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Robert William Rankin (1907–1942)

by Richard Pelvin

This article was published:

Robert William Rankin (1907-1942), by unknown photographer

Robert William Rankin (1907-1942), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00871.004

Robert William Rankin (1907-1942), naval officer, was born on 3 June 1907 at Cobar, New South Wales, second of three children of Australian-born parents Francis John Rankin, sharebroker's clerk, and his wife Florence May, née Harvey. Robert was educated at Merrylands Public School, Sydney, and Parramatta High School. In 1921 he entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory. Nicknamed 'Oscar', he excelled at Rugby Union football, became cadet captain and graduated in 1924 with prizes for engineering and mathematics. Having served as a midshipman in H.M.A. ships Brisbane and Melbourne, Rankin undertook training with the Royal Navy in 1926. Next year he attended the junior officers' war-course at the R.N. College, Greenwich, where he was one of six sub lieutenants whose essays were commended by the Admiralty. Following further courses at Portsmouth, he joined the newly commissioned cruiser H.M.A.S. Canberra in 1928 and returned in her to Australia where he was promoted lieutenant in August 1929.

Deciding to specialize in hydrography, Rankin joined the survey ship H.M.A.S. Moresby on 18 January 1934. Apart from occasional periods on shore, he charted Australian and New Guinea waters until February 1938. His superiors regarded him as a keen, hard-working officer, if somewhat lacking in powers of command. At the Bellevue Hotel, Brisbane, on 4 October 1937 he married with Catholic rites Mary Glennie Broughton, a 25-year-old nurse.

Rankin had been promoted lieutenant commander in August 1937. Sent to Britain on exchange duty, he was posted (March 1938) to the Home Fleet's H.M.S. Gleaner, a minesweeper engaged in survey work. After courses at H.M.S. Dryad, he was appointed (December 1939) to the repair-ship H.M.S. Resource as first lieutenant. Serving in the Mediterranean and South Atlantic under difficult wartime conditions, he proved a 'conspicuous success'.

Back in New South Wales from September 1941, Rankin was employed on a survey of the Broken Bay-Pittwater area. Early in 1942 he was posted to the sloop H.M.A.S. Yarra, with the intention that he would succeed (Sir) Hastings Harrington in command. On 5 February, while under air-attack near Singapore, Yarra took on board 1804 people from the burning troop-ship Empress of Asia. Harrington commended Rankin's help in organizing the rescue.

Rankin assumed command of Yarra on 11 February 1942 and performed escort duties around the Netherlands East Indies. At 6.30 on the morning of 4 March, while escorting a small convoy from Java to Australia, the sloop encountered a Japanese squadron comprising three cruisers and two destroyers. Rankin immediately transmitted a sighting report, ordered the convoy to scatter, and placed Yarra between the enemy and the fleeing ships. The sloop made smoke and vainly engaged the enemy with her 4-inch (102 mm) guns, but the convoy was quickly overwhelmed. Yarra fought to the last. Some time after 8 a.m. Rankin finally gave the order to abandon ship. A direct hit on the bridge killed him minutes later. Of Yarra's complement of 151 men, only thirteen were rescued. Rankin's wife and daughter survived him. In 2000 a Collins-class submarine was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (Melb, 1949)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1957)
  • R. J. Hardstaff, Leadline to Laser (Syd, 1995)
  • Naval Historical Review, Sept/Oct 1994, p 17.

Citation details

Richard Pelvin, 'Rankin, Robert William (1907–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert William Rankin (1907-1942), by unknown photographer

Robert William Rankin (1907-1942), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00871.004

Life Summary [details]


3 June, 1907
Cobar, New South Wales, Australia


4 March, 1942 (aged 34)
at sea