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Harry Leslie Howden (1896–1969)

by Darryl Bennet

This article was published:

Harry Leslie Howden (1896-1969), by Nash Boothby, c1922

Harry Leslie Howden (1896-1969), by Nash Boothby, c1922

Australian War Memorial, P02035.003

Harry Leslie Howden (1896-1969), naval officer, was born on 4 July 1896 at Vogeltown, Wellington, New Zealand, son of Patrick Grieve Howden, a merchant from Scotland, and his English-born wife Mary Elizabeth, née Niblett. Educated at Wellington College, as a youth Harry sailed the Pacific in trading vessels. He made his way to England, obtained an appointment in October 1915 as midshipman, Royal Naval Reserve, and went to sea in the battleship, H.M.S. Benbow. On 5 October 1916 he transferred to the Royal Australian Navy, joining H.M.A.S. Sydney in December 1917.

Postings to H.M.A. ships and to shore establishments in Australia broadened Howden's experience. Promoted lieutenant in May 1919, he completed courses in England in 1923-24. He then commanded the destroyer, H.M.A.S. Tasmania (as lieutenant commander from May 1927), and served in H.M.A.S. Australia from 1928. On exchange with the R.N. in 1930, he commanded the gunboat, Mantis, which operated on the Yangtse River, China. His flair for shiphandling impressed his superiors and in December 1931 he was promoted commander. On 21 May that year at the British consulate-general, Hankow, he had married Vanda Mary Sanders Fiske; they were to have three sons before being divorced.

Returning to Australia, Howden was executive officer of H.M.A.S. Albatross (1932-33), H.M.A.S. Canberra (1933-35) and Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria (from 1935). He was appointed O.B.E. in 1937 and was sent that year to England for duty in the Admiralty's Naval Intelligence Division. On 30 June 1938 he was promoted captain. Home again in October, he had a succession of brief commands until August 1939 when he was given the six-inch-gun cruiser, Hobart.

After World War II began, Hobart was employed on patrol and escort work east of Suez. In June 1940 she carried troops to British Somaliland. Two months later the Italian invasion forced the British to withdraw to Berbera, where, from 14 to 19 August, Howden supervised the evacuation of 7140 soldiers and civilians in transports and warships. He set up a combined headquarters in Hobart, improvised a flotilla of ferrying craft, saw to the comfort of the wounded and organized rescue parties for stragglers—despite air-raids and nightly gales. His 'cheery confidence' proved inspirational and he was elevated to C.B.E. for his role in the operation.

Hobart served with the Australian Squadron between December 1940 and July 1941. Dispatched to the Mediterranean Station, she took part in the relief (August to October 1941) of the Australians at Tobruk, Libya. Following Japan's entry into the war in December, Hobart sailed for Australia, but was diverted to Singapore and attached to allied forces attempting to halt the Japanese advance through Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Alternately escorting convoys and searching for enemy vessels, 'Lucky Harry' and his ship survived repeated air-attacks. While he enjoyed good fortune, he also showed outstanding skills as a seaman and commander. During each strike he ordered sharp turns and drastic changes of speed which saved the ship. Bombs dropped on 15 February 1942 fell close enough for him to see the 'ugly red flash of their burst and to feel the heat of their explosions across [his] face'. He was mentioned in dispatches. On 1 March Hobart sailed for Colombo. In May she was in Australian waters and fought in the battle of the Coral Sea. When Howden's command ended next month, his crew gave him an emotional farewell.

Although flamboyant and a bon vivant, Howden was a well-informed and conscientious officer. He took pains to foster the welfare of his subordinates and won their admiration, but he could be tough on those who did not meet his standards. Some saw him as generous and sociable; others accused him of vanity and dogmatism. He was a small, neatly dressed man who kept himself fit by riding, sailing and rowing, but an arterial lesion at the base of the brain precluded further sea service and the opportunity for promotion to flag rank. In 1942 and again in 1943-46 he commanded the new Sydney shore establishment, H.M.A.S. Penguin, and oversaw its development. His next posting was as naval officer-in-charge, Fremantle, Western Australia.

Howden retired on 4 July 1951 and spent his time travelling and managing his extensive portfolio of shares. At the district registrar's office, Chatswood, Sydney, on 26 September 1960 he married Freda Sybil Oates, née Harradence, a 46-year-old divorcee. While holidaying in London, he died on 16 February 1969 at Smithfield and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did the sons of his first marriage. He bequeathed almost all his estate, sworn for probate at $2,771,733, to charity.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1957)
  • Naval History Review, Dec 1974, p 3
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Sept, 30 Nov 1969
  • A3978, Howden, H. L. (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Howden, Harry Leslie (1896–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 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

Harry Leslie Howden (1896-1969), by Nash Boothby, c1922

Harry Leslie Howden (1896-1969), by Nash Boothby, c1922

Australian War Memorial, P02035.003

Life Summary [details]


4 July, 1896
Vogeltown, Wellington, New Zealand


16 February, 1969 (aged 72)
London, Middlesex, England

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