Australia in March, took short courses in England and was given command of the escort-carrier, H.M.S. Attacker, in May.

Under Farncomb, Attacker was senior ship of a group of escort-carriers. On 12 August 1944 she sailed from Malta to support the invasion of the south of France. Allied troops landed on the 15th and Attacker's aircraft smashed railways, roads and bridges to block the enemy's escape. In October the ship was involved in operations to clear the Germans from the Aegean Sea and to liberate Greece. Farncomb was twice mentioned in dispatches for his work in Attacker. His immediate superior, Rear Admiral (Sir) Thomas Troubridge, thought highly of him, but observed his 'tendency to fortify himself with liquor' before important social occasions in harbour.

In October 1944 Collins was wounded in action. Farncomb flew from the Mediterranean to Manus Island and, on 9 December, assumed command of the Australian Squadron as commodore first class. The invasion of Luzon, Philippines, was imminent. H.M.A. ships Australia, Shropshire, Warramunga and Arunta—under Farncomb in Australia—were to be part of Vice Admiral J. B. Oldendorf's Bombardment and Fire Support Group of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Farncomb quickly grasped 'the voluminous operation orders that emanated from the American command' and executed them flawlessly.

Off Luzon and in the Lingayen Gulf, between 5 and 9 January 1945 Australia was successively hit by five kamikaze aircraft. Casualties and damage were severe, but the ship completed her scheduled firings before withdrawing for repairs. Oldendorf described her performance as inspirational. Although Farncomb was wounded, he remained on duty. He was appointed C.B. (1945) and awarded the U.S. Navy Cross. On 22 January he hoisted his broad pendant in Shropshire and next month witnessed the bombardment and occupation of Corregidor Island. In May, June and July the Australian Squadron supported landings at Wewak, New Guinea, and at Labuan Island and Balikpapan, Borneo. Farncomb was relieved by Collins on 22 July in Manila and flew to Sydney.

Following a stint (August to September 1945) as flag officer-in-charge, New South Wales, Farncomb became commodore superintendent of training at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria. Next year he was appointed commander of the U.S. Legion of Merit for his services with the Seventh Fleet in 1944-45. He went back to sea in November 1946, initially as commodore commanding, then as flag officer commanding H.M.A. Squadron (Fleet). On 8 January 1947 he had been promoted rear admiral. He ensured that the fleet met its commitments in the postwar period which saw reductions in personnel and ships.

By 1949 Farncomb was frustrated, bored with continual official entertainment and drinking more than was wise. Appointed head of the Australian Joint Services Staff in Washington in January 1950, he seemed unable to curb his drinking and was recalled in November. He was transferred to the Retired List of Officers on 7 April 1951. Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peek later criticized the Naval Board for the destruction of Farncomb's career. The burdens and strains of nearly six years of uninterrupted command at sea and of increasingly responsible posts in wartime had been severe. The Naval Board could have rested him after the war but chose not to do so.

Farncomb gave up alcohol completely. He learned Latin to enable him to study for the Barristers' Admission Board examinations. Admitted to the Bar on 6 June 1958, he developed a reasonably busy practice in Sydney and subsequently joined the solicitors, Alfred Rofe & Sons. As a lawyer, he showed the same penetrating and analytical mind and the industry and ability which had characterized his years in the navy. Heart disease eventually led to his retirement. Survived by his wife, Farncomb died on 12 February 1971 in St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated with Anglican rites; his ashes were scattered at sea from his last flagship, H.M.A.S. Sydney. It has been announced that a Collins-class submarine is to be named after him; the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds his portrait by Harold Abbott.

Admiral Sir Louis Hamilton, chief of Naval Staff in 1945-48, had regarded Farncomb as 'the best senior officer' in the R.A.N., an opinion shared by others. Aloof and reserved, Farncomb never sought popularity, although the young Trevor Rapke was one who experienced the charm, humour and 'rich culture' of the private man. Sailors respected 'Fearless' for his fair play, justice and courage, and many who served under him in World War II called themselves 'Farncomb men'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. McGuire, The Royal Australian Navy (Melb, 1948)
  • 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, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • C. Coulthard-Clark, Action Stations Coral Sea (Syd, 1991)
  • T. R. Frame et al (eds), Reflections on the RAN (Syd, 1991)
  • A5954/1, item 857/6, A3978/8, item Farncomb, H. B. (National Archives of Australia)
  • interviews and correspondence held by author.

Citation details

Alan Zammit, 'Farncomb, Harold Bruce (1899–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farncomb-harold-bruce-10154/text17933, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Harold Bruce Farncomb (1899-1971), by Harold Abbott

Harold Bruce Farncomb (1899-1971), by Harold Abbott

Australian War Memorial, ART31765