Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McLaren, Robert Kerr (1902–1956)

by Alan Powell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Robert Kerr McLaren (1902-1956), army officer and veterinarian, was born on 27 April 1902 at Pathhead, Fifeshire, Scotland, son of James Bryce McLaren, chemist, and his wife Annie Maxwell, née Kerr. Emigrating to Australia (probably in the 1920s), Bob practised as a veterinary surgeon around Bundaberg, Queensland. Although he belonged to the Church of Scotland, he married 40-year-old Catherine Ahearn with Catholic rites on 18 June 1938 at the Sacred Heart Church, Childers.

On 12 March 1941 McLaren joined the Citizen Military Forces; on 23 April he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He was then 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, lean and sharp-featured, with fair hair and blue eyes. In January 1942 he sailed for Singapore with the 2nd/10th Ordnance Field Workshops. When the Japanese took the island in the following month, he became a prisoner of war at Changi. Within days he escaped with two other Australians and headed to the north-west. Betrayed by some Malayans, they were captured by the Japanese. The three men were made to face a firing squad on six successive mornings at Seremban before being taken to Pudu Gaol, Kuala Lumpur. By September they were back in Changi.

As part of 'E' Force, McLaren was among five hundred British and five hundred Australian prisoners transferred to Borneo in March 1943. The Australians were taken to a camp on Berhala Island, at the entrance to Sandakan harbour in British North Borneo. McLaren and Lieutenant Rex Blow made contact with Filipino guerrillas who helped them and five others to escape in June. Another Australian, already at large, joined the group which then sailed to the island of Tawitawi in the Philippines. Attaching themselves to an American-led guerrilla force, the men sailed for Mindanao in October. McLaren had been promoted sergeant in July. He was to serve with distinction in the Philippines, receiving a field commission (January 1944) and the rank of temporary captain (April 1945).

From September 1944 McLaren skippered an armed whaleboat off Mindanao. He attacked Japanese small craft and coastal installations with dash and aggression, qualities he also displayed when commanding combat patrols on land. On 2 April 1945 he and Blow headed elements of the guerrilla force's 108th Division in an assault on the last Japanese stronghold in Lanao province. Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Hedges, the American divisional commander, recorded that the fighting ended with the capture of the garrison and the destruction of about 450 enemy troops. For his efforts at sea and on land, McLaren won the Military Cross and was mentioned in dispatches. His M.C. citation read: 'throughout the whole of his service with the Guerilla Forces, Captain McLaren displayed outstanding leadership in battle and had no regard for his personal safety. His cheerful imperturbability was an inspiration to all with whom he came into contact'. The Americans awarded him the Philippines Liberation ribbon.

Ordered home in April 1945, McLaren joined the Services Reconnaissance Department, a section of the Allied Intelligence Bureau which was largely Australian-manned. On 30 June he led four S.R.D. operatives in a pre-invasion parachute operation near Balikpapan, Borneo. One man was injured on landing, another was taken in an ambush, and the Japanese captured their supplies and radios. McLaren, however, carried on with his task and slipped through enemy lines on 6 July to report to 7th Division headquarters. His deeds earned him a Bar to his M.C. His last wartime mission, code-named Agas 5, saw him (as a substantive captain) lead an eight-man team to Talasai, British North Borneo, on 27 July. After World War II had ended, the party remained to administer to civilian needs until 10 September. McLaren returned to Australia on 5 November and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 15 January 1946.

A natural leader and a man of driving energy, McLaren found no satisfactory occupation in Australia and accepted a post as a government veterinary officer in the Territory of Papua-New Guinea. In early 1956 he left the public service and took over a coffee plantation near Wau. On 3 March that year he accidentally backed his Jeep into a pergola and was killed when struck by falling timber. Survived by his wife, he was buried in the European cemetery at Wau.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Richardson, One-Man War (Syd, 1957)
  • S. Ross, And Tomorrow Freedom (Syd, 1989)
  • A. Powell, War by Stealth (Melb, 1996).

Citation details

Alan Powell, 'McLaren, Robert Kerr (1902–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclaren-robert-kerr-11001/text19563, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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