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Sir Wilfred Hastings (Arch) Harrington (1906–1965)

by Tom Frame

This article was published:

Sir Wilfred Harrington, 1963

Sir Wilfred Harrington, 1963

photo provided by Royal Australian Navy

Sir Wilfred Hastings Harrington ('ARCH') (1906-1965), naval officer, was born on 17 May 1906 at Maryborough, Queensland, second child of native-born parents Hubert Ernest Harrington, solicitor, and his wife Laura Irene, née Barton. W. F. Harrington was his grandfather. After attending Wychbury Preparatory School, Maryborough, in 1920 'Arch' entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, where he excelled scholastically, and gained colours for Rugby Union football and hockey. In 1924 he went to sea as a midshipman in H.M.A. cruisers, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Later that year Harrington was sent to Britain for training with the Royal Navy and joined the battleship, H.M.S. Malaya, in the Mediterranean Fleet. While an acting sub-lieutenant at the R.N. College, Greenwich, he was commended by the Admiralty in September 1927 for an outstanding war-course essay. Back in Australia, he was promoted lieutenant in 1928 and served in R.A.N. ships until 1933 when he returned to Britain on appointment to the cruiser, H.M.S. Cornwall, which was deployed to the China Station for three years. Home again, he was a lieutenant-commander (from December 1936) and executive officer (from January 1937) of H.M.A.S. Swan.

Following seven months on the staff of the R.A.N. College at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria, on 30 August 1939 Harrington assumed command of the sloop, H.M.A.S. Yarra. In August 1940 the ship sailed for Aden. There she was attached to the Red Sea Force. In the war against Iraq (May 1941) she supported troops occupying positions on the west bank of the Shatt al Arab. On 24 May Harrington commanded naval elements of a combined operation at Habib Shawi. He was mentioned in dispatches and promoted commander in June.

When the British moved against Persia on 25 August, Yarra sailed down the Shatt al Arab from Basra to Khorramshahr. That morning she sank the sloop, Babr, captured two gunboats in the Karun River, and landed troops. On the 29th at Bandar Abbas she saved the burning Italian ship, Hilda, and took her in tow. Commodore Cosmo Graham, the senior naval officer, Persian Gulf, observed that, having given Harrington an order, he was able to dismiss the matter from his mind until Harrington reported, 'as is his custom, that the task has been successfully achieved'. Harrington was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

In November-December Yarra was in the Mediterranean, escorting convoys which supplied Tobruk, Libya. By January 1942 she was in the Far East, running between Singapore and the Sunda Strait. On 5 February, near Singapore, the ship suffered superficial damage when the Japanese made an air-raid on the convoy she was protecting. Manoeuvring Yarra to the aid of a transport, Empress of Asia, which had been stricken in the attack, Harrington 'did a fine rescue job', laying his vessel's bow alongside the liner's stern and taking off 1804 people. He relinquished his command on 10 February and was transferred to H.M.A.S. Australia in March as executive officer. For his organization and administration of that ship in the South-West Pacific Area, particularly at Tulagi and Guadalcanal in July-August, he was again mentioned in dispatches. From July 1944 he commanded the destroyer, H.M.A.S. Quiberon, in operations chiefly around the Netherlands East Indies.

On New Year's Day 1945 at St Anne's Anglican Church, Strathfield, Sydney, Harrington married a nursing sister Agnes Janet, daughter of Cyril Legh Winser who had been private secretary to governors of South Australia in 1915-40 and Australian amateur golf champion in 1921. Harrington served in the shore establishment, H.M.A.S. Penguin, in 1945-46 and was promoted captain in 1947 while attached to the Department of Defence, Melbourne. His command of the destroyer, H.M.A.S. Warramunga, from April 1948 to January 1950 included a three-month deployment to Japanese waters. In 1950-51 he was director of manning at Navy Office, Melbourne. He attended the Imperial Defence College, London, in 1952 and spent the next two years in the Admiralty's Naval Equipment Department at Bath. Home again, he commanded the aircraft-carrier, H.M.A.S. Sydney, from 1955 and was appointed C.B.E. in 1957.

As rear admiral (March 1957), Harrington was flag officer in charge, East Australia Area, in 1957-58, second naval member of the Naval Board (responsible for personnel) in 1958-59, and flag officer commanding H.M. Australian Fleet from 1959. He was appointed C.B. in 1962. On 24 February that year he was promoted vice admiral and succeeded Sir Henry Burrell as chief of Naval Staff in Canberra. Harrington was elevated to K.B.E. in 1963.

Over several years before Harrington's appointment as C.N.S., the navy had experienced a series of unrelated accidents with increasingly serious consequences. Then, in October 1963, five junior officers from Sydney drowned when the whaler they were sailing capsized near Hook Island, North Queensland. In February 1964 eighty-two lives were lost in a collision between the aircraft-carrier, H.M.A.S. Melbourne, and the destroyer, H.M.A.S. Voyager, off the New South Wales coast near Jervis Bay. Controversy surrounding these events dominated the second half of Harrington's term.

The tragedies provoked a crisis of public confidence in the navy and heightened concerns outside the service that professional standards had declined since the departure, a decade earlier, of the last British flag officer to be seconded to Australia. Harrington enlisted the support of two ministers for the navy—(Sir) John Gorton (to December 1963) and (Sir) Frederick Chaney (from March 1964)—who were prepared to defend the R.A.N.'s reputation in the face of widespread criticism.

Harrington's personal belief was simply that the service was having a run of bad luck that had to end. In the Naval Board's confidential submission to Federal cabinet on the findings of Sir John Spicer's royal commission into the loss of Voyager, Harrington argued that the failures and shortcomings which led to the disaster were unconnected, and could not have been foreseen and prevented. Moreover, he considered that the incident revealed no fundamental flaw in the administration and operation of the R.A.N. He was, however, privately critical of the captains of both Melbourne and Voyager.

In the wake of Voyager's loss, Harrington obtained permission from the Admiralty for the long-term loan of the destroyer, H.M.S. Duchess. He skilfully managed the navy's programme for acquiring equipment, persuading the Chiefs of Staff committee to accept it without major amendment and gaining government approval for the construction of two new frigates, Swan and Torrens, as permanent replacements for Voyager. These achievements revealed his resolution and determination, and reflected the close relationship he enjoyed with senior British naval officers, notably Earl Mountbatten, with whom he maintained a personal correspondence.

Harrington retired on 24 February 1965. Although the R.A.N.'s public standing had declined, levels of government funding remained high and there was no shortage of recruits. It was also to his credit that the navy was in a high state of preparedness to meet the challenges of its involvement (from 1964) in supporting Malaysia against Indonesian Confrontation and of its subsequent operations in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, he continued the policy of reducing the R.A.N.'s reliance on Britain and increasing its ability to operate with the United States Navy.

A stern disciplinarian, Harrington was regarded by many as an unfriendly man, yet, to those he came to know and trust, he was sympathetic. Most who sailed under him admired his ability. He was driven by ambition and by a determination to do his best, whatever the circumstances. Although old-fashioned in some ways, he was receptive to new ideas and innovative in applying them. All who encountered him took him seriously, but the tufts of hair which he grew on his cheeks provided a source of humour. On noticing a sailor who affected similar whiskers, Harrington said: 'On me they look dignified; on you they look bloody ridiculous'. The sailor was ordered to be clean-shaven.

In September 1965 Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies appointed Sir Hastings commissioner-general to represent Australia at the Canadian international exhibition, to be held in 1967 and known as Expo 67. Harrington died of hypertensive cerebrovascular disease on 17 December 1965 in Canberra Community Hospital; at his own wish, he was buried at sea off Port Jackson. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him.

Harrington's brother Charles Frederick (1914-1941) was born on 22 June 1914 at Eagle Junction, Brisbane. He was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, New South Wales, and the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1938). Appointed surgeon lieutenant, R.A.N. Reserve, on 1 September 1939, he was mobilized for full-time service in October 1940 and briefly posted to the auxiliary, H.M.A.S. Wyrallah, before joining Yarra's sister ship, H.M.A.S. Parramatta, on the East Indies Station in January 1941. She was transferred to the Mediterranean in June.

An inspirational figure, Harrington trained a crew from his staff in the use of a Vickers machine-gun, mounted it aft and took charge of it in action. East of Tobruk, on 24 June, a force of some fifty enemy bombers attacked Parramatta and the sloop, H.M.S. Auckland, which was sunk. Parramatta recovered survivors as the air-raids continued. Harrington turned the officers' and petty officers' messes into emergency sickbays, and he and his men worked tirelessly in caring for the wounded and those suffering from shock. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (gazetted 1942).

Charles Harrington was presumed lost in action on 27 November 1941 when his ship sank after being torpedoed north-east of Tobruk by the German submarine, U 559. Of Parramatta's complement of 9 officers and 151 sailors, all save 23 sailors died.

Select Bibliography

  • P. and F. M. McGuire, The Price of Admiralty (Melb, 1944)
  • A. F. Parry, H.M.A.S. Yarra (Syd, 1944)
  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (Melb, 1949)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1957)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • T. Frame, Where Fate Calls (Syd, 1992)
  • Harrington papers, H.M.A.S. Creswell (History Collection, Jervis Bay, Australian Capital Territory)
  • Harrington's personal correspondence and other papers (branch files, Office of the Chief of Naval Staff, Navy Office, Canberra).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tom Frame, 'Harrington, Sir Wilfred Hastings (Arch) (1906–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 May 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

Sir Wilfred Harrington, 1963

Sir Wilfred Harrington, 1963

photo provided by Royal Australian Navy