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Officer, Sir Frank Keith (1889–1969)

by Kathleen Dermody

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

Frank Keith Officer (1889-1969), by Pierre Jouve

Frank Keith Officer (1889-1969), by Pierre Jouve

National Library of Australia

Sir Frank Keith Officer (1889-1969), diplomat, was born on 2 October 1889 at Toorak, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Frank Suetonius Officer, accountant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Marzetti, née Umphelby. Sir Robert Officer was his great-grandfather. Keith attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, lived in Ormond College while studying at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1912), and became an associate to H. B. Higgins.

On 6 December 1914 Officer was commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force. He served at Gallipoli in June-October 1915 as staff captain, 6th Infantry Brigade. Sent to the Western Front, he was appointed deputy assistant quartermaster-general, 2nd Division, in July 1916, and deputy assistant adjutant-general, I Anzac Corps, in July 1917. Four months later he was promoted major. For his service as a staff officer he was awarded the Military Cross (1917), appointed O.B.E. (1919) and thrice mentioned in dispatches. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 20 November 1919.

Joining the British Colonial Service, Officer was posted in 1920 to Ankpa, Nigeria, where he supervised 200,000 people in a district as large as Wales. Whenever possible, he relied on local custom and used the existing system of village government to administer the area. After returning to Melbourne in 1923, he was employed in his father's office before obtaining a temporary post with the Department of External Affairs, Canberra, in 1927. Responsible for keeping the department informed of developments abroad, he was a methodical and thorough worker who liked order and routine. He belonged (1924-30) to the Melbourne group of Round Table. In 1928 he accompanied the Australian delegation—headed by A. J. McLachlan—to Geneva for the ninth assembly of the League of Nations and to Paris for the signing of the 'Kellogg-Briand' pact.

Officer was appointed a permanent member of the Commonwealth Public Service and dispatched to London as external affairs officer in May 1933. He fostered close links with the Foreign Office, the Dominions Office, the Committee of Imperial Defence and the high commissions of other Commonwealth countries. While cultivating this network of contacts, he established enduring friendships. He attended annual assemblies of the League of Nations as adviser to Australian delegations. In 1933 he engaged in 'horse trading' to secure Australia's election to a vacant seat on the League's council. That year he also attended the Disarmament Conference.

In 1937 Officer was appointed Australian counsellor attached to the British embassy in Washington. He kept in constant touch with the State Department over commercial relations between the United States of America and Australia at a time when Australia was on America's 'Black List' of countries denied tariff concessions. When Australia was removed from the list in February 1938, he began discussions to prepare the ground for a trade agreement. He described Washington as 'the greatest listening post in the world', and took advantage of the opportunities it offered to hone his skills as a 'brilliant collector' of information. In February 1940 he was transferred to the staff of the new Australian legation under Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey.

Officer returned to Australia in September 1940. By November he was Australian counsellor in Tokyo. In September 1941 he took over as chargé d'affaires during Sir John Latham's absence. On 8 December Officer received Japan's formal declaration of war. Following 'a long dull period of confinement', he and his staff returned home in August 1942.

Appointed counsellor to the Soviet Union, Officer arrived at Kuibyshev with the Australian minister William Slater on 2 January 1943. On Slater's departure in April, Officer became chargé d'affaires. Next month the small Australian staff accepted responsibility for representing Polish interests in the Soviet Union. Officer's broad experience and practical approach enabled him to work effectively and to bolster the morale of his subordinates, despite the human misery they daily confronted. None the less, he felt like 'the old man in the wilderness' and wanted to move back to the centre of things—'London, Washington or even Canberra'.

Officer left Moscow in February 1944 and proceeded to Chungking, China, as chargé d'affaires. He found life simple, and the work interesting but full of anxieties. In 1946 Clement (Earl) Attlee, the British prime minister, nominated him to represent Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India on the Allied Council for Japan, but Dr H. V. Evatt distrusted Officer's conservatism and appointed him Australian political representative (minister) to South East Asia. In February-April Officer held discussions in Batavia (Jakarta) and Singapore, and negotiated a peace treaty with Thailand. In June he took up the post of minister to the Netherlands.

One of Officer's main responsibilities in The Hague was to persuade the Dutch to reach a settlement with the Indonesians. Despite tension resulting from the boycott of Dutch ships by the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia, he established good relations with the Dutch. In 1946 he attended the peace conference in Paris. Transferred to Nanking as ambassador to China in 1948, he saw the city fall to communist troops on 23 April 1949. Officer was recalled to Australia in November. He was made Australian ambassador to France in February 1950. The work kept him busy and the French political scene was 'never dull'. In 1950 he was knighted. From 21 November 1951, in the absence of Casey, he led the Australian delegation to the sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Sir Keith never married. Although he was a generous and considerate host, each year he looked forward to summer when he escaped in his yacht, Yarinya, often accompanied by Crumpet, his pet golden Labrador. Officer had the 'traditional appearance of a professional army officer', with 'London style' clothes, brushed-back hair and clipped moustache. Occasionally he wore a monocle. Following his retirement in 1954, he lived at Blackfield, Southampton, England. A director of the English, Scottish & Australian Bank Ltd and the Australian Estates Co. Ltd, he was chairman of the Solent Protection Society. He died on 21 June 1969 at Southampton; his funeral took place at St Francis's Church, Langley.

Select Bibliography

  • Quadrant, Aug 1970, p 30
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Jan 1938, 5 Feb 1960, 24 June 1969
  • Officer papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

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Citation details

Kathleen Dermody, 'Officer, Sir Frank Keith (1889–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/officer-sir-frank-keith-11289/text20145, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 30 March 2017.

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

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