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Purves, Frederick William (Fred) (1912–1997)

by Gregory P. Gilbert

This article was published online in 2022

Frederick William Purves (1912–1997), naval officer and marine engineer, was born on 13 March 1912 at Birmingham, England, only son and elder child of Frederick Ashwood Purves, printer, and his wife Alice Mary, née Birch, both English born. The family migrated to Australia when Fred was a small child, and settled at Willoughby in northern Sydney, where he developed a love of ships and the sea. He studied at Sydney Technical College, before commencing an apprenticeship in marine engineering with the Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd in 1927. Completing his apprenticeship in 1932, he gained extensive experience in merchant vessels, impressing his seniors with his rapidly acquired expertise in diesel engines. In May 1938 he joined Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd in Papua as chief engineer of the small motor vessel Lakatoi. While sailing from Sydney to Samarai on the Macdhui, he met Lilian Mawson, a nurse, whom he married at Kwato Island on 3 April 1940. They returned to Sydney that year and their twin sons were born in January 1941. She was to go on to a distinguished career as a nurse and health administrator.

Travel to Germany in the late 1930s had inspired Purves’s interest in international affairs. When World War II broke out in September 1939, he was determined to join the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). In December 1940 he was appointed as an engineer lieutenant in the RAN Reserve, and became engineer officer in the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Tolga. He was in Darwin Harbour during the devastating Japanese air attack of 19 February 1942. Having helped with the repair and salvage that followed, he was injured in another raid and returned to Sydney to recuperate.

In June 1942 Purves was demobilised, and later in the year the Commonwealth Marine Salvage Board sent him to the United States of America for courses in diesel electric propulsion and salvage diving, and to help take delivery of the salvage tug HMAS Reserve. Resuming full-time naval duty, he was posted (March-August 1943) to the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, then operating in the South-West Pacific Area. Subsequently he was engineer officer of Reserve (1943–44), and of the sister salvage ship HMAS Sprightly (1944). In September 1944 he was promoted to engineer lieutenant commander, with a further posting to the depot and training ship HMAS Koopa (1944–45) in northern New Guinea.

Returning to Australia in late 1945, Purves undertook refitting and maintenance duties, and in August 1946 transferred to the Permanent Naval Forces. From November 1946 he was an instructor at the Mechanical Engineering School at HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, before returning to the Australia (1948) as senior engineer officer. In 1949 and 1950 he completed training courses in aeronautical engineering in Britain with the Royal Navy. Promoted to commander in December 1950, on return to Australia he served in Sydney as naval air engineer overseer (1951–53) and staff air engineer officer at the naval air station (later apprentice training establishment) HMAS Nirimba (1953–54). He was engineer officer of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (1955–56), and then air engineer officer at the naval air station HMAS Albatross, Nowra.

In June 1957 Purves was promoted to captain. After two years (1957–59) as fleet engineer officer embarked in HMAS Melbourne, he occupied a succession of staff posts at Navy Office, Melbourne, and East Australia Area, Sydney. In April 1961, while commanding the training establishment HMAS Nirimba (1961–62), he experienced personal tragedy when his son William died in a residential fire at Wollongong. He returned to Navy Office as deputy chief of naval technical services, and in 1965 was posted to Britain as chief staff officer (technical) on the staff of the Australian naval representative. His expertise in diesel engines gave him a major role in overseeing construction of the RAN’s Oberon–class submarines. He was appointed OBE in 1965.

Purves returned to Australia early in 1967, and in March was promoted to rear admiral. Appointed concurrently as third naval member of the Naval Board and chief of naval technical services, he had oversight of all RAN engineering design, procurement, dockyards, maintenance, and repair. In 1968 he was raised to CBE, and he retired from the RAN in March the following year. He worked as a marine consultant until the mid-1970s, when he was diagnosed with heart disease. Diabetes later led to the amputation of both legs and blindness. In 1985 Lilian was appointed OAM for her services to aged care nursing.

With his civilian and reserve background, Purves was not a typical career naval officer. He described himself as ‘just a rough old engineer’ (Lewis, 2012, 47). His short stature, chubby build, unimpressive bearing, and informal manner caused some superior officers to doubt his power of command and suitability for high rank. Most, however, emphasised his dedication, professionalism, excellent technical skills, agreeable personality, and gift for creating esprit de corps—qualities that propelled him to the highest rank then available to a naval engineer officer. A practical, self-made, and charming man, he also had the attributes of a born committee chair. Survived by his wife and son, he died on 11 January 1997 at Batemans Bay, New South Wales, and was cremated.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Lewis, Tom. Personal communication
  • Lewis, Tom. ‘Rear Admiral Frederick William Purves, CBE, RAN.’ Headmark: Journal of the Australian Naval Institute (Red Hill, ACT), no. 146 (December 2012): 42–53
  • Morris, Joan. ‘Community Nurses an “Admirable Crew.”’ Canberra Times, 13 December 1989, 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, PURVES F. W
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, Officers (RAN) personal record Frederick William Purves
  • Royal Australian Navy History Section, Canberra. Naval Personnel–Purves, Frederick William
  • Royal Australian Navy. ‘Rear Admiral Frederick William Purves.’ Accessed 11 May 2022. https://www.navy.gov.au/biography/rear-admiral-frederick-william-purves. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Gregory P. Gilbert, 'Purves, Frederick William (Fred) (1912–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/purves-frederick-william-fred-32438/text40230, published online 2022, accessed online 27 January 2023.

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