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Herbert James Buchanan (1902–1965)

by J. V. P. Goldrick

This article was published:

Herbert James Buchanan (1902-1965), by Clifford Bottomley

Herbert James Buchanan (1902-1965), by Clifford Bottomley

Australian War Memorial, 017088

Herbert James Buchanan (1902-1965), naval officer, was born on 10 March 1902 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, son of Herbert James Buchanan, a pastry-cook from Gippsland, and his English-born wife Emily Jane, née Wood. Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, young Buchanan was a 1916 entrant at the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory. Graduating in 1919, he went to Britain next year to take sea-training and professional courses with the Royal Navy. In 1924 he returned to Australia, but after two years was back in England where he completed the Long and the Advanced gunnery courses. Home again, he was promoted lieutenant commander in February 1932 while in charge of the gunnery school at H.M.A.S. Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria. On 21 March that year he married Florence Knarhoi Ellis with Anglican rites at Christ Church, South Yarra.

During the next six years Buchanan was at sea. Promoted commander on 30 June 1938, he attended the R.N. Staff College at Greenwich, England, in 1939. He was executive officer of the British cruiser Diomede when World War II broke out. In February 1940 he assumed command of the destroyer H.M.S. Valentine. Operating off the coasts of Belgium and the Netherlands in support of Dutch and French forces, the ship was damaged by bombs on 15 May. Buchanan beached the stricken vessel and conveyed the wounded to safety; for his actions he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Sent to Dunkirk, France, later that month, he oversaw the evacuation of allied soldiers and was mentioned in dispatches.

As assistant-director of plans (1941-43) at Navy Office, Melbourne, Buchanan was involved in the development of Garden Island Dockyard, Sydney, and in equipping R.A.N. ships with radar. In May 1943 he took command of H.M.A.S. Norman, attached to the British Eastern Fleet. Promoted acting captain on 2 November 1944, he was transferred to Napier as senior officer of the 7th Destroyer Flotilla. He proposed innovations in gunnery and radar, and endeavoured to ensure that his ships received adequate logistic backup. Napier supported sea-borne assaults in Burma, then accompanied allied forces to Japan. There, on 30 August 1945, Buchanan led a naval landing-battalion in the occupation of Yokosuka; he was mentioned in dispatches for his service in Napier.

In October he was posted as deputy-chief of Naval Staff to Navy Office where he played a key role in postwar planning, particularly for a carrier force. Buchanan next commanded the cruisers Shropshire (1946-47) and Australia (1947-48). He completed the course at the Imperial Defence College, London, in 1949. While commodore superintendent of training at H.M.A.S. Cerberus in 1950-52, he enlisted community support in Melbourne to found the White Ensign Club for sailors. In 1953 he captained the aircraft carrier, H.M.A.S. Sydney, at the coronation naval review in England and was appointed C.B.E. That year he was promoted commodore, first class, and joined the Naval Board as chief of naval personnel. At a time of budgetary restraint, his attempts to improve pay and allowances achieved little. Buchanan's interest in officer-training saw better results, with more emphasis on the recruiting of older entrants and the initiation of plans to return the R.A.N. College to Jervis Bay.

His forthright, determined and sometimes abrasive approach could provoke unnecessary conflict, and his relations with the minister for the navy (Sir) William McMahon were strained. The politically acute chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir John Collins, came to believe that Buchanan's obduracy was not helping the navy's cause. The qualities which had helped to make him an excellent seagoing leader were not suited to staff work. In February 1955 Buchanan was made acting rear admiral and flag officer in charge, East Australia Area. Despite professional and social success in Sydney, he retired on 9 March 1957 as a substantive captain and honorary rear admiral.

Remaining in Sydney, Buchanan became managing director of Bell's Asbestos & Engineering (Australia) Pty Ltd and a board-member of other companies; he was president (from 1957) of the executive committee of the Australian Outward Bound Memorial Foundation. He had a happy family life and enjoyed sailing as a recreation. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 15 March 1965 at Point Piper and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (Melb, 1949)
  • S. W. Roskill, The War at Sea 1939-1945, vol 1 (Lond, 1954)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • M. A. Payne and L. J. Lind, N Class (Syd, 1972)
  • R. Hyslop, Aye Aye, Minister (Canb, 1990)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 16 May 1947, 21 Aug, 26 Nov 1951, 18 Jan 1955, 14 Oct 1959, 17, 29 Nov 1960, 1 Sept 1961, 17 Aug 1963, 16 Mar 1965
  • Sun (Sydney), 12 Apr 1983
  • J. B. Foley papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. V. P. Goldrick, 'Buchanan, Herbert James (1902–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Herbert James Buchanan (1902-1965), by Clifford Bottomley

Herbert James Buchanan (1902-1965), by Clifford Bottomley

Australian War Memorial, 017088

Life Summary [details]


10 March, 1902
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


15 March, 1965 (aged 63)
Point Piper, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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