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Lionel Sydney Dalton (1902–1941)

by Alan Hinge

This article was published:

Lionel Dalton, n.d.

Lionel Dalton, n.d.

photo from Royal Australian Navy

Lionel Sydney Dalton (1902-1941), naval officer, was born on 26 October 1902 in South Melbourne, second son of Edward Lisle Dalton, a clerk from Adelaide, and his Victorian-born wife Annie Myra, née Oliver. Educated at Middle Park State School, in 1916 Syd entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory. He did reasonably well academically, won colours for cricket and Rugby Union football, and gained a reputation as a good 'all rounder' who was prepared to 'have a go'. In January 1920 he was promoted midshipman and sent to sea in H.M.A.S. Australia.

Based in England for further training from 1921, Dalton served in several Royal Navy ships. He was promoted lieutenant in December 1924, graduated from the R.N. Engineering College at Keyham, Devonport, in 1925, and returned to Australia that year. After postings to H.M.A.S. Anzac and Adelaide, he went back to England in 1927 to commission the new vessel, Australia. On 24 March 1928 he married Margaret Mary Anderson at St Andrew's parish church, Plymouth. Home again, in 1931 he was posted to the seaplane-carrier, Albatross. While an instructor (1932-34) at the engineering school, H.M.A.S. Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, he was promoted engineer lieutenant commander. In 1934 he found himself once more in England, standing by the six-inch-gun cruiser, Sydney, then under construction at Wallsend, Northumberland. He sailed in her to Australia and in 1937 transferred to H.M.A.S. Adelaide.

Promoted engineer commander on 31 December 1937, Dalton rejoined Sydney in June 1939 as engineer officer. In May 1940 the ship was deployed for service in the Mediterranean. On 19 July, while patrolling off Cape Spada, Crete, a flotilla of British destroyers sighted two Italian cruisers, the Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni. Some forty nautical miles (74 km) to the north, Sydney changed course to lend assistance: she pursued the Italian vessels at high speed down the west coast of Crete, destroyed the Bartolomeo Colleoni and damaged the Bande Nere. Dalton's steadfastness and professionalism ensured that Sydney's machinery performed faultlessly throughout the engagement. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Sydney's action against a superior force was widely regarded as Australia's most significant naval victory. Dalton recorded the ship's arrival in Alexandria harbour, Egypt, next day: '[We] . . . steamed down the line of battleships and cruisers, receiving a welcome that was wonderful. All ships cleared lower deck and gave us three cheers as we proceeded, and anyone would have imagined that we had won the war'. In 1940 the demands made on Dalton and his staff were enormous, with the ship steaming a total of 66,000 nautical miles (122,232 km). Sydney returned to Australian waters in February 1941.

On 19 November 1941, about 150 nautical miles (278 km) south-west of Carnarvon, Western Australia, Sydney challenged a disguised merchant vessel, later known to have been the German raider, Kormoran, which lured the cruiser closer then opened fire. Both ships were lost in the action, Sydney with her entire complement of 645 men. Dalton was survived by his wife and son David who became an engineer officer in the R.A.N. and rose to captain.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. McGuire, The Royal Australian Navy, its Origin, Development and Organization (Melb, 1948)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1957)
  • J. Collins, H.M.A.S. Sydney (Syd, 1971)
  • Royal Australian Naval College Magazine, 1916-19
  • MP 1185/8 file 2026/3/351 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Alan Hinge, 'Dalton, Lionel Sydney (1902–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 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

Lionel Dalton, n.d.

Lionel Dalton, n.d.

photo from Royal Australian Navy