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Sir Ragnar Musgrave Colvin (1882–1954)

by B. N. Primrose

This article was published:

Sir Ragnar Musgrave Colvin (1882-1954), naval officer, was born on 7 May 1882 at Whitehall, London, son of Clement Sneyd Colvin, civil servant, and his wife Alice Jane, née Lethbridge. He joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in H.M.S. Britannia in 1896 and was commissioned lieutenant six years later. Qualifying as a gunnery specialist in 1904, he had various appointments ashore and afloat until 1913 when he was promoted commander. In World War I he served as executive officer in the cruiser Hibernia and in the battleship Revenge, seeing action in the battle of Jutland. Promoted captain on 31 December 1917, he was posted to the Admiralty as assistant director of plans and was appointed C.B.E. In 1918 he married Sibyl Kays.

After the war Colvin commanded the cruiser Caradoc in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean; in 1922-24 he was naval attaché in Tokyo. He rejoined the Revenge as flag captain to the commander-in-chief, Atlantic Fleet, and in 1927 became director of the Naval Tactical School, Portsmouth. Colvin was promoted rear admiral in 1929 and soon afterwards was made chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, Atlantic Fleet. In 1932 he was appointed C.B. and posted to the 2nd Battle Squadron. Vice admiral in 1934, he became president of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and commander of the Royal Naval War College. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1937.

In October that year Colvin became first naval member of the Australian Naval Board. During the early part of his term he was not able to change the illusively secure view of the international strategic situation and the leisured approach to naval problems taken by Australian governments, under Joseph Lyons and (Sir) Robert Menzies, following the 1937 Imperial Conference. Although in direct touch with the first sea lord, it is probable that the Admiralty did not inform him of its increasing secret fears about war in Europe; as a result the pace of Australian rearmament remained unrealistic until the Munich crisis in 1938.

George Gill described Colvin as 'an outstanding administrator, of reliable judgment and quick decision' with the 'ability to strip unessentials and get down at once to the basis of a problem'. He was tall and 'of commanding appearance, albeit essentially human and approachable and with a ready wit'. During his term of office the navy expanded and maintained its high standard. It acquired three six-inch gun cruisers and began building Tribal Class destroyers, corvettes, frigates and motor torpedo boats which saw useful active service later in World War II. In April 1939 Colvin led the Australian delegation to the Pacific Defence Conference in New Zealand and also represented the Admiralty; in May he was promoted admiral. By late 1940 his health was failing and on 11 March 1941 he resigned from the Naval Board.

Colvin returned to London and in 1942-44 served as naval adviser to the Australian High Commission. Survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, he died on 22 February 1954 at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, Hampshire.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939-42 (Canb, 1957)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Nov 1937
  • Times (London), 24 Feb 1954, p 10, 2 Mar 1954, p 10, 5 Mar 1954, p 10
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Feb 1954
  • B. N. Primrose, Australian Naval Policy 1919-1942. A Case Study in Empire Relations (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • AA1971/216, A2031, A2585, MP124/6, MP692, MP981, MP1049 series 3, 5, 7, 9 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

B. N. Primrose, 'Colvin, Sir Ragnar Musgrave (1882–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ragnar Colvin, n.d.

Ragnar Colvin, n.d.

Australian War Memorial, 001108

Life Summary [details]


7 May, 1882
London, Middlesex, England


22 February, 1954 (aged 71)
Haslar, Hampshire, England

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