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Stevens, Duncan Herbert (1921–1964)

by Darryl Bennet

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Duncan Herbert Stevens (1921-1964), naval officer, was born on 23 March 1921 at Fairfield, Melbourne, only child of (Sir) Jack Edwin Stawell Stevens, a Victorian-born public servant, and his wife Catherine McAllister, née Macdonald, who came from Scotland. Duncan attended Wesley College and entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, on 1 January 1935. Graduating in 1939, he trained at sea and completed courses in England. During World War II he served in cruisers and destroyers, and was promoted lieutenant (1943). He remained at sea after the war, commanding four minor vessels, Kangaroo (1948-49), Koala (1949-50), Reserve (1950-51) and Cowra (1951-52). On 20 May 1949 at Dreger Harbour, near Finschhafen, Territory of Papua-New Guinea, he married Beatrice Louise Phippard.

Following a period (1952-54) ashore at H.M.A.S. Tarangau, Los Negros Island, Lieutenant Commander Stevens took command of the frigate Quickmatch in 1955. He was promoted commander and appointed training commander at F.N.D. in 1956. While executive-officer (1958-60) of the aircraft-carrier Melbourne he spent time in hospital suffering from a duodenal ulcer. In 1960 he attended the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich, England, and in 1960-62 worked in the Admiralty's Tactical and Weapons Policy Division.

Back in Australia, Stevens was promoted captain on 31 December 1962. Two days later he assumed command of the destroyer H.M.A.S. Voyager. Despite Rear Admiral (Sir) Alan McNicoll's judgement in January 1964 that Stevens had 'probably reached his ceiling', he had a good chance of attaining higher rank. Stevens was a friendly and gregarious man, but inclined to brood. He loved sport and, at the age of 42, still played in the ship's cricket team.

On the night of 10 February 1964 Voyager was operating with Melbourne off the south coast of New South Wales. It was the destroyer's responsibility to keep clear of the carrier. About 8.54 p.m. Voyager inexplicably turned towards Melbourne, as if to cross her path. Two minutes later the ships collided, 20 nautical miles (37 km) south-east of Jervis Bay. Melbourne's bows struck Voyager's port side and cut her in two. Both sections sank. Eighty-two men, all from Voyager, lost their lives, Stevens among them. Survived by his wife and their son, he was cremated.

The cause of the accident will never be known because all the key personnel on Voyager's bridge were killed. Of several theories advanced to explain the destroyer's actions, two are plausible: that her officers had become confused and thought they were turning away from Melbourne rather than towards her; and that instructions—signalled from the carrier—changing the ships' course and Voyager's station relative to Melbourne were misinterpreted aboard Voyager.

Sir John Spicer, the royal commissioner who investigated the disaster, reported in August 1964. He concluded that the collision would not have occurred if a proper watch had been maintained in Voyager. Because he could not reconstruct events on the destroyer's bridge, he felt unable to determine the responsibility of any of her officers for what had occurred. In contrast, he criticized Captain R. J. Robertson and other officers in Melbourne for not questioning Voyager's movements before a dangerous situation developed. Robertson was posted ashore.

Incensed by Spicer's and the navy's treatment of Robertson, Lieutenant Commander P. T. Cabban—who had been Voyager's first lieutenant immediately before leaving the R.A.N. in January 1964—alleged that, in 1963, Stevens had been inconsistent in his shiphandling, frequently drunk when the ship was in harbour, and sometimes too ill to take command at sea. In 1967-68 a second royal commission, conducted by Sir Stanley Burbury, K. W. Asprey and G. A. G. Lucas, inquired into Cabban's statement.

The commissioners discounted evidence that Stevens had been volatile and impetuous on the bridge in favour of extensive testimony that he had been a competent seaman. They found that, in 1963-64, he had suffered 'intermittent recurrences' of his 'ulcer trouble' to which 'his drinking habits contributed'. Because of his medical condition, they held that he had been unfit to command Voyager. Exonerating Melbourne's officers, the commissioners concluded that the collision resulted from a mistake on the bridge of Voyager. They claimed that Stevens' physical state helped to 'account for such an error'.

Yet, the commissioners had heard no evidence that Stevens was incapacitated on 10 February 1964. There is no reason to believe that his performance on the bridge that night was affected by illness, by alcohol, or by medication. In fairness, all that can be said is that, as Voyager's commanding officer, he bore the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy.

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Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Stevens, Duncan Herbert (1921–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stevens-duncan-herbert-11761/text21035, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

23 March 1921
Fairfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

10 February 1964
at sea

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation