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Eric Claude Hennessy (1910–1964)

by Darryl McIntyre

This article was published:

Eric Claude Hennessy (1910-1964), soldier, hospital attendant and stock-and-station agent, was born on 8 September 1910 at Lithgow, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Percy Reginald Hennessy, furnaceman, and his wife Ethel Florence, née Hammerton. Eric attended primary school, possibly at Pine Rocks, and subsequently found work at nearby Orange as an attendant at the (Bloomfield) Mental Hospital. On 21 November 1933 at St Barnabas's Anglican Church, Sydney, he married Betty Agnes de Lautour; they were divorced in 1939. A member of the 6th Light Horse Regiment, Militia, he had been included in the Australian contingent for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

Soldiering was Hennessy's passion. On 3 November 1939 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted as a sergeant to the 6th Divisional Reconnaissance (later Cavalry) Regiment, a carrier-mounted scouting force. He was commissioned lieutenant in January 1940 during his voyage to the Middle East where his unit trained in Palestine and Egypt.

In the assault against Bardia, Libya, on 3 January 1941, Hennessy acted as a forward observation officer. He waved on Australian troops from a position close to a breach in the Italian wire and was under a heavy barrage for some hours before rejoining his squadron; he was awarded the Military Cross. After Tobruk fell on 22 January, he was one of the first to enter the town. The Italian naval commander, Admiral Massimiliano Vietina, attempted to surrender his forces to him. When Vietina proffered his sword, Hennessy waved it aside, allegedly saying, 'You keep it, mate. I've got enough souvenirs'.

The regiment was sent to Palestine in May and operated against Vichy French forces in Syria in June-July. Back in Australia, in June 1942 the 6th became part of Northern Territory Force, with Hennessy an acting squadron leader. He was promoted temporary major in July. At St Stephen's Anglican Church, Chatswood, Sydney, on 8 December 1943 he married Valmai Amy Searle, an army nursing sister. From October that year his unit had trained in Queensland where it was re-designated the 2nd/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment. Promoted temporary lieutenant colonel, Hennessy assumed command on 4 February 1944, achieving a goal he had set himself four years earlier.

In October the regiment embarked for New Guinea. Hennessy led it in action at Aitape and Wewak, and won renown as one of the most capable commanders in the A.I.F. A calm and inspiring leader, colourful, sensitive and a shrewd judge of men, he was much loved by his troops who regarded him as a 'soldier's soldier'. He was 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, strongly built and had a fair complexion. In May 1945 he fell ill and was evacuated to Australia. He returned to New Guinea in July, relinquished command in December and was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 12 February 1946. For his part in the campaign he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Finding it difficult to adjust to a peacetime career, Hennessy worked as a representative for Atlantic Union Oil Co. Pty Ltd before becoming a stock-and-station agent at Wellington, New South Wales. In 1954-56 he served on the Wellington Shire Council (deputy-president 1955); in 1956 he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Party candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Mudgee; he was next employed as a secretary-manager of clubs operated by the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's League of Australia at Wollongong (1957-62) and Bathurst (from 1963). Preferring life in the country, he rejected offers of senior managerial positions with Sydney-based companies. He was active in Legacy and regularly addressed school children on Anzac Day. Survived by his wife, their daughter and two sons, and by the son of his first marriage, he died of myocardial infarction on 14 November 1964 at Bathurst and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, To Benghazi (Canb, 1952)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • S. O'Leary, To the Green Fields Beyond (Syd, 1975)
  • Western Advocate, 16 Nov 1964
  • war diaries, 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment and 2nd/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Darryl McIntyre, 'Hennessy, Eric Claude (1910–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 April 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

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