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Roland Frank Oakes (1896–1986)

by Garth Pratten

This article was published:

Roland Frank Oakes (1896–1986), army officer and grazier, was born on 19 February 1896 at Manly, Sydney, eighth of nine children of New South Wales-born parents Francis Oakes, bank clerk, and his wife Emily Margaret, née Walsh. From Manly Public School Roly won a scholarship to Sydney Boys’ High School, where he received ‘slightly higher than average’ Leaving certificate results and, as an officer in the cadets, a taste of his future calling.

After a stint as an office boy for a law firm, Oakes entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1914. His course was shortened because of World War I and on 4 April 1916 he was appointed as a lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces and the Australian Imperial Force. In Britain from July, he trained as a pilot and was transferred to the Australian Flying Corps. He flew on anti-zeppelin patrols over southern England and, in September-October 1917, night bombing raids on the Western Front. Selected as an instructor, he returned to Australia in August 1918 to take up an appointment at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Victoria.

Following the disbandment of the AFC (1919), Oakes served with the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery at Fremantle, Western Australia. On 8 June 1921 at the Methodist Church, Lindfield, Sydney, he married Claudia Winifred Slade (d.1978). To escape what had become a ‘dull existence’, he resigned from the army in 1922 and returned to Sydney. After a period managing a garage, in 1924 he bought Glenside, an 1800-acre (728-ha) property in the Maryvale district, near Wellington. Glenside was largely undeveloped and he struggled to make it a viable concern.

Having joined the Militia after the outbreak of World War II, Oakes transferred to the AIF in July 1940 as a major and was posted to the 2/19th Battalion. He considered himself ‘not the fighting type’, having more ‘aptitude for administration’. In Malaya (Malaysia) from February 1941 he became second-in-command of the battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson. Oakes did not see action in Malaya due to his duties with the 2/19th’s rear echelon but, following the withdrawal to Singapore, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed to command the 2/26th Battalion. He took over on 9 February 1942 just hours before the Japanese landings on the north shore of the island. In the small hours of 10 February he implemented a controversial order by Brigadier Duncan Maxwell for the 2/26th and 2/30th battalions to withdraw from positions covering the causeway across the Strait of Johore. Unknown to Oakes, the Japanese were considering abandoning their attack in this sector due to the fierce resistance mounted by the Australians.

A prisoner of war from 15 February, Oakes left Singapore on 8 May 1943 as second-in-command of ‘H’ Force, which participated in the construction of ‘Hell Fire Pass’ on the Burma-Thailand Railway. Here, Oakes’s administrative capacities were to the fore. Although conditions were horrendous—more than eight hundred men from ‘H’ Force would die—the main camp at Malayan Hamlet was considered by the commander to be ‘easily the best of any in the force’. In late 1943 the survivors returned to Singapore, where Oakes remained for the rest of the war.

After his repatriation in 1945, Oakes resumed farming and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 8 August 1946. He and his wife moved to Wellington in 1968 and subsequently to Sydney. In his later years he remained active, enjoying the companionship of friends and family and attending army and air force events. He died on 10 July 1986 at Normanhurst and was cremated. His daughter, two of his three sons, and his adopted daughter survived him. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds typescripts of his autobiography, ‘Work and Be Happy’, and of his accounts of Australia in World War II.

Select Bibliography

  • S. W. Kirby, The War Against Japan, vol 1 (1957)
  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (1957)
  • G. Pratten, Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War (2009)
  • B883, item NX208104 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Garth Pratten, 'Oakes, Roland Frank (1896–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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