Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harry Richards (1903–1971)

by Peter Charlton

This article was published:

Harry Richards (1903-1971), by unknown photographer, 1941

Harry Richards (1903-1971), by unknown photographer, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 008525

Harry Richards (1903-1971), soldier and labourer, was born on 24 December 1903 at Normanville, South Australia, son of Christian William Theodor Richards, farmer, and his wife Edith Maud May, née Treloar. Nothing is known of Harry's education. In 1926 he joined the South Australian police force and was stationed in Adelaide. Five ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, he had brown eyes, brown hair and a solid build. At the Methodist Church, Edwardstown, on 4 April 1927 he married Elsie Offen, née Smith, a widow; he was to divorce her in 1932. Unemployed and in debt, he lived with his brother during the Depression. On 14 March 1933 at the office of the registrar-general, Adelaide, he married Ada May Mitchell. By then he was a labourer, but was often out of work. He moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales, in 1937 and to Perth in 1938, looking for jobs.

Lowering his age by five years, Richards enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 26 March 1940. In the following month he sailed for the Middle East with the 2nd/11th Battalion. After fighting in Greece (April 1941), the 2nd/11th retreated to Crete. The Germans invaded the island on 20 May. Nine days later Richards took part in the withdrawal across the mountains to the beach at Sfakia, all the while half-carrying a hospital patient. Given the option of being evacuated with the patient, he refused, saying that he would 'go back and get someone else who could not walk'.

When orders were issued on 1 June for the remaining allied forces on Crete to surrender, Richards took measures to escape. He found and concealed an abandoned naval barge with about 80 gallons (364 litres) of petrol and decided to take sixty-two men to North Africa, after calling at Gávdhos Island for supplies. They sailed at 9.20 that night. Before dawn next day the vessel—which Richards named the M.V. Leaving—ran aground on Gávdhos. Because fuel and food were short, Richards called for volunteers to remain on the island. Ten men did so. The voyage resumed at dusk. When the petrol ran out, Richards rigged a sail of blankets which helped the barge to move at 'a fair speed'. On the 9th the Leaving was beached near Sidi Barrani, Egypt. A British Army unit gave the party food and shelter. Richards's care for the men had been 'beyond description' and his exercise of command 'masterly'. In January 1942 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Richards sailed for Perth in September and was transferred to the South Australian Lines of Communication Area in March 1943. Discharged from the army on medical grounds on 20 November 1944, he did not return to his wife but moved to Whyalla and found a job in the shipyard. His wife petitioned for a divorce, which was granted on 27 March 1946. On 21 July 1947 at the office of the principal registrar, Adelaide, he married Caroline Mann, née Franks, a 54-year-old divorcee from the United States of America. He worked as a barman in her wine-saloon. On 25 September 1951 they were divorced. Richards was employed as a labourer until he reached retiring age. He died of cardio-respiratory disease on 16 May 1971 in Adelaide and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery; the son of his first marriage and the two sons of his second survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • AWM 52, item 8/3/11, AWM 88, item AMF 15/R, 3DRL, 7974 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Charlton, 'Richards, Harry (1903–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 May 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

Harry Richards (1903-1971), by unknown photographer, 1941

Harry Richards (1903-1971), by unknown photographer, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 008525