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Robert Gray (1902–1942)

by Daryl Fox

This article was published:

Robert Gray (1902-1942), naval officer, was born on 26 June 1902 in South Melbourne, elder son of Victorian-born parents Robert Gray Ovens, traveller, and his wife Alice Jane Jago. She and her sons subsequently took the surname Gray. Young Robert was educated at South Melbourne College and Scotch College where he topped his class in 1911. He joined the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, as a cadet midshipman on 31 December 1915.

After spending 1920-21 in H.M.A. ships Australia and Melbourne, Gray was sent to Britain for courses and further sea-training. He attended the Royal Naval Engineering College, Keyham, Devonport, in 1923-24 and returned to Australia in 1926 as engineer lieutenant. In that year, and again in 1929-33, he performed instructional duties at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria. Having served in Platypus and Canberra in 1926-29, he was promoted engineer lieutenant commander in 1932 and commissioned H.M.A.S. Waterhen in 1934. On 12 February that year he married Betty Alyne ('Alice') Crooke at St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, Sydney.

Strongly built, Gray was an accomplished athlete and played Rugby Union football. He was a sociable person and a good messmate, but a stern disciplinarian who earned, and kept, the respect of his men. As senior engineer (1934-37) in H.M.A.S. Canberra he was repeatedly recommended for accelerated promotion; on 30 June 1937 he became engineer commander. Following a posting to H.M.A.S. Penguin, where he was responsible for the maintenance of ships in reserve, he sailed to England in H.M.A.S. Albatross in 1938. He joined H.M.S. Amphion as engineer officer in January 1939 and remained with her when she was recommissioned as H.M.A.S. Perth.

From the outbreak of World War II Perth was successively on the American and West Indian, Australian, and East Indian stations. In December 1940 she joined the 7th Cruiser Squadron in the British Mediterranean Fleet. On 28 March 1941, in the early stages of the battle of Matapan, the squadron encountered a superior Italian force. Evading enemy shells, the cruisers attempted to draw the Italians towards the British battle fleet. Perth's engine-room and boiler-room staffs were required to make maximum speed while maintaining a thick smoke-screen. Their success was attributed almost entirely to Gray's 'grim and cheerful resolution and to his exceptional powers of leadership coupled with outstanding technical ability'. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches (1942).

Gray's commanding officer, Captain Sir Philip Bowyer-Smyth, R.N., wrote of him in September 1941: 'He has shown himself to be undeterred by misfortune, ready and quick to improvise and of outstanding coolness, determination and courage under stress. Never defeated and never loses heart'. Perth was in Australian waters when Japan entered the war in December. Sent to help in the defence of Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies in February 1942, she was sunk off Java, at the northern entrance to Sunda Strait, on 1 March. Gray was officially declared missing, presumed drowned. His wife and 2-year-old son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A3978 T7, item: Gray, R. (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Daryl Fox, 'Gray, Robert (1902–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ovens, Robert

26 June, 1902
South Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


1 March, 1942 (aged 39)
at sea