Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Honner, Hyacinth Ralph (1904–1994)

by Peter Brune

This article was published online in 2020

Hyacinth Ralph Honner (1904–1994), schoolteacher, solicitor, army officer, and diplomat, was born on 17 August 1904 at Fremantle, Western Australia, third of six children of South Australian-born Richard Joseph Honner, police constable, and his Irish-born wife Eleanor Iris, née McMahon. Ralph was named Hyacinth after Saint Hyacinth, on whose feast day he was born. He was educated at Three Springs primary school, Perth Boys’ School and, after winning a scholarship, Perth Modern School. As his family remained at Three Springs, over 180 miles (300 km) away, he boarded at Subiaco. A quiet, reserved, and undemonstrative child, he immersed himself in his studies.

In 1923 Honner entered Claremont Teachers College and the University of Western Australia (BA, 1926). At university he studied English and history, and transformed from a short, slim boy to a six foot (183 cm) tall, well-built athlete who played football (both Australian Rules and rugby union) and was a gifted sprinter. In mid-1929, after having taught at Kalgoorlie for just over a year, he accepted a position as senior house master at Hale School, Perth. Taking up studies in law at the University of Western Australia (LLB, 1933), he attended evening lectures and was articled to Parker and Parker. On 2 June 1934, at St Mary’s Cathedral, he married Marjory Collier Bennett, a teacher he had met at college. Admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor in July 1935, he worked as a solicitor until 1939.

Honner had served in the Citizen Military Forces from 1924 and was commissioned as a lieutenant on 25 June 1936. Immediately following the outbreak of World War II, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 October 1939. Promoted to captain, he was given command of ‘C’ Company, 2/11th Battalion, which fought along the Libyan coast at Bardia, Tobruk, and Derna in January 1941. The North African campaign gave him invaluable training in offensive, fluid operations incorporating infantry-artillery coordination. In April the 2/11th was shipped to Greece. From Kalabaka to Brallos Pass and thence to Megara, the battalion fought continuously until its evacuation to Crete on 25 April 1941. With the 2/1st Battalion, Honner’s unit was entrusted with the defence of the Retimo sector. The battalions held their ground against German paratroopers for ten days before enemy gains elsewhere forced the surrender of the island. Honner subsequently led a 2/11th party across Crete for a rendezvous with, and evacuation by, a British submarine to Alexandria, Egypt, in August. He was promoted to major in October and awarded the Military Cross in December. In recommending him for the award, his commanding officer described him as ‘the best company commander [he had] known in this or the last war’ (NAA B883).

Returning to Australia in May 1942, Honner briefly commanded the 19th Training Battalion in Western Australia. On 1 August he was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive, September) and appointed to command the 39th Battalion, which he joined at Isurava, Papua, on 16 August. His adjutant observed that: ‘He had a strong personality about him … He made it his war … he knew what he wanted’ (Lovett 1998). Honner and his greatly diminished and exhausted battalion held out against repeated Japanese attacks until reinforced by the 2/14th Battalion. The two battalions resisted the enemy’s advance for four days before being compelled to withdraw to Eora Creek on 30 August. The 39th was rested from early September and then recommitted to the fighting at Gona on the north coast of Papua in December, where Honner achieved a remarkable victory. By sending his men in under their own artillery barrage, he enabled them to overwhelm the numerous Japanese pillboxes confronting them. After briefly serving at Sanananda in early January 1943, the malaria-ridden battalion was relieved. Honner was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1943) for his Papuan service. Following the disbandment of the 39th, he was posted as commanding officer of the 2/14th Battalion in Australia in July. The unit took part in the operations in the Markham and Ramu valleys of New Guinea in September and October. On 4 October Honner received a gunshot wound to the hip, forcing an end to his active service. He was evacuated to Australia and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 3 January 1945.

Honner had been appointed chairman of a pensions assessment appeal tribunal in Perth in December 1944. He remained there until late 1949, when he moved to Sydney to become chairman of the No. 2 War Pensions Entitlement Appeal Tribunal. President of both the New South Wales division of the United Nations Association (1955–57) and the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party of Australia (1961–63), he was ‘the party’s first Roman Catholic president’ (Canberra Times 1963, 2). From 1968 to 1972 he served as Australia’s ambassador to Ireland. He retired to Sydney. In 1981, with Marjory, he visited Crete to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the battle for that island. Self-effacing and scrupulously honest, he was a man of many skills and interests—‘a renaissance man’ (Stephens 1992, 11). Predeceased by his wife (d. 1990) and survived by their three sons and one daughter, he died on 14 May 1994 at Fairlight, Sydney, and was buried at the Northern Suburbs General (Macquarie Park) cemetery. He is commemorated by the Ralph Honner Kokoda Education Centre, opened in 2009 as part of the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway, Sydney.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Brune, Peter. Gona’s Gone!: The Battle for the Beachhead 1942. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994
  • Brune, Peter. We Band of Brothers: A Biography of Ralph Honner, Soldier and Statesman. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2000
  • Canberra Times. ‘President of Liberal Party Calls It a Day.’ 2 July 1963, 2
  • Dexter, David. The New Guinea Offensives. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1961
  • Lovett, Captain Keith. Interview by the author, 5 October 1998
  • McCarthy, Dudley. South-West Pacific Area: First Year. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX15
  • Stephens, Tony. ‘Kokoda Camaraderie.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1992, 11

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter Brune, 'Honner, Hyacinth Ralph (1904–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/honner-hyacinth-ralph-28427/text36047, published online 2020, accessed online 6 July 2020.

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